NASCAR Playoff Media Notebook of the Day: Top stories from drivers vying for a Cup championship

Even after 26 of 36 races, the story of the NASCAR Cup Series drivers’ 16 seasons is just beginning to be written. With the regular season now over, this weekend’s Southern 500 at Darlington marks the start of the NASCAR Playoffs and the hunt for the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

For the 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs, the first order of business before heading to Darlington was playoff media day Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, all of the playoff drivers were on hand to discuss a number of topics with reporters, ranging from the immediate topic, the start of the playoffs, to larger and broader topics.

These are some of the notable stories that come out of the availability of driver media.

First time playoff drivers

Thanks to the abundance of first-time Cup Series winners in 2022, the cast of characters for this year’s playoffs is fairly new. Four drivers — Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and rookie Austin Cindric — will compete in the playoffs for the first time.

For every rookie, the dynamics of NASCAR’s playoff format are far from completely unheard of: Suarez and Cindric have won championships in the Xfinity Series, while Chastain and Briscoe have clinched Championship 4 at least once between Trucks and Xfinity. But the higher level of stock car racing, and the depth of field that Cup offers, raises the stakes of postseason racing to a level no one has experienced before.

Playoffs typically don’t immediately reward rookies, as every Cup champion since 2014 has had at least some level of experience with the format before winning the title. Naturally, that raised questions about how much experience matters for each driver in the playoff hunt.

“Certainly, I learned a lot from the experiences of failing last year. But the experience of being in these high-pressure moments at the Xfinity level, and making it two years in a row, also has its benefits,” said Tyler Reddick, who won two Xfinity titles and made the Cup playoffs for the first time last year. “So I certainly don’t have the experience of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and guys like that, but every race is one of those pressure-filled moments. Every point in every race has that Game 7 moment in every race and it’s really important not to take a wrong step when that moment happens.

If ever there was an instant playoff success story, it was probably Denny Hamlin. He made the 2006 Chase for the Cup as a rookie and proceeded to finish third in the points with a chance to win the championship in the final race. Since then, Hamlin has made the playoffs nearly once, giving him a full spectrum of experience to draw from at this stage of his career.

“I know the anticipation and excitement that I had the first few times is very different than what I have now 17 years later or whatever,” Hamlin said. “I think (experience) matters, I think managing races matters, managing points and playoff standings, knowing what competition you’re racing against on any given day. It all matters in how you go through these playoffs.”

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As for the first-time playoff contenders, Ross Chastain apparently admitted there was a gap in his preparation to compete in the playoffs compared to his competition.

“I definitely wish I had done this last year or for five years, selfishly,” Chastain said. “…Come back to me in 10 weeks and I’ll be better off for what happened, no matter what happens. When we’re sitting here next year, I’ll have 10 weeks of playoff knowledge for better or worse.”

Kyle Busch about to make a decision about his future

Kyle Busch has made the playoffs in 15 of his 18 Cup seasons thus far, and he has done so again this year, perhaps for the last time as a member of Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s contract situation isn’t resolved before the playoffs open in Darlington, but a resolution is coming soon: Busch suggested a decision on his future will likely be made in the next seven to 10 days, also sharing that there’s more. of a team. interested in hiring him “he has paper in front of me”.

As he has before, Busch acknowledged the difficulty of having to go through contract negotiations and entertain other suitors, particularly when it comes to the delicate nature of the ripple effects that any decision he makes will create.

“Trust me, my gut feeling doesn’t feel right. And that’s not just because of the decisions that are made, but more so because of the decisions that are weighed, and the perception and how you meet all of those that you’re going to let down.” Bush. said. “There’s going to be one winner and the rest are not winners, if you look at it that way. Good for me, but I definitely don’t want to come across as a liar or anything. So that’s why it’s only been touch and march and try to tread carefully.

next generation security

Even before Kurt Busch suffered a concussion at Pocono that has kept him out of the driver’s seat ever since, the safety of the Next Gen car had been under a microscope due to protests from drivers that the car was too stiff, which caused the driver to absorb more force in an impact. This week, those concerns and criticisms about the Next Gen car’s rigid body were renewed in light of several hard impacts at Daytona.

After taking several big hits at The Big One at Daytona, Denny Hamlin announced that he would not compete in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event because he still had pain in his neck, back and hips. Hamlin’s car audio revealed that in the moments after the crash, Hamlin groaned in considerable pain.

Days after the fact, Hamlin shared that he was hit harder than any other accident he’s been in the past, comparing it to the feeling of being punched in a bar and kicked in the ribs, a consequence of the Next Gen car build. , as more sustained force to the drivers has become an unintended consequence of stronger, more durable parts and pieces.

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“Any time you build something that’s stiffer and built to last longer, the softer part, which is your body, will take the brunt,” Hamlin said. “Right now, that’s where they’re hitting us.”

To date, there has been a disconnect between how NASCAR’s crash data suggests the Next Gen car performs in a crash and what drivers have felt physically, even with minor contact leaving drivers feeling jolted and bumped. . Kevin Harvick spoke forcefully about that disconnect and criticized NASCAR’s response time to the problem.

“They’ll say ‘well, it was just a 15G hit.’ Well, I’m telling you, some of those 15G hits feel like 50s compared to what they’ve been on old cars,” Harvick said. “…They don’t feel the same. They’re just violent, forceful crashes every time you hit something. They don’t feel like the old car.

“It’s like we’ve broken down the soft walls. Every time we hit a car, it feels like hitting a concrete wall. Every time we hit a soft wall, it feels like hitting a concrete wall. They’re violent. There is no other way”. around.”

The Owners Championship

the Kurt Busch’s injury and continued absence — Denny Hamlin shared that Busch’s recovery has “leveled off” at about 80% — has created an unusual scenario in the playoff subtext. As he continues to lose time, Busch withdrew his medical clearance for the playoffs and will not participate despite winning earlier this year at Kansas.

However, Busch’s No. 45 team for 23XI Racing is still qualified for the Cup Series Owners’ Championship, which means hefty financial bonuses for race teams across the field. As such, 23XI Racing has swapped its two teams, with Bubba Wallace and his crew are renumbered at No. 45 for the remainder of the season, while the regular No. 45 team now becomes the No. 23 team.

While that arrangement allows 23XI to seek the ownership title with a more experienced driver in Wallace instead of 19-year-old replacement driver Ty Gibbs, it also affects Team Penske’s No. 12 squad. Even though Ryan Blaney ranked last in the playoffs on points, his No. 12 was below the cut-off line for the owners’ title playoffs, meaning they can’t win the owners’ championship even if Blaney wins the drivers’ championship.

In that scenario, Team Penske will lose a couple of million dollars that it otherwise might have had. However, Blaney didn’t seem particularly concerned about greater glory at hand.

“I personally don’t care. I care about that thing right behind you,” Blaney told Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass, emphasizing his focus on the Bill France Cup. “…For me, the money side, I don’t care. I want the hardware.”

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