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NASCAR’s road to the playoffs begins: storylines, races and drivers to watch

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NASCAR returns from its only offseason this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway. Sunday’s race represents the first of 10 that make up the remainder of the regular season that concludes with the completion of the 16-driver playoff field. As we head into this pivotal stretch towards the playoffs, here’s a look at the stories, the drivers, and the races to watch.

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playoffs

As always at this point in the season, the playoffs are on everyone’s mind. Who qualifies and who gets left out will be discussed repeatedly over the next 10 weeks.

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That this season has been as unpredictable as any in recent memory, including four first-time winners (Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez), only adds to the drama in what should be a riveting conclusion to the season. regular.

Adding to the unpredictability, the upcoming races list features a variety of different tracks, creating the real potential for surprise winners to emerge and really shake up the playoff field. Road America, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Daytona should be considered wildcard tracks. And with 12 different drivers having already won races, there is still a chance, albeit unlikely, that there could be more winners during the regular season than there are playoff spots available.

Who is the favorite for the championship?

On the subject of the playoffs, by now we generally have a pretty good idea of ​​who should be considered the favorites for the championship. Sometimes this status proves inaccurate (see 2020: Kevin Harvick runs away with the regular season points crown and then fails to advance past the semi-final round), while other times this label is on the mark (see 2021 : Kyle Larson dominating the regular season, then following up by winning five of 10 playoff races en route to the title).

So far, this regular season has offered little clarity. No driver has emerged as a constant threat to win every week. At various times, Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and even Ryan Blaney, who didn’t win, have given the appearance of being worthy of favorite status. And yet, each of these drivers’ teams has notable shortcomings that make one wonder whether they can pull off a championship run.

The introduction of the Next Gen car has greatly eased this unknown. Teams are still thinking about how best to squeeze speed out of what is a car built largely from parts supplied by outside suppliers along with the limitations on the tweaks crew chiefs and engineers can make to the car. Unsurprisingly, the teams’ performances have changed a lot from week to week. For example, points leader Elliott’s longest streak of top-10 finishes is just five races, followed by three consecutive finishes of 21st or worse. Second-place Ross Chastain has a series-best seven top-five finishes, though these are offset by four finishes of 29 or worse.

The continuing rise of Trackhouse

Trackhouse Racing had a standout first half with Chastain and Suarez combining for three wins and both drivers now on course for the playoffs for the first time in their careers. And that win total could easily have been even higher had circumstances played out differently over a handful of races.

But can Trackhouse, in only its second year of existence, continue its rise from an exciting new organization to a budding powerhouse?

The question of whether they continue to function with Y Beating the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske is valid considering this is all new territory for the Justin Marks-owned team. It’s rare for a team to rise from the middle bracket and have the level of success that Trackhouse is enjoying.

Everyone at Trackhouse insists that they are nothing unexpected and that the mentality within the organization is that they must continue to fight and prove themselves every week. After Chastain won at Talladega in April, Marks said his goals for 2022 weren’t about wins or the number of playoff berths earned, and that success would be measured by “making sure that every week we get better and that we put some into others and we learn this racing car and we constantly improve it.”

That mentality is admirable. And it’s obviously working, as the foundation Marks has laid in building Trackhouse is that of a team striving for sustained greatness. But after all the wins, near wins and volume of laps led during the first half, taking a step back in the second half will be seen as a disappointment.

“What I tell people is that I am not surprised that we are a winning race team because I would not have started this project if I had not thought, really believed, that there was an opportunity to build a new race team in this sport that I could win,” Marks said after Suarez’s win at Sonoma on June 12. “It just happened so fast. That was the surprise, it’s how fast it happened.

“It makes sense to me too. We have such good people who work so hard. The promise of this car is fulfilled every weekend. We have conversations with the team, I have conversations with myself and it’s like, ‘Is this a moment in time or has Trackhouse arrived?’ I think we have arrived. When you have so many people working together, supporting each other, focused and talented, these are the things that can happen.”

key races


Daytona International Speedway hosts the last race before the playoffs, creating great potential for a dramatic regular season finale. (John David Mercer/USA Today)

Daytona

In the two years since NASCAR moved Daytona’s summer race from the July 4 weekend to the final race of the regular season, there has been no shortage of drama and unpredictability in determining who makes it and who doesn’t make it to the races. playoffs. Expect more of the same on August 27. Perhaps even more so depending on what unfolds during the nine races leading up to the end of the regular season.

Indianapolis

The inaugural race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a success last year, just not in the way that NASCAR or IMS owner Roger Penske envisioned. Since then, changes have been made to the track’s curbs in hopes of avoiding the problems that marred last year’s race. But one can’t help but wonder, if the road course becomes problematic for stock cars again, will NASCAR and Penske feel compelled to return racing to the IMS oval in 2023?

Pocono

NASCAR’s Next Gen car did wonders by significantly improving the quality of racing at Fontana, Charlotte and a few other tracks where the action hadn’t been very exciting in recent years. Pocono urgently needs to undergo a similar type of transformation. The Pennsylvania venue now only has one Cup date after having two from 1982 to 2021 and needs to shake its reputation for being better known as a track where races are decided by strategy than action-packed thrills.

Drivers in the spotlight

Kevin Harvik


In the playoffs every year since 2010, Kevin Harvick finds himself sidelined this year. (Stan Szeto/USA Today)

Kevin Harvik

Never before has Harvick been in this position since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, finding himself on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line so late in the season. Coming out of the break, he finds himself seven points behind Aric Almirola for the provisional transfer spot, creating the real possibility that Harvick will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Adding to the frustration is a winless streak dates back to September 2020.

Tyler Reddick

Many times this season, Tyler Reddick has had a car fast enough to win. However, for reasons both within and beyond his control, the Richard Childress Racing driver has a zero in the win column. That likely will have to change if he wants to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. To achieve this goal, Reddick must stop pushing, push his car past its limits, and turn potential great results into disastrous point-wasting results.

bubba wallace

With 23XI Racing entering its second year and the addition of veteran Kurt Busch to act as a mentor, the expectation was that Bubba Wallace would qualify for the playoffs, or at least be in the mix for a spot. That has not happened. Instead, Wallace and his No. 23 team struggled to find speed early in the season. Then, once that issue was resolved, potential wins at Kansas and Charlotte were squandered by repeated mistakes on pit road. Wallace currently sits 25th in the standings, 139 points behind Almirola. The points deficit is such that his only realistic path to the playoffs is to find a way to win one of these next 10 races.

(Top photo: Jim Dedmon/USA Today)

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