With the NASCAR Cup Series Playoff set to begin, we’re checking in on favorites, sleepers, the format, history and more.
After 26 races of action, the NASCAR Cup Series regular season wrapped up on Sunday at Daytona, with Austin Dillon winning the final race of the regular season and earning himself a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. Now, the field of 16 drivers is set. Who are the favorites? How do the playoffs even work? Let’s take stock of where we are as this NASCAR season resets.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff: What’s the format?
NASCAR adopted a playoff format in 2004 for the Cup Series, replacing the full-season standings that the organization had used for years with a 26-race regular season and then a 10-race playoff.
That playoff format has shifted over the years. It was originally designed as a second 10-race postseason, with the top 10 drivers in points having their point totals reset. The champion was whoever led the standings after the final race of the playoffs. It was a simple format.
The current format is…less simple.
16 drivers qualify for the playoffs now, but it isn’t just the top 16 in points. NASCAR has a “win and you’re in” format, where any driver in the top 30 in points will make the playoffs with a victory, as long as there aren’t more than 16 winners and those drivers attempted every race (or have a medical waiver for missed races). If there are less than 16 winners, the remaining playoff spots go to the drivers who are highest in the point standings without a victory.
Once we have the lineup, we reset the points. Drivers are able to earn “playoff points” during the regular season that are added to their total after the reset. For example, Chase Elliott enters the playoffs with 2,040 points, which means he has earned 40 playoff points by virtue of his performance during the season, as well as getting a bonus for leading the regular season title. Joey Logano is second in playoff points with 2,025. Austin Dillon didn’t earn any playoff points before his win, so he enters the playoffs in 16th with 2,005 points.
From there, the elimination rounds start. The Round of 16 begins Saturday at Darlington and goes on for three races. If a playoff driver wins one of those three races, they advance to the next round. After the three races, the four lowest playoff drivers in points are eliminated from title contention. The same goes for the Round of 12, and then the Round of 8.
After the Round of 8, the series heads to Phoenix for the season finale. Four drivers will be left at that point. Things become a little more simple then: the highest finishing of those four drivers is the 2022 champion.
Oh, and just one more thing: unlike team sports, the eliminated drivers are still out there racing. The final race features four drivers vying for a title, but it also features between 32 and 36 other drivers vying for a race win.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff: How did we get here?
2022 was the most chaotic regular season since this new format began. We actually had 16 different winners, but one of them, Kurt Busch, is currently out with a concussion. He was initially given a playoff waiver, but Busch requested that the waiver be removed since he won’t be back for next week’s playoff opener.
That meant that 15 drivers earned spots through wins, with Ryan Blaney earning the lone spot for a non-winner. Martin Truex Jr., who ended the regular season fourth in points, missed the playoffs this year because he didn’t have a victory, with Austin Dillon’s win on Sunday knocking him out.
The following drivers will compete in this year’s playoffs, ordered by their ranking at the beginning of the postseason: Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric, Alex Bowman and Austin Dillon.
There’s also an owner’s championship. Usually, there’s not much of a difference between the driver’s and owner’s title in the Cup Series, but the 45 car that Kurt Busch usually drives qualified for the owner’s playoffs due to Busch winning in the car. Ryan Blaney’s 12 car did not make the owner’s playoffs because 16 full-time cars won races.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff: Who are the championship favorites?
NASCAR’s playoff system is designed to be unpredictable, but it’s hard to find anyone who is in better shape than Chase Elliott as we begin the playoffs.
Not only does he start the playoffs with almost a full-race lead over the Round of 16 cut line, but he also enters it with the best numbers in the series. He has four wins, while no other driver has more than two. Elliott has won at Dover, Nashville, Atlanta and Pocono, which are all very different tracks, so it’s not like Elliott is just out there winning the same kind of races. He’s also failed to win at a road course this year but was leading on the final restart at Watkins Glen.
He’s led 719 laps, over 100 more than William Byron, who is second in laps led. Elliott’s average finish this year is 10.5; the second-best average finish among full-time drivers belongs to Truex at 13.2, but as mentioned above, Truex is out of the playoffs. The best average finish for a non-Elliott playoff driver belongs to Kevin Harvick at 13.3.
And speaking of Harvick, the No. 4 car spent much of the regular season struggling to find speed. Harvick was outside of the playoff picture when August began, but on the 7th, he won his first race of the season at Michigan, then followed that up by winning Richmond one week later. Earlier in the year, Fords just didn’t seem to have a lot of speed. In the first 22 races, Fords had four wins. Toyota had five wins. And Chevrolet had 13 wins. Chevy has the most teams in the sport, while Toyota only has six full-time cars. Ford, meanwhile, has 15 cars, so the disparity there was telling of the struggles the manufacturer was having.
But now, the speed is there for Ford. Assuming it doesn’t vanish, Harvick is in a good position. He’s won nine times at Phoenix, the site of the championship race.
Last year’s champion Kyle Larson sits fourth in the standings as we head into the postseason. He hasn’t been as dominant as he was last season, but Larson has a pair of wins. Last season, Larson was on fire in the playoffs, winning five of the 10 races, including the finale at Phoenix.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff: Who are the sleepers for the title?
Ross Chastain sits third in points after the reset, so he might not be a sleeper in the sense we usually think of. But Chastain’s Trackhouse team has taken a major leap this year, with Chastain going from a mid-pack driver last year when he was at Chip Ganassi Racing to a fixture up front.
But there’s one thing that can derail Chastain’s season: himself. Specifically, his aggressive driving. Chastain has made a lot of enemies this season with his driving style, with a handful of drivers including Denny Hamlin vowing to get revenge on him. It might be tough for Chastain to make it through the playoffs unscathed.
Tyler Reddick is a name to watch as well. Reddick begins the playoffs eighth in the standings. He’s been fast all year, but early on, it was a struggle to get that speed to pay off into good results. He failed to finish three of the first 10 races of the season, and he’s had six finishes this year of 30th or worse.
But Reddick also has a pair of wins and comes into the playoffs with momentum after finishing second at Daytona. He finished third at Phoenix earlier this year and won the 2019 Xfinity Series championship, which uses a similar playoff structure, but with 12 drivers instead of 16.