NASCAR playoffs will begin without a clear favorite for the Cup title

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CHARLOTTE, NC — Statistics and betting make Chase Elliott this year’s favorite to win the NASCAR championship. He leads the Cup Series with four wins, won the regular season title and enters the playoffs with a 15-point cushion in the standings.

Elliott doesn’t put much faith in the numbers game. If there really is a favorite in this field of 16 drivers, he can’t pick one, not even himself.

“I don’t really see a favourite. I mean, it seems like some weeks you have some guys that are really strong contending for wins, and other weeks it’s a bunch of different guys,” Elliott said. “For me, I think the narrative of how many winners we have is not a fluke. Anything can happen to anyone in the last 10, so personally I don’t think there is a favourite.”

NASCAR had 16 different winners during the regular season, including five drivers who visited victory lane for the first time in their Cup Series career. It was a risky end to the regular season at Daytona, where two spots in the field they were open only because injured driver Kurt Busch withdrew his medical clearance because he won’t be ready to race when the playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., both winless this season but ranked in the top five in the standings, were vying with each other to make the playoffs on points. But then Austin Dillon won the race to claim one of the spots, and Blaney edged out Truex for last place.

Truex, who has advanced to the championship finals in four of the past five years, can now finish no higher than 17th in the final standings, a playoff stalwart barred from title contention. Instead, vying for the title are first-time playoff entrants Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez, who have combined for three regular-season wins for Trackhouse Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe and rookie Austin Cindric, the winner of the Team Penske Daytona 500.

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The new crop of young drivers vying for a championship was helped by the introduction of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, an industry-wide project to design a spec vehicle that would contain costs and level the playing field. Some teams quickly caught on to the car, while others took a long time into the season to find a comfort zone.

Kevin Harvick won back-to-back races in August to snap a 65-race streak and qualify for the playoffs for the 13th straight year. But is the 2014 champion a serious contender?

“When we started the year with the new car, we were on the wrong side of the fence and trying to figure everything out,” Harvick said. “And as the year went on, we got progressively better, and we figured out a few things and we got back to victory lane and we really have some momentum going into the process of these last 10 weeks and contending for a championship.

“The most important thing is that we are giving ourselves the opportunity to compete for the championship, that is the first objective. That seemed bleak for a while, but now we’re in a good position to start.”

As Harvick’s teammate pointed out, the playoff drivers will have to deal with the entire field because the gap between the top teams and the small teams has closed.

“I think what people are missing with these playoffs is that in the past, the playoff guys were so much faster from a speed standpoint than the non-playoff guys they didn’t even have the speed.” chance to win any of the races or really run in the top five to 10 at times,” Briscoe said. “Now, there are legitimately seven or eight guys who can still win races that aren’t in the playoffs.”

Meanwhile, Chastain has angered much of the field with his aggressive driving. Chastain knows that he has made enemies, Kyle Busch among them.

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The only active Cup driver with multiple championships is heading to the playoffs with no contract next year and a split with Joe Gibbs Racing, his home since 2008, a very real probability. He doesn’t have time for Chastain – it was Busch who turned the rival driver’s name into a verb when he said he “stayed with Chastain” after a recent crash – and suggested many veterans won’t give Chastain an inch for the next 10 years. careers.

“Absolutely not, no way, no chance,” Busch said. “I don’t think people are paying him back yet, they are waiting for the right time.”

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson enters the playoffs in a much different position than he did last season. He was the top seed with five wins a year ago, then won five playoff races to win his first title.

He is now fourth in the standings with just two wins and three engine failures among the six races he failed to finish.

“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, by our standards, but I really don’t know if it went well for anyone,” Larson said. “Even for Chase, like he doesn’t even know if his regular season lived up to his standards. There was a lot of inconsistency this year during the regular season.”

But Larson has been strong on the middle courts, which make up half of the playoff schedule.

“I know we have a championship-caliber team. We showed it last year and we have to do it again,” Larson said. “Even though I have favorites, I don’t trust anything, just because of how wild and inconsistent the season has been for so many people. I think you can look at us as one of the favorites. I think you can look at Chase, obviously; and in my opinion, Ross Chastain.”

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