NASCAR spoilers: Who will surprise in second round of playoffs?
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
With the first three playoff races won by non-playoff drivers, fans can anticipate that trend might continue into the NASCAR Cup Series second round.
The Round of 12, which some would call the "quarterfinal round," features two tracks that many would consider unpredictable, as Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course follow this weekend’s round-opening race at Texas Motor Speedway.
The three new winners to open the playoffs increased the number of 2022 winners to 19, tying a single-season Cup record with seven races left in the season. Six drivers who won in 2021 have yet to win this year, the first season with the Next Gen car and teams purchasing chassis, body panels and the majority of parts and pieces from a single-source vendor to assemble the cars, rather than manufacturing parts and pieces themselves.
"We expected this year to just be very unpredictable and no one really being able to figure this car out," former Cup champion Joey Logano said. "And it really seems like there are still so many questions. ... Can there be another first-time winner? Absolutely.
"There are a couple drivers that are expected to win every year that haven’t won yet, so you’ve got to think that they’re probably going to bust off a win at some point, but you just don’t know."
Considering that the four drivers eliminated from the playoffs after the first round — Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch — have all won this year, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see any of them win over the next three races.
Busch won at Texas in 2020 when it was a semifinal-round race and he had already been eliminated. Dillon won the most recent drafting superspeedway race at Daytona, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him win Talladega. And Reddick has two road-course wins this year (Road America and the Indianapolis road course), so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him capture the win at Charlotte.
But there are also drivers who haven’t won this year and didn’t make the playoffs who are threats to win. The first one is Martin Truex Jr., one of the best drivers week in and week out and the winner of 29 races the previous seven seasons.
Brad Keselowski could've triumphed at Bristol if he hadn't had a tire go flat while he was leading the race eventually won by his RFK Racing driver, Chris Buescher. Keselowski's best bet might be Talladega, as he has been one of the best superspeedway racers in recent years.
Also on that list of best superspeedway racers would be Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is looking for his first win, as well as 2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and 2018 Talladega winner Aric Almirola.
Erik Jones (Darlington winner to open the playoffs) and Bubba Wallace (Kansas winner the following week) both have been strong enough at the superspeedways and in recent intermediate events to be considered threats the next two weeks.
The drivers in the playoffs know that more non-playoff winners are possible. It's just the nature of the Next Gen car, with the parity it has created as well as what seemingly has been a durability issue with parts the past several weeks.
"It comes down to setups," said Logano, indicating that the single-source vendors have created more parity. "We’re all playing with the same deck of cards when we start, and it’s just how you play that hand.
"It varies from track to track. ... It’s hard to have just a clear advantage going in to where you can miss your setup a little bit and still be pretty good. That’s how it’s been in the past."
Logano and several other playoff drivers have said that non-playoff drivers winning doesn’t impact their strategy much, though it can change the dynamic given that a playoff driver who wins automatically advances to the next round.
"I don’t know if it changes the way you go through the playoffs," Logano said. "You’re still focused in on just maximizing the day. If that’s a win or if that’s a fifth, you just have to get the most points you can possibly get, and I don’t think that changes from year to year."
Ryan Blaney is the only driver who made the playoffs but hasn't won this year. Now among the final 12, he is still winless.
"I didn’t think [the parity] would really change much in the playoffs," he said.
"I still thought you’d have [those] who weren’t in it who could go out and win. That’s been the case all year."
Blaney said that seeing a non-playoff driver win is obviously better than seeing a playoff competitor win because that means another spot is available on points in the next round. The four drivers winless in the round with the fewest points are eliminated after each three-race postseason round.
"You’re still racing the field," Blaney said. "It’s like two separate races: You’re racing everybody out there, but you’re also racing the playoff guys."
In this second round, one driver who won’t be racing until Charlotte is AJ Allmendinger. The full-time Xfinity driver and former Cup regular will be one of the favorites at that race, thanks to his road-racing capabilities.
"I’ve always had the mindset that when I’m not in the playoffs ... I don’t want to be overly aggressive on those cars that are in the playoffs," Allmendinger said.
"At the end of the day, they have more to lose than I do. I don’t want to be the guy that wrecks somebody’s playoffs, but especially if we have a shot to win the race, I’m going to do whatever it takes."
In general, no one seems to know for sure how this next round will play out when it comes to those who have already won and those looking for their first win.
"With Next Gen, somebody wins one week and runs 30th the next," Keselowski said. "I'd like to sit here and tell you, 'Yeah, we're going next week to Texas, and we're going to lead every lap and win the race.'
"But as you can tell, it's not that simple."
What to watch for
NASCAR is going to place the resin at Texas in the same spots in the turns as in the spring ... and more. It has been putting the resin in the middle groove at Texas, and it will add the resin to the upper groove.
The idea is not that drivers are going to race up there but rather to help drivers potentially "catch" the car. Previously, when a car would go from the treated area to the non-treated area, it was like spinning on ice.
The hope is that with the additional grip, a driver might be able to avoid hitting the wall. For drivers in the playoffs, that could be a big, big deal.
Thinking out loud
It’s the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs' opening weekend, so how about some predictions?
Advancing out of the semifinal round to the championship: Gragson, Gibbs, Allgaier and Berry. With Martinsville as the cutoff race, that seems to favor Berry over Allmendinger.
Champion: Allgaier. He’s so solid at Phoenix (yes, I know Gragson won there earlier this year).
They said it
"I’m flabbergasted. I just feel so bad for my guys. They don’t deserve to be in this spot." — Kyle Busch after an engine failure at Bristol resulted in a failure to advance to the second round
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.