NASCAR Playoffs Preview: Round of 12

NASCAR playoffs
Bubba Wallace (45), Ryan Blaney (12), Ross Chastain (1) and Joey Logano (22) head toward Turn 1 during a NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas on Sept. 11

The NASCAR playoffs have reached the Round of 12 and with seven races to go, it’s looking like a fight to the finish for the Championship. The final 12 features all four Hendrick cars, three Penske cars, two Gibbs cars, one Trackhouse car and one Stewart-Haas car. Next up, the Cup series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. I’m going to break the 12 drivers down into three categories: contenders, pretenders and in-betweens. Let’s break them down.


Two of the obvious contenders are the last two NASCAR Cup Series Champions, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. The two more experienced drivers at Rick Hendrick racing have added another great season to their resumés. Elliott leads all drivers in the playoffs with four wins. Larson is tied for second with two wins, but he is the defending champion and one of the winningest drivers since joining Hendrick.

Joining them on my list of NASCAR playoffs contenders is Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin. Logano is a former champion in his own right and the best performing Ford in the playoffs. Hamlin may be the hungriest of them all. He has 39 wins, the most in NASCAR among current drivers without a championship. Right now, he’s in the discussion with Junior Johnson and Mark Martin for greatest driver to never win a title. He’d like to remove himself from that list, and at 41, this may be his last chance to do so.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the pretenders. These four drivers are in the playoffs, but, in my opinion, don’t really have a shot to win the title. My pretenders are Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe,
Austin Cindric and Daniel Suarez. Bell was on the outside looking in at the playoffs until he won at New Hampshire. He’s got potential to be a contender down the road, especially at Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s not there yet. Briscoe won at Phoenix back in March. It was an impressive performance, but he’s been an average young driver since. He’s another guy who may win a title down the line, but 2022 won’t be his year. Cindric and Suarez are in similar boats. Cindric won the Daytona 500 and hasn’t done anything of note since. Suarez became the first Mexican born driver to win a race when he took the checkers at Sonoma, but like Briscoe, Bell and Cindric, he hasn’t done much else of note. All are talented. All earned their place in the playoffs, but none are a threat to win the title this year.


These four drivers are harder to peg for the NASCAR playoffs. William Byron was the first driver to record two wins this year. He’s had some great runs, but as the least experienced member at Hendrick, he’s always the wild card. Alex Bowman has the fewest wins of the four Hendrick drivers; he’s only won once this year. But he has a habit of picking up wins at opportune times. It led to Denny Hamlin calling him a “hack,” but it just shows better track awareness than most, in my opinion.

Ross Chastain is quickly finding himself as one of the most hated drivers in NASCAR. But he’s got two wins to his credit and has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to win again. Finally, Ryan Blaney is the only driver to make the playoffs who didn’t win a race this season. He only got in because Kurt Busch, the 16th driver to win a race in the first 24 races of the season, got injured and has decided to sit out the rest of the season. But Blaney historically is the most consistent of these four. He may not find victory lane, but his consistency may be enough to get him to the final race of the year in Phoenix.


The next three races in the NASCAR playoffs will take place on three different style tracks. First, we have the one point five-mile cookie cutter in Texas. That’s followed by the biggest superspeedway on the circuit at Talladega. Then, they wrap up this round at the Charlotte Road Course. These tracks play to a different strength for each driver. Plus, those pesky non-playoff drivers are still out there. None of the Round of 16 races were won by playoff drivers. Instead, we heard names like Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher in Victory Lane. Who knows what will happen over the next three races?


As this round comes to a close, I’m predicting three pretenders will be eliminated. I think Cindric, Briscoe and Suarez will be eliminated. I also think Ross Chastain’s aggressive driving will come back to bite him and he sleeps from third to ninth in the standings. Ross Chastain will be eliminated this round. It’s tough to predict a champion right now, but if I were a betting man, I’d bet on Denny Hamlin to cash in his first and only championship this season.

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