Trust Us, NASCAR Cup Drivers Can Survive Playoff Mulligan and Still Win Championship

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NASCAR Cup Drivers Can Survive Playoff MulliganSean Gardner - Getty Images
  • Some talking heads on TV may want you to believe that drivers in the NASCAR Playoffs can't afford to have a bad race and still win it all.

  • Recent history says otherwise. Just ask Joey Logano.

  • All the trends suggest that nobody except maybe Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse should feel discouraged after the first race of Round of 16 of this year's Playoffs.

Have you noticed the talking heads on television speaking somberly about how NASCAR’s 16 Playoff drivers can’t afford a mulligan if they hope to advance through the first three rounds to the Nov. 5 championship race at Phoenix?

A look at history paints a slightly different picture.


Joey Logano, last year’s Cup Series champion for Ford and Team Penske, had two Playoff finishes in the 20s and three in the high teens. But his five other Playoff finishes included two victories—one of them the finale at Phoenix—and three finishes of sixth or better. Suddenly, those 27ths at Bristol and Talladega didn’t seem so bad after all.

The year before, when Kyle Larson won the title for Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports, the “comeback kid” had a 37th at Talladega and a 14th at Martinsville during the Playoffs. Oh, but how he overcame those stumbles … he won five of the eight other races and was second, sixth, and 10th in three others. Clearly, two bad finishes – and a championship-worthy late pit stop—didn’t hurt him at all.

And in 2020, when Chase Elliott won the Cup for Chevy and Hendrick Motorsports, the sport’s most popular driver overcame three bad finishes in the 20s. But he also had four top-10s and three victories to earn his Cup 32 years after his father, Bill, won in 1988 with owner Harry Melling. Bill/Chase thus became only the third father-son pairing—with Lee/Richard Petty and Ned/Dale Jarrett—to win NASCAR’s biggest trophy.

Kyle Busch had four mediocre-to-bad finishes when he won the 2019 championship with Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano had a 37th during his 2018 championship-winning Playoff run with Team Penske. Martin Truex Jr. finished 23rd in a 2017 Playoff race … but also had four victories and five other top-5s in that remarkable Playoff run with owner Barney Visser. Even Jimmie Johnson had two bad finishes – 23rd and 38th – when he won his seventh and final title for Hendrick in 2016.

Those trends suggest that nobody except maybe Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse should feel discouraged after the first race of Round 1. They were the longest of the pre-Playoff long shots, anyway, and nothing that happened last weekend at Darlington changed any perception of their slim chances. They can feel discouraged, but shouldn’t feel dismayed since a good finish at Kansas City or Bristol might advance them to Round 2.

Denny Hamlin dominated the Southern 500 until a puzzling wheel issue left him a frustrated 25th. Still, he’s tied with Chris Buescher for fourth in points, just 18 behind leader William Byron. Clearly, it’s not wise to discount the Joe Gibbs Racing star after one bad finish. He’s reached the championship races at Homestead and Phoenix four times, but is still looking for his first Cup. At some point, the odds will smile in his direction.

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Denny Hamlin may have been dejected following his 25th-place finish at Darlington, but he’s far from out of the championship picture.Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images

“I think we’re stronger than we’ve ever been,” Hamlin said during the recent Media Day in Charlotte. “I’ve got speed now on road courses (there’s one in the Playoffs) and on short tracks (two in the Playoffs). If we get to the final four, I’m not worried about being at a deficit. I think the pit crew is better, they’re coming into its own. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. There are no excuses for sure.”

Despite being almost unnoticed in the Playoff opener, Truex Jr. is unquestionably capable of reaching the finale at Phoenix. The 2017 champion and three-time championship runner-up didn’t lead even one lap and finished a quiet 18th at Darlington. That was shocking, considering that the JGR driver won three times this year and entered the Playoffs seeded second.

But as history has shown, one mediocre-to-bad finish in the Playoff opener means almost nothing. Truex Jr. has won twice at Kansas City (coming up this weekend), plus twice at Las Vegas, once at Homestead, and three times at Martinsville, the tracks that make up Round 3. He can be encouraged that in addition to those eight victories, he has 36 other top-5 finishes at the next nine venues.

Former champion Kevin Harvick had a solid Darlington night spoiled by an ill-timed pit stop and a subsequent penalty for getting service when the pits were closed. He ran top-5 at times, but led only one lap in finishing a lead-lap 19th, largely because of the penalty. He left Darlington 14th in points, 46 behind Playoff leader Byron. After winning nine times in the first 29 races of 2020, the lead driver at Stewart-Haas Racing has won only twice in his last 104 starts, during back-to-back 2022 weekend at Michigan and Richmond.

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Kevin Harvick has some work to do in his final NASCAR Playoffs. He’s 14th in the standings with two races to go until the field is cut to 12.Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

But there’s good news as Harvick heads into retirement after this season: he has at least one victory at eight of the last nine venues, lacking only on the Charlotte Roval. He’s won 23 races at the Playoff tracks: nine at Phoenix, three each at Kansas City, Bristol, and Fort Worth, twice at Las Vegas, and once each at Talladega, Homestead, and Martinsville.

Larson, the Darlington winner, is the only driver assured of advancing to the Round 2 races at Fort Worth, Talladega, and Charlotte. Not at all surprisingly, he chose to look ahead rather than reflect on his 22nd career victory, his third this year (plus the All-Star race), his first at Darlington, and his 16th for Hendrick Motorsports, which now has 299 all-time victories from 20 drivers.

“To start the playoffs off good, I would have been happy just to get in a good solid race,” he said. “It obviously feels better to win and I hope we can put multiple weeks together like today… not necessarily wins. I know we’ll be capable of winning every race. But really, I want to put together solid races from start to finish.

“Get stage points, get stage wins, and some good finishes at the end of it. We were able to do that today, and it’s been a long time since we put a full, full race together. But it doesn’t give me a different goal. I still want to run a good race from start to finish for nine more weeks. My mindset doesn't change at all.”

Just as it shouldn’t change for the 15 other drivers so early in the Playoffs.

NASCAR Cup Playoff Standings

After 1 of 3 races in round of 16. Field will be cut to 12 after races at Kansas (Sept. 10) and Bristol (Sept. 16)

  1. William Byron, Chevrolet, 2,075

  2. x-Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 2,074

  3. Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 2,060

  4. Chris Buescher, Ford, 2,057

  5. Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 2,057

  6. Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 2,055

  7. Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 2,050

  8. Brad Keselowski, Ford, 2,048

  9. Ryan Blaney, Ford, 2,046

  10. Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 2,043

  11. Joey Logano, Ford, 2,033

  12. Christian Bell, Toyota, 2,031

  13. Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 2,030

  14. Kevin Harvick, Ford, 2,029

  15. Rickey Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 2,027

  16. Michael McDowell, Ford, 2,012

x-Qualified for Round of 12 with win at Darlington on Sept. 3.