CHARLOTTE, NC — It took 26 races, plus a long, waterlogged weekend at Daytona and millions of dollars in wrecked cars to finally determine NASCAR’s 16-driver postseason field.
Austin Dillon stole the final playoff spot with his last-gasp win at Daytona, which was scheduled for Saturday night, then rained into Sunday morning and stalled for more than three hours shortly after Dillon will take the lead. When he resumed racing, he held on to his first win of the year and the final playoff spot.
It was a sloppy end to the regular season: Only five of the 37 cars avoided crashing in the most destructive summer race in Daytona history. Justin Marks, owner of the Trackhouse Racing team, he tweeted before the long delay that damaged the crash it had already “cost teams collectively around” $4 million.
That’s just part of the uncertain state of play right now in NASCAR.
Martin Truex Jr., who hovered around fourth in the standings most of the season, was eliminated from the playoffs when Dillon became the 16th different winner of 2022. Although he didn’t win a race this year, Truex was strong enough consistent enough to hover near the top of the standings for 26 races and it just wasn’t good enough.
Now the 2017 champion, last year’s runner-up and a driver who reached the final round that decided the title in four of the last five years is out. It’s a one-two punch for Toyota, the slimmest brand in the field, which advanced just three drivers to the playoffs.
Oh, Kurt Busch qualified. But he had to withdraw the spot from him last week when lingering concussion symptoms from a July accident ruled him out of the start of the playoffs. That leaves 23XI Racing without representation in the playoff field in its second season.
Kyle Bush? It is highly unlikely that he will bounce back and win a third title.
He’s in the final year of his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing and as the season reaches its final 10-race stretch, a split seems inevitable. Busch has been with Gibbs since 2008 and is the only active Cup Series champion with multiple titles. But his sponsor is leaving NASCAR, and neither Gibbs nor any other team has been able to come to an agreement to put Busch in a competitive car next season.
“First I have an announcement to make. Everybody ready? Busch said as he entered the Daytona media center on Saturday. “Ok, there is no announcement. Okay? All alright? we clean? Forward.”
It is true that he has been distracted by his own situation and now his brother’s health is hanging over the family since the July 23 accident in Pocono.
Which brings up the topic of Next Gen cars, the cost-conscious effort to even the playing field throughout the series.
It certainly created parity as NASCAR this season celebrated five Cup winners for the first time and welcomed Trackhouse drivers Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez, Team Penske rookie Austin Cindric and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe to the playoffs. . Tyler Reddick also earned his first two career wins this season, but the Richard Childress Racing driver has been to the playoffs before.
Still, questions about the car’s safety have followed NASCAR since rumors of crash test problems leaked last summer during development. Now, Kurt Busch has been out six races and counting with no return in sight when the playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
His boss, Denny Hamlin, was caught in a big rain-induced accident on Sunday. When asked if he was okay after contact: “The hit was just massive. It was my first in this next generation and it was legit.”
Drivers reported to NASCAR that the Next Gen is too stiff, and Joey Logano raised the issue again after Busch’s accident at Pocono.
“In 99% of the crashes you used to go out and be fine, now it hurts,” he said. “I’ve been through a few of them this year and we’ve wrecked more things this year than ever before and we’re in a car that’s different than ever. Hurts. Every driver comes out and says it hurts more, I’m pretty sure.”
Adjusting to the new car took time: Kevin Harvick, the 2014 NASCAR champion, needed until August to snap a 65-race winless streak with consecutive wins. And the sophomore Trackhouse team, meanwhile, earned three wins from Chastain and Suarez before Harvick reached victory lane.
2020 champion Chase Elliott has the best four series wins and won the regular season championship, but does that make NASCAR’s most popular driver the favorite to lift a second Cup? Who knows? No other driver has more than two wins this season.
Ryan Blaney is the only winless playoff driver in the playoff field and he barely made it; Dillon’s victory put Blaney and Truex in a battle until the last lap over which driver would take last place in the field on points.
“Definitely a roller coaster of emotions, and luckily it ended well for our group,” said Blaney, who was so consistent this year that he was in the top three in points almost the entire regular season, almost missing the playoffs.
There are 10 races left to decide this title and this season has shown that nothing is predictable, certainly not who will win the championship.
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