5 things I’m watching for this year’s Cup Series playoffs

Can Larson Repeat In November?

Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since then, no one has repeated as a champion in NASCAR’s premiere series. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson to do so as he did it in 1997 and again in 1998.

Since 1995 however, those are the only two instances to where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Kyle Larson accomplish this feat in 2022? Just 4 of the 7 years prior has the defending champion made it back to the Championship 4 the following season. 2 last 3 were bounced in the Round of 8 and Round of 12 respectively.

Larson’s championship defense season has been astoundingly quiet too. He won the 2nd race of the 2022 season and it looked like he’d pick up right where he left off following his 10-win championship winning campaign of a year ago. However, it’s looked anything but.

Through the 26 race regular season, Larson has just 2 trips to victory lane. Can he catch lightning in a bottle once the green flag drops on this year’s postseason on Sunday in Darlington?

The California native has 4 top 7 finishes in his last 10 starts. At Darlington, he’s usually fast there so could in theory start off the new season with a good result. Then it’s to Kansas to where he won at last year and led the most laps in the other race too. Larson was runner-up on the 1.5-mile track in May. To close out the first round we go to Bristol to where he could easily score another top 10.

The Round of 12 is where I have my eyes on him. He’s not a strong superspeedway racer (0 wins in 31 starts). On road courses this year, despite his Watkins Glen win, he’s largely struggled. So while he won the ROVAL last October, I don’t necessarily trust he’ll back it up with another win next month.

His road course finishes in 2022 are 29th, 15th, 4th, 35th and 1st respectively. If he doesn’t do well in the opening round race at Las Vegas (he finished 2nd in March) then he could be a shock early round exit.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 27: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ONX Homes/iFly Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Echopark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Ross Chastain

This is his 1st NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearance and I’m watching him as a driver who could easily march to the Championship 4 or one that is a human pin ball machine and getting paid back by multiple drivers. It’s no secret his rough and tumble driving style has ruffled some feathers. Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and others have taken notice. Some have vowed payback. Some have paid their tab on him. Do other still feel like Chastain is “owed one?”

Does he rough others up in the playoffs himself to add to the list? This year’s postseason is undoubtedly going to be a no holes barred street fight. Chastain isn’t one to back down from one.

Can he avoid getting taken out by others and march far along this postseason?

He has a great shot at a win at Darlington. He was 3rd here last year and was 2nd and 1st respectively in the 2 stages this past May. He was 7th in Kansas and has a style that could thrive in Bristol.

In the 2nd round he finished 3rd in Vegas this past spring, he won Talladega (3 top 2’s in 5 superspeedway starts this season) and has a road course win at COTA to go along with crossing the yard of bricks 2nd at Indy before his penalty.

One could say the 2nd round tracks suit him best based off his 2022 starts on those circuits. Then the Round of 8 features Las Vegas (he was 3rd in the spring and won an Xfinity Series race there a few years ago), Homestead and Martinsville (he was 5th in the spring).

The Championship Round is once again at Phoenix. He was runner-up to Chase Briscoe this past spring too.

Watch out for Chastain.

BROOKLYN, MICHIGAN – AUGUST 07: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Apple #BuschelOfBusch Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on August 07, 2022 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Redemption for Harvick?

In 2020, Kevin Harvick accumulated a bunch of playoff points, won 9 races and other than Denny Hamlin looked to be the clear cut favorite to land that year’s championship. It was the first year the title was to be decided at Phoenix and that’s a place he’s won at 9 times over his career too.

Instead, he didn’t even make the Championship 4.

Last year he went winless for the entire 36 race slate. He was bounced in the 2nd round. This year he’s back. However, one could make a case that Harvick is ready for redemption.

He didn’t initially have the speed like he had in 2020, but it’s since came on strong. However, it’s also largely shown that you don’t need it to win a title anyways. You just need to be good at the right moments.

Harvick has been solid this season. He enters Darlington having scored 7 top 10 finishes in his last 13 starts including a pair of wins in the last 4 weeks at that. He’s been towards the front and showing life more and more as the races go on.

His No. 4 Ford could be in contention at Darlington right off the bat (he was in the top 5 in May).

This is redemption for him and as they eye these tracks for a 2nd time, it could suit he and Rodney Childers to finally bring cars to the race tracks with a direction instead of guessing…

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – APRIL 25: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Sylvania Ford, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25, 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Round of 12

I think you can make a case for a few drivers that could easily get eliminated in the opening round. But to widdle this thing down from 12 to 8 especially with Talladega and a ROVAL to determine it? Good luck.

The Round of 12 could be a wild one in a sense that both tracks are wildcards. In turn that makes the Texas race all that more important because you don’t want to be behind the cut line going to Talladega because once you leave the high speed Alabama race track, there’s a good chance you’ll lose even more points in the process.

That’s why my eyes are on the 2nd round because this year, the gap from 1st to 12th is vastly smaller than in years past. It’s anyone’s guess on who can advance past that round and I suspect we’ll see some heavy hitters…

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 15: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 McDonald’s Toyota, Kurt Busch, driver of the #45 Monster Energy Toyota, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, drive during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series 64th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2022 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)


I’m watching them for a number of reasons. First off Martin Truex Jr. isn’t in the playoffs. How much noise can he make? He’s made 4 of the last 5 Championship 4’s so he has playoff potential. I’m also curious what this does to his 2023 plans. He almost didn’t come back as it took a lengthy time to mull whether he would retire or not. This can’t feel good.

What about the 18 car for Toyota? Kyle Busch has struggled and admitted a lot of it has to due with this contract discussions and where his future could lead. I also am watching his brother and when/where he comes back in the playoffs. What about his future? His teammate Bubba Wallace joins Truex on the playoff sidelines. Does he steal a win at Talladega again?

Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell are the only 2 I didn’t mention. Can they make a run? We know the Toyota’s are at a deficit on road courses. The ROVAL is a cut race. They also have a disadvantage on tracks arguably shorter than a mile.

Bristol and Martinsville are also cut races. Can the Toyota drivers do enough in the opening 2 races of each round to not have to worry about the finales?

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