Identifying the wild card track of each Cup Series playoff round

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The Cup Series playoffs shake out over three rounds and 10 races, three of which take place at wild card tracks. Let’s identify them.

Avoiding mistakes and DNFs is a crucial part of contending for the championship, but this is easier said than done with the remaining tracks on the schedule.

The Cup playoffs start Sunday with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA Network). They continue all the way to the season finale Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.

The playoff field starts with 16 drivers but drops to 12 after the third race of the postseason. Three races later, the field will be cut to eight. After three more races, the playoff field will be cut to the four who will race for a championship.

Round of 16 – Darlington Raceway

Bristol seems like the easy choice for the opening round of the playoffs. After all, a pass-through penalty can drop a contender multiple laps behind the leaders and take them out of contention for the win.

The numbers require closer examination There are more playoff drivers who have finished outside of the top 15 at Darlington than at Bristol the past two years.

Just look at 2021 – Nine playoff drivers were outside the top 15 at Darlington due to on-track incidents. This includes Michael McDowell, who ended the race after only 30 laps. Six drivers finished outside the top 15 at Bristol that same season.

Last year’s playoff races at Bristol and Darlington each had eight playoff drivers outside of the top 15, but the numbers at The Last Great Colosseum were affected by an engine failure on Kyle Busch’s car, mechanical problems on Logano’s car, a flat tire on Austin Cindric's car, a broken toe link on Ryan Blaney’s car and a Daniel Suarez spin that collected four other playoff drivers.

Busch actually dealt with two engine failures in the opening round of the playoffs. The first was at Darlington.

What makes Darlington a wild card track, other than the nickname "The Track Too Tough to Tame?" The amount of tire wear is a factor. The old, abrasive surface wears down tires and leads to drivers pitting every time they have a chance for fresh tires. This leads to more pit stops and creates the potential for mistakes and penalties.

Ross Chastain, Kevin Harvick, Blaney, Busch and Logano all lost positions with slow pit stops during last season's race at Darlington. Three of these drivers had loose wheels. The nut fell out of the air gun during Busch’s stop on Lap 37, which dropped him five positions. Logano had a slow stop on the left side on Lap 74 and lost 10 seconds to the leader.

Suarez failed inspection three times and served a pass-through penalty at the start of the race. He got back on the lead lap during the competition caution but fell one lap down on Lap 271 after speeding on pit road.

Last year’s Southern 500 had race-winner Erik Jones and runner-up Denny Hamlin making 11 stops. Tyler Reddick made 12 stops before finishing third.

Race-winner Chris Buescher made four pit stops during last year’s Bristol playoff race. The other drivers in the top eight made five stops.

"The first round is, 'just don't screw up,'" Logano told NBC Sports at Daytona. "And I know that's easy to say, a little harder to do considering what's on the line. And obviously as hard as Darlington is, as many laps right next to the wall, as many pit stops as there is, there is plenty of opportunity to screw it up. So trying to just get through that one. That's one of our better racetracks as a team anyways, so you just maximize that day."

The other reason for Darlington's wild card designation is the layout. The egg-shaped 1.366-mile oval has wide and sweeping turns on one end. The other has sharp turns to accommodate the nearby minnow pond. Finding the right setup is not a simple matter for each team. What works on one end of the track may not be effective on the other end. The number of DNFs in past seasons, as well as the marks on the outside wall, are a testament to this.

"This race, you always seem to have a lot of people have problems in this one," Blaney said at Daytona. "First race of the playoffs, it's the (Southern) 500. It's a tough race to kind of finish. A lot of mistakes are made. So I think Darlington you just have to try to have a mistake-free night, run all 500 miles and figure out where you're at at the end of that thing."

Round of 12 – Talladega Superspeedway

The second round of the playoffs is the most difficult. The drivers start with an intermediate track, Texas, before taking on a superspeedway and then the Charlotte Roval. It’s a dangerous blend, but nothing tops Talladega as a wild card.

The Alabama track is one that creates concern throughout the garage. Big wrecks are common, and they often collect playoff contenders. The 2021 playoff race is a fitting example. Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and William Byron all failed to finish after getting collected in incidents. Kyle Busch finished 27th, Chase Elliott finished 18th and Ryan Blaney was 15th after being involved in a multi-car incident.

The likelihood of crashes often leads to drivers making strategic decisions. Denny Hamlin regularly moves out of line and drops to the rear of the field if he feels the energy of the pack changing. This way, he can take himself out of position and potentially avoid getting collected in a big wreck.

Hamlin is not the only one that has put purposely put himself at the rear of the field to avoid a crash. Logano also did so during last season’s playoff race at Talladega. This move backfired as the wrecks never happened. He finished 27th.

“That sucked,” Logano said in April while reflecting on the Talladega race. “I’m never doing that ever again. No, no. They never wrecked. I finished 30th and didn’t race. I race and finish 30th, so what the heck? I might as well race and finish 30th. At least I’ll have a chance to win.”

Is there a perfect approach to Talladega? Opinions are split. Some drivers opt to run at the back of the pack to avoid the wrecks. Others accept the fact that they will potentially be collected in an incident outside of their control, so they just focus on stage points and wins.

Round of 8 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway

There isn’t a true wild card track in the final round of the playoffs. The focus at Martinsville will be qualifying considering the level of passing difficulty on short tracks. Last season’s playoff race at Homestead only had one playoff driver fail to finish. The rest were all in the top 18. Blaney even finished 17th after spinning while exiting pit road and bringing out the caution.

Las Vegas is the biggest wild card of the round. It will kick off the Round of 8, and it will showcase an extra level of intensity due to what is at stake. As Joey Logano showed last season, the driver who starts the round with a win has an advantage. They get two extra weeks to prepare for the all-important championship race while seven other drivers race for three spots.

"I think everybody at this point kind of knows that — what the advantage is if you are able to win the first race and get yourself locked in before anybody else," Logano said at Daytona. "And you can start focusing only on the final race. Yes, it's huge. Both championships that I have came that way."

Along with the intensity, there is a section of the track that adds a level of danger – Turn 4. This is the spot where Kyle Busch spun last season and took a trip through the grass. JJ Yeley, Daniel Suarez and Landon Cassill all also spun in Turn 4 in separate incidents on a hot and sunny day.

Turn 4 is the area where Kyle Larson forced Bubba Wallace up into the wall. Wallace then spun Larson into Christopher Bell and the wall. This incident knocked all three drivers from the race, and it dropped Bell into must-win territory heading to Homestead and Martinsville.

Blaney had his own issues during the playoff race at Las Vegas. He lost control and hit the outside wall in Turn 2 after leading 39 laps. He finished 28th and lost out on points.