Photo courtesy of NASCAR Creative Design
Prior to Sunday evening’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN), the AOU Network staff laid out their predictions for who will make the Championship 4 and who will be the first four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 ends at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell
First 4 Out: Austin Dillon, Austin Cindric, Daniel Suárez, Chase Briscoe
“The two lead Hendrick Motorsports cars have rekindled the rivalry they shared last year. The two most recent NASCAR Cup Series champions have the speed and right equipment to make another title push. Joey Logano will do whatever it takes to get in, as he has shown in the past. Christopher Bell will make his first championship appearance after being eliminated in the Round of 12 last season. He has been the most consistent Toyota this season and Joe Gibbs Racing will prioritize its young driver to advance as far as possible.
“Austin Dillon narrowly found his way into the playoffs with his Daytona win, but that luck won’t translate to the Round of 16. The young duo of Cindric and Briscoe have already exceeded expectations with wins this season. There is still more room to grow for the last two Rookie of the Year winners. Daniel Suárez will find himself as the odd man out with no dominant experience in the Round of 16 tracks.”
Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick
First 4 Out: Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suárez
“Kyle Larson has not had as dominant of a season as his 10-win, 2021 campaign but the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion has turned it on at the right time – but not without some controversy. The Hendrick Motorsports driver made contact with teammate Chase Elliott on the final restart at Watkins Glen to earn his second victory of the year. It was the second time this season that Larson had made contact with his teammate prior to earning a win. However, nobody has had a more consistent season than Elliott, who has a series-leading four wins, 10 top fives and 17 top 10s. After struggling to adjust to the Next Gen car throughout the first half of the season, Harvick is coming into the playoffs on a hot streak with two-straight wins at Michigan and Richmond. Perhaps, nobody had a better final month of the regular season than the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. Harvick has a chance to get his playoffs off on the right foot as he has three career wins at Darlington. If he gets to Phoenix, he will be a threat. Reddick has had a breakout season and has a chance to continue it. Though both of his Cup wins this season have come on road courses, he has shown that he is a threat on different sorts of tracks, dating back to Auto Club Speedway in February. In that race, he had one of the fastest cars through the first two stages.
“It’s a near miracle that Austin Dillon is in the playoffs at all, after he escaped the massive wreck in Daytona last week unscathed. It’s unlikely that luck will translate. Briscoe was able to secure his first Cup win this season, but has been inconsistent since. Bowman has led just 29 laps all season, and has just 10 top-10 finishes. Suárez may be the most likely of this group to advance, be he will start the playoff opener at Darlington serving a penalty.”
Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick and Joey Logano
First 4 Out: Austin Dillon, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Alex Bowman
“Chase Eliott and Kyle Larson need little introduction. The last two Cup Series champions are peaking at the right time with Elliott winning four races since the start of May and Larson sweeping the weekend at Watkins Glen International. They are too experienced and talented to miss out on the Championship 4 and will win several races each throughout the playoffs (Larson will win the Southern 500 on Sunday).
“Tyler Reddick has won two road course races and has shown mettle as a contender among the veterans of the series. He has two huge opportunities for wins in the playoffs that will get him to the championship race in Phoenix: Charlotte Roval and Homestead. In 2021, Reddick had the fastest car at the end of the race and would have won if the race was five laps longer. He will get redemption at Homestead in the Round of 8 and lock himself in the Champ. 4.
“Joey Logano rarely has the fastest car, but consistently finds a way to win. He has two wins at Darlington and Gateway and his winning prowess will push him to victory in the Round of 8 at Las Vegas, a track where he is fantastic at.
“Austin Dillon got into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs on a miracle as he avoided 15 cars in front of him that all crashed together in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway and came away with the victory. However, his chances to advance in the playoffs are bleak as if you take away the miracle crash avoidance, he only has three top-five finishes.
“Austin Cindric has taken his lumps in his rookie season in the Cup Series. Since winning the Daytona 500 and pole at Auto Club, he has rarely been in race-winning contention while seeing himself fall behind the pack in many races this season. With the intensity picking up, I expect experience to prevail over Cindric in the Round of 16.
“Alex Bowman has not been relevant in the big picture of the Cup Series since winning at Las Vegas in overtime back in March. He does not contend for wins and to paraphrase Denny Hamlin, he has consistently lost to his teammates all season long at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Chase Briscoe has had bad luck since winning at Phoenix in March, crashing while in race-winning contention at Bristol Dirt and the Coca-Cola 600. He has only four top-10 finishes and will have more bad luck during his aggressive attempts to advance.