With four races to go in the 2022 season, what are the chance of winner No. 20?
Chris Buescher‘s win at Bristol Motor Speedway last month made him the 19th winner of 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, a number that tied the modern era record for the most winners in a season.
That race was the Round of 16 finale, and in the search for the elusive 20th winner, the Round of 12 came up with snake eyes. The race at Talladega Superspeedway was closest anyone got, as five-time 2022 winner Chase Elliott passed winless Ryan Blaney on the final lap and beat him to the line by a nose.
With the Cup Series heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for race 33 of 36, a 20th winner is no longer a guarantee. Nevertheless, the next four races provide decent chances for drivers to break into victory lane for the first time.
This weekend’s race at Vegas is another 1.5-mile intermediate, a type of track that Toyota has dominated at as of late. Therefore, Martin Truex Jr. has the best odds of the non-winners to wind up in victory lane on Sunday (Oct. 16). After all, Truex was one of the fastest cars and finished in the top five at Kansas Speedway in September despite having to drop to the tail end of the lead lap twice. In addition, Truex was set to either finish second or win at Vegas in March until a late caution jumbled the finishing order.
For Homestead-Miami Speedway, both Blaney and Truex have a chance. Truex has four top-three finishes at Homestead in the last five races while Blaney was one of the best cars at Homestead in 2020 before finishing third. With that said, drivers like Reddick and Kyle Larson have used Homestead’s high line to perfection in the past and they will be tough to beat.
Truex and Blaney have each had success at Martinsville Speedway, but this race represents the best chance for a new winner aside from the pair in question. It was hard to pass at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, and if the same holds true in the fall, there is potential for another non-winner to roll the dice on old tires for a chance at a win. As for Phoenix Raceway, the last non-champion to win the season finale was Denny Hamlin back in 2013. If that holds true once again, the only chance for a new winner is if Blaney makes to the Round of 8 on points. And if he does, watch out. He led 143 laps at Phoenix in the spring, and it is one of his best tracks on the circuit.
Are non-playoff drivers racing playoff drivers too hard at the finish of races?
The finish between Cup driver Larson and NASCAR Xfinity Series regular Sheldon Creed in the Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway drew controversy. The pair made contact in turns 1 and 2 on the final lap, and that allowed Noah Gragson to cruise the victory out of turn 4. By finishing second, Creed ultimately missed out on the opportunity to compete for the championship in the playoffs.
At the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL last Sunday (Oct. 9), a similar situation played out. After a restart with three laps to go, it was Elliott and AJ Allmendinger side-by-side on the restart. Allmendinger was going for the third Cup win of his career and his first of the 2022 season, and he wasted no time getting to the front after roughing up Elliott in the first set of corners. Elliott then dropped to third, where he was later spun by Reddick after the latter sent his car on the inside of a turn. In both instances, the drivers that made contact with Elliott were either eliminated from the playoffs or not in the playoffs at all.
With Elliott already locked into the Round of 8, his spin — while costing him a shot at the win — did not cost him a shot at the championship. But if it was another driver that was barely above the cut line leading, the battle for the lead would’ve had major implications in the championship fight.
That said, non-playoff drivers that aren’t dipping into a lower series are still racing every week. They are racing for their sponsors, their teams and themselves. It would be foolish to ask them to back off or take fewer risks in the final 10 races, especially when they are trying to end the season on a high note.
But last weekend’s finish at the ROVAL led to yet another disappointing finish where everyone — both playoff and non-playoff drivers — collectively forgot how to drive. The finish that normally happens at Talladega was saved for the ROVAL, as there were more incidents in the final six laps than can be counted on one hand.
With both playoff and non-playoff drivers refusing to give an inch in a high-intensity cutoff race, the common denominator appears to be the playoff system itself.
Can Noah Gragson reach 10 wins in the 2022 Xfinity season?
Gragson had three wins in the first 23 races of the 2022 Xfinity season. He then followed it up with a record-tying four wins in a row to bring his 2022 total to seven. Just four races remain in the season, and while it would be an improbable feat, Gragson has a chance of hitting a mark that would’ve been unthinkable just two months ago: 10 wins in a single season.
Gragson would have to win three of the final four, but he has found great success at the remaining races on the schedule. He led 52 laps and finished second in his hometown race at Vegas in the spring, and JR Motorsports as a whole has been firing on all cylinders at the 1.5-mile tracks.
Next up is Homestead, a track where Gragson has had a cartoon anvil fall on him thrice. In the 2020 doubleheader, he had insurmountable leads in both races until late cautions left him empty handed. In last year’s race, he was two laps from the checkered flag when David Starr had a flat tire and crashed right into him. If the last two years are any indication, Gragson will be the favorite once again.
In addition, Gragson is the defending winner of the Martinsville fall race and he won at Phoenix earlier this year in dominating fashion.
It’s not unheard of for someone to go on a winning streak at the end of the season, either. Just last year, Larson won four of the final five races of the 2021 Cup season to become the first 10-time winner since Jimmie Johnson in 2007.
Gragson reaching 10 wins is a still a long shot, but if he scores another victory this Saturday (Oct. 15), the rest of the field will be put on notice.
Three races until the Cup finale at Phoenix. Who gets in?
Giving the eliminations of Kevin Harvick and Reddick in the first round and the shocking elimination of Larson in the second, the race to reach the Championship 4 may very turn into a crapshoot.
The only driver with a substantial points cushion heading into Vegas is Elliott, as he enters Round of 8 opener 31 points above the cut. Unless he has multiple DNFs, he will have the best chance of pointing his way into the last round.
It’s a tossup from there. Joey Logano showed great speed at the end of the regular season, and he also has superstition on his side: Logano has made the Championship 4 in every even-numbered year since the elimination format began in 2014. Conversely, he has never made the Championship 4 in an odd-numbered year.
With two 1.5-mile tracks headlining the Round of 8, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Christopher Bell and Hamlin will have a great chance of winning or racking up points. Ross Chastain and the No. 1 team have been off their peak for the past few months, but they also excelled at 1.5-mile tracks in the first half of the season. For William Byron, the No. 24 team has become hot at the right time, not to mention the fact that he also won at Martinsville in the spring.
Blaney may not have a win this season, but he was a frontrunner for much of the Round of 12. And while Chase Briscoe may not have the stats and accolades that the other seven drivers left have, he has already made it to the Round of 8 despite everyone counting him out.
Any predictions grounded in past results will be offset by random mechanical failures and crashes. But when the dust settles at Martinsville on Oct. 30, the following four drivers will duke it out under the Arizona sun: Elliott, Bell, Byron and Blaney.
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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