Playoff puzzle: Key questions for all 16 Cup title contenders

·13 min read

After an unpredictable year that saw 16 different winners in the regular season and the tightest playoff field in five years, there is much to ponder as the Cup playoffs begin.

Before the green flag waves at 6 p.m. Sunday to start the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on USA Network, here’s a look at key questions for each of the 16 playoff drivers.

1. Chase Elliott (2040 points)

Is this his title to lose?

The 2020 Cup champion won the regular season crown, led the most laps and finished in the top five in seven of the last 10 races. Nobody is better going into these playoffs.

Three times in the last five years the regular season champ went on to win the series title.

In a season where many teams have been inconsistent, Elliott has gone no more than three races without a top 10. He had a five-race stretch where he finished first or second.

“I’m excited about these next (10) weeks and the opportunity that lies ahead for us as a team,” said Elliott, who seeks to make the championship race for a third year in a row. “I feel like our group is special. … We’ve just got to make sure we’re performing at our best when it matters and the mattering time is approaching.”

2. Joey Logano (2025 points)

Does his unique streak continue?

Since the playoff format began in 2014, Logano has made it to the championship race four times — 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

Notice the pattern?

He makes it every even-numbered year. So, of course, the 2018 Cup champion will make it to the title race at Phoenix again this year, correct? We’ll see, but it helps that the playoffs open at Darlington.

Logano won the pole there in May, led a race-high 107 laps and won after bumping William Byron out of the way. Win again and it won’t matter what happens at Kansas and Bristol in the first round since he’ll already be set for the second round.

Another number to keep in mind with Logano: He ranks third in laps run this season. He’s completed 98.02% of the laps run this season, trailing only Michael McDowell (98.40% laps run) and Martin Truex Jr. (98.04%). Consistency is likely to be key in these playoffs. That’s another factor that favors Logano.

3. Ross Chastain (2020 points)

Which driver will keep him from winning the title?

There’s a long line. Chastain’s first playoff experience could be impacted by how others race him.

Kyle Busch said he had been “Chastained” at Richmond after contact in the August race.

Asked at Daytona the need for give-and-take to win a championship, Busch said: “Absolutely, yes you do. You need give and take to win a championship.

“Will (Chastain) get benefit of the doubt in situations when it comes … to the end of the playoffs and going to Phoenix? Absolutely not. No way. No chance. I don’t think people are paying him back yet because they are waiting for the right time.”

Said Kyle Larson of Chastain: “He’s done a really good job of even when he does get into moments where he has issues with other drivers in the race, he still recovers from it really well. But I feel like that can only last so long. I don’t know.

“It will be a cool little storyline to follow in the playoffs. … I can’t imagine that with everybody that seems to be upset with him that it will be an easy playoff for him.”

4. Kyle Larson (2019 points)

No driver has won back-to-back titles in more than a decade. Can he do it?

Since Jimmie Johnson won the last of his five consecutive championships in 2010, no driver has won back-to-back crowns. The 11-year drought is the longest period in NASCAR history without a driver winning consecutive championships.

Larson, the reigning Cup champion, has failed to finish six races this season. While he has 13 top-10 finishes, 10 of those are top fives. It’s just a matter of being more consistent.

“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, to our standards, but I don’t really know if it did for anybody,” Larson said. “Even for Chase (Elliott). I don’t even know if his regular season was up to their standards. There was just a lot of inconsistency this year throughout the regular season.

“We had three blown engines now in the regular season, so DNFs with that. But also mistakes on my part or bad pit stops. Yes, we got a couple wins, which was nice, but we also probably gave away a couple, as well.”

Improve the execution and Larson could be on his way to possibly a second consecutive title.

5. William Byron (2014 points)

Does momentum really matter?

Byron certainly hopes not. He has one top-10 finish in the the 18 races since his Martinsville win in April, and that was a ninth-place result at Sonoma. He has only five top-10 finishes this season.

This is not the resume of a championship team. That the playoffs begin at Darlington — where he led until he was bumped out of the way by Joey Logano with two laps left — provides some hope. But Byron noted that the team was a “top-six car” that executed well there in May.

As for the rest of the first round, which has Kansas and Bristol, Byron said:

“Kansas, I’m pretty nervous about. We got the lead there and then we had a flat tire and damaged the underbody and had a rough day after that. Bristol is exciting because Bristol is kind of like (Martinsville) and we had a good run at Bristol last year.”

Just as concerning for Byron is that he’s only nine points ahead of last place in the playoffs. That’s how tight the field is. So any woes could cost this team the chance to advance past the first round.

6. Denny Hamlin (2013 points)

How much will he miss playoff points lost?

Quite frankly, in this unpredictable season, there are many teams that could look back at the playoff points they’ve given away.

For Hamlin, though, looking back is more painful. He had the strongest car at Dover but had a wheel fall off, and that cost him the win and five playoff points. He won Pocono but was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection, costing him five more playoff points.

“We’ve left an enormous amount of playoff (points) on the table from DQs to lack of execution (and) given our opponents playoff points that we know are going to be racing for cutoff spots,” said Hamlin, who seeks his fourth consecutive championship race appearance. “It’s been on us. This has been our deal.

“This has been a frustrating year as a whole. I never actually could have imagined that we probably should have five or six wins with the Next Gen car. I thought it would take me a while to get used to it.”

But Hamlin still feels good about some of the tracks in the playoff schedule. With Darlington (1.366-mile track) and four races on 1.5-mile tracks — tracks where Toyotas have been fast — there’s a path for Hamlin or any Toyota to make it to the championship race even with some struggles at other tracks.

7. Ryan Blaney (2013 points)

Can he take advantage of his second chance?

He slipped into the playoffs by finishing 15th, six laps behind the leaders at Daytona last weekend.

Even though Blaney is the only winless driver in the playoffs, he shouldn’t be overlooked. His 195 stage points ranked third among playoff drivers, trailing only Chase Elliott (235 stage points) and Joey Logano (203).

Blaney’s average finish of 13.692 ranks third among playoff drivers, behind only Elliott (10.538 average finish) and Kevin Harvick (13.308).

Blaney does have a win. He took the checkered flag at the All-Star Race at Texas in May, and Texas hosts the opening race of the second round.

Eventually, he’s going to need to win in the playoffs to keep advancing.

8. Tyler Reddick (2012 points)

Can he and his team block out the distractions?

He’s signed to race for 23XI Racing in 2024. Car owner Richard Childress wasn’t happy with Reddick after the news, and they didn’t talk until after Reddick won on the Indianapolis road course.

Reddick showed he was a team player by following Austin Dillon across the finish line at Daytona, assuring Dillon the win and putting both Richard Childress Racing cars n the playoffs.

Still, it’s an unusual situation that Reddick and RCR are in, knowing when their time together will cease. Reddick has shown his commitment to the organization. Childress said the team is committed, as well. This could be one team to watch in the playoffs.

9. Kevin Harvick (2012 points)

Has the team turned things around enough to make a title run?

The back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond in August revitalized what some would consider a sleeping giant.

The team still has work to do, but Harvick was fourth at Darlington in May and nearly won at Bristol in the playoffs last year, so he could be headed for a good start in the opening round.

Last year was the first time Harvick failed to reach at least the third round of the playoffs. He was eliminated after the second round. Harvick has made the title race five times, winning the crown in 2014. But he last made the championship event in 2019.

10. Christopher Bell (2011 points)

Could he be the surprise that goes deep into the playoffs?

He’s one of three Toyota drivers in the playoffs, joining Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The Toyotas have been strong on the 1.5-mile tracks.

That provides a pathway for Toyotas to get to the championship. There are four 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs. Kansas is in the first round. Texas is in the second. Las Vegas and Homestead are in the third round.

“I think that the race tracks really play into our hands for sure,” Bell said. “I would expect Darlington, Kansas, Homestead, Texas, Vegas – all of those race tracks to be ones that we perform well at. The Roval is definitely one that we have circled – on a place that we need to focus on to get better. That’s no secret. The tracks are there, so hopefully we are able to execute on the tracks that we are good at and have great showings.”

11. Kyle Busch (2010 points)

Will off-track distractions slow him down or will he overcome to be a three-time champion?

The only active driver with two Cup championships has not announced where he’ll race next season.

He noted in August at Watkins Glen the toll that the process had taken on him off the track. Now he comes into the playoffs with that still unresolved and with a team that has struggled at times. He has 13 top 10s and is on pace for his fewest top 10s in the last six years.

Busch last made the title race in 2019. Should he advance to the final four drivers racing for a title, it would mark a record sixth time he’s done so.

12. Chase Briscoe (2009 points)

Can he and his turn reset after a rough regular season?

Like Byron, Briscoe has had only one top-10 finish in the last 18 races. That’s not championship caliber. That might not get Briscoe, who is making his first Cup playoff appearance, out of the first round.

“I feel like we’ve had speed every week, but … we run anywhere from seven to 12th for a lot of the race and then we finish 18th to 23rd the last 60 laps, where other teams have kind of done the opposite,” Briscoe said.

“They run 17th to 21st a lot of the day and then at the end they find themselves from seventh to 12th. For us, it’s kind of nice to have a little bit of a reset button. I know we have the speed, it’s just a matter of putting the whole race together.”

13. Daniel Suarez (2007 points)

Can he win a title two years after not having a single top-15 finish?

With the success Daniel Suarez has had in his second year at Trackhouse Racing, it’s easy to forget how far he had fallen in 2020.

He drove for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 but was replaced after the season by Cole Custer. With few options, Suarez drove for Gaunt Brothers Racing and never finished higher than 18th in a race. He left after that season to join Justin Marks’ venture at Trackhouse Racing, going from a low-budget team to a new organization.

Two years later, Suarez has the chance to run for a championship. If he wins, he may have some offers wanting to turn his story into one of those inspirational sports movies. But there’s still plenty of work to do to get there.

14. Austin Cindric (2006 points)

Will the Daytona 500 champion end the year as a champion?

Only twice since 1998 has the Daytona 500 champion gone on to win the series title that same season. Jimmie Johnson did it both times (2006 and 2013). Austin Cindric seeks to be the next to do so.

Cindric, who joins Briscoe, Suarez and Chastain in making his first Cup playoff appearance, says that the tight field helps him.

“You can look at it from, ‘Oh, I’m three below (the cutoff for the first round) and have some of the fewest playoff points,’ but I can also look at it as eight points puts me fifth,” Cindric said. “Think about how easy it is to gain and lose eight points over three races.”

15. Alex Bowman (2006 points)

Can summer woes lead to playoff gains?

When the series last headed to Darlington in May, Bowman was fifth in points and had seven top 10s, including a win, in the first 11 races.

He’s not won since and had only three top 10s in the last 15 races.

“The summer has been pretty terrible for us,” Bowman said. “Kind of par for the course, but we’ve shown we can have strong playoff runs, too.

“Darlington is probably my biggest question mark right off the bat just because we were so bad in the spring. We are fairly certain we know exactly why, but you don’t get to test. You’ve got to go to the race track thinking you have the right thing and hopefully we do when we unload because you can’t change it if you don’t.

“If we can get through some of those race tracks that have been kind of rough on us this year, I think we’ll be really good.”

16. Austin Dillon (2005 points)

Can he throw another Hail Mary?

Running 16th, Dillon took the lead at Daytona when the top 15 cars crashed in rain. Then he waited more than three hours for the race to resume and get back in the lead after he was passed. He did and won to make the playoffs in the last chance to do so.

Should he win the Cup title, he’d become the first driver in NASCAR history to win a championship in the Truck Series (2011), Xfinity Series (2013) and Cup.

“We’re just going to have to go to work and really rely on the sim at Chevrolet and at RCR,” Dillon said of what it will take to get through the first round. “It won’t be from a lack of effort over the next three weeks to progress and try to get another win.”

Read more about NASCAR

USA series “Race for the Championship” debuts Thursday night Dr. Diandra: The seven habits of successful championship contenders NASCAR weekend schedule for Darlington Raceway

Playoff puzzle: Key questions for all 16 Cup title contenders originally appeared on NBCSports.com