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Can Non-Playoff Drivers Contend Over Final 10 Races?

The focus over the next 10 weeks is on the 16 drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but last year it was non-Playoff drivers that stole the headlines in the opening round.


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When the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs began at Darlington Raceway last year, few would have predicted the first round would be won exclusively by non-Playoff drivers.

Erik Jones kicked things off by winning his second Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in the No. 43 Chevrolet. Bubba Wallace scored the win in the second race of the Round of 1 by earning the victory at Kansas Speedway for 23XI Racing, while Chris Buescher surprised many by taking the checkered flag in the Bristol Night Race to give RFK Racing its first win under the new banner.

As the Playoffs are set to begin on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, the question remains if another non-playoff driver can jump up there and disrupt the field and keep one of the 16 playoff drivers from locking in to the next round.

Two of those drivers that disrupted the Playoff party last season are part of the group of 16 drivers contending for the title this season, as Wallace and Buescher are both locked into the Playoffs this year, but there are a host of others that have taken their place as non-title contenders.

While the competition among the top 16 drivers in the Playoffs is set to be fierce, there are a number of formidable contenders on the outside looking in, including Chase Elliott, Ty Gibbs, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, and others.

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Jones enters the weekend at Darlington once again outside of the Playoffs and looking to finish strong. While the 2023 season has been anything but smooth for Legacy Motor Club, Jones and the No. 43 team have been able to limit the distractions and focus on their efforts. That goal remains the same heading into Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500.

“We know our opportunities on the schedule to run well and focus more on those (races).” Jones said of his approach to the season. “Last year, there was more focus every week on running well, but with the resources we have (available now) we have to circle some weeks where we have an opportunity to run well.

“This weekend has absolutely been one of those that we’ve marked down as far as really executing and taking advantage of the situation,” he said.

Jones and the No. 43 team will have some work to do to repeat last year’s winning efforts, as he was 20th-fastest in Saturday’s qualifying session. In fact, the only non-Playoff driver in the top 10 in qualifying was Stewart-Haas Racing’s Aric Almirola who put the No. 10 Ford 10th on the speed charts.

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Ty Gibbs narrowly missed out on making the Playoffs last week after being collected in an incident during Stage 2 at Daytona International Speedway, and the rookie driver said the focus for the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing team is now solely on winning.

“My approach is to go win and do the best with what I have,” said Gibbs. “We don’t really have a lot to lose now that we’re not in the Playoffs, so you can try a lot of stuff. I think my team brings great cars to the track every week, we have a solid crew, even the pit crew is great. Just go win and do the best I can, it’s been that way the whole year.”

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For Daniel Suarez, who missed out on the Playoffs by one position, the focus over the final 10 weeks is to clean up their inconsistency and contend for wins where possible. While the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing team barely missed out on making the Playoffs, Suarez said they were not consistent enough to truly contend had they made the postseason.

Suarez indicated he has spent a lot of time working with simulation programs in the last few weeks to try and improve all around, as the focus is solely on scoring wins and finding more consistency moving forward.

“We have things we have to clean up. We’ve been extremely inconsistent this year, we’ve had the speed but not consistent. We’ve been very predictable and we can not win a championship like that,” Suarez said Saturday in Darlington. “If you’re going to make the Playoffs, you have to perform. It’s not just to make it and throw a party, that’s not the way to think. We just have to be better.”

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With a teammate locked into the Playoffs, Suarez said he will help Ross Chastain when and where it is possible, but the focus over the final 10 weeks of the season is to address the issues that kept them out of the Playoffs and improve on that for next year.

“At this point I have to focus more on the No. 99 team than the racetracks. If I can work to make our team more consistent, it doesn’t matter where we go, we’re going to be strong,” he said. “I’m not concerned about putting a circle on one particular racetrack when you go back-to-back road course races, like Indianapolis where we thought what I thought was one of the best cars and then we go to Watkins Glen the next week and we’re a 15th-20th place car.

"That’s not consistent. Especially when I know we can win road course races. We have to work on that. Once we fix that, we can contend anywhere.”

While the 16 drivers that are locked into the Playoffs are expected to dominate the final 10 weeks of the season, it should be no surprise to see one or more of the non-Playoff teams contend for race wins and disrupt the Playoff party. However, with a field tighter in competition than perhaps ever before, things will certainly not be easy as they attempt to best the top 16 teams in the sport.

Photo Courtesy: Tyson Gifford, Racing America

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