There are 10 more opportunities for NASCAR Cup Series drivers to win their way into the Playoffs or get there on points.
Sunday evening’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (5 pm, ET) is the first of those 10.
A dozen drivers have won during the first 16 “regular season” races that help set the Playoff field.
Is it too early for owners and drivers to start worrying about missing NASCAR’s upcoming Cup Series Playoffs?
Most will say yes, it’s too early since there are 10 more opportunities for them to win their way into the Playoffs or get there on points.
Sunday evening’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (5 pm, ET) is the first of those 10. The 1.33-mile concrete track hosted its first Cup Series race last year, marking Cup’s return to Music City after a 37-year break. (NASCAR ran 42 races between 1958-1984 on the half-mile, high-banked Fairgrounds Raceway). Champion-in-waiting Kyle Larson led 264 of the 300 laps last year for a 4.335-second victory over relative unknown Ross Chastain.
This weekend’s activities begin with a one-hour practice at 6:30 p.m. Friday night, followed by qualifying at 1:00 pm on Saturday. The Camping World Truck Series has its 150-lap, 200-mile Rackley Roofing 200 on Saturday night at 8:00 and the Xfinity Series has its 188-lap, 250-mile Tennessee Lottery 250 on Saturday at 3:30 pm.
As for the Playoffs …
A dozen drivers have won during the first 16 “regular season” races that help set the Playoff field. Among the former series champions and perennial contenders still winless this year: Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski. In addition, usual top-15 runners and occasional contenders Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Bubba Wallace also are looking to make the 16-driver field.
Blaney is safely inside the Playoff bubble, standing first among non-winners, 95 comfortable points above the cut line. Truex Jr. is 65 points to the good and Bell is plus-28. But Almirola is in perilous shape, only seven points above the top-16 cutline. If anyone ranked below Almirola wins during the next 10 weekends, Almirola might be bumped—even if only temporarily—from the Playoff field.
Ironically, his slim points advantage is over Harvick, his teammate at Stewart Haas Racing. Both made the Playoffs last season and both finished top five at the inaugural Nashville race. Further back in points—and also in some danger—are Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick (minus 42 points) and Austin Dillon (minus 47 points).
Of this year’s winless drivers fighting for their Playoff lives, three have Nashville victories in either Xfinity or Camping World. Harvick won Xfinity races in 2006 and 2010, Dillon won a 2011 Truck Series race, and Keselowski won Xfinity races in 2008 and 2010.
Finally … using the dreaded and oft-derided “if the Playoffs started today” line, the 16-driver field would look like this: two-time winners William Byron, Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano, plus one-time winners Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Daniel Suarez.
Based on today’s points, winless 2022 drivers Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, and Martin Truex Jr. would also make the field.
The 26th and final regular-season race is Aug. 27 in Daytona Beach. The races in Round 1 of the four-round Playoff eliminations are Sept. 4 at Darlington, Sept. 11 at Kansas City, and Sept. 17 at Bristol. Once the field is trimmed from 16 contenders to 12, Round 2 continues Sept. 25 in Fort Worth, Oct. 2 at Talladega, and Oct. 9 at Charlotte.
Now down to eight survivors, the Round 3 series is at Las Vegas on Oct. 16, Homestead on Oct. 23, then Martinsville on Oct. 30. The Cup Series championship will be determined by the highest finisher among the final four teams in the Nov. 6 season-finale at Phoenix.
And in an odds-defying trend, every series champion since 2014—Larson, Elliott, Kyle Busch (twice), Logano, Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Harvick—has won the Cup by winning the last race, six times at Homestead, the past two at Phoenix.
Not exactly “the Super Bowl of Racing,” but it’s as close as we’re gonna get.
NASCAR Playoff Standings
Top 16 make the Playoffs. Wins take priority over points. If 16 different drivers do not win regular-season races, remaining spots will be awarded in order of points.
Ross Chastain 520 (2)
Joey Logano 506 (2)
William Byron 466 (2)
Denny Hamlin 325 (2)
Chase Elliott 536 (1)
Kyle Busch 513 (1)
Kyle Larson 476 (1)
Alex Bowman 460 (1)
Chase Briscoe 386 (1)
Daniel Suarez 366 (1)
Austin Cindric 362 (1)
Kurt Busch 355 (1)
Ryan Blaney 511 (0)
Martin Truex Jr. 481 (0)
Christopher Bell 444 (0)
Aric Almirola 423 (o)
Kevin Harvick 416 (o)
Tyler Reddick 381 (0)
Austin Dillon 376 (0)
Erik Jones 368 (0)
Michael McDowell 330 (0)
Chris Buescher 318 (0)
Justin Haley 310 (0)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 288 (0)
Bubba Wallace 284 (0)
Ty Dillon 270 (0)
Cole Custer 262 (0)
Harrison Burton 241 (0)
Todd Gilliland 239 (0)
Brad Keselowski 227 (0)