NASCAR’s Playoff Chase Surprises

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No driver was more dominant than Kyle Larson in 2021. After being given a second chance by car owner Rock Hendrick after controversial comments got him suspended from NASCAR, Larson and the 5 car were fast all season, winning ten times, leading 2,581 (most since Jeff Gordon in 1995) and the Series championships. 

 

Fast forward to the 2022 season, and despite all of his previous success, Larson does not find himself in the final eight drivers with four playoff races, including the Xfinity 500, left on the docket. Priced throughout the season as a favorite to win the championship, Larson now will race the final 4 races for pride (and purse money) with no chance of hoisting the trophy in Phoenix the first weekend of November.

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Four Drivers Eliminated

Based on regular season performance, 16 drivers qualify for the NASCAR playoffs. Those who don’t still compete in the season’s final ten races. As was evident in the round of 16, drivers who weren’t part of the Chase stole the show and played the role of spoilers. In fact, it marked the first time in modern-day series history that drivers not in the final 16 won all three races of the opening round.

 

In Darlington, Erik Jones and Petty GMS Racing won for the third time in his career and the second time at the Southern 500 (held at Darlington). The next week, Bubba Wallace came home before the rest to notch his second career NASCAR victory and place a number of drivers in must-win situations heading into the final race of the first round in Bristol.

 

Presenting a short-track challenge for the first time since Richmond in mid-August, a driver not known for Bristol success, Chris Buescher, won the race. It was the Texan’s first win since Pocono in 2016, a span of some 222 races, and the first for the newly former Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, a team that was born in 2022.   

 

Following Bristol, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, and past Cup champions Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were eliminated. Kyle Busch was plagued by multiple engine failures, causing him to go to the garage early in the races and not finish. With the elimination of Kyle Busch and Harvick, two veteran drivers were out of the mix, while Reddick, who has a career year (winning twice on road courses), just couldn’t get it done when it counted in the first leg of the playoffs.

Water Gets Deeper

The next three races of the playoffs presented drivers and their teams with three extremely unique challenges. First, it was off to Texas, a traditional 1.5-mile oval, then it was onto Talladega, a superspeedway known for its unpredictability and frequent wrecks, and finally, the scene would shift to Charlotte, and its road course dubbed the Roval. 

 

Seemingly motivated by his failure in the opening round, Reddick won at Texas, besting Logano, Justin Haley, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Briscoe. It was Reddick’s third win in 4 months and left a number of drivers with uncertainty heading into one of the season’s most volatile venues, Talladega.

 

Talladega was next, and throughout the entire 188-lap, 500-mile affair, teams, fans, and bettors were all bracing for the “big one,” a crash that would dash the dreams of those involved and totally alter the complexion of the proceedings. While Talladega usually averages ten cautions per race, the enormous wreck never came, and Chase Elliott won the race, cementing his status as a favorite to win his second Cup championship in three years.

 

Not a typical road course, because it is within the confines of a traditional racetrack, the Roval gave playoff drivers a final chance to punch their tickets to the Final 8. Larson had problems and found himself five laps down. However, given his performance in the regular season and playoffs, an early exit seemed unlikely. However, as the race continued to unfold, his points advantage above the cutoff continued to dwindle. 

 

In the end, Christopher Bell won the race, guaranteeing his spot in the final 8. However, the finish was not without controversy as Cole Custer, a non-factor in the playoff chase, made way for his Stewart-Hass Racing teammate Chase Briscoe, moving the 14 car up a few precious spots, allowing them to continue in the playoffs and knocking out Larson. 

 

Custer and his crew chief Mike Shiplett were each given $100K fines from NASCAR as a result of the incident, and the NASCAR fan community was abuzz as one of their favorites, Larson, was shown the door. Other drivers not advancing were Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman (who missed two races due to a concussion), and Austin Cindric.

 

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