Pedal to the metal: NASCAR playoff outlook

By Justin Malone, Guest Writer

After an unusually chaotic 26-race regular season, the NASCAR playoffs are finally roaring into full gear. 16 drivers are now vying for the Bill France Cup, which will be awarded to the playoff champion in November, and a chance to put their names in NASCAR history. 

Unlike any other season in recent years, 15 different drivers took home the checkered flag, automatically qualifying for a playoff bid. With the high-stakes nature of the playoff format, including four drivers being eliminated after Saturday’s daunting night race at Bristol Speedway, who will come out on top? 

Here is my breakdown of everything you should know to enjoy the exciting magic of the NASCAR playoffs.

How do the NASCAR playoffs work?:

The NASCAR playoffs are built on a four-round elimination-style tournament with 10 weeks of nonstop racing, beginning with three weeks each in the Round of 16, Round of 12 and Round of 8, then the all-or-nothing race in the Championship 4. 

Each driver in the playoffs starts with 2,000 playoff points and is ranked based on the amount of regular season races they won. Additional points are added to a racer’s playoff total based on their regular-season performances, including race wins, mid-race stage victories and finishing positions.  

Drivers advance through the four stages of the playoffs in two different ways: by winning a race or earning points to place them above the cutoff line. The four drivers below the cutoff line are eliminated after each round, and the remaining drivers’ points reset with prior playoff points counting for ranking. 

The Favorites: Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell:

Elliott enters the playoffs with a regular season title under his belt after winning four races, double of any other driver in the Cup series, and five stage wins. Elliott came into the playoffs with heavy momentum, initially leading the entire field in points but has bumpily struggled thus far, finishing 11th at Kansas Speedway last Sunday and dead last at Darlington Raceway the week before. With bounce back performances, he is still primed to win a Cup championship for the second time in three years and is seventh in the playoff standings.  

Hamlin has accelerated through the playoffs extremely well, finishing second in consecutive races. He currently sits third in the playoff points standings with 2,097 points, and his No. 11 Toyota team looks to continue their hot streak. 

Bell currently leads the entire field with 2,108 points and has zoomed his way up the playoff standings with top-3 showings at Kansas and Darlington. He also finished in the top eight in four of his past five races and has already punched a ticket into the Round of 12.

The underdogs: Alex Bowman, William Byron:

Bowman, although not talked about much, has quietly been making momentous strides in the playoffs, currently sitting in sixth place. He has driven to top-10 finishes in consecutive races, including a stage victory at Kansas, and can make a rally when necessary or play spoiler to the favorites. 

Byron has driven consistently in the playoffs so far, also having two top-10 finishes consecutively. He might be overlooked by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, but do not count him out to make a significant playoff run.

Looking ahead:

For the second straight week, a driver not in the playoffs took a trip to victory lane. On Sunday, Bubba Wallace had his second career win at Kansas for 23XI Racing, the team owned by fellow racer Hamlin and Michael Jordan. Erik Jones of Petty GMS Motorsports won at Darlington. 

Additionally, NASCAR is currently investigating problematic fires in their Next Gen cars that significantly impacted many drivers, notably playoff racer Kevin Harvick. The fires were initially attributed to problems with the exhaust clearance that caused rubber buildup from the track to ignite inside the cars.  

Tune in on Saturday when the playoff field narrows to twelve at the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol.