The Victory Bell hit 14 Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The picture of the NASCAR 2022 playoffs has become a little clearer at the “Magic Mile”, which is frustrating for some while being a huge relief for race winner Christopher Bell. There are six races left between now and the start of this year’s playoffs on Labor Day weekend at Darlington Raceway, with plenty still to settle in that time frame.
The ’22 Cup Series campaign has been wild, as unpredictable and boisterous as anyone could have hoped for on the maiden voyage of the sport’s iconic Next Gen racer. Fourteen different winners from seven different organizations from the three manufacturers have traveled to Victory Lane at least once this year – and arguably for the first time in the history of NASCAR’s playoff elimination format there is a realistic scenario. that one of them could end up getting ousted from the field of 16 drivers in the playoffs.
Bell has had a great season to date, his best so far at Cup level, but after spat a bit out of the gates to open the season, the No.20 has had to methodically move up the points standings by essentially Circuit of the Americas. The Norman, Oklahoma native entered last weekend’s events ranked eighth in the standings, but remains on the outside with 13 riders having already taken wins. Everything about his season has now changed, as he’s now essentially on par with his other two teammates currently tentatively locked in with wins – Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – sitting at 2,008 playoff points to their 2,011 and 2,012 points, respectively.
MORE: Bell holds off Elliott for NH win | Watch the playoffs
When it comes to running in Loudon,
all most winning pilots are just thrilled to be able to bring home a giant lobster. For those who land their first win of the season there in the height of summer at such a critical time in the hunt for the playoffs, the real gift is simply the ability to exhale.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s been stressful,” Bell said during his post-race press conference. “After the first two races of the year, I kind of forgot to point our way to the championship, and then we had a series of really good races and we kind of changed the game to say, ‘ hey, maybe we can do this.’ And then you have guys who kept winning, and the cut line kept going up, so it’s really good to hope to get above that cut line by a few points.
Some of that stress, however, has now shifted to his teammate.
There is no doubt that Martin Truex Jr. has been among the top drivers almost consistently this year – in a season that has been difficult for somebody to build consistent momentum – currently leading the series in stage wins while third in stage points and fourth in total points. He is, however, without a win.
After securing Saturday’s Busch Light Pole Award, Truex noted that he “isn’t really worried about the playoffs. I think… it’ll be fine anyway,” and for the first two legs of Sunday’s race, probably anyone on the planet would have agreed with him. The #19 Toyota was as dominant as any car we’ve seen this year.
It was Truex’s race to lose, and he did. A call for two tires at the end of the final stage by team manager James Small turned out to be a bad call, and the car that looked unstoppable all afternoon was suddenly unable to come back into the lead, which earned him a fourth place.
The 2017 champion now sits directly on the bubble, the 16th and final driver in the current projected playoff field and 68 points ahead of the also winless Kevin Harvick.
It seems unfathomable that Truex, whose 12-1 odds of winning the 22nd Championship at the start of the weekend were ninth-best in the series, could miss the playoffs altogether. It’s the reality, however, and it only reinforces the fact that winning is everything in this sport.
The way to point one’s way is always open, of course. There are not 16 winners Again and it seems likely that if we hit that number, he could be one of them. But he is not the only elite driver in this position.
Directly above and below him in the standings are Ryan Blaney and Harvick respectively, who have amassed 27 wins since 2018. Truex and Harvick both scored the top five in Loudon, and both came away frustrated . Harvick, believe it or not, actually lost ground despite the quality result. There really is a “win or bust” feeling right now.
Team Penske’s No. 12 driver is the safest of them all, but it’s almost mind-boggling that a driver currently third in points and fighting to win a regular-season championship with six races to go could theoretically be left out of the playoff grid a month and a half from now.
Of course, as we just mentioned, all three are elite pilots. They could all win before Darlington (it’s not even the most unreasonable notion to think they could split the remaining six trophies), and then what? A whole new Pandora’s box.
We’ve known 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 ripped from his hands. by another winning driver with more points.
And wouldn’t you know it? There is a chance that if one more driver wins and then Harvick wins to become the lucky No. 16 he could edge Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and Phoenix winner Chase Briscoe, currently the driver with the fewest points among the winners.
It’s undeniable that at least one driver and possibly two of the group of current sole winners – Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Bell, Alex Bowman, Austin Cindric, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suárez, Tyler Reddick and Briscoe – with Blaney, Harvick and Truex could miss the playoffs. Just a question of who, and how much.
But wait, there’s more.
The remaining six regular season races are anything but routine or straightforward, with a track with just three corners (Pocono), an indoor road course (Indianapolis), a 2-mile monster 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 into the field of 16, the most unpredictable track on the calendar – Daytona.
Blaney is the defending winner at both Michigan and Daytona, and as the best among the winless drivers, he’ll likely sleep the most among them over the next few weeks. Truex won Richmond last year and has been an ace on road courses in the past, but Virginia’s run last year was a month later – in the playoffs – and the night this year will be. an afternoon special. Toyota as a whole has, by its own admission, hit on road course setups this year as well, so it’s anything but a lock that Truex will hit at Indy or The Glen. Harvick can win anywhere – and has 12 wins in total from the remaining six tracks – but the No. 4, despite being competitive all season, has looked to be at a winning pace in 22.
What these tracks really offer, however, is for the rest of the riders currently on the wrong side of the bubble a chance for a last-ditch strike to force their way through a crowded field.
Six of the following eight drivers under Harvick have already won at Daytona (Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell, Justin Haley and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) while the other two (Chris Buescher and Bubba Wallace) still seem to be in the mix at the front of the pack late at the World Center of Racing, including a head-to-head win for the No. 17 in this year’s Daytona 500 build-up.
Road courses always offer the potential for a wild-card winner, of course. And Buescher, himself, knows Pocono can be an unexpected gateway to the playoffs with his only career win in his 2016 rookie year and only playoff appearance to date.
That’s all to say: we still have a long way to go before we know for sure who will make the playoffs. The only riders who shouldn’t be squirming in their seats right now are those with more than two wins and the only thing we can count on right now in mid-July is that in a month and half, we’ll say “I can’t believe ____ missed the playoffs!
And no driver wants to be the one to fill in that blank.