The Craziest Playoff Race that Nobody is Talking About

What do you think of when you hear the word playoffs? The NFL? NBA? Maybe even your high school or college team’s playoffs? A sport’s playoffs are supposed to be its staple. The pinnacle of the season. Young athletes dream of making a March Madness tournament, a Super Bowl, World Series, or Stanley Cup, and every sport has a time for it’s playoffs and championship that are the sport’s time in the limelight. So what playoff race is going on now? Is there even a professional sports league in America that is currently less than two weeks away from beginning its playoffs, and the current playoff race may be the greatest the sport has even seen? Well yes, there is. NASCAR’s cup series is currently only two Sundays away from having its playoff picture set, and before you close the tab out of fear of left turns and rednecks, first read about why this year has potential to be so much more for one of the world’s most misunderstood sports.

To first understand why this years NASCAR playoff race is so intense, first let’s take a look at how NASCAR’s playoffs even work, since many of you probably didn’t know NASCAR had playoffs before reading this article. NASCAR’s cup series, which we will just be referring to as NASCAR, without getting into the lower series to avoid confusion, runs 36 races a year. The first 26 races are considered NASCAR’s regular season, and the final 10 races are NASCAR’s playoffs. NASCAR has 36 full time drivers, with 16 making the playoffs and competing for the championship every year since NASCAR introduced playoffs in 2004 with “The Chase for the Cup”, under new series sponsor, Nextel. But what does a driver need to do to make the playoffs? And how do they then narrow it done from 16 drivers to crown only one as the champion? Well there are three ways a driver can make the playoffs. The first, and most simple, is to win. The whole reason NASCAR introduced the playoffs was to place a higher value on wins. They want their champions to go out and win races instead of just constantly running in the top five or top ten and win a championship simply by just being consistently good. A champion is supposed to have great moments. If one of the 36 full-time cup series drivers earns a win in the first 26 races, they punch their ticket to the playoffs, and there has never been an issue with too many drivers winning, but there are rules in place if that ever were to happen. Secondly, the regular season points champion is also automatically given a playoff berth, regardless if they win or not. Points are awarded to every driver, every race, with first place in a race receiving 40 points, second place receiving 35 points, and then every position thereafter gets one less point than the position before them, with 36 and lower finally being awarded only one point. Points are also given out at the end of each stage. Every NASCAR race is split up into three stages, except for the 600 mile race at Charolette in the Spring, which has four stages. The first place finisher in each stage receives ten points, counting down through to top ten until the driver who finishes tenth in a stage receiving only one point, with only the top ten receiving points for stage finishes. Whichever driver accumulates the most points in the first 26 races is deemed the regular season champion, and given a playoff berth to compete for the cup series championship, regardless if they win. The third and final way to make the NASCAR playoffs is only if there are playoff berths still available after the regular season winners and champion are given spots, which there has been additional berths available every year. The 16 are then filled out by the points standings of the remaining winless drivers.

When the NASCAR playoffs begin, each driver in the playoffs is reset back down to 2,000 points, with additional playoff points being awarded to drivers based on their number of race wins and stage wins, with a race win being worth five playoff points and a stage win being worth one point. The NASCAR season then continues, with all 36 drivers still being on the track, but only 16 being in the playoffs and competing for a championship. After the first three races of the playoffs, the playoff field is then cut down the 12 drivers, based on wins then points, the remaining playoff drivers are then reset to 3,000 points, with their additional playoff points being added on after. After three more races the field goes from 12 to 8, with the cut once again being based on wins then points, the drivers are reset to 4,000 points plus playoff points, and race three more races. Before the final race of the season, the playoff field is cut down to just four drivers, known as the championship four, and whichever driver of the four finishes best is then deemed the winner. This ensures that a champion will always be crowned at the end of the final race. Never before. The current playoff format has its flaws, such as having to potentially leave winners out of the playoffs, or a driver could potentially miss the playoffs, then win every race remaining on the schedule, outperform the rest of the field every week for sixteen weeks, and still not be a champion, or even considered in the top 16 for that season.

Now that we’ve looked at how the NASCAR playoffs work, lets look at why this years playoffs are so special. To start, 2022 is the first year of seventh generation NASCAR cup series car. This new car, now labeled the next gen car, has had significant changes from years past, some never seen before, and some drivers saying everything about the car has changed. This changes include some changes that fans can see right away, such as a single lug-nut wheel instead of the traditional five lug-nut wheel, or the number being positioned just behind the front fenders, a significant shift forward then the traditional spot on the center on the side of the car. This also brought changes fans couldn’t see, but drivers feel every week, such as larger breaks, a different shifter, a different turning radius, and a rear diffuser. The next gen car was supposed to level the playing field, and give drivers from teams with less money a chance to be more competitive, and they have done just that. With two races remaining in the regular season, the Cup Series has seen 15 winners, the most under the current playoff format. Let’s take a look at which drivers have currently clinched a playoff spot, who is currently in, but could be in danger, and who is on the outside but looking to challenge the current top 16. The list will have the drivers name, with the car number in parentheses, followed by the number of wins the driver has, or points above or below the are from being in the playoffs

Locked In

  • Chase Elliott (9) – 4 wins
  • Ross Chastain (1) – 2 wins
  • Joey Logano (22) – 2 wins
  • William Byron (24) – 2 wins
  • Kevin Harvick (4) – 2 wins
  • Denny Hamlin (11) – 2 wins
  • Tyler Reddick (8) – 2 wins
  • Kyle Larson (5) – 1 win
  • Christopher Bell (20) – 1 win
  • Kyle Busch (18) – 1 win

In Right Now

  • Chase Briscoe (14) – 1 win
  • Kurt Busch (45) – 1 win
  • Daniel Suarez (99) – 1 win
  • Austin Cindric (2) – 1 win
  • Alex Bowman (48) – 1 win
  • Ryan Blaney (12) – +16

On the Outside Looking in (For Now)

  • Martin Truex Jr. (19) -16
  • Aric Amirola (10) -214
  • Erik Jones (43) -226
  • Bubba Wallace (23) -249

With 15 drivers having a win, its the most ever at this point in the playoffs, and with Watkins Glenn, a road course, and Daytona, a superspeedway being the two remaining races before the playoffs, anything can happen, but we’ll come back to how the tracks play into this. It would seem criminal to see Ryan Blaney miss the playoffs, as he is second in regular season points with 766, but still trails Chase Elliott by 116 points, so the regular season crown is all but out of reach for Blaney. This means Blaney must win at Watkins Glen or Daytona. Blaney won at the Summer Daytona race in 2021, but he has never won at the Glenn, so he must win or he’ll have to hope nobody else in the field wins while outrunning Martin Truex Jr. It would also be a shame to see Truex, the 2017 champion and a member of the 2021 championship four, missing the playoffs entirely in 2022. Even Bubba Wallace feels like he should be in the dance, having placed third, eighth, fifth, second, and thirteenth in the last five races, which is one of the best stretches of his promising career.

As I mentioned before, the tracks will be playing a huge role in the end of this regular season. Watkins Glen is a road course, which means left and right turns. While road courses are usually dominated by Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and A.J. Almindinger, this will be the first time the next gen car has visited Watkins Glen, and the next gen car at a road course has already produced three first-time career winners this season. Daytona is also a superspeedway, meaning nothing but full-throttle racing where anything can happen and the only thing that’s guaranteed is a spectacular wreck. Bubba Wallace and Austin Dillion, who both seem very well out of the playoff race, have each won at a superspeedway before, and if they do it again it would blow up the entire playoff race. Something else that could blow up the playoffs is Kurt Busch. Kurt Busch currently is in the playoffs with one win this year, but things took a turn for the worst for the 44 year-old, as when he was qualifying in Pocono in late July, he spun out his number 45 Toyota and hit the wall. Busch was later diagnosed with a concussion, and hasn’t raced since. While NASCAR granted him a waiver and allowed him to keep his playoff berth, Busch continued to announce on a weekly basis, that he was still suffering from concussion symptoms and would be sitting out the race for that respective week. That was until this week, when Busch announced he would be missing both Watkins Glen and Daytona, and was hoping and planning to return by the start of the playoffs. While 19 year-old phenom Ty Gibbs has done great filling in for Busch, this could pose a huge problem for NASCAR. The situation didn’t seem as major when they initially granted him his waiver. They thought he was going to miss a week or two. Three at the most. With Busch set to miss over a month of races, it almost doesn’t seem fair to see Busch get a playoff spot. Even if NASCAR does decide to keep him in the playoffs, he will be at a disadvantage in points, be coming off of almost two months of no racing, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that concussions for a driver of Busch’s age can be incredibly hard, if not impossible to overcome. Most notably attributing to the early retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 2022 NASCAR playoff race is something NASCAR fans have never seen before, and is something that has been so entertaining and interesting that it should be getting the sport more attention from the outside world. It is a unique playoff situation that has never been seen before in all of sports ever, and could very well never be seen again. While many see it as a battle between Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Blaney for the final playoff spot, it is truly so much more than that, and with at least 36 cars racing every week anything could happen. We could see one, neither, or even both of these drivers in the playoffs in just two weeks. It is truly unpredictable and has significantly more factors than any other sport, and if you aren’t paying attention by now, maybe it’s time to.

Leave a Reply