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NASCAR Playoff Picture: Elliott, Larson, Lugano and the Field Scale

by Bob Bocras
NASCAR FOX Sports writer

The NASCAR Cup Series The qualifiers start this week, after hearing the defending champion Kyle Larson Try to explain the favorites, one thing is clear: there are not many favorites.

Chase Elliot He is the only driver to have had more than two wins this year and the only driver to have earned more than 25 break points – points that are added to the driver’s total when the standings are rearranged after each round. So Elliott is the only driver who can be confident that he can beat the bad finish and still be in control of his own destiny.

How hard can a driver run and still be unable to progress in this system? Consider this: Martin Truex Jr.who finished fourth in the regular season standings and had the second-best average finish this year, did not participate in qualifying because 15 qualifying drivers had won a race, leaving only one post-season spot available for a non-winning driver.

“This season has been all about survival,” said Larsson, who won 10 races last year on his way to winning the championship. “If you win the championship, you survived.

“I’m not saying this guy wouldn’t be worthy, but our best team, Chase Elliott…it probably won’t win. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a great season.”

Kyle Larson shares his thoughts on the favorites to the playoffs

Kyle Larson shares his thoughts on the favorites to the playoffs

During last week’s Martinsville Test break, Kyle Larson offered his thoughts on who the candidates are heading to for the Cup Series playoffs.

Drivers theoretically control their own destinies. Qualifying begins with a stadium of 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated after each round of three races. The four drivers with no Tour wins and the fewest points are disqualified from the Championship competition; Winning automatically leads the driver to the next round.

After the third round, four drivers enter the season finale in Phoenix with a shot to win the title, and the driver who finished best among those four is the champ.

9 [of Elliott]at the pace he has every week, with the executions he and his team do every week, I would say they are the candidates,” Larson said.Russians [Chastain] Probably the fastest weeks. … religious [Hamlin] Perhaps, outside of Chase and Ross, he might be the next favorite.

“I didn’t mention myself. I feel we can go well and win another tournament.”

The opening round consists of two of the most traditional races: the Southern 500 in Darlington and the Bristol Night Race, with Kansas in between. NASCAR has already made visits to Darlington and Kansas this year but will be running its first race on concrete in Bristol (the Bristol race earlier this year was running on dirt).

Here’s how the 16-driver pitch is stratified:

don’t collapse

Chase Elliott (Seed #1, +33 points when cut): Elliott is the only driver to have had more than two wins this year – he has four – and the only driver to have a motorcycle. He doesn’t need to worry about progress if he does what he’s done all year. Hendrick Motorsports driver and 2020 Cup champion finished fifth in Darlington and 29th in Kansas earlier this season.

Don’t beat yourself up

Joey Logano (No. 2, +18): Lugano enters the playoffs with four places in the top six in the past five races after scoring only six in the top six in his first 21 events. One of those was Darlington, where the Penske driver took a controversial win by dumping William Byron on a late pass for the lead. 2018 Cup Champion Lugano was 17th in Kansas.

Ross Chastain (No. 3, +13): Chastain, who made the playoffs for the first time in his career, has 14 of the top 10 races this season but none in the past six, of which his best finish was 18. His challenge when it comes to not beating himself will be Don’t get overly aggressive early in the races and frustrate rivals. The Trackhouse Racing driver was 30th in Darlington and 7th in Kansas.

Kyle Larson (No. 4, +12): The Cup holders won the second race (California) and the 25th race (Watkins Glen) for the regular season’s 26 races. Among those, he had eight of the top 5 places (and three more times from sixth to tenth). Larson should be fine in the first round if he keeps doing what he’s been doing. The Hendrick driver was ranked 36th in Darlington (where he got out early with an engine problem) and 2nd in Kansas earlier this year.

William Byron (No. 5, +7): Byron has won two of the first eight races this year, but has won only one of the top 10 races since his victory in Martinsville. However, it has been running in the top ten. He earned stage points in 10 of the past 18 races. He just needs to stay there. Byron was ahead in Darlington when Lugano pushed him aside for the win, and he finished 13th. Hendrik’s driver was 16th in Kansas.

Denny Hamlin (No. 6, +6): The best driver with the worst results, Hamlin has only seven in the top ten this year despite his 384 laps lead. Many of his bad days have come thanks to off-road bugs. No one would be surprised to see driver Joe Gibbs Racing, who has a record 48 career cup victories, reach the Championship Tour, and few would be surprised if he gets out early. Hamlin was 21st in Darlington and 4th in Kansas this year. He and Kevin Harvick tied for the most playoff games, with a score of 17.

Ryan Blaney (No. 7, +6): Blaney entered the playoffs as the only driver not to win, but now that he’s in, he’ll be seen as a threat. Fords haven’t always had the speed, but Blaney’s racing craft is good enough that as long as his team doesn’t make mistakes, he’ll get ahead. However, this may be easier said than done; The Penske team driver was 17th in Darlington and 12th in Kansas earlier this year.

Ryan Blaney is barely in the qualifiers

Ryan Blaney is barely in the qualifiers

Ryan Blaney says he’s mentally drained after a roller coaster day that ended his NASCAR playoff entry with just a few points.

The pursuit of consistency

Tyler Riddick (No. 8, +5): Reddick has scored no more than twice in a row in the top 10 races this year, and the Richard Childress Racing driver finished worse than he qualified for in 15 of the 26 races. But when he’s good, he’s really good: Of his top 10 players, eight were in the top five. One of those came in Darlington, where he was a close second. He was in his thirties in Kansas.

Kevin Harvick (No. 9, +5): Harvick was out of the decider until he won the 23rd race of the season in Michigan. He followed this up with a win in Richmond. The two races before that stretch were 27 and 33, and the next two races were 12 and 20. Harvick, 2014 Cup champion, and Austin Dillon They are the only two drivers in qualifying who have not won a stage this year. The SHR driver was fourth in Darlington and 15th in Kansas earlier this season.

Christopher Bell (No. 10, +4): Bell started the year by finishing one of the top 25 in the first five races. Since then, he has been in the top 10 drivers in 13 of the 21 races. But driver Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t advanced in the past three races after doing so in the previous four events. Bell finished sixth in Darlington and fifth in Kansas.

Kyle Bush (No. 11, +3): The two-time Cup champion started the year with 11 top-10 wins in the first 15 races, but only had two top-10 finishes in the past 11 races. What should keep the JGR driver over the limit is that he finished seventh this year in stage points earned, so even on his bad days, he’s still scoring. Bush was 33rd in Darlington (he came out early due to an accident) and 3rd in Kansas earlier this year.

Bob Pokras: Is Kevin Harvick the favorite title?

Bob Pokras: Is Kevin Harvick the favorite title?

Quick thoughts: With his back-to-back wins earlier this season, is Kevin Harvick a championship contender?

Searching for a spark

Chase Brisco (No. 12, +2): Briscoe won his fourth race of the season in Kansas, but since then, he’s managed a fifth-place finish, and fourth in Charlotte. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has placed 20th or worse in its past five games. He was 20th in Darlington and 24th in Kansas. This is his first time in the playoffs.

Daniel Suarez (No. 13, -2): Suarez, on his first playoff appearance, is running into the qualifiers with a finish of 19th or worse in his past five races. It followed a five-top-10 stretch in six races, which followed a one-top-10 stretch in nine races. The Trackhouse driver was 10th in Darlington and 33rd in Kansas earlier this year.

Austin Cendrick (No. 14, -3): Cindric can already celebrate that he will be the 2022 Rookie of the Year, as he was the only Rookie to make the playoffs. Team Penske’s driver has finished second and third in the past five races, but those came in on track (Indianapolis) and Super Speedway (Daytona), and round one doesn’t include those styles of tracks. Cendrick was 18th in Darlington and 11th in Kansas.

Alex Bowman (No. 15, -3): Bowman won early in the year in Las Vegas and was fifth in the standings after 10 races. But he dropped to level 12 late in the regular season. Four times in his past 10 starts, he ended his day early due to an accident and ended up outside of 30th place. Driver Hendrik was 29th in Darlington and ninth in Kansas earlier this year.

Austin Dillon (No. 16, -4): Dillon jumped into the playoffs After winning the regular season final in Daytona, Dillon has led just 18 laps this year. He scored the fewest stage points (32 total) of any breakout driver but did a respectable job of finishing the race better than where he was running during the race. The RCR driver was ninth in Darlington and thirteenth in Kansas.

Austin Dillon wins Daytona in the wild finish

Austin Dillon wins Daytona in the wild finish

Austin Dillon wins at Daytona to seal himself in the playoffs in a wild end with Austin Cendrick and teammate Tyler Riddick.

Bob Pokras covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He’s spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @Popocrasand subscribe to Newsletter from FOX Sports NASCAR with Bob Pokras.

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