INSIGHT: Is this NASCAR’s most unpredictable playoff field yet?

INSIGHT: Is this NASCAR’s most unpredictable playoff field yet?

Ryan Blaney didn’t know seven was the lucky number, but now that he does, and considering how he made the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, he’s got to be happy to be seeded there. 

Twice in the playoff era (2014 to the present), the eventual Cup Series champion has emerged from the seventh seed. It’s not that the seed is better than any others because more times than not — four, actually — the champion was the first seed. Two other times he came from the fifth seed. But the seventh seed is significant because it’s the lowest a driver started the playoffs and won the championship. 

“I didn’t know that,” Blaney said. “I think we can definitely do it .”

Kevin Harvick, in 2014, was the first to do it in the debut year of the elimination format. Joey Logano was the most recent in 2018 and, more importantly, the only one to do so since the field was seeded based on regular-season performance and with playoff points in the mix. 

If there was a consensus from the 2022 playoff drivers this week, it’s that there is no favorite for this championship. There were 16 different winners in the regular season, and with there still being unknowns about the Next Gen car, there’s no reason to count anyone out. 

“It’s all about trying to just stay in the game,” Blaney said. “You never know what can change and who can have trouble. You just hope it’s not you, and you don’t want to make any mistakes. As a driver — as a team in general — there is going to be adversity you have to overcome. That’s part of it. 

“You’re not going to have a completely smooth 10 weeks. You’re going to have things that are going to go wrong, and you have to adapt to them. I definitely think we can do it; it’s just a matter of improving on some stuff that’s kind of bit us throughout the year. But I think this team is ready to do it.” 

RACER polled some of the other drivers seeded further down the grid on their optimism toward winning the championship from the lowest seed yet. 

Tyler Reddick in the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing is seeded eighth. It is Reddick’s second appearance in the playoffs, and this year he comes in with two wins. 

Reddick: “With the way this year has looked and how tight the competition has been, I don’t know why we’d rule ourselves out before it gets started. The way this car’s raced, less and less you see the dominant car win. It’s about executing all day long. I think, why not? The eight seed is not a bad number. It kind of fits.” 

Harvick was the first driver to not only survive and advance but win in NASCAR’s first-ever playoff elimination format. Two wins late in the regular season have Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team looking every bit the contenders they expect to be regardless of being seeded ninth. 

Harvick: “I think those are just numbers. I don’t think anything adds up this year compared to what it has in years past. It’s just so much different than anything we’ve done in the past. I think this year is way closer than it’s ever been before, from second to 16th. It sure feels wide-open. Based on the first 26 races, it feels like everybody’s got a chance.” 

Elliott’s No. 9 might be the favorite by the numbers, but what does that really mean? Not much, reckons Harvick. Nigel Kinrade / Motorsport Images

Christopher Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team are back for more in the Cup Series playoffs. After getting his first run at it last year, Bell believes his team is fully capable of going all the way from the 10th seed. 

Bell: “Oh, absolutely. That’s really shocking to me that’s the case , but I really think this year it’s anyone’s ballgame.” 

While Kyle Busch is a two-time Cup Series champion, and neither one was easy to win, Busch was seeded first in both of those years (2015 and ’19). The only multiple-time champion in the field, if Busch wants to win a third, he will have to do it from the 11 seed. Naturally, Busch believes his team can. 

Busch: “The points are really tight; there’s no real clear runaway. Chase has a little bit of a lead, but the rest of us are all pretty close, especially fourth on back. So, I’d like to think that this year is going to be a bit different for a lot of reasons, and I think the car is obviously a huge piece of that with just the parity.” 

One of the first-time playoff drivers is Daniel Suarez in the No. 99 for Trackhouse Racing. Can he continue what has already been a career high by winning the championship from the 13th seed? 

Suarez: “Yeah, I totally think so. If we were in last year, I would tell you, ‘Oh man, this guy’s going to win it,’ or ‘This guy’s going to win,’ because the gaps were so big. With this car, if you tell me who’s going to win Darlington and you get it right, I’ll give you a thousand bucks. I don’t think you’re going to get it right. There is no one guy. Anyone can be good. I love that about this car. It’s unpredictable. Everyone has the same opportunity.” 

The playoffs are a good reset for Alex Bowman and the No. 48 team from Hendrick Motorsports. No one wants to see the summer months and their struggles in the rearview mirror more. But Bowman has a tall task trying to win the championship from the 15th seed. 

Bowman: “I don’t think it’s any taller than it is from the fifth seed. It’s all super close through there. Playoff points obviously matter; we don’t have many, but it’s all really close. I think we can get the job done regardless.” 

Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing would be the Cinderella story if he were to win the Cup Series championship. The last driver to make the playoff field with a walk-off win at Daytona last weekend, Dillon came to media day and walked right past the Bill France Cup, proclaiming it was a nice-looking trophy before taking his seat. Can Dillon win that trophy as the 16th and final seed?

Dillon: “Why not? I heard a stat earlier that we’re like 10 points out of fifth, so it’s pretty tight if you look at it that way. I’m confident at the tracks in the playoffs. RCR has shown speed at every type of track, with Tyler winning the road courses and us winning the superspeedway. Martinsville, I finished third and probably was the second-best car there. You’ve got some mile-and-a-halfs. Charlotte, we probably should have won the 600 — that was really close there when it got down to it. I’m happy to be in this spot and I feel like we’re the dog, obviously. A lot of people are already putting us out, which is fine with me because it takes the pressure off. We’ll go have fun and try to upset some of these guys and survive and advance from here on out.” 

Reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson won the championship from the top seed a year ago. Chase Elliott begins the playoffs Sunday evening (6 p.m. ET, USA) as the top seed. When Elliott won the championship in 2020, he was the fifth seed. 

Joey Logano, the No. 2 seed, won the pole for the Southern 500.