Should the top five in regular-season points be given automatic playoff berths?
Since the introduction of the current playoff format in 2014, the mantra has always been win and you’re in.
But for the first time in nine seasons, that may not be enough. There have been 14 NASCAR Cup Series winners in the first 20 races, which is tied for the fastest path to 14 winners in Cup history. With just two more winners needed in the next six races, the elusive 16 winners in 26 races has never been closer to reality.
But the influx of winners has also created another problem: if there continues to be surprise winners, playoff-worthy teams and drivers will be shut out of the playoffs entirely.
Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are third and fourth in points, respectively. But because neither driver has won a race, they currently hold the 15th and 16th spots in the playoff grids. And unless they win races of their own, they risk the chance of being unable to compete for a championship in the fall if new faces continue to take the checkered flags.
It’s not like they haven’t contended for race wins either. Blaney has led 392 laps, which is the sixth most of drivers the season. Truex has led the fourth most with 453 circuits out front, and he is fresh off of leading 172 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend. No other winless driver has come close to being out front as much as these two have.
Further back, Kevin Harvick is ninth in points but 66 points behind Truex for the final spot. Harvick is essentially in a must-win situation despite his high points position.
Is it fair that legitimate championship contenders would be out of the playoffs in favor of drivers that caught lightning in a bottle for one race? If the goal of the playoffs is to allow the best 16 drivers a chance at the championship, it wouldn’t be fair. But the rules are the rules, and everybody knew them heading into this season.
However, there is a solution to prevent situations like this from happening again. Ever since the current system was introduced in 2014, the regular-season champion has received an automatic playoff berth, regardless of whether or not they had won a race. There hasn’t been a winless regular-season champion yet, but Denny Hamlin came close to doing so back in 2021.
If the top five drivers in the point standings after race 26 were given an automatic playoff berth, it would end egregious situations where dominant drivers like Truex and Blaney would be left out.
In addition, it would create a new race in the playoff bubble. If Blaney and Truex were automatically in the playoffs and there was a 15th winner at Pocono Raceway this weekend, the playoff cutline race would shift to the lowest drivers in the point standings with a single win: Austin Cindric, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick and Chase Briscoe. With all five separated by 24 points, it would be an incredible battle.
Perhaps it is something to consider.
Several drivers had season-best finishes in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at New Hampshire. Who can we expect more out of for the rest of the year?
Aided in part by heavy attrition and two disqualifications, the conclusion of last weekend’s Xfinity race at New Hampshire saw numerous drivers record season-best finishes.
Brandon Brown led 12 laps and finished a season-high third, while Jeremy Clements recorded his first top-five finish since 2020 in fourth. Rookie Sheldon Creed finished fifth and recorded his first top-five finish in Xfinity competition.
Further back, Kyle Weatherman tied his season-best finish in eighth, Mason Massey scored his second top 10 of the season in ninth, Bayley Currey finished a season-best 10th and David Starr had his best Xfinity finish since 2017 in 11th.
Brown and Creed appear to have the most gains in recent weeks. At Atlanta Motor Speedway two weeks ago, Brown was one of the top-five cars in the first two stages before his day ended in the final stage after hitting the wall. At New Hampshire, Brown got the lead by staying out on lap 128; he then held onto a top-five finish for the final 72 laps.
Creed too was one of the drivers mixing it up for the lead at Atlanta, even if he finished further back in 12th. And just a few races back at Portland International Raceway was one of Creed’s best runs, as he ran top five for the majority of the race before being taken out in a crash on lap 56. Last weekend’s race at New Hampshire was also Creed’s first start there in a national touring series, which makes his performance all the more impressive.
Along with those two, another driver to watch in the upcoming weeks is Landon Cassill. Cassill led 17 laps, had an average running position of fourth and originally crossed the finish line at New Hampshire in third, but he was later disqualified after failing post-race inspection. For Cassill, the race marked the first laps he led in the 2022 season and the first race where had an average running position better than eighth.
For now, his performance has to be taken with a grain of salt since it was with an illegal car. But if Cassill can replicate this run in the future with a legal car, he too will be on the upswing for the rest of the 2022 season.
With the Camping World SRX Series season finale on dirt at Sharon Speedway, can Marco Andretti or Ryan Newman hold off Tony Stewart for the championship?
The 2022 SRX season comes to end on Saturday night (July 23) at Sharon with four drivers fighting for the series’ crown: Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Marco Andretti. All four are separated by just 15 points.
Despite having zero wins on the season, Andretti leads the pack with 170 points, aided in part by a current streak of three straight second-place finishes. Newman is eight points behind, while Stewart is 13 behind and Labonte is 15 behind.
At the midway point of the season, it was Newman with a comfortable lead after scoring his first SRX win at Stafford Motor Speedway. Labonte then took the lead after race four as he led every lap at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway for his first SRX win. Now, with one race to go, Andretti is in the driver’s seat after finishing second at I-55 Speedway; Labonte dropped from first to fourth in points after a late crash.
However, Andretti, Newman and Labonte will face a great challenge in Stewart for the season finale. Sharon is a 0.375-mile dirt track, and Stewart is undefeated in SRX main events on dirt with a perfect 3-for-3 record. With a maximum of 51 points available on Saturday and just a 13-point deficit, Stewart will be tough to beat for the title if he is as dominant as he was at I-55 last weekend.
However, there are two obstacles in the way of Stewart’s quest to go 4-for-4 on dirt, and their names are Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. Elliott won his lone SRX start last season at Nashville, and the current Cup points leader will be a heavy favorite on Saturday night. Blaney is making his SRX debut and will joined by his father, former NASCAR driver and World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney. If all three drivers run up front throughout the night, they will take away points that Stewart could use to cut his points deficit.
If Newman or Andretti can finish top three in the heats and the main event, either driver has a good chance of holding off Stewart in the event that he wins. But if Stewart goes 4-for-4 while they run into trouble, Stewart will be poised to repeat as SRX champion.
The last six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races have been won by part-time drivers. Will a full-time driver win at Pocono, or will the streak extend to seven?
The six most recent Truck winners are Ross Chastain, Corey Heim, Kyle Busch, Todd Gilliland, Ryan Preece and Parker Kligerman. What all six have in common is that none of them are running a full-time schedule in the series. The last playoff eligible driver to win a Truck race was back on May 20, when Stewart Friesen broke his three-year winless drought at Texas Motor Speedway.
It hasn’t been easy for full-time drivers to pick up wins this season. They’ve won seven of the 15 races so far, less than half of the schedule. Points leader Zane Smith leads the pack with three wins in 2022, while John Hunter Nemechek, Chandler Smith, Friesen and Ben Rhodes have one apiece. Everyone else running full-time has zilch.
But despite the recent dominance of Cup and part-time drivers in the series this season, the streak will come to an end this weekend. Of the six most recent winners, Heim and Preece are the only two entered in Saturday’s race at Pocono. And while Heim and Preece aren’t the only part-time drivers in the field, they are the only ones that have shown consistent winning speed.
So, unless Heim or Preece score their third career win, the odds look good for the full-timers on Saturday afternoon.
Of the drivers entered for this weekend’s race, Nemechek is the only former winner at Pocono. If Nemechek scores his second win of the season at the Tricky Triangle, it would mark his first repeat victory at a single track; Nemechek’s 12 Truck wins have come at 12 different tracks.
But despite Nemechek’s win last year, the favorite is Zane Smith. Nemechek may have taken home the trophy in 2021, but Smith had just as good of a truck; he led the second-most laps behind Kyle Busch before finishing 10th. In addition, Smith and the No. 38 team have been riding a hot streak of four top-three finishes in the last four races. With Smith’s success at Pocono and Front Row Motorsports’ successful year in the Truck Series, it will be hard to count them out when the green flag flies this weekend.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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