NASCAR’s drive to playoffs begins: Storylines, races and drivers to watch

NASCAR returns from its lone break of the season 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 16-driver playoff field being finalized. As we head into this pivotal stretch run to the playoffs, here’s a look at the storylines, drivers and races to watch.

Storylines

Playoffs

As always at this juncture of the season, the playoffs are top of everyone’s mind. Who qualifies and who misses out will repeatedly be discussed over the next 10 weeks.

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 Suárez) — only heightens the drama in what should be a fascinating conclusion to the regular season.

Further adding to the unpredictability is the slate of upcoming races features an array 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 all be considered wild-card tracks. And with 12 different drivers having already won races, the potential still exists, though unlikely, that there could be more winners during the regular season than playoff spots available.

Who is the championship favourite?

On the subject of the playoffs, by now we usually have a pretty good idea who should be regarded as the championship favorite(s). Sometimes this status proves inaccurate (see 2020: Kevin Harvick running away with the regular-season points crown then failing to advance past the semifinal 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).

Thus far, this regular season has offered little clarity. No one driver has emerged as a consistent threat to win every single week. At various times Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Ross Chastain and even the winless Ryan Blaney have given the appearance of being worthy of favorite status. And yet, each of these drivers’ teams have notable deficiencies that give pause to whether they can put together a championship run.

The introduction of the Next Gen car has largely facilitated this unknown. Teams are still figuring how to best squeeze speed out of what is a car largely built with pieces supplied by third-party vendors along with limitations on what tweaks crew chiefs and engineers can make to the car. Unsurprisingly, teams’ performances have swung wildly from week to week. For instance, points leader Elliott’s longest streak of top-10 finishes is just five races, which was then followed by three consecutive finishes of 21st or worse. Second-place Ross Chastain has a series-best seven top-fives, though those are offset by four finishes of 29th or worse.

Trackhouse’s continued emergence

Trackhouse Racing had a breakout first half with Chastain and Suárez combining for three wins and both drivers now playoff-bound for the first time in their careers. And that total victory could’ve easily been even higher had circumstances played out differently in a handful of races.

But can Trackhouse, in just its second year of existence, continue its ascent from being a fresh, new exciting organization into a budding powerhouse?

The question of whether they continue to run with and beat 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 is rare for a team to ascend out of the mid-pack and have the level of success Trackhouse is enjoying.

Everyone at Trackhouse is adamant that they are no flash in the pan and that the mentality within the organization is that they must continue to fight and prove themselves each and every week. After Chastain won at Talladega in April, Marks said his 2022 goals weren’t about wins or the number of playoff berths earned, and that success would be measured by “making sure every week we get better and that we invest in each other and we learn this race because and we constantly improve.”

That mindset 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 backwards in the second half is going to be viewed as a disappointment.

“What I tell people is I’m not surprised that we’re a winning race team because I wouldn’t have started this project if I didn’t think, truly believe, that the opportunity existed to build a new race team in this sport that could win,” Marks said after Suárez’s win at Sonoma on June 12. “It’s just happened really quickly. That’s been the surprise, is how quickly it’s happened.

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

Key breeds


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

Daytona

In the two years since NASCAR shifted the summer Daytona race off Fourth of July weekend to the last race of the regular season, there’s been no shortage of drama and unpredictability in solidifying who makes and misses the playoffs. Expect more of the same Aug. 27. Perhaps even more so depending on what unfolds over the nine races preceding the regular-season finale.

Indianapolis

The inaugural race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course was a smash last year — just not in the way NASCAR nor IMS owner Roger Penske envisioned. Changes have since been made to the course’s curbing with the hope of preventing the issues that marred last year’s race. But one cannot help but wonder, if the road course again proves problematic for stock cars, will NASCAR and Penske feel compelled to return the race to IMS’ oval in 2023?

pocono

NASCAR’s Next Gen car worked wonders in significantly improving the quality of racing at Fontana, Charlotte and some other tracks where in recent years the action hadn’t been the most enthralling. Pocono badly needs to experience a similar kind of transformation. The Pennsylvania venue is now down to just a single Cup date after having two from 1982-2021 and needs to shake its reputation for being more known as a track where races are decided by strategy than action-packed excitement.

Drivers under the spotlight

Kevin Harvick


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

Kevin Harvick

Since joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, never before has Harvick been in this position where this late into the season he found himself on the wrong side of the playoff cut line. Coming out of the break, he finds himself seven points behind Aric Almirola for the provisional transfer spot, creating the real possibility Harvick misses the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Compounding the frustration is a winless streak that dates back to Sept. 2020.

Tyler Reddick

Many a time this season Tyler Reddick has had a car fast enough to win. However, for reasons both in and out of his control, the Richard Childress Racing driver has a zero in the win column. That will likely need to change if he wants to make the playoffs for a second straight year. To achieve this goal Reddick needs to stop pressing, pushing his car beyond its limits and turning potential great finishes into disastrous points-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 hasn’t 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 wasted with repeated mistakes on pit road. Wallace presently ranks 25th in the standings, 139 points behind Almirola. The points deficit is such that his only realistic pathway to the playoffs is by finding a way to win one of these next 10 races.

(Top pic: Jim Dedmon/USA Today)

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