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The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs have arrived. 16 winners during the regular season will make up a majority of the playoff field as Kurt Busch withdrew his medical waiver before Daytona. 15 winners plus one driver in on points will fight through four rounds to determine a champion at Phoenix Raceway in November. Here are the 16 playoff drivers, what to watch for from them and where they can make a splash for a late-playoff run.
The final winner of the season, Richard Childress Racing No. 3 driver Austin Dillon, shook up the playoff field with his win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. His four career cup wins have all been on ovals with two at Daytona (2018, 2022), one at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2017) and one at Texas Motor Speedway (2020). He will certainly be an underdog to make it out of the Round of 16 as he has the least amount of playoff points in the field. He has never won at the three tracks in the first round (Darlington, Kansas, Bristol), but he finished second at Darlington in 2020 and third at Bristol the same year. If he can make it to the Round of 12, he can be a threat at Texas where he has won and be a factor at Talladega Superspeedway, a type of track where his Daytona skills can transfer over. Dillon finished the regular season 19th in total points.
Ever since his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 driver Alex Bowman has been very quiet. He has totaled ten top-10 finishes this regular season and struggled for much of the summer where he finished eight straight races outside the top 10. Bowman has never won a Cup race at any of the first three playoff tracks either with his best finish being second at both Darlington and Kansas in 2020 and 2019 respectively. He has won at two tracks featured in the playoff, Las Vegas and Martinsville, which bookend the Round of 8. Bowman earned one stage win on top of his win at Las Vegas, giving him 2,006 points to start the playoffs.
The 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion was the first driver to lock himself into the playoffs with his first career Cup Series win at the Daytona 500. As the only rookie in the playoffs this season, Team Penske No. 2 driver Austin Cindric has impressed. Being a rookie, Cindric is naturally a long shot to advance. He has four combined starts at the three race tracks in the Round of 16, (if you count Bristol Dirt). He has two starts at Kansas where he finished 22nd last season and 11th this season. Cindric is essentially a lock for Rookie of the Year as he sits 14th in overall points with Wood Brothers No. 21 driver Harrison Burton the next rookie in 27th.
Another driver who earned their first career Cup win this season, Trackhouse Racing No. 99 driver Daniel Suárez secured a spot in the playoffs thanks to his historic win at Sonoma Raceway. While his win did come at a road course, tracks with left and right turns aren’t an automatic slam dunk for him as they usually are for other drivers starting higher up in the playoffs. He may not have one track that gives him a distinct advantage, but consistently strong finishes could see him advance. Suárez’s two stage wins and race win this season give him 2,007 points to begin the playoffs.
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 driver Chase Briscoe was another driver to earn a spot in the playoffs with his first career Cup win at Phoenix Raceway, the site of the championship race in November. Of course, to get to race for a championship at the track where he got his maiden win, he will need to work hard in the first nine races of the postseason. Briscoe has also been fairly quiet since his win. He only has four top 10s across the season and has gone 12 races without a top 10 with his best finish during that span being 13th at Sonoma. He sits above the cutline to start the playoffs with 2009 points on a win and four stage victories.
At one point in the season, it wouldn’t have been out of left field to say Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 driver Kyle Busch was a championship favorite. Consecutive finishes of third, second and second at Kansas, Charlotte and World Wide Technology Raceway made him look unstoppable. However, that streak hit a screeching halt when he went a career-long eight races without a top 10. He has gotten out of that funk thanks to two top-10s in the last three races, including finishing 10th at Daytona. The two-time champion won both his titles in the playoff era under the current format. He has won at least once at each of the Round of 16 tracks, including eight times at Bristol, or nine when including Bristol Dirt this year.
In only his second season with the team, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 driver Christopher Bell has arguably been the best Joe Gibbs Racing driver this season when he in many accounts had the longest odds to do so. A win at New Hampshire solidified his status as the best at that track. He struggled early in the season but managed to go above the cutline before his win. Bell’s only other career win was at the Daytona Road Course last season. His best finish across the first three playoff tracks is fifth at Kansas this past season. He had his best career Darlington finish of sixth back in May.
The 2014 champion’s playoff hopes looked grim at the end of the regular season, but Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 driver Kevin Harvick proved all the doubters wrong when he became the only driver to win back-to-back races. Wins at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond Raceway. While that streak tapered off with finishes of 12th at Watkins Glen International and 20th at Daytona, he has three wins at each of the first three playoff tracks, including a whopping 13-race streak of top-10 finishes at Darlington and three straight top-three finishes at the Bristol night race.
Making the playoffs for the second-straight year, Richard Childress Racing No. 8 driver Tyler Reddick was among the hottest racers in the series after his two wins at Road America and the Indianapolis Road Course. While he sits five points above the cutline heading into Darlington, Reddick has yet to win a Cup race on an oval. He will likely need to do just that in order to make it into the later rounds. He did finish second at Darlington in May, so he has a chance of racking up points in bunches to get into the Round of 12, where he didn’t reach last season.
The only playoff driver without a win, Team Penske No. 12 driver Ryan Blaney made it in by the skin of his teeth by beating Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 driver Martin Truex Jr. by three points. Blaney would have been out of the playoffs had the regular season finale at Daytona ended due to rain with 21 laps to go. When the race finally resumed, Truex Jr. fell back multiple spots to give the damaged Blaney the final spot. Despite the lack of a win, Blaney is the seventh seed for the playoffs thanks to him finishing third in overall points and him having five stage wins. Blaney has never won at Darlington, Kansas or Bristol, but he has shown you don’t necessarily need to win to succeed.
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 driver Denny Hamlin went through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows this season. An awful start to the season was mitigated by a comeback win at Richmond in May and an endurance win at one of the longest races of all time in this year’s Coca-Cola 600. The lows came again when his win at Pocono was revoked due to his car failing post-race inspection. Hamlin is the third-lowest in total points among playoff drivers, behind Briscoe and Dillon. Hamlin won the Southern 500 last season to open up the playoffs and could be the first to advance to the Round of 12 with his fifth win at Darlington.
The first driver with multiple wins this season, Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 driver William Byron could be considered a Championship 4 contender. Byron has led the second-most laps this season at 612. However, ever since leading 481 laps in the first eight races, Byron has only led 43 laps in the last 13 races, 41 of which were at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Byron has finished outside the top 10 in 10 consecutive races. His best career finish among the three Round of 16 tracks is third-place at Bristol last season.
The defending champion, Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Kyle Larson, hasn’t had the same type of year as he had last season. The winner at Auto Club Speedway in February and Watkins Glen in August left Larson in the longest-winless streak of his career. Larson earned five of his 10 wins during the playoffs, including two in the Round of 8 and the finale at Phoenix. He remains one of the most dangerous drivers if on a hot streak and could win a second-straight title without many people being shocked. Larson won the Bristol night race last season and had a stretch of three-straight second-place finishes at Darlington before this season.
One of the biggest surprises this season has been the success of Trackhouse Racing No. 1 driver Ross Chastain. He was another driver to get his first career Cup win this season at Circuit of the Americas, but he also followed it up with a win at Talladega. The upcoming tracks are not necessarily his strong suit, but Chastain did finish third in last year’s Southern 500, the highest finish for a non-playoff driver. Chastain has a 13-point buffer on the cutline thanks to two wins and five stage wins. If he can weather the storm in the first round, he can make it to Talladega in the Round of 12 where he could go for the sweep and the automatic bid for the Round of 8.
Team Penske No. 22 driver Joey Logano stacked up points in the final five races of the season to reach second in the overall standings with points hauls of no less than 36 in that span. Logano also won Stage 1 in the final two races of the regular season to bring his total up to five. On top of winning the Clash at the Coliseum, Logano controversially won at Darlington by moving Byron out of the way with two laps to go and coming out on top at Gateway. Logano can sweep Darlington to advance to the Round of 12 and can continue to stack points en route to another Championship 4 appearance.
The 2020 Cup Series Champion, Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 driver Chase Elliott, secured the regular season title in the first stage at Watkins Glen, not needing to rely on the randomness Daytona presents. Elliott leads the championship points standings with four wins at Dover Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, Atlanta and Pocono. No other driver has more than two wins. He enters the postseason with 40 playoff points, 15 more than Logano and 33 points above the cutline. Elliott is in the driver’s seat to make his third Championship 4 in a row.