The Victory Bell struck 14 on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
NASCAR’s 2022 playoff picture became a little clearer at the “Magic Mile,” frustratingly so for some while being a tremendous relief for race winner Christopher Bell. Six races remain between now and the start of this year’s postseason on Labor Day Weekend at Darlington Raceway, with still plenty to sort out in that timeframe.
The ’22 Cup Series campaign has been a wild one, as unpredictable and raucous as anyone could have hoped in the maiden voyage for the sport’s landmark Next Gen racer. Fourteen different winners from seven different organizations across all three manufacturers have taken a trip to Victory Lane at least once this year — and arguably for the first time in the history of NASCAR’s playoff elimination format there’s a realistic scenario that one of them could wind up getting squeezed out of the 16-driver postseason field.
Bell has had a fine season to date, his best so far at the Cup level, but after sputtering out of the gates a bit to open the season, the No. 20 had to methodically claw its way back up the points standings from basically Circuit of The Americas onward. The Norman, Oklahoma, native entered this past weekend’s events eighth in the standings but still on the outside looking in with 13 drivers having already picked up wins. Everything about his season has now changed, as he’s now on essentially equal footing with his other two teammates currently provisionally locked in with wins — Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin — sitting at 2,008 playoff points to their 2,011 and 2,012 points, respectively.
When it comes to racing at Loudon,
every most winning drivers are just thrilled to be able to take home a giant lobster. For the ones who pick up their first win of the season there in the dead of summer at such a critical point in the postseason hunt, the real gift is just the ability to exhale.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been stressful,” Bell said in his post-race press conference. “After the first couple races of the year, I kind of wrote off pointing our way into the championship, and then we had a stretch of really good races and kind of turned that around to like, ‘hey, we may be able to do this.’ And then you’ve got guys that kept winning, and the cutoff line kept creeping up and up and up, so it feels really good to hopefully get myself above that cutoff line by a couple spots.”
Some of that stress, however, has now shifted over to his teammate.
There’s no question Martin Truex Jr. has been among the best drivers on a near-consistent basis this year — in a season that’s been hard for anyone to build consistent momentum — currently leading the series in stage wins while sitting third in stage points and fourth in overall points. He is, however, winless.
After securing Saturday’s Busch Light Pole Award, Truex noted that he’s “not really that that worried about the playoffs. I think … we’ll be OK either way,” and for the first two stages of Sunday’s race anybody on the planet probably would’ve agreed with him. The No. 19 Toyota was as dominant as any car we’ve seen this year.
It was Truex’s race to lose, and he did. A two-tire call late in the final stage by crew chief James Small wound up being an incorrect decision, and the car that looked unstoppable all afternoon was suddenly unable to race its way back to the front, resulting in a fourth-place run.
The 2017 champ now sits directly on the bubble, the 16th and final driver in the current projected playoff field and 68 points ahead of Kevin Harvick, also winless.
It seems unfathomable that Truex, whose 12-1 odds to win the ’22 championship entering the weekend were ninth-best in the series, could miss the playoffs entirely. That’s the reality, however, and it just furthers the point that winning is everything in this sport.
The path to pointing his way in is still open, of course. There aren’t 16 winners yet and it seems likely that if we do hit that sweet number, he could be one of them. But he’s not the only elite driver in this position.
Directly above and below him in the standings are Ryan Blaney and Harvick, respectively, who have combined for 27 victories since 2018. Both Truex and Harvick netted top fives at Loudon, and both walked away frustrated. Harvick, believe it or not, actually lost ground despite the quality result. There’s truly a sense of “win-or-bust” right now.
The No. 12 Team Penske driver is safest among them, but it’s almost jaw-dropping that a driver currently third in points and fighting to claim a Regular Season Championship with six races to go could theoretically be left off the playoff grid a month and a half from now.
Of course, like we just mentioned — all three are elite drivers. They could all win before Darlington (heck, it’s not even the most unreasonable notion to think they could split the six remaining trophies just among themselves), and then what happens? A whole new can of worms.
We’ve known all along since the birth of this playoff system in 2014 that the possibility of more than 16 winners would result in a driver who “clinched” a playoff spot with a win earlier in the season having that position wrestled out of his hands by a fellow winning driver with more points.
And wouldn’t you know it — there’s a chance that if one more driver wins and then Harvick wins to become lucky No. 16, he could bump out Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and Phoenix winner Chase Briscoe, currently the driver with the fewest points among winners.
There’s no denying that at least one driver and possibly two from the group of current one-time winners — Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Bell, Alex Bowman, Austin Cindric, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suárez, Tyler Reddick and Briscoe — along with Blaney, Harvick and Truex could miss the playoffs. Just a matter of who, and how many.
But wait, there’s more.
The six regular-season races remaining are anything but routine or straightforward, featuring a track with just three turns (Pocono), an infield road course (Indianapolis), a 2-mile behemoth where speed is king (Michigan), a 0.75-mile “action track” (Richmond), the fastest road course we go to (Watkins Glen) and for the icing on the cake to lock in the field of 16, the most unpredictable track on the schedule — Daytona.
Blaney is the defending winner at both Michigan and Daytona, and as the highest among the winless drivers, he’s probably going to get the most sleep among any of them over the coming weeks. Truex won Richmond last year and has been an ace on road courses in the past, but the Virginia race last year came a month later — in the playoffs — and at night, where this year’s will be an afternoon special. Toyota as a whole has self-admittedly struck out on road-course setups this year as well, so it’s anything but a lock that Truex will strike at Indy or The Glen. Harvick can win anywhere — and has 12 total wins at the remaining six tracks — but the No. 4, while competitive all season, has seemed to be a tick off a winning pace in ’22.
What these tracks really offer, however, is for the remainder of drivers currently on the wrong side of the bubble a chance for a last-ditch strike to finagle their way into a crowded field.
Six of the eight drivers next in line under Harvick have won at Daytona previously (Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell, Justin Haley and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) while the other two (Chris Buescher and Bubba Wallace) always seem to be in the mix at the front of the field late at the World Center of Racing, including a Duel victory for the No. 17 during this year’s lead up to the Daytona 500.
Road courses always offer the potential for a wild-card winner, of course. And Buescher, himself, knows that Pocono can be an unexpected gateway to the playoffs with his sole career victory coming there during his 2016 rookie year and clinching his only playoff appearance to date.
This is all to say: we’ve got a long way to go before we know for sure who’s going to be in the playoffs. The only drivers that shouldn’t be squirming in their seats right now are those with two-plus wins and the only thing we can count on right now in mid-July is that a month and a half from now we’ll be saying “I can’t believe ____ missed the playoffs!”
And no driver wants to be the one to fill in that blank.