NASCAR playoff picture: Sizing up Elliott, Larson, Logano and the field
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Chase Elliott is the only driver with more than two wins this year and the only driver who has earned more than 25 playoff points — points that are added to a driver’s total when the standings are reset after each round. Elliott is therefore the only driver who can be confident that he can overcome one poor finish and still control his destiny.
How strong can a driver run and still not advance in this system? Consider this: Martin Truex Jr., who finished fourth in the regular-season standings and had the second-best average finish this year, didn’t make the playoffs because 15 playoff-eligible drivers won a race, leaving just one spot in the postseason available for a winless driver.
"This season has been about survival," said Larson, who won 10 races last year on his way to win a championship. "If you win the championship, you’ve survived.
"I’m not saying that person wouldn’t be deserving, but our best team, Chase Elliott ... could potentially not win. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have a great season."
Drivers theoretically control their destinies. The playoffs start with a 16-driver field, with four drivers eliminated after each three-race round. The four drivers who are winless in the round and have the fewest points are eliminated from championship contention; a win automatically advances a driver to the next round.
After the third round, four drivers enter the season finale at Phoenix with a shot to win the title, and the driver who finishes best among those four is declared the champion.
"The 9 [of Elliott], with the speed that he has every week, with the execution that him and his team puts on each week, I would say they’re the favorite," Larson said. "Ross [Chastain] is probably the fastest most weeks. ... Denny [Hamlin] is probably, outside of Chase and Ross, probably the next favorite.
"I haven’t mentioned myself. I feel like we’re well capable enough of going and winning another championship."
The opening round consists of two of the most traditional races: the Southern 500 at Darlington and the Bristol night race, with Kansas between them. NASCAR paid visits to Darlington and Kansas already this year but will run its first race on the Bristol concrete (the Bristol race earlier this year was run on a dirt surface).
Here's how the 16-driver playoff field breaks down into tiers:
Chase Elliott (Seed No. 1, +33 points on cutoff): Elliott is the only driver with more than two wins this year — he has four — and the only driver who gets a mulligan. He doesn't need to be nervous about advancing if he just does what he has done all year. The Hendrick Motorsports driver and 2020 Cup champion was fifth at Darlington and 29th at Kansas earlier this season.
DON'T BEAT YOURSELF
Joey Logano (No. 2, +18): Logano enters the playoffs with four top-six finishes in the past five races after posting just six top-six finishes in the first 21 events. One of those was Darlington, where the Team Penske driver earned a controversial win by dumping William Byron in a late pass for the lead. The 2018 Cup champion, Logano was 17th at Kansas.
Ross Chastain (No. 3, +13): Chastain, who made the playoffs for the first time in his career, has 14 top-10s this season but none in the past six races, in which his best finish was 18th. His challenge when it comes to not beating himself will be to not get overly aggressive early in races and frustrate his competitors. The Trackhouse Racing driver was 30th at Darlington and seventh at Kansas.
Kyle Larson (No. 4, +12): The defending Cup champion won the second race (California) and 25th race (Watkins Glen) of the 26-race regular season. Between those, he had eight top-5 finishes (and three more finishes sixth-to-10th). Larson should be fine in the first round if he keeps doing what he has been doing. The Hendrick driver was 36th at Darlington (where he exited early due to an engine issue) and second at Kansas earlier this year.
William Byron (No. 5, +7): Byron won two of the first eight races of the year but has just one top-10 since his victory at Martinsville. Still, he has been running in the top 10; he earned stage points in 10 of the past 18 races. He just needs to stay there. Byron was leading at Darlington when Logano shoved him aside for the win, and he finished 13th. The Hendrick driver was 16th at Kansas.
Denny Hamlin (No. 6, +6): The best driver with the worst results, Hamlin has just seven top-10s this year despite leading 384 laps. Many of his bad days have come thanks to pit-road miscues. No one would be surprised to see the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who has 48 career Cup victories, make the championship round, and few would be surprised if he goes out early. Hamlin was 21st at Darlington and fourth at Kansas this year. He and Kevin Harvick are tied with the most career playoff appearances, with 17.
Ryan Blaney (No. 7, +6): Blaney squeaked into the playoffs as the lone winless driver, but now that he’s in, he will be seen as a threat. The Fords haven’t always had the speed, but Blaney's race craft is good enough that as long as his team doesn't make mistakes, he’ll advance. Still, that might be easier said than done; The Team Penske driver was 17th at Darlington and 12th at Kansas earlier this year.
Tyler Reddick (No. 8, +5): Reddick has not had more than two consecutive top-10 finishes this year, and the Richard Childress Racing driver finished worse than he qualified in 15 of 26 races. But when he’s good, he’s really good: Of his 11 top-10s, eight were top-5 finishes. One of those came at Darlington, where he was second. He was 30th at Kansas.
Kevin Harvick (No. 9, +5): Harvick was out of the playoff picture until he won in the 23rd race of the season at Michigan. He followed that with a win at Richmond. The two races before that stretch were a 27th and a 33rd, and the two races following were a 12th and 20th. Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, and Austin Dillon are the only two drivers in the playoffs who have not won a stage this year. The SHR driver was fourth at Darlington and 15th at Kansas earlier this season.
Christopher Bell (No. 10, +4): Bell started the year with one top-25 finish in the first five races. Since then, he has been a top-10 driver in 13 of 21 races. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn’t led laps in the past three races after doing so in the previous four events. Bell was sixth at Darlington and fifth at Kansas.
Kyle Busch (No. 11, +3): The two-time Cup champion started the year with 11 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races but has just two top-10 finishes in the past 11 races. What should keep the JGR driver above the cutline is that he ranked seventh this year in stage points earned, so even on his bad days, he still scored points. Busch was 33rd at Darlington (exiting early because of an accident) and third at Kansas earlier this year.
Chase Briscoe (No. 12, +2): Briscoe won in the fourth race of the season at Kansas, but since then, he has managed just one top-5 finish, a fourth at Charlotte. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished 20th or worse in his past five starts. He was 20th at Darlington and 24th at Kansas. This is his first time in the playoffs.
Daniel Suarez (No. 13, -2): Suarez, making his first playoff appearance, limps into the playoffs with finishes of 19th or worse in his past five races. That followed a stretch of five top-10s in six races, which followed a stretch of one top-10 in nine races. The Trackhouse driver was 10th at Darlington and 33rd at Kansas earlier this year.
Austin Cindric (No. 14, -3): Cindric can already celebrate that he will be the 2022 Rookie of the Year, as he was the only rookie to make the playoffs. The Team Penske driver has a second and a third in the past five races, but those came at a road course (Indianapolis) and superspeedway (Daytona), and the first round doesn’t include those styles of tracks. Cindric was 18th at Darlington and 11th at Kansas.
Alex Bowman (No. 15, -3): Bowman won early in the year at Las Vegas and was sitting pretty at fifth in the standings after 10 races. But he dropped as low as 12th late in the regular season. Four times in his past 10 starts, his day ended early due to an accident and he finished outside the top 30. The Hendrick driver was 29th at Darlington and ninth at Kansas earlier this year.
Austin Dillon (No. 16, -4): Vaulted into the playoffs by his win in the regular-season finale at Daytona, Dillon has led just 18 laps this year. He scored the fewest stage points (32 total) of any playoff driver but has done a respectable job of finishing better than where he was running during the race. The RCR driver was ninth at Darlington and 13th at Kansas.
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.