There are 10 races remaining in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season. The NASCAR Digital Media editorial team has 10 questions its staff answered. Now you can, too.
1. Who inside the playoffs bubble most likely to drop out?
ALBERT: Aric Almirola. The SHR pilot started solidly with three top 10s in the first three Cup Series races of the year, but his spot on the bubble remains precarious. That perch will likely get the squeeze as the 2022 winner list continues to grow.
DeCOLA: Aric Almirola. We’re trending toward 16 winners and I’m not sure he’ll be one of them (though he did shock at New Hampshire just last year).
LUVENDER: Martin Truex Jr. Yes, really. While he’s got a 65-point cushion and ranks sixth in the regular-season standings, it seems the No. 19 team has lost some of its magic in 2022 and isn’t showing signs of a return. Truex has just two top-five finishes this season; by Race 16 last year, he had six top fives and three wins. The uncertainty of the 2017 champ’s future can’t help things, either.
MONTGOMERY: Unfortunately, Tyler Reddick will miss the playoffs in his third season at Richard Childress Racing. Reddick has flashed elite speed at times but struggled with consistency the entire year. Though the No. 8 team has been close at times, including two runner-up finishes, it is hard to see them regrouping down a tough stretch where other teams have already gotten a jump start on elevating their performance.
RICHARDSON: Aric Almirola will drop out of the bubble. He’s one of those drivers who is always there toward the last four of the 16 playoff drivers, but when I see names like Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones still outside the bubble, it’s hard to see Almirola staying in front of them given the times they’ve been in contention to win races this season.
STURNIOLO: Aric Almirola. Almirola started the year so well, but his top-10 streak over the first three races feels like it was a lifetime ago. Others beneath him in points have shown more consistent speed, which makes me leery about the No. 10 team’s playoff hopes.
WINKLER: Aric Almirola has some work to do if he’s going to make the playoffs in his final season before he retires from full-time duty. Not only is he currently the closest driver to the cutline (plus seven points to the good), but he also has only two top-10 finishes since reeling off three in a row to start the season. Luckily for him, New Hampshire is coming up, and that’s where he pulled off a surprise win last season.
2. Who outside the playoff bubble is most likely to jump in?
ALBERT: Tyler Reddick. A recent rough patch – four finishes of 30th or worse in a seven-race span – has hurt the RCR driver’s place in the standings. But his tendency to run up front has kept Reddick in ticket-punching contention.
DeCOLA: Kevin Harvick. A 16-driver playoff field that doesn’t include the nine-time 2020 winner feels inconceivable. Then again, so did a playoff field without Jimmie Johnson.
LUVENDER: Kevin Harvick. It seems he’s on the verge of a breakthrough after his fall from grace in the 2020 playoffs. While he hasn’t yet won a race — or even a stage — this season, the No. 4 is getting closer as of late. Harvick’s quietly logged five top-10 finishes in the past seven races. That level of consistency is enough to claw back into playoff contention.
STURNIOLO: Tyler Reddick. Reddick’s inconsistency is concerning, particularly since he has finished 30th or worse in four of the last seven races. But the No. 8 Chevrolet still has speed that shouldn’t be overlooked. Reddick appears likely to find his way to Victory Lane sometime in the next 10 races, which would alleviate any regular-season concerns over consistency.
@NASCARCASM: Kevin Harvick will absolutely squeak his way into the playoff field. Despite the very un-Happy Harvick after the race this past weekend, he has still had three top-five finishes in the last five races, and this off weekend will give the No. 4 team the opportunity to shake off the pit-road woes from Sonoma. Having earned a playoff berth 15 times, it’s almost unfathomable to envision a postseason without Harvick. Look for the team to hit its stride as the regular season comes to an end. They call him “The Closer” for a reason … among like 38 other nicknames, but that’s like the most prominent one.
3. Will there be more than 16 winners?
DeCOLA: Think we land on exactly 16. We’ll likely see four drivers win from this group: Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, with several other notable names (Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace) making for interesting wild-card possibilities. There really is a significant chance a one-time winner gets left out of the playoffs.
LUVENDER: No. By now, we’ve seen which drivers are the weekly contenders. Among the 12 winners so far this year, there have already been four repeat winners. Sure, unlikely winners like Chase Briscoe at Phoenix, Kurt Busch at Kansas and Daniel Suárez at Sonoma have already happened this year (and you could even argue Denny Hamlin in his two wins in the midst of an otherwise disastrous season), but the likelihood of the trend continuing throughout the summer seems slim.
WAACK: Why not? Bring on the chaos. It would be the first time since the elimination playoff format was implemented in 2014 that all 16 spots are filled with winners. There have been more repeat winners (four) through 16 races than last season (three), but the difference is, there have been four drivers this year to win their first career race — the most since 2011. That’s the trend I don’t see stopping anytime soon.
WINKLER: I don’t think there will be more than 16 drivers who get a win this season, but getting to 16 has a realistic chance. Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick and Martin Truex Jr. are looming with goose eggs in their respective win columns, and they will be tough outs the rest of the way. Plus, with three road courses and Daytona still left on the regular-season schedule, a surprise winner could jump into the mix.
4. Who are your Championship 4 drivers?
DeCOLA: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Ross Chastain.
LUVENDER: That’s a tough one! I’ll go for consistency given the unpredictable nature of this season: Kyle Busch (most top 10s), Ross Chastain (most top fives), Chase Elliott (current points leader) and Joey Logano (22 in ’22, of course).
MONTGOMERY: Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin.
RICHARDSON: The Next Gen car has certainly made predicting the playoffs difficult, so I’m going to go a bit bold here with the Championship 4. As long as he limits conflict with other drivers, Ross Chastain’s consistency and speed make him a good fit to compete for a title in Phoenix. “Mr. Opportunistic” Joey Logano will pick up a win in the Round of 8 to secure a spot after doing enough to point his way through the postseason. Kyle Busch’s rollercoaster may drive people away, but when he’s mistake-free, he usually finishes inside the top five. He has been on the cusp of the Championship 4 multiple times now, but I think Alex Bowman could be competing for a title in his home state. It helps that Las Vegas is added to the Round of 8 along with Martinsville, so if Bowman is in the Round of 8, I think he’ll be racing for a title in November.
WAACK: Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman.
5. Who is your Rookie of the Year pick?
ALBERT: Austin Cindric. The Team Penske driver was the award’s early front-runner before the season hardly got started, thanks to his opening victory in the Daytona 500. Since then, he has backed that up as the top-finishing rookie in nine of the 16 races, besting Harrison Burton’s six.
DeCOLA: Austin Cindric. Locked it up in February.
LUVENDER: Austin Cindric. The other Rookie of the Year contenders have struggled — neither Harrison Burton nor Todd Gilliland has scored a top-10 finish — while Cindric won the Daytona 500 and even grabbed a stage win in St. Louis.
STURNIOLO: Austin Cindric. It’s hard to bet against the only rookie with a win this year, especially when that win came courtesy of the Daytona 500. Todd Gilliland and Harrison Burton have shown their flashes of speed, but Cindric is the only member of the rookie class to score a top-10 finish, which he has done three times in 16 races.
@NASCARCASM: The 2022 Rookie of the Year maybe, possibly, perhaps will be Austin Cindric. Generally winning the Daytona 500 helps that whole campaign along. Not to mention he’s 121 points ahead of the next closest eligible rookie, Harrison Burton. So yes, I think it’s very likely Austin Cindric will be the 2022 Rookie of the Year. That snapping sound you hear right now is this limb upon which I’m going really far out.
6. What regular-season race will shake up the playoff picture most?
DeCOLA: Daytona. There’s a real possibility we’ll have 16 winners already by then, which ramps up the desperation for all the single-win drivers and should make the overall event pretty tense throughout.
LUVENDER: Atlanta. The March trip to the newly-upgraded Atlanta track was a wild one, featuring 11 cautions and 12 cars knocked out from crash damage — not to mention 45 lead changes and even a surprise top-five finish for Corey LaJoie. The warmer Georgia weather will likely create a hotter, slicker track, which is bound to create another challenge and a new layer of unpredictability.
MONTGOMERY: It will not be one single race but the type of race: road courses. We have seen so many varying strategies this season and not one driver has been exceptionally dominant at putting a complete race together. Ross Chastain started his hot streak at COTA. Chris Buescher and Kevin Harvick were true contenders for basically the first time this season at Sonoma and proved the usual ringers may not have as strong of a grip as they used to. And of course, Daniel Suárez dominated there late. Sure, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have still looked at the top of their class. But quick lap times won’t always mean a win. With a slew of road circuits on the horizon, I wouldn’t be surprised if two or three first-time winners added to the season’s quickly growing total.
STURNIOLO: This is a great question because so many unknowns lie ahead. There’s something about Michigan that feels wholly unpredictable, but with Daytona slated as the regular-season finale, the threat of the “Big One” looms too large to overlook. The points impact that overhangs that event coupled with a plethora of different winners implies there may be some carnage on hand come Aug. 27.
WINKLER: It’s got to be the regular-season finale at Daytona, right? And that’s why NASCAR making it the regular-season finale is such a devious delight. We all know how superspeedway races can be unpredictable and full of drama, but toss in a final playoff spot or two on the line, and things will get real — and really crazy and exciting, too.
7. Will there be a brand-new champion this year?
ALBERT: Yes. The prevailing wisdom might say no, that experience will carry the day for those who have claimed the Cup Series crown before. But in this season of unpredictability and first-time victors, all those shifts in team strength and momentum have opened up the field of contenders.
DeCOLA: Yes. James Dennis Alan Hamlin will finally be crowned a Cup Series champion, because it’s the only fitting end to how bizarre and captivating his season has been.
LUVENDER: No. There are too many former champions running well to prevent a new champion this year. The only driver close to contending for a championship, Ross Chastain, has never made the playoffs before and can’t rely on years of experience, unlike veterans like Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano.
MONTGOMERY: Kyle Busch is going to win the 2022 Cup Series championship. It will give him three overall and will perhaps be his most emphatic in a season with so many question marks surrounding the future of the No. 18 team. The combination of his stellar performance this year, realizing he could realistically have four wins already, and the chip on his shoulder, will spur him to greatness once again.
WAACK: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, there have been four drivers who captured their first career win this year — the most the sport has seen in a single season since 2011 (five). And only five of the 12 different winners overall this season — aka those with provisional playoff berths — have a championship on their record. New is in this season.
8. Which former champion will not make the playoff field?
DeCOLA: Brad Keselowski. Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing has looked better than expected at times this year, but Keselowski’s first season as driver/owner really sunk after a costly penalty and lack of consistency. Could see a huge bounce-back in 2023.
LUVENDER: Martin Truex Jr. The combination of a struggling No. 19 and a seemingly unprecedented number of different winners will leave the 2017 champ out of this year’s playoff field. The Next Gen car just doesn’t seem to create the “Martin Magic” we’re accustomed to seeing.
@NASCARCASM: Unfortunately it’s going to be Brad Keselowski, and it has a little something to do with a 100-point penalty levied upon the team after the first race at Atlanta. While it hasn’t been the debut year for RFK Racing that Keselowski was likely hoping for, Trackhouse Racing has shown you can have a relatively quiet freshman year and an absolute gangbusters sophomore year. Here’s hoping RFK Racing follows suit. But there’s just no coming back from a 100-point deficit. Ask any Jacksonville Jaguars fan.
WAACK: Martin Truex Jr. Only two top-five finishes, yet five outside the top 20? Doesn’t scream playoff worthy, despite ranking sixth in the standings. As more first-time winners join the fold, which I’ve already said is bound to happen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Truex get the cut rather than make it.
9. Who hasn’t won but you expect to still in the regular season?
DeCOLA: Former “Big Three” members Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are the biggest surprises to not win yet, but Ryan Blaney will be the next first-time 2022 winner.
LUVENDER: Ryan Blaney. With four stage wins, an All-Star Race win, his three poles and his ability to contend just about anywhere, it’s a wonder YRB hasn’t already won a points-paying race.
MONTGOMERY: Ryan Blaney has to win at some point, right? The regular-season races are dwindling, but the No. 12 team’s speed has been among the best to this point. As the odd one out of the win column at Team Penske, expect the off week to bring a new intensity in the push for a playoff berth.
RICHARDSON: Tyler Reddick has been on the cusp of wins so many times this season that another winless year would just be unfair. With how well he ran at Auto Club, I’d give him a good chance at Michigan.
WAACK: Tyler Reddick. Only one driver has more runner-up finishes without a win all-time than Reddick, who has five in his career (two this season). The difference is, Reddick is going to win. He has the speed, leading more than double the laps this year (249) than his two prior (73 combined between 2020-21). Once he does, I think he’s going to tick multiple off.
10. Who is most likely to win his way into the playoffs with a last-shot move in the regular-season finale?
ALBERT: Bubba Wallace. The 23XI Racing driver’s early exit at Sonoma cost him three spots in the standings, further reinforcing that a win, not points, would be the basis for a potential playoff berth. There’s hardly a more likely place for that to happen than at Daytona, where Wallace has been a close-call runner-up his last two times out.
DeCOLA: Despite what I said earlier, Brad Keselowski. There’s a good chance he reminds everyone why he’s one of the best superspeedway drivers in the sport and blows up the playoff grid by punching his ticket in the regular-season finale at Daytona.
LUVENDER: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He has shown flashes of speed in 2022 — like his second-place finish at Dover that kicked off a run of four-straight top-eight finishes — and he’s quite good at draft-heavy tracks like Daytona, where he has won before. If there’s anybody who’s not afraid to go for it, it’s Stenhouse.
MONTGOMERY: After all the turmoil RFK Racing has been through in its inaugural year, Brad Keselowski will win the regular-season finale at Daytona, launching him into the playoffs from miles below the cutline.
WAACK: Brad Keselowski, and this is the main reason I didn’t list him as the former champion who won’t make the playoffs. Kes finished ninth in the Daytona 500, proving his No. 6 Ford capable. The 2012 champ also holds the most superspeedway wins among active drivers with seven.