Why this year’s NASCAR Playoffs could be the widest ever

  • The championship-clinching series opens this weekend with the Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington (SC) Raceway.
  • Kyle Larson won last year’s title with five playoff wins and three other top-10 finishes.
  • Chase Elliott won the 2020 Cup with three Playoff wins and four other top 10 finishes.

    This time, they may be wrong. After saying that NASCAR’s annual playoff series has gotten pretty predictable in recent years, “self-styled pundits” may want to consider that this year’s 10-race series may be more open than ever.

    For example:

    Kyle Larson won last year’s title with five playoff wins and three other top-10 finishes. Chase Elliott won the 2020 Cup with three playoff wins and four other top-10 finishes. Kyle Busch, the 2019 champion, won just one playoff race , but he’s had five other top-10 finishes. During each recent playoff, a driver has been so dominant that the result hasn’t been much of a surprise.

    Raise your hand if you see someone capable of repeating what the last three champions have done. That’s why serious NASCAR watchers think at least a half-dozen drivers are capable of taking the Cup instead of two or three.

    Who is in?

    A reminder: The 16-driver field includes rookie Austin Cindric; Ryan Blaney winless; former champions Larson, Elliott, Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano; five first-time NASCAR winners: Cindric, Ross Chastain, Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick and Daniel Suarez; and four in the Playoffs for the first time: Cindric, Chastain, Briscoe and Suarez.

    Half of the drivers run with Chevrolet, another five with Ford and only three with Toyota.

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    Playoff-qualified Kyle Busch and the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series field head to Darlington this weekend.

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    Where are the playoffs?

    The championship-clinching series kicks off this weekend with the Cookout Southern 500 at the wicked and treacherous ol’ Darlington (SC) Raceway.

    The tour then continues on back-to-back weekends to Kansas City and Bristol to complete Round 1 of the four-round series. Round 2 includes Fort Worth, Talladega and Charlotte Roval, followed by Round 3 in Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville.

    The championship race between the Championship 4 finishers is scheduled for November 6 at Phoenix Raceway.

    Who are the big winners this season?

    Elliott leads the field with four wins but none in the last five races. Still, that’s twice as many as former champions Larson, Logano and Kevin Harvick. Relative newcomers Chastain and Reddick also have two wins, plus veterans Denny Hamlin and William Byron. (Hamlin was disqualified after he “won” at Pocono in July; the upset victory went to Elliott.)

    Half the field has either won just once or not won in the 26 regular-season races: Busch, Dillon, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Briscoe, Suarez and Cindric. Blaney went 0-for-26 but picked up points after surviving the recent bizarre end to the regular season at Daytona Beach.

    What happened to Truex Jr. at Daytona?

    About 400 miles: Blaney moved up by finishing 15th in the Coke Zero 400. When the race was stopped by rain after 139 laps, he was six points behind Martin Truex Jr. for one of two Playoff spots based on in points. But when Dillon recovered to win and qualify as the winner, the only playoff spot based on points went to Blaney instead of Truex Jr., who finished eighth.

    Confused? Not really: Blaney started the race 25 points ahead of Truex Jr. Despite finishing seven positions behind Truex Jr., that cushion carried Blaney into the playoffs by three points. Had he repeated one of the previous year’s winners, both Blaney and Truex Jr. would have advanced. When Dillon passed Cindric for the win in the closing laps, he also led Blaney to the Playoffs.

    “We had too much damage at the end,” said Truex Jr., whose Toyota had been damaged in a previous incident. “We had a good place on the restart (after the long rain delay) and we got a good restart. We have 2 (Cindric) up front, which is what we were trying to do.”

    “But we couldn’t keep up; there was too much damage. It’s a shame. We knew it was going to be difficult with so many cars and the distance between me and 12 (Blaney). It was going to be difficult to stay in fourth place or better with a car that broke down.”

    Blaney, one of the most popular and “real” drivers on the tour, probably spoke for everyone in his post-race comments.

    “I just want to go home, crack open a beer and relax a little bit,” he said after the race. (The race started at 10am, was interrupted for over 3 hours by rain, and finished in the late afternoon.) “That was a stressful day and a long weekend. Last night we had no qualifying, no getting in the car, no race. Wait today after they screw you up and you’re three hours late. I am definitely mentally exhausted. We are very lucky, that’s for sure.”

    Blaney’s outlook looked bleak after being involved in an accident early in the race. “At that point, our fate wasn’t really in our hands,” he said after finishing six laps down. “All we could do was keep working on it and fix it so we could go around. Luckily we were able to pass (pass) enough cars along the wrecks that we kept going and were able to get in. That’s definitely a lot more stressful than I wanted to come here.

    “You try to stay optimistic, in the game and not think about the negatives. Although it is not easy, you try not to think about the negative aspects. You know… you never know what can happen.”

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    Bubba Wallace will move from car 23 to 54 for the Playoffs.

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    Musical chairs to replace Kurt Busch

    23XI Racing is trading cars for the last 10 races so its No. 54 Toyota can enter the NASCAR Owners’ Championship.

    Team driver Bubba Wallace will move from his No. 23 Toyota to the team’s No. 54, while his grandson Ty Gibbs will finish the season in the No. 23. Neither driver is eligible for the Drivers’ Championship, but 23XI Racing hopes Wallace gets more points per owner. at No. 54 than Ty Gibbs would have had.

    Gibbs, a full-schedule Xfinity star, moved to No. 54 after Kurt Busch was injured at Pocono Raceway in June. It seems increasingly doubtful that he will return this year.

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    NASCAR has extended the time crews have to make repairs in their pits from six to 10 minutes. In the past, cars were directed to the garage if they were unable to return to the track after six minutes. The change is effective with the opening race of the Playoffs this weekend at Darlington (SC) Raceway.

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