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Up to Speed: Is There Strength Among Teammates in the NASCAR Playoffs?

With four races left in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, eight drivers remain in championship contention. It is no surprise that five of those drivers come from either Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports.

The JGR drivers still standing are Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell, all of whom were expected to make the postseason and have competed in the Championship 4 race at least once before. HMS has experienced a bit more upheaval this season with both Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman left out of the playoffs. But the two Hendrick drivers who did make it in, William Byron and Kyle Larson, are still in contention.

The other three drivers still chasing a championship this year are Ryan Blaney from Team Penske, Chris Buescher from RFK Racing and Tyler Reddick from 23XI Racing. All three drivers had exactly one other teammate who made the playoffs but have since been eliminated: Joey Logano (Penske), Brad Keselowski (RFK) and Bubba Wallace (23XI). None of Blaney, Buescher or Reddick have ever run the championship race as a title contender. In fact, Buescher and Reddick have never reached the Round of 8 before. They will be facing a serious challenge to avoid elimination one more time.

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Some fans might suggest that Blaney, Buescher and Reddick actually have an advantage from this point forward because their teammates have been eliminated. The argument is that, because they are the only drivers from multicar organizations left in the championship battle, those drivers will get all the focus, resources and energy from their teams in order to win the title.

Teams like Gibbs and Hendrick, on the other hand, will have to divide their attention on several drivers racing each other for the championship, thereby making the organization’s title hopes weaker overall. It is an interesting theory, but in practice, the opposite is usually true. Especially during the playoff era, the eventual champion tends to be a driver who has at least one other teammate in title contention late in the season.

Take last year, when Logano won his second championship, as an example. The key to Logano’s success in 2022 was how he and the No. 22 team caught fire late in the season. Logano’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the third round locked him into the championship race before anyone else, setting up his dominant performance at Phoenix Raceway in the season finale. Yet Logano was not the only Penske driver who was fast at the end of the season. Blaney advanced to the third round and scored four top fives in the last seven races. Even rookie Austin Cindric made the playoffs and narrowly missed joining Blaney and Logano in the round of eight. Having Blaney and Cindric gunning for wins and a championship did not hurt Logano at all in 2022. 

The championship runs before that, by Larson in 2021 and Elliott in 2020, demonstrate that HMS has no issues with multiple drivers in title contention. All four Hendrick drivers made the Round of 12 two years ago. Larson and Elliott continued on to round three, and from that point forward nobody could touch HMS. Larson won three of the last four races of the season, a streak broken only by Bowman’s win at Martinsville Speedway after he and the No. 48 team were eliminated. In those same four races, Elliott earned three top 10s and joined Larson in the championship race. Byron also finished sixth or better in all three Round of 8 races, despite getting eliminated in the previous round. If Hendrick was trying to concentrate on Larson and Elliott, Bowman and Byron were not noticeably impacted.

Hendrick’s 2020 playoffs were a bit more lopsided in Elliott’s favor, but he was not its only driver who made a deep postseason run. Bowman was a consistency machine, scoring top 10s in seven of the nine playoff races until his elimination in the third round. A lack of playoff points proved too difficult for Bowman to overcome, but 2020 is still his most impressive playoffs to date. Besides, his success did not stop Elliott from winning three of the last five races on his way to the championship.

In 2019, JGR had no problem with multiple drivers fighting each other for the title. Hamlin, Truex, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones all made the playoffs, and all of them except for Jones advanced to the championship race. Along the way, Truex and Hamlin won two playoff races each, with Busch winning the season finale and claiming his second championship.

It is not quite the same situation as this year, where Hamlin has emerged as the clear favorite among the Gibbs drivers. Bell has flashed a lot of speed during the postseason but has not always earned the finishes to match. Truex has been completely propped up by his playoff points and has not scored a single top-15 finish in the postseason. Yet he is still one of three JGR drivers left standing, and at least one of them will likely reach the championship race.

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True instances of a driver carrying an organization to a championship are hard to find in the playoff era. Logano was the only Penske driver to get past the second round in 2018, though he did have all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers representing Ford with him in the Round of 8. Truex famously won a championship with the single-car Furniture Row Racing in 2017, although his team worked closely with JGR which also had a good representation in the playoffs that year.

Perhaps the best example in the last 10 years is Kevin Harvick’s championship in 2014. Harvick’s only SHR teammate in the postseason that year got eliminated in the first round, and none of the affiliated Hendrick cars joined him in the championship race either. Yet Harvick went on to secure his only Cup Series title.

In the age of data sharing, technical support, and greater overall cooperation, teams with multiple championship contenders late in the season tend to be the ones who win the big prize. Even if the team’s attention is split among multiple drivers, the effect seems to be better overall performance for everyone rather than internal competition. With HMS and JGR having won 50% of the Cup Series races this year, it feels like the two organizations are on a collision course for Phoenix. This season likely ends with one of their drivers hoisting the Bill France Cup.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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