The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs start on Sept. 4 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM). The NASCAR.com editorial team made playoff predictions. Now you can join in on the fun, too.
1. Who makes a surprise early exit from playoffs?
STEVE LUVENDER: Ross Chastain‘s melon will go bad earlier than most expect. Sure, he‘s entering the playoffs ranked third with 20 playoff points under his belt, but the Round of 16‘s tracks seems stacked against this year‘s surprise breakout driver: Darlington, where he crashed out in May; Kansas Speedway, the site of a top-10 day in the middle of his springtime hot streak; and, of course, Bristol Motor Speedway — the ultimate place for a competitor wronged by Driver No. 1 throughout the course of the season to exact revenge. Combine all this with the fact that he logged a dismal 25.8 average finish in the six races leading up to the playoffs, and it spells trouble.
SEAN MONTGOMERY: William Byron was the first driver to post a crooked number in the win column this season, leaving the No. 24 team as one of the early title favorites. But as the season wore on, Byron and company have struggled tremendously to even crack the top 10. With a host of other teams in form and a strong playoff roster, I have William Byron as one of the first four out. If Byron and Co. cannot mirror their strong spring performance at Darlington, they could be in trouble much sooner than many people think. This isn’t entirely a knock on Byron, there are just much stronger contenders at this point.
CAMERON RICHARDSON: Ross Chastain will be out in the Round of 16. The accumulation of competitor run-ins doesn’t bode well heading into tracks like Darlington, and especially a cutoff race like Bristol. He failed to finish at both tracks earlier this year and it just appears that the momentum the ‘Melon Man’ had early in this season has dissipated at the worst time possible for the two-time winner this season.
2. What postseason race will be most pivotal?
LUVENDER: Playoff contenders will need a flawless Texas Motor Speedway race in the Round of 12. It should be easy enough for above-average teams to skirt through the Round of 16 (though nothing‘s guaranteed), but the Round of 12 — Texas, Talladega Superspeedway, and the Charlotte Roval — provides the least amount of comfort thanks mostly to the latter two tracks. A bad pit stop or an untimely incident for an otherwise “safe” driver at Texas could cause a team to sweat the rest of the round.
@NASCARCASM: That would be Texas, which kicks off the Round of 12, and the reason is simple. If you win this race, you’re the only driver to be stress-free heading into Talladega and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Those two races are a gauntlet of chaos and unpredictability — the ‘Upside-Down’ of the NASCAR Playoffs.
ZACH STURNIOLO: As Steve alluded to, the second round provides the biggest opportunity for some chaotic results, particularly thanks to Talladega and the Roval. But the clearer answer to this question in my opinion remains the Roval. The cut from 12 to eight drivers always feels more critical — the definitive line between the contenders and pretenders as far as the championship is concerned. Yes, the Talladega calamity will loom large over the Roval, but how teams respond around the road course will be the pivotal difference.
3. Who will make a surprise deep run into playoffs?
PAT DECOLA: Austin Cindric. I’m seeing a lot of early grids out there that have Cindric out after the Round of 16, but I think he has Round of 12 legs for sure and the potential to stretch it to the Round of 8 (and beyond? 👀). He’s as polished a rookie as we’ve seen in years and apart from a pair of misnomers at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International (two finishes outside the top 30) he has a 7.6 average finish in the other 10 races to close the regular season.
LUVENDER: Internet commenters questioned Austin Dillon‘s worthiness of making this year‘s playoffs, but he‘s poised to contend in the postseason. Allow me to present some stats: an 11th-place average finish in this year‘s May visits to Round of 16 tracks. A 2020 Texas race win—the site of the Round of 12 opener. A third-place finish in the Martinsville Speedway spring race, host of the last shot for a driver to make the Championship 4. I‘m not necessarily saying the “Austin Dillon‘s Life in the Fast Lane” star could contend for the title, but don‘t cross out his name in the first round.
RICHARDSON: Christopher Bell. I feel like his season has gone under-appreciated because of the slow start he had to the year. Thirteen top-10 finishes in 21 races dating back to Circuit of The Americas and of those eight races he finished outside the top 10 in that stretch, three of them were wild cards at superspeedways and he also was put in the wall at Michigan. I think Bell will have something to say about the Championship 4 picture.
STURNIOLO: Give me William Byron. The No. 24 team has posted dismal results recently relative to its first eight races of the year, but I’m not ready to write them off yet. His spring run at Darlington should spark some optimism for the bunch, and if he bursts through to the Round of 12, look out for him at the Roval. Byron’s led at least 23 laps in each of the last three races there. All I’m saying is there’s a chance for Willy B. to surprise.
4. Will there be more than seven race winners?
MONTGOMERY: Yes. There will be more than seven race winners in the final 10-race stretch, including a non-playoff driver (not qualified or remaining) at Phoenix Raceway. Consistency has been hard to come by for many teams this season, and with another road course and Talladega looming large, my odds favor the over.
GEORGE WINKLER: I tend to agree with Sean here that there will be more than seven race winners. Everything about this season has taught me to expect the unexpected. First of all, who thought there’d be 16 winners this season when we started way back in February? Plus, there doesn’t seem to be one driver like last year with Kyle Larson who is a clear favorite and who is capable of running off multiple wins in a row.
ZACK ALBERT: Seven is a great number for an over/under on playoff winners, but not certain that we get there. The cream typically rises when the postseason arrives, and even though this season has been the picture of parity, let’s still leave the door open for someone to get hot and go on the type of run that Kyle Larson went on last year — a 5-of-10 tear. There’s doubt that we get that level of postseason dominance, but two or three repeaters would chop the window for seven winners.
5. Most points for Hendrick in Round of 16?
STURNIOLO: I’ll stick with the boring answer of Chase Elliott here. As mentioned earlier, I think William Byron might surprise with a first-round victory to advance, but Elliott enters the round with a 15-point advantage over second-place Joey Logano. None of the three tracks in this opening round — Darlington, Kansas, Bristol — are bad tracks for Elliott, who had led significant laps at each and won at Kansas in 2018. Kyle Larson will give him a run for his money, but I’ll stick with the Regular Season Champion.
ALBERT: Going with the chalk is a wise move, especially with how remarkably consistent Chase Elliott has been. But the three tracks in the Round of 16 line up favorably for Larson. The defending champ was an early exit in the tour’s previous visit to Darlington, but led laps before his engine expired. At Kansas, he pressed eventual winner Kurt Busch down the stretch before settling for second, and Bristol — the round finale — has typically been a welcome sight on Larson’s schedule. He won the track’s annual night race last year.
6. First Ford driver to win a playoff race?
DECOLA: Kevin Harvick. This might be a bit of a surprise given how fast Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 has been and the fact that Joey Logano is entering the playoffs second in points, but Harvick is just too good at Darlington to pass up, and I think he opens the postseason with a win. Something has clicked with that No. 4 team over the past month and I feel like Harvick and Co. are still being slept on.
LUVENDER: I‘ll bet at least one of my sagacious teammates will say Kevin Harvick—after all, he made everybody else look downright slow in the month of August, and he‘s awfully stout at many of the playoff tracks, particularly the first-round race at Darlington where he‘s riding a streak of 13-straight top 10s—but that‘s too easy. Being the contrarian I am, I‘ll say Chase Briscoe will hoist Ford‘s first postseason trophy. “But, Steve, he‘s only scored one top 10 in the regular season since April,” you might say. That‘s true, reader, but if we‘ve learned anything in 2022, it‘s that nothing is predictable; my choice is Briscoe because he‘s been quiet all summer.
7. Dillon vs. Reddick: Who is eliminated first?
WINKLER: Dillon has the late momentum with his win at Daytona getting him into the playoffs, but for the bulk of the season Reddick has performed slightly better. Reddick has more wins (two), top 10s (11 to 8) and laps led (331 to 18) than Dillon. Interestingly, they both have the same average finish (16.7). Reddick might have more versatility, too, since he’s more of a threat to get a win on a road course. Plus, he had top-10 finishes at Darlington, Bristol, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix in the Next Gen car this year, and all of those tracks are on the playoff menu again.
ALBERT: Here’s also tipping the cap to Dillon’s recent momentum, while also acknowledging that Darlington has shaped up as one of his better venues in recent years. Still, Reddick’s overall performance at a wider swath of tracks gives the No. 8 driver the edge over the longer playoff haul.
8. Who wins another Cup Series championship?
@NASCARCASM: It’s hard to pick against Chase Elliott at this point. He’s been the dominant car in pretty much every category — points, laps led, average finish, etc. He even finished third at Pocono Raceway and still somehow won the race. That takes skill and talent.
MONTGOMERY: The answer is Kyle Busch. As if he needed any more motivation. The two-time Cup Series champion will be more focused than ever to get his third premier series title, especially with the uncertainty surrounding his 2023 future and beyond. Busch and the No. 18 team have had an incredibly unfortunate run of luck lately, so I’m betting on that coming to a halt. When he gets to Phoenix, it will be hard to bet against the three-time track winner. He’s finished outside the top seven just twice since 2015.
9. Team with most drivers in the Championship 4?
RICHARDSON: Joe Gibbs Racing will be the team to shine heading into the Championship 4 and going back to the surprise deep run, Bell will be one of the four going for the Cup Series championship at Phoenix in November and he’ll have Kyle Busch alongside him. Given his roller coaster of a season, it’s hard to see Kyle Larson getting back to the title race, especially with how the Round of 12 could play out. I think there will be one Penske and one Hendrick driver to join Busch and Bell in the battle for the championship.
ALBERT: As difficult to forecast as this season has been, this is almost a trick question since the likelihood of four drivers — all from different teams — in the championship round seems especially high. However, if forced to pick one organization with multiple drivers, the leaning points to a Hendrick Motorsports duo — Chase Elliott plus Kyle Larson — making the final cut. (Honorable mention: The very real possibility of a Team Penske double-up with Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney)
10. Does Hamlin win his first Cup Series title?
WINKLER: It’s hard to pick one driver to buy into this year as a true favorite, and that more than anything is why I’m voting no as far as Hamlin winning his first title. He’s definitely talented enough to go the distance with 48 Cup wins to his credit, and he is capable of winning on any of the tracks in the playoffs. But when comparing Hamlin against himself, this hasn’t been his most consistent season to date. His five top-five finishes are his lowest total since he had four in 2013 in a season when he missed four starts. And his seven top-10 finishes are his lowest output since eight in that same season.
STURNIOLO: In a season of unpredictability, I’ll give Denny Hamlin the nod to finally score his first Cup championship. Ford opened the season dominant on the Phoenix tire compound, evidenced by Chase Briscoe’s Phoenix win in March and Joey Logano’s Gateway victory in June. But Toyota hasn’t been far off. Hamlin scored a Richmond win in the spring and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. dominated the day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway before Christopher Bell — another JGR teammate — took the victory. So give me the No. 11 Toyota to raise the Bill France Cup in November.