2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Previewby Jack Gaffney September 1, 2022 0 comments
This year’s Southern 500 is once again the start of the annual NASCAR Cup Series playoff for the second year in a row. With Kurt Busch still on the mend from his Pocono crash, this is also the first postseason that doesn’t feature a driver from the first Chase for the Cup in 2004. With that out of the way, this year is interesting from the standpoint that there doesn’t truly feel like there is a clear-cut favorite.
Sure drivers like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Denny Hamlin are ahead of some others, but you could make a case for around a half dozen drivers this year. With Darlington now just days out, here are the 16 combatants going for a title. In addition to some other headlines going into the Round of 16.
Be sure to check out all of our NASCAR coverage.
While this news technically doesn’t affect the Drivers Championship, it does affect the Owner’s title hunt. It was announced on Wednesday afternoon that Bubba Wallace and Ty Gibbs will effectively be switching car numbers for the rest of the year. At surface level, this would seem odd, but the 45 car normally occupied by Busch did make the Owners’ Championship Playoffs. Although Gibbs did bring the team in down the stretch, he has his sights on an Xfinity Series Championship this year.
This now becomes a great opportunity for Wallace, whose team can get a live dress rehearsal of the Playoff experience. The odds of him outright winning the Owner’s Championship for 23XI may not be high, but the further he can get the better. Over the last seven races, Wallace has also been excellent, putting up four Top 10s, three Top 5s, and an average finish of seventh.
Playoff Problems Persist
It’s no secret that the Chase/Playoff system has been divisive at best since its initial inception nearly two decades ago. With several format changes through the years, in addition to the introduction of stage and playoff points, the feel that NASCAR is continuing to throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks is a valid complaint. Not to mention the win and your in the system, which suffered its first major defeat since it was introduced in 2014.
Austin Dillon’s victory in the Coke Zero 400 over the weekend made him the 16th different winner in the Cup Series this year. The biggest issue with this is this forced Martin Truex Jr, third in the regular season standings and second in average finish (13.2) out of postseason contention. In a bubble, Truex has 100 percent had a better season than Dillon, and some other playoff drivers for that matter. Dillon ultimately is the focus due to how late he got in.
Hard to say if NASCAR will tweak the system before 2023, but these last four or five years aren’t doing this format any favors. Personally, in a perfect world, they slash the Cup schedule by 10-12 races and eliminate stages and bonus points altogether. Ending the season at or just before Labor Day would be good also. Doesn’t help that 9 out of 10 races tabbed as the biggest of the year are going head to head with either the NFL Sunday afternoon window or College Football Saturday Night window. Like most things done by the former head of NASCAR Brian France, it may be time for a course correction. Especially considering the rapid ratings rise F1 is experiencing in the United States.
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Field
No. 3 Austin Dillon – Richard Childress Racing (2005 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 16.65, Top 10s: 8, Top 5s: 4, Laps Led: 18, Stage Wins: 0
Dillon is likely a near-universal candidate to be bounced in round one, and there is one trend that doesn’t help his cause. The last time the No. 3 car put up back-to-back top 10 finishes was in late March/early April at COTA and Richmond. To Dillon’s credit, however, he finished 9th and 13th respectively at the first two tracks in this round, Darlington and Kansas.
No. 48 Alex Bowman – Hendrick Motorsports (2006 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 15.69, Top 10s: 10, Top 5s: 3, Laps Led: 29, Stage Wins: 1
What a difference a year made for Bowman. Last year Bowman was a dark horse to potentially win the whole thing, but this year not so much. From his win in Vegas in March to Dover on the first day of May, he was arguably one of the best drivers in Cup. After that stretch, Bowman has been mired with inconsistencies and poor results, not finding footing entering the Playoffs. A first-round exit is very much in play for the 48 team, but Bowman has the talent to dig himself out of his hole.
No. 2 Austin Cindric – Team Penske (2006 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 15.65, Top 10s: 8, Top 5s: 5, Laps Led: 78, Stage Wins: 1
If not for Dillon giving him the bump and run at Daytona, Cindric likely sweeps both races there as a rookie. The fresh face at Penske has put together some strong runs throughout the year, but Cindric has had some issues stringing good finishes together consistently. Just once did he string together consecutive top 10s, four in a row between Sonoma and the second Atlanta. Speaking of road courses, watch out if Cindric makes it into the Round of 12. If he is on the outside looking in, the Charlotte Roval is right in his wheelhouse.
No. 99 Daniel Suarez – Team Trackhouse (2007 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 16.50, Top 10s: 10, Top 5s: 6, Laps Led: 238, Stage Wins: 2
Although the average finish is a bit low, Suarez is comfortably in the middle of a career season with Trackhouse. Outside of four finishes outside the top 15, he has been red hot since his first career Cup Series win back at Sonoma. Having just seven bonus points could come back to hurt him down the road, but Suarez has the tools to make some noise in these last 10 races.
No. 14 Chase Briscoe – Stewart Haas Racing (2009 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 18.95, Top 10s: 4, Top 3s: 5, Laps Led: 238, Stage Wins: 4
Briscoe has not had the best second half of the season. In total, he has had zero top-10 finishes since running fourth at the Coke 600. Despite that, a win at Phoenix earlier in the year locked him in nearly right off the bat. Not to mention the fact that he came close to winning the Bristol Dirt Race as well. It’s been a rough go, but talent isn’t the issue in the 14-car. If Briscoe can sneak into the Round of 12 that would be a success.
No. 18 Kyle Busch – Joe Gibbs Racing (2010 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 15.58, Top 10s: 13, Top 5s: 6, Laps Led: 469, Stage Wins: 2
The biggest subplot of these playoff races is the future of Rowdy Busch. It feels all but certain at this point that he will not be back with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023. Whether it be Kaulig, 23XI, Hendrick, SHR, etc, getting Championship No. 3 is the main focus for now. Busch is limping in on a run of seven finishes of 20th or worse since Sonoma. The good news is he is far overdue for a good stretch. What better time than now?
No. 20 Christopher Bell – Joe Gibbs Racing (2010 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 14.50, Top 10s: 14, Top 3s: 7, Laps Led: 262, Stage Wins: 2
For some reason, it feels like a lifetime ago, but Bell locked himself into the playoffs with a victory at New Hampshire in July. Back-to-back finishes outside of the top 30 hurt him out of the gates, but the Oklahoma native has had a good year. In his last seven outings, Bell has four wins, along with four races with double-digit laps led. By a healthy margin, he enters the playoffs in the best spot of the one-win drivers.
No. 4 Kevin Harvick – Stewart Haas Racing (2012 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 13.31, Top 10s: 13, Top 5s: 7, Laps Led: 106, Stage Wins: 0
Ending the single worst stretch of his career with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond, Harvick gives himself at least one more shot at another title. In fairness, the 2014 Champion was far from horrible in 2022. He just lacked the wins up until recently, along with the stuff to run up front consistently. His 106 laps are set to be the least of his career should he not lead 54 more by the end of the year to put it in context.
The big question is if Harvick is peaking at the right time. Recent results would say the answer to that is absolutely. After the pair of wins, he finished 12th at Watkins Glen. Then before wrecking out of Daytona, Harvick was set for a top 10, perhaps even a top 5 finish. Harvick typically goes deep in the postseason, but he isn’t entering as one of the favorites this year either.
No. 8 Tyler Reddick – Richard Childress Racing (2012 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 16.65, Top 10s: 11, Top 5s: 8, Laps Led: 331, Stage Wins: 2
At long last, Reddick finally broke through in the Cup Series, picking up not one but two wins so far in 2022. Both of them came on road courses, which is a great sign for him as a driver. Safe to say Lexus could be quite interested in his services in IMSA once he heads to 23XI in a couple of years. Back to NASCAR, Reddick has exclusively finished in the top 10 or outside the top 25 since Road America. That makes him somewhat of a volatile pick going into the Round of 16, but Reddick has proven he is one of the best pure talents in the game right now. If he ends up making the Championship Race, you shouldn’t be that shocked.
No. 12 Ryan Blaney – Team Penske (2013 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 0, Average Finish: 13.69, Top 10s: 12, Top 5s: 8, Laps Led: 417, Stage Wins: 5
Even without a trip to victory lane in 2022, Blaney has been excellent once again. The zero in the win column isn’t for lack of effort either on his part. Blaney’s 8 top 5s are tied for the most of any driver so far on this list. Additionally, he’s led the second-most laps of any driver so far here. If you can get Blaney at decent odds, he may be worth a (responsible) bet. If he can get into victory lane early, he’ll be right in the thick of things.
No. 11 Denny Hamlin – Joe Gibbs Racing (2013 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 18.96, Top 10s: 7, Top 5s: 5, Laps Led: 384, Stage Wins: 3
The argument I made last year for Hamlin was simply if not now then when? Once again it was another year where he got to the goal line and couldn’t convert. With that said, Hamlin is having another stout campaign and is comfortably in the title mix. Several DNFs in the opening five races ultimately inflate his average finish, including the Daytona 500. Ultimately, Hamlin should be a Championship Race contender. With each passing year though, it’s hard to feel good about his hopes of winning.
No. 24 William Byron – Hendrick Motorsports (2014 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 18.08, Top 10s: 5, Top 5s: 4, Laps Led: 612, Stage Wins: 3
The summer months have not been too kind to Byron. To his credit, he was as good as any driver in the field in the opening third of the season. His 612 laps led rank second in the entire series behind Elliott. This is despite leading just 43 laps since the Coke 600. The single biggest reason why you need to keep an eye out on Byron is the Round of 8. The last time the Cup Series ran at Las Vegas, Homestead-Miami, and Martinsville, Byron was the winner. If he can get that far, his odds of getting to Phoenix are going to significantly increase.
No. 5 Kyle Larson – Hendrick Motorsports (2019 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 14.35, Top 10s: 13, Top 5s: 10, Laps Led: 307, Stage Wins: 3
The defending Champion is now set to try and be the first back-to-back Cup Series Champion since Jimmie Johnson at the end of the five-peat. Although Larson did fall to earth from his mind-numbing 2021, he still ran very well this year. Both of his wins this year involved contact with his teammate Elliott. The latter of which didn’t seem to please the driver of the No. 9 car. Could be worth monitoring later on, but the two should be playing nice in these first five or six races. Larson should be a title contender in any event once again.
No. 1 Ross Chastain – Team Trackhouse (2020 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 14.58, Top 10s: 14, Top 5s: 10, Laps Led: 583, Stage Wins: 5
Chastain’s ascension to a real NASCAR Cup Championship contender has been one of motorsports’ biggest stories. The only cost to him is that no less than two-thirds of Joe Gibbs Racing now view him as a mortal enemy. The Kyles, Busch, and Larson, both insinuated earlier this week that Chastain could be in for a rough time. Busch even went as far as saying, “I don’t think people are paying him back yet because they are waiting for the right time.” With that said, we say Hamlin use up Chastain big time at Pocono earlier this summer, and he may even have another IOU on deck.
Of all the drivers in this field, Chastain is probably the hardest to predict. Taking his laundry list of potential saboteurs out of the picture, he is comfortably a Championship favorite. But the further he gets into the postseason, the worse off he is going to probably get it. You have to feel bad because Chastain hasn’t wrecked guys intentionally. At some point though, it has to be on him to not get himself into this situation.
No. 22 Joey Logano – Team Penske (2025 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 14.00, Top 10s: 13, Top 5s: 10, Laps Led: 457, Stage Wins: 5
Logano is another driver who has started to heat up heading into the playoffs. Before finishing 12th at Daytona, he rattled off runs of sixth, fourth, sixth, and third, with 212 laps led at Richmond. Another thing worth mentioning with the 2017 Champion, Logano has made the Championship Race in every single even-numbered year since 2014. Even with his lowest average finish since 2017, Logano is not to be slept on. He can easily win this whole thing.
No. 9 Chase Elliott – Hendrick Motorsports (2040 Points)
2022 Stats- Wins: 4, Average Finish: 10.54, Top 10s: 17, Top 5s: 10, Laps Led: 719, Stage Wins: 5
At long last, we hit the ‘Regular Season Points Champion’. Elliott has been the most consistently good driver from the jump. Now with the NASCAR equivalent of the Presidents Trophy, he snags some extra points to carry through the first three rounds. After winning at Dover at the beginning of May, Elliott had a rough stretch before cranking up the heat at the end of June. Headlining his summer was a five-race stretch of three wins and two second-place runs from Nashville to Pocono. Granted the Pocono win was due to a pair of DQs in front of him. A wise man once said however that you take them how you can get them.
What will be interesting on Elliott’s end is if any bad blood from Watkins Glen with Larson spills over into these playoffs. Neither the incident there nor at Fontana were egregious by any stretch, but that’s twice this year the pair have made contact. Granted, Elliott hasn’t exactly been a saint in this regard either these last couple of seasons, but I digress. Those bonus points are going to be worth their weight in gold in the opening few rounds most likely. The Round of 8 is when things will probably tighten up, but Elliott should be good to go with or without the extra points in the bank.
NASCAR Cup Series 2022 Playoff Round-by-Round Predictions
Round of 16 Eliminations: Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Christopher Bell, Kevin Harvick
Round of 12 Eliminations: Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman
Round of 8 Eliminations: Austin Cindric, Daniel Suarez, Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch
Championship Four: Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick
2022 NASCAR Cup Series Champion: Tyler Reddick
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyTDT
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images