Photo courtesy of Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs began with a bang at Darlington Raceway where championship favorites suffered some of the most heartbreaking turns of luck the series has ever seen.
Here are the AOU Network Power Rankings of NASCAR Cup Series drivers where large shifts in the field are seen heading to Kansas Speedway for the second race in the Round of 16.
20. Chase Briscoe
Last Rankings: 16
Chase Briscoe had one of the rougher performances among the playoff drivers at Darlington. After spending much of the race running outside the top 30, he was involved in an early wreck where Chase Elliott lost control and backed into the outside wall. Briscoe finished 27th and sits 10 points below the playoff cutline.
19. Ross Chastain
Last Rankings: 17
Ross Chastain’s season has taken a turn for the worst and his playoff debut did not start any better. After finishing third in last year’s Southern 500, Chastain finished 20th for his seventh consecutive finish of 18th or worse. This comes after six-straight finishes of eighth or better.
18. Brad Keselowski
Last Rankings: 20
Brad Keselowski’s seventh-place finish matched the season-best he earned at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The new co-owner at RFK Racing is experiencing his first playoffs from the outside looking in since the format was introduced in 2014. He continues to be on his best run since taking over the No. 6 with seven top-20 finishes in the last eight races.
17. Austin Cindric
Last Rankings: 15
A 16th-place finish in Austin Cindric’s first-career playoff race puts him as the first driver out of the current playoff picture at two points below the cutline. Cindric finished 11th at Kansas, a result he will need to at least match to give him a shot at making the Round of 12.
16. Kyle Busch
Last Rankings: 19
A 30th-place finish for Kyle Busch does not tell the whole story of his performance at Darlington. Busch led a season-high 155 laps en route to a third-place finish in Stage 1 and a win in Stage 2. While leading under caution, Busch’s engine blew up with 23 laps to go. He still sits eight points above the cutline.
15. Chris Buescher
Last Rankings: 10
Chris Buescher remains one of NASCAR’s biggest surprises with his strong showings on road courses. His season has hit a minor speed bump with a 26th-place finish at Darlington. While not in the playoffs, Buescher can still make a mark in the final few races of 2022.
14. William Byron
Last Rankings: 18
William Byron was out for vengeance at Darlington after losing a chance to win there in the spring. Byron passed Joey Logano, who wrecked him in the spring, early in the first stage for the lead and the stage win. Byron snapped a 10-race streak of finishes outside the top 10 with an eighth-place result. He sits 32 points above the cutline.
13. Daniel Suárez
Last Rankings: 8
Daniel Suárez did everything he could to make up for a pass-through penalty that put him a lap down at Darlington. A rain caution gave him the free pass early in the race and he made it all the way up to fourth before speeding on pit road in the final stage. He scraped together an 18th-place finish and is the last driver above the playoff cutline, two points above Cindric.
12. Martin Truex Jr.
Last Rankings: 13
Right before Kyle Busch’s mishap, Martin Truex Jr.’s fate was sealed when a water pump broke, causing him to lose his power steering and overheat while in the lead. While not in the playoffs, Truex Jr. is still fighting for a win and had his best chance to do so at one of his best tracks.
11. Michael McDowell
Last Rankings: 14
Lo and behold, Michael McDowell got another top 10. His sixth-place finish at Darlington is his second in the last three races. He followed up a seventh-place finish in the spring Darlington race and earned his 11th top-finish of the season, continuing a career year for the Front Row Motorsports driver.
10. Ryan Blaney
Last Rankings: 12
After barely making the playoffs at Daytona International Speedway by three points, Ryan Blaney is in a solid position to make a huge playoff run despite his lack of visits to Victory Lane. He had a 13th-place finish at Darlington.
9. Bubba Wallace
Last Rankings: 9
Bubba Wallace has taken the opportunity to run for an owner’s championship with the move to the No. 45 car for 23XI Racing. While not in the Cup playoffs, Wallace got a taste of playoff racing and managed a ninth-place finish at Darlington to hold steady at No. 9 on the rankings. It is his first top-10 since he strung a career-high four in a row from New Hampshire to Michigan.
8. Kevin Harvick
Last Rankings: 4
Much like Truex Jr. and Busch, Kevin Harvick got the short end of the stick thanks to a mechanical failure. While running fifth, his car was set ablaze, forcing him to stop and get out of his car as soon as possible. A DNF and a 33rd-place result put him in last among playoff drivers, sitting 13 points below the cutline.
7. Erik Jones
Last Rankings: 11
It took exactly 55 years to the day, but the No. 43 car returned to Victory Lane at Darlington thanks to Erik Jones’ third career Cup Series win and second in the Southern 500. After Busch’s engine failure, Jones held off Denny Hamlin to give the No. 43 car its 200th victory and keep a playoff driver from locking into the Round of 12.
6. Denny Hamlin
Last Rankings: 7
Denny Hamlin nearly caught Erik Jones in the final laps of the Southern 500, but still managed a second-place finish in a race that saw a multitude of issues for playoff drivers. Hamlin won the Southern 500 last year and is in good shape to advance this year as he is 30 points to the good for the next round.
5. Joey Logano
Last Rankings: 6
Chase Elliott’s early issues and a fourth-place finish for pole-sitter Joey Logano put the 2018 Cup Series champion in the playoff points lead, sitting 38 points above the cutline. Logano has five top-10 finishes in the last six races and has not finished worse than 12th in that span.
4. Chase Elliott
Last Rankings: 1
For the first time since the week leading up to the Michigan race (the first power rankings on AOU Network), the 2020 Cup Series Champion is not at the top of the list. A surprising last-place finish at Darlington on a self-inflicted wreck erased the playoff points lead he earned by winning the regular season championship. Darlington was also the first time in three races Elliott failed to lead a lap. He is still 14 points above the cutline. He finished 29th at Kansas in the spring, a result he will need to improve this weekend.
3. Kyle Larson
Last Rankings: 3
Kyle Larson once again turned coal into diamonds after what should have been a disastrous outcome at Darlington. After an engine failure at Daytona, Larson noticed his engine was making a similar sound the following week. The No. 5 team decided to keep running the race and had few issues after that. Larson finished 12th to hold a decent lead over the cutline of 17 points. He was in the lead at Kansas in the spring before Kurt Busch passed him with eight laps to go, relegating him to second.
2. Tyler Reddick
Last Rankings: 5
Tyler Reddick seems to always find a way to be near the front by the end of a race. He followed up his second-place finish at the Darlington spring race with a third in the Southern 500. Reddick has 3-straight top 10s and two consecutive podiums with a runner-up finish at Daytona under his belt.
1. Christopher Bell
Last Rankings: 2
Christopher Bell tops the list for the first time thanks to a fifth-place finish at Darlington, marking his second top five in four races and third race within the top eight in that span. The only race he finished outside the top 10 the last month was at Daytona. Bell has been the most consistent Joe Gibbs Racing driver and has solidified himself as a sneaky championship favorite. He also finished fifth at Kansas in May.