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The NASCAR Cup Playoffs Are Here and It's Wide Open

Chase Elliott is the No. 1 seed but no one has an easy path to Phoenix.


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There is a hierarchy at the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs but it’s also arguably the tightest field ever to begin the Round of 16.

This dynamic largely boils down to the first year of the Next Gen car, a spec car that has largely delivered on its promise to bridge the gap between the fastest and slowest teams on the grid while providing parity at the front of the field.

After a regular season that produced 16 different winners in 26 races, there is Chase Elliott and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 team at the top of the totem pole with no obvious No. 2 behind them with an equally straightforward path to the championship race in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Of course, Elliott doesn’t think he has an easy path either citing the type of circumstances that eliminated top seeded Kevin Harvick back in 2020 at well.

"I honestly don’t think anybody’s safe at any point in time," said Elliott during Playoff Media Day at the Charlotte Convention Center on Thursday. "It’s just my honest opinion. I think the way this format is, I think you have to respect this format from week one all the way to week 10.

"I don’t think there’s ever a period of time where you should think anything is taken for granted, and I don’t think any amount of Playoff points is ever safe. The rounds are so short, you could have two bad weeks back-to-back—and you do nothing wrong. And the next thing you know you’re in a position where you have to win the last one.

"That can happen to the guy that’s first in points or the guy that’s last. I don’t think anyone’s safe from that."

Denny Hamlin is a perpetual championship favorite, who has won twice, but feels like one of about a dozen drivers just off that upper tier.

"We’re just kind of one in the crowd this year," Hamlin said. "We’re somewhere in the middle. You’ve got probably three or four favorites that you talk about, but we’ve been too inconsistent to be in that conversation."

Historically, when Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch make the playoffs, they tend to advance all the way to the championship race. This year, they enter as the 9th and 11th seeded drivers, and there is just so much uncertainty due to the extreme parity.

"We talked about this as a team, but it's just wide open this year," Harvick said. "It's as wide open as I've ever seen it. There's no one that sticks out and looks like, 'hey I'm the guy' so the biggest factor is that anyone could hit it and pop off a win.

"That's happened this year and then they just fade away but the ability to hit on a weekly basis is there so there's no safe spot. You could wind up outside of the cutoff pretty quickly and you just don't know."

The lowest seed to have won a championship since this format debuted back in 2014 was seventh. Maybe Busch could set yet another record in a career full of them.

"I would say so, yeah. Points are really tight," Busch said. "There’s no real clear runaway, Chase has got a bit of a lead, but the rest of us are all pretty close, especially fourth on back. I would like to think this year is going to be different for a lot of reasons. I think the car is obviously a huge piece of that with the parity."

And then there's second-seeded Joey Logano, the 2018 champion, who is stereotypically going to declare himself the favorite.

It's in his very nature.

"You know me—I always feel like I’m the favorite," Logano said. "I race that way. That confidence is very important, and I think we have reason to feel that way.

"If I look at the last five races, we’ve scored more points than anybody—44 points more than anybody the last five races. That says a lot about our team, shows where we are about maximizing our days, and that’s what the Playoff is about…

"I told my team this yesterday—we’re the favorites, and that's why."

But quickly, here is the grid entering the first race of the 10-race showdown on Sunday at Darlington Raceway, the Southern 500.

1. Chase Elliott +33
2. Joey Logano +18
3. Ross Chastain +13
4. Kyle Larson +12
5. William Byron +7
6. Denny Hamlin +6
7. Ryan Blaney +6
8. Tyler Reddick +5
9. Kevin Harvick +5
10. Christopher Bell +4
11. Kyle Busch +3
12. Chase Briscoe +2
13. Daniel Suarez -2
14. Austin Cindric -3
15. Alex Bowman -3
16. Austin Dillon -4

The rules for the playoffs largely remain the same as the regular season but in much shorter bursts. The first three rounds are three races each and a playoff eligible driver can advance to the next round with a win. The first round is 16 drivers, then 12, to eight and then a one-race highest finisher take all finale. The bottom four winless drivers in the standings without a win gets eliminated after each three-race round.

The seeding is determined by playoff points earned during the regular season and they continue to carry over from round to round after each reset albeit with the points also earned for wins and stage wins in that round as well.

Last year, Larson entered the gauntlet with 52 playoff points and was able to largely casually drive his way through to the finale, where he claimed his first championship at Phoenix Raceway. This year, he is the fourth seeded driver with just 19 points to fall back on.

In other words, one bad race could now end Larson’s championship hopes in any round barring more victories and playoff wins over the next month and a half.

"I haven’t put much thought into it," Larson said. "It already adds a little bit more pressure on each race, knowing that you need to go get stage points, stage wins, race wins, all of that, to help out your post-regular season."

Larson believes his team has been better than what the results show, and there is a lot of merit to that. They battled engine issues earlier in the season, and again in the regular season finale at Daytona, but have frequently been in the mix.

The Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 is frequently on top of the speed charts but have been derailed by misfortune, incidents or ending up on the wrong side of coin flip strategy gambits.

Or some circles, that’s simply called bad luck.

"I feel good about it and we have contended often, we just haven’t executed well enough to win," Larson said of the playoffs. "There have been plenty of times this year where the guy that won the race, we were faster than them. Their team just did a really good job. I feel like lately. we have been executing our races good and we have been contending a little more. We won at Watkins Glen because we executed a good race.

"So, I think we are in a good spot. And like I said, there are a lot of good tracks for me, and I think we can contend and go get some wins."

Perhaps the most fascinating story entering the final 10 races is the championship candidacy of Ross Chastain.

At face value, the Trackhouse No. 1 team looks like one of the four best teams on paper in terms of their two wins and third overall seeded status. They’re fast, but their driver has made a tremendous number of enemies over the course of the regular season.

There has been a running feud with Denny Hamlin since May while Chastain has also alienated Elliott, Dillon and Martin Truex Jr., who was unable to make the Field of 16.

Kyle Busch says winning championships requires finesse, and a give-and-take that Chastain just hasn’t mastered early in his career.

"Will he get [the] benefit of the doubt in situations when it comes to time-on-the-line, coming to the end of the playoffs and going to Phoenix? Absolutely not," Busch said. "No way. No chance. ... I don't think people are paying him back yet because they're waiting for the right time."

It’s almost become a fait accompli that he’s not advancing to the championship race due to how many enemies he has made this year.

Larson says he just can’t see Chastain making it to Phoenix even though he should on paper.

"In my opinion, if they didn't have people mad at them, I think they'd be the championship favorite," Larson said. "But it'll be interesting to see and follow along with. I can't imagine, with everybody that seems to be upset with him, that it will be an easy playoff for him."

Chastain is aware and acknowledged that reality.

"He's not wrong in that I've taken this summer and not made it easier on myself," Chastain said. "But I don't see a single race the rest of this year that Trackhouse can't win."

Chastain says he's going to be aware of everyone he races the rest of the way, and that's previously transpired between them this season, and just make the best out of it.

By the end of the season, his first in the playoffs, he will have come away with an experience and knowledge that will propel him through the remainder of his career.

"I definitely wish I had done this last year, or the past five years, selfishly right," Chastain said of making the playoffs. "Putting myself in the playoffs year after year. I'm going to experience this year. It's an arrival for Trackhouse.

"Come back to me in 10 weeks and I'll come back better for everything that has happened, whatever happens. When we're sitting here next year, I'll have 10 weeks of playoff knowledge, for better or worse."

But in a year, that's had so much parity, and with how momentum comes and goes, the case could be made for anyone. That includes two-race winner William Byron, Daytona 500 winner and Penske driver Austin Cindric, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman or just barely snuck in despite being second in points Ryan Blaney.

It's been an upside-down world regular season so why not an upside-down world playoffs?

Enter Austin Dillon.

"Why not us? I’m confident at the tracks in the playoffs," Dillon said. (Richard Childress Racing) has shown speed at every type of track with Tyler (Reddick) winning the road courses, us winning the speedway. Martinsville, I finished third but was probably the second-best car there. And we probably should have won the 600 at Charlotte; I was really close there when you got down to it.

"I’m happy to be in this spot and I think we’re the (under)dog. Some people are already putting us out, which is just fine with me because it takes pressure off and we’ll go have fun and try to upset some of these guys, and take it as survive and advance mode from here on out."