Race Weekend Central

Final Four-Gazing

As we fast approach the halfway point of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, the all-important 10-race playoff stretch that will crown this year’s champion looms ever closer.

To date, 10 drivers have won a race and have thus locked themselves into the run for the championship and six more will etch their names into the playoff picture over the next nine weeks.

That battle alone will be fascinating to watch as we visit a disparate selection of tracks in the next couple months with the Chicago Street Course, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Watkins Glen International and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

These, as well as Pocono Raceway, are all capable of producing unexpected winners which will only serve to put pressure on those drivers currently on or around the bubble.

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So at the risk of ridicule down the line and likely some kind of egregious error, I’m going to list out my final four – the drivers I think will compete for the big prize at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5.

I’m going to start with two drivers I think will just miss out and both have the first name Kyle. Yep, I’m talking about Mr. Busch and Mr. Larson. Both should certainly be in contention, and chances are one or both may very well make the big dance, but for the purposes of this prognostication, my guess is both miss out, perhaps by a handful of points.

The two other drivers I think just miss out are Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain. Both made the Championship 4 in 2022 with Chastain’s Hail Melon move at Martinsville Speedway to make up the points he so desperately needed at the expense of Denny Hamlin, a highlight reel video game move for the ages – now since outlawed.

Bell won twice at the sharp end of the playoffs – at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL to secure his place in the next round where anything less than a win wouldn’t have got it done.

He then backed it up, winning again in the penultimate race at Martinsville to secure his shot for the title. Both, like Larson and Busch, may very well make the final four and in fact the four I’ve left out might just be the quartet.

But with all that said, onto the four I think make it all the way to the big dance. I’ll start with William Byron, who looks to be having the breakout season his talent has promised but not necessarily delivered.

His three wins are tied with Kyle Busch for the series lead but the fact that the W’s came at Darlington Raceway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway – three crucial playoff tracks – really helps cement his credentials.

Byron has looked fast just about everywhere and were it not for his 60-point penalty, he would lead the standings by almost a full race (+42). As it is, he’s tucked in nicely in second, just 18 behind the second veteran driver on my list.

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That wheelman would be Martin Truex Jr. who appears reborn in 2023 after a struggle in a winless 2022. The 2017 Cup Series champ has two points paying wins (Dover Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway) not to mention the Busch Light Clash victory.

Truex was in an ebullient mood following his second-place result at Nashville last weekend noting: “The cars are good, the team is doing a good job and the pit crew is doing a good job as well. Execute and doing all we need to. We came up a little short tonight, but proud of our speed and execution.”

Truex has noted in the past that he had left wins on the table in 2022, but he’s making the most of this season and that’s a bad sign for everyone else. A second title is very possible.

And on the topic of titles is NASCAR’s nearly man Denny Hamlin. Sure, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer with 49 wins (tied with former teammate Tony Stewart) and three Daytona 500 wins, but he’s still chasing that elusive first championship.

Last season in the playoffs Hamlin was remarkably consistent, but he just missed out on running for it all thanks to the “Hail Melon.”

This season, I think Hamlin goes back to the final four for a fifth time and who knows, maybe this is the year his luck all comes together. It would certainly be interesting to see the fan reaction if he does win it at Phoenix. A title won’t define Hamlin’s stellar career but it sure would shut up the haters.

My final driver is the two-time champion Joey Logano. The Team Penske veteran only has one win on the season (Atlanta Motor Speedway), but he’s a driver we’ve seen time and time again throughout his storied career find a way to get it done when it really matters. Sure, he’s not running that well this year but when the time comes, there’s no more ruthless and focused driver than Logano. He’ll win when it counts and make his way once more to the final four. You just watch.

So, there’s my final four: Byron, Logano, Hamlin and Truex. And since I’m in a tipping state of mind, my prediction is that Martin Truex Jr. wins a second championship.

Who have you got? Tell me below in the comments.

About the author

Danny starts his 12th year with Frontstretch in 2018, writing the Tuesday signature column 5 Points To Ponder. An English transplant living in San Francisco, by way of New York City, he’s had an award-winning marketing career with some of the biggest companies sponsoring sports. Working with racers all over the country, his freelance writing has even reached outside the world of racing to include movie screenplays.

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Interesting choices. I just hope that wrecker Chastain doesn’t make it to the final four. And I am disagreeing about Kyle Busch. I think he will be in the hunt at Phoenix.

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