How murky is the NASCAR Cup Series championship picture? Even the drivers can’t pick a winner

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ten races into the NASCAR Cup Series season, oddsmakers have determined no obvious championship favorite.

That makes sense — because if you ask the drivers, they seem as puzzled as everyone else.

“I don’t have a clue,” Alex Bowman said.

“I have no idea,” Ross Chastain said.

“All of them,” Kyle Busch said of which drivers had the best chance.

The lack of clarity is unusual for this far into the year — the halfway point of the regular season is just over two weeks away — but it’s clear the new car continues to cast uncertainty over the Cup garage on a weekly basis.

“It’s still too early to tell,” Aric Almirola said. “Every week, we show up to a different racetrack that we haven’t been to yet with this car and somebody hits the setup right.”

Christopher Bell said the increasingly diverse schedule has made it difficult to identify which teams really understand the car and have speed.

For example: Atlanta now races like a superspeedway instead of an intermediate, so that has little impact on the rest of the season. Bristol dirt was a one-off instead of a peek into a team’s short track strength. Daytona and Talladega can’t be grouped in with normal tracks, either.

“We’ve had a lot of wild cards so far,” Bell said. “Nobody has shown their hand as the clear-cut favorite because no one’s really been able to consistently be up front week in and week out.”

The odds seem similarly jumbled. BetMGM’s latest list has defending champ Kyle Larson as the favorite at +500 (or 5-to-1), but Larson is only seventh in the point standings and doesn’t lead in any of the major statistical categories.

“It’s hard to count them out,” Bowman said of the No. 5 team. “I know they haven’t had the start to the season they wanted and they’re not in points where you would expect them to be.”

Another Hendrick driver, Chase Elliott, has led the point standings for six straight weeks. But Elliott, who is tied for the second-best odds (+700, 7-to-1) with teammate William Byron, hasn’t won a race this season and is winless on an oval since November 2020.

“There’s been times when we’ve had a lot of pace and there’s been times when we haven’t, unfortunately,” Elliott said. “The days when we have had pace, we just haven’t put a whole race together — and if you want to win, that’s what you have to do.”

Byron is one of two drivers with multiple wins so far (Chastain being the other). Ryan Blaney said Byron is “probably a frontrunner” — despite Blaney being ahead of Byron in the standings.

“Byron has been really fast lately,” Blaney said. “I’d rather have two wins and be behind him in points than have no wins.”

Blaney, second in the standings, won a career-high three races last season — but hasn’t gone to victory lane since the regular season finale at Daytona. He ranks No. 2 in lapse led, with only Byron ahead of him.

Then there’s Kyle Busch, who is fourth in the point standings and shares the fourth-best odds (+800) with Blaney and Joey Logano (who won the Clash exhibition race in February but hasn’t scored a victory in a points race since March 2021 on the Bristol dirt).

Busch, this year’s Bristol dirt winner, has shown speed at times and is tied with Elliott for the most top-10s in the series.

“Is it weird to say that depending on Kyle’s contract situation, it’ll make him a championship favorite or not?” Corey LaJoie said of the pending free agent. “Like if they get a deal done and they extend him at Gibbs and he’s not distracted, I think he’ll be the championship favorite.”

Asked moments later about his contract, Busch said he’d prefer to have a deal done “yesterday” and added “if it happens, it happens. If it don’t, it don’t. Good-bye.”

When a reporter followed up and asked if saying goodbye to his longtime team was really an option, Busch replied: “Ask Joe Gibbs.”

LaJoie said if a driver’s mind is elsewhere, it’ll show up on track whether they admit it or not.

“You’re not going to perform well if you’re not fully focused,” he said. “When Kyle Busch focuses on driving a race car fast, there’s not many people better.”

The next drivers on the odds list — Gibbs teammates Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., both at +1200 — have been anything but convincing this year. Hamlin is 24th in points with only one top 10 finish (his win at Richmond); Truex is eighth in points but on pace for his worst average finish since 2016.

Then there’s Talladega winner Chastain at +1400, a remarkably low spot for a driver who leads the series with six top-five finishes.

“I feel like Ross has been the best to this point,” Larson said. “He’s had the most speed and he’s executed the best races. And Chase Briscoe (has looked strong) as well.

“They’re both really young, so it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, they can do it.’ But they’re both really talented. And then all four of us Hendrick guys are right there as well.”

Questioned about how he factored into the title race, Chastain shook his head and broke into a grin.

“What’s crazy for me is you’re asking me where we fit into the championship,” said Chastain, who spent years driving subpar equipment that had no chance of competing for wins. “Like that’s wild.”

(Top photo: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

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