By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
SONOMA, Calif. — A common thought in sports is not to doubt what is mathematically possible.
Except when it comes to the number of winners in the NASCAR regular season.
The 26-race regular season establishes the 16-driver playoff field, consisting of the regular season champion and the next 15 drivers based on wins, with ties broken on points.
In each of the eight years of the current format, at least three winless drivers have made the playoffs on points.
But could this be the year that no driver does it on points? Could a driver with a win really miss out on the playoffs?
Denny Hamlin breaks down NASCAR playoff spots
Denny Hamlin doesn’t think there will be more winners than playoff spots in NASCAR in 2022. ‘You’ll be lucky to have 14 [winners],” he said.
Daniel Suarez became the 12th winner in 16 races this year when he triumphed at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. At this point, it’s easy to imagine five additional winners in the next 10 events.
But ask Suarez’s team owner, Justin Marks, and he doesn’t want to predict that a driver with one win could miss the postseason.
“Anything can happen,” Marks said Sunday. “I really don’t feel like it’s going to be like that.
“I don’t think we’ll think about that until there are 16 winners left and a race or more.”
Conventional wisdom says it won’t happen. It hasn’t happened yet, after all, and the drivers who won races this year, for the most part, continued to race at the front.
Three road courses (Road America, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen), as well as two drafting tracks (Atlanta and the regular-season finale at Daytona) remain in the regular season. Those races are the most likely to produce unpredictable results. The other five tracks — Nashville, New Hampshire, Pocono, Michigan and Richmond — tend to have more traditional winners.
Justin Marks on there being more winners than playoff spots
Justin Marks said he won’t think there are more winners than playoff spots until there are 16 winners with at least one race remaining in the NASCAR regular season.
Before Suarez won at Sonoma, Denny Hamlin scoffed at the idea of 17 winners.
“There are not going to be 17 winners,” he said. “We can give that one up. No chance. You’ll be lucky to be 14.”
Hamlin has two wins, so he’s not worried about making the playoffs. The first tiebreaker is wins, so with two wins apiece, Hamlin, Joey Logano, William Byron and Ross Chastain know they’re in.
But Hamlin’s 23XI Racing driver Kurt Busch now ranks lowest in points among those with a win, seven behind Austin Cindric and 11 behind Suarez.
“Never say never, but for us, it’s still about racing the smartest way possible,” Busch said before Sonoma.
Cindric needed to finish fifth at Sonoma to move ahead of Busch in the standings. As much as he wanted to be happy for Suarez (and he was), he’s looking at the ever-increasing probability of 17 winners and, with that, the possibility that his Daytona 500 win won’t put him in the playoffs as previously thought. initially.
“Obviously it’s something you have to pay attention to,” Cindric said. “See you in the final reboot [at Sonoma], and I’m lined up sixth or seventh, and I’m the first winner in line. You have to pay attention to those things.
“I’m not blind to that. It’s not going to change the way I race and try to maximize the day… Top 16 in points is the easiest way to make sure.”
That’s because as long as the drivers have a win and are in the top 16 in the standings, there is no way they will be eliminated.
However, a driver like Cindric, currently sitting 18th in the overall standings, has to worry about drivers below him in the standings getting a win and overtaking him in the points. A driver ahead of him in the standings who gets a win won’t make much of a difference.
Austin Cindric on the playoffs and current standings
Austin Cindric could be in the playoff bubble if there are 17 Cup winners. He shares his thoughts after Daniel Suarez became the 12th winner of the season.
Seven full-time Cup drivers who won last year have yet to win this year: Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Bubba Wallace and Brad Keselowski.
Four of them – Blaney, Truex, Bell and Almirola – are in the top 11 in the standings. Almirola is seven points ahead of 12th-place (and winless) Kevin Harvick for the current last place in points.
For his part, Bell doesn’t want to hear about the possibility of 17 winners.
“Stop mentioning it,” he said with a smile.
Christopher Bell’s plan for the NASCAR playoffs
Christopher Bell talks about his strategy to make it to the NASCAR playoffs.
However, he acknowledged that his team makes a strategic decision at the end of road course stages, whether to earn stage points, even if it could hurt track position for the next stage.
“At some point, we are going to run out of new winners for the first time,” he said before Suarez’s win. “Hopefully it’s pretty early for where I’m in the points. We’re focused on trying to become one of them.”
Some drivers try not to sweat. They see the bubble and the talk about whether there might be more winners than playoff spots as just noise. Do the track work and those things will take care of themselves.
“Just tell me where I am at the end of 26. If we’re in, we’re in. If we’re out, we’re out,” Harvick said. “Either we did well enough or we didn’t do well enough.
“I have so many other things to think about, trying to help with the cars and going to different places every week, that I can’t really count the points.
Kevin Harvick on his position in the playoffs
Kevin Harvick says he won’t worry about where he stands in terms of NASCAR’s playoff bubble.
Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
Thinking out loud
NASCAR made a good decision before Saturday’s truck race: If Daniel Suarez relieved Carson Hocevar during the race at Sonoma and then won, Hocevar couldn’t use that win to automatically qualify for the playoffs.
While NASCAR has never faced this problem in its playoff format era, it is something that seemed possible when Hocévar (broken tibia) planned to start the race and at some point pass the wheel to Suárez (who finished sixth).
The driver who starts the race is the registered driver and wins the points. It is well established in motorsports that the starting driver wins the points even if the relief driver finishes.
But NASCAR can’t let teams try to game the system by putting in a relief driver early in the hope that the starting driver will get an automatic bid with a win.
It would be better if there was a different rule; Currently, it is NASCAR’s decision whether a win should not count for the playoffs based on any infractions or actions deemed detrimental to racing. And while it was unintentional in this case due to the severity of Hocevar’s injury, it would be detrimental to racing to award a playoff bid to win when the driver making the playoffs was not in the seat to cross the finish line.
Statistics of the day
With Daniel Suárez (Mexico) winning at Sonoma, five international drivers have won in the Cup. The others are Marcos Ambrose (Australia), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Earl Ross (Canada) and Mario Andretti (Italy).
they said it
“If I could get this far, I wasn’t going to give up here.” — Suarez after his win at Sonoma
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after working at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
Get more from the NASCAR Cup Series Follow your favorites to get information on games, news and more.