NASCAR Cup Series
Starting Lineup: NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington
Sep 2, 2023
The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field is absolutely stacked. Typically, you can look at two to three obvious exits from the Round of 16. Doing that this year, could prove to be a massive mistake.
It's NASCAR Cup Series Playoff time. After the 26-race regular season, where the 16-driver Playoff field was set, we now have 10 races left for one driver and team to ultimately stand above the rest at the end of it all. It's time for everyone -- fans, media, and anyone else who wants to give it a shot -- to go to the drawing board, fill out their Playoff Grids, and pretend that they're a modern-day Nostradamus.
However, there is one massive problem; this year's Playoff field is as stacked as we've ever seen.
I've watched the Playoff Grid predictions rolling in on social media, and the majority of folks have included Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Bubba Wallace as three of the four drivers going out in Round 1.
While in years past, you could usually fill in two to three obvious first-round exits in the Round of 16, I feel thinking anyone is an automatic exit this season is a massive mistake.
Not only has every driver in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs this season has shown the ability to win (13 of the 16 drivers have won at least one race this season), but each driver has also put together a decent run of consistent finishes during stretches of the 2023 campaign.
Over a six-race stretch at the beginning of the Summer, McDowell and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team racked up five top 15 finishes, including four top 10s. A few races after the six-race stretch, McDowell would find victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and a week after that, he won Stage 1 at Watkins Glen, but pit road issues and an eventual blown motor ended the hopes of back-to-back wins.
But McDowell and his team are no slouches this season. And McDowell believes they can advance.
"Like, on the outside, I understand why people are like, 'Oh if I'm going to pick a guy that's falling out in the first round, it's going to be the [No.] 34,' I'm not mad at you guys for saying that. It doesn't offend me," McDowell said at NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day. "But when I look at it, I think, 'I don't think so.' I think we are going to be able to advance and move on."
The Playoffs kick off at Darlington Raceway this weekend, and when you look back to the spring, you'll see that McDowell recorded a 33rd-place finish with a crash-related DNF. The race prior to the DNF wasn't much better. So, why does McDowell feel he can contend this time around?
"The first Darlington in the Spring, we missed it a little bit," McDowell admitted. "But I know what we had last year, and we ran top-10 both races last year. We tried something different than the first Darlington, and it didn't work out. I have confidence going back because I know we have a pretty proven package that has done well there before. I look at it differently. I just feel we have to do what we've been doing and we'll be okay."
Like McDowell, Stenhouse also feels that people sleeping on him and the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team advancing to the Round of 12 are making a big mistake.
"I think it's a mistake. My team and I have a lot more confidence than probably a lot of people have in us. Which is fine," Stenhouse explained. "I was at the shop yesterday, and my guys were like, 'Dang, so and so said we're going to be out, let's go prove them wrong,' I'm not worried about proving people wrong. I just want to make sure I prove to all of our guys and our supporters -- there are plenty of people who think we're going to make it to the next round -- it's about proving those people right.
"I told them, 'Don't worry about who didn't pick us. Let's do our job, and let's go perform the way we know we can perform.' And if we can do that, I feel like we can make it out of the first round of the Playoffs. Obviously, it gets harder after that."
In addition to winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Stenhouse and the No. 47 team clicked off nine top 15 finishes over a 12-race stretch earlier in the season, including four top 10 finishes. Overall, Stenhouse has a 16.7 average finish this season, and he's had one of the cleanest seasons on track of his entire racing career.
If Stenhouse and the team are firing on all cylinders, they very well could surprise and make a long push through the Playoffs, or at least much longer than the opening-round exit many are predicting.
Then there is 23XI Racing's Bubba Wallace.
Sure, he finally secured his Playoff berth in the final race of the regular season at Daytona International Speedway by way of points, and he will enter the Playoffs with zero Playoff Points. But Wallace has a knack for heating up in the Playoffs.
Unfortunately for the driver, he has never been in Playoff contention (until this season) to take advantage of it.
There are some who have questioned whether Wallace is mentally strong enough to handle the rigors of the Playoffs.
While he was admittedly stressed to the max last weekend at Daytona just trying to lock himself into the Playoffs, Wallace has done a complete 180-degree turn this week, and he was loose, and filled with smiles in NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Media Day. Wallace is ready.
And he has Kansas Speedway next weekend, a track where he has impressed.
Wallace finished 10th at Kansas Speedway in the spring of last year, and then he won at the 1.5-mile facility in the Playoffs. Earlier this year, Wallace finished fourth in Kansas. It feels like the planets are aligning for Wallace to score a clutch win in the Playoffs to secure a place in the Round of 12, regardless of what else happens at Darlington and Bristol.
Obvious first-round exits? There aren't any in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Photo Credit: Tyson Gifford, Racing America