Elliott, Larson enter Cup Series playoffs as favorites

The last two champions in NASCAR’s top series give Hendrick Motorsports hope for a 15th title

Charlotte Motor Speedway, using the Roval configuration, will be the sixth stop in 10-race Cup Series Playoffs. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

The Cup Series playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington, and the last two champions of NASCAR’s top series enter the 2022 postseason as the favorites.

The 10-race playoffs will snake across the country, making stops in Kansas, Las Vegas, Florida and more during the two-month race to the championship. That includes a stop at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 9 for the popular Roval. It ends Nov. 6 in Phoenix when a new champion will be crowned. Here’s a look at all 16 playoff participants and their chances to win the title.

The favorites

Kyle Larson (5) and Chase Elliott (9) will each be trying to win their second NASCAR Cup Series title when the 10-race playoffs begin Sunday at Darlington. (Rick Scuteri / AP Photo)500
Chase Elliott
9 • Hendrick Motorsports

The 2020 champion won this year’s regular season title, notching series highs in both wins (four) and laps led (719). Elliott also tied for the lead with 10 top fives. He didn’t win until the 11th race of the season, at Dover, but reached Victory Lane three more times to double the number of wins of any other competitor. He was kept out of the Winner’s Circle last postseason but still reached the championship race in Phoenix. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will have the fans behind him as he looks for his second Cup title.

Kyle Larson
5 • Hendrick Motorsports

The defending champion won just twice so far in 2022 after piling up 10 victories during his title run last year, but Larson remains a threat to repeat. The 30-year-old Californian won two weeks ago at Watkins Glen but finished last in Sunday’s regular season finale at Daytona with engine troubles. Larson joins Elliott as the top contender for the title, but he doesn’t carry the same momentum into this postseason as he did last year.

The contenders

Kyle Busch
18 • Joe Gibbs Racing

It’s been a tumultuous season for Busch, who still doesn’t have certainty on if he’ll return to Joe Gibbs Racing next year and beyond. Still, who is going to rule out Rowdy? Busch had just one win this year, on the dirt at Bristol back in April, but seemed to run into bad luck — or get “Chastained” — several times during the regular season. If Busch can focus on redemption and not revenge, he’ll have a chance to make noise — and maybe force Joe Gibbs’ hand.

Denny Hamlin
11 • Joe Gibbs Racing

The biggest moment of Hamlin’s season was the win that got away. Or rather, the win that was taken away. Hamlin was stripped of his victory at Pocono after his Toyota Camry failed the post-race inspection. It was a major show of force by NASCAR as Hamlin became the first winner to be disqualified in more than six decades. While he only had seven top 10s, Hamlin won twice and is hungry for an elusive championship.

Kevin Harvick
4 • Stewart-Haas Racing

No one is hotter entering the playoffs than Harvick, who has won twice this month and had the inside track to victory Sunday at Daytona before he was caught up in a late wreck. The 46-year-old has reached the Round of 8 in 12 straight seasons, finishing third or better eight times and winning his lone title in 2014. In a season in which there doesn’t seem to be a dominant team, the cagy Harvick is as good a bet as anyone.

Joey Logano
22 • Team Penske

Logano finished second in the regular season standings and did it by staying out of trouble. The 2018 champion had just three DNFs in 26 regular season races, helping him pile up points with 12 top 10s. Logano has two wins this season, including at Darlington — where the postseason’s first race this weekend will be held. The rest of the schedule favors Logano’s history: He has multiple career Cups wins at playoff tracks Bristol, Kansas, Las Vegas, Talladega and Phoenix.

The rest

Christopher Bell
20 • Joe Gibbs Racing

Bell punched his ticket to the postseason with a win at New Hampshire, his second career victory. Bell’s 14 top 10 finishes were tied for the second most through 26 races. That included doing well earlier this season at the first three tracks on the postseason schedule: He was sixth at Darlington, fifth at Kansas and seventh on the dirt at Bristol. A performance like that in the next three weeks will allow him to coast into the second round of the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney
12 • Team Penske

Blaney is the only driver in the playoffs without a win this season, edging Martin Truex Jr. for the open spot vacated when Kurt Busch bowed out of the postseason due to his ongoing concussion issues. The 2022 season has been a step back so far for Blaney, who reached Victory Lane three times last year and has managed a dozen top 10s this year. All that said, Team Penske is always dangerous and Blaney has two career wins at Talladega and another at Charlotte’s Roval. First, he’ll need to advance that far.

Alex Bowman
48 • Hendrick Motorsports

Bowman shook off two poor finishes to start the season by winning the third race of the year at Las Vegas. He followed that with five top 10s — including a runner-up at Circuit of the Americas — in the next eight races. But Bowman struggled the rest of the way, with ninth-place finishes at Kansas and Michigan being his best performances in the final 15 races. Bowman didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs last year and will need to turn around his season to do so this year.

Chase Briscoe
14 • Stewart-Haas Racing

Briscoe had the fewest top 10s (four) of any driver to earn a spot in the postseason, but the 27-year-old picked up his first career win at Phoenix to get into the playoffs. He enters the postseason with five straight finishes outside the top 20, and his fourth place at Charlotte in late May is the last time he cracked the top 10. These playoffs should be viewed as a learning experience for last season’s top rookie.

William Byron
24 • Hendrick Motorsports

Byron is one of eight drivers to win multiple times during the regular season, getting to Victory Lane twice in four weeks early in the season with victories at Atlanta and Martinsville. Unfortunately, those wins were half of his four top fives, and Byron finished with just five top 10s after posting 20 of them a year ago. He still sits in fifth place in points entering the first race of the postseason, so the No. 24 team could still make some noise if they can figure things out.

Ross Chastain (1) had a breakthrough season for upstart Trackhouse Racing, but despite winning a pair of races this year he has drawn the ire of several other drivers and been accused of being reckless. (AJ Mast / AP Photo)
Ross Chastain
1 • Trackhouse Racing

Chastain had a breakout season, winning twice while finishing third in regular season points for upstart Trackhouse Racing. So why isn’t Chastain in a higher tier of contenders? His 14 top 10 finishes are probably only outnumbered by the enemies he’s made with his reckless driving. Kyle Busch has already promised revenge, and the veteran will know when to meter it out when it hurts the most. Chastain will need to keep his nose clean — and watch his back — to advance.

Austin Cindric
2 • Team Penske

Cindric started the season with a bang by winning the Daytona 500 and was the runaway best rookie in 2022. The playoffs will be a good learning experience for the 23-year-old, who won the Xfinity title in 2020 and was runner-up in 2021. Cindric has shown the ability to compete at all different kinds of tracks — on top of two great showings at Daytona this season, he had top fives on both a short track and two road courses.

Austin Dillon
3 • Richard Childress Racing

Dillon squeezed his way into the postseason with a win Sunday at Daytona, marking the third time in four years the No. 3 has reached the playoffs. Dillon led just 18 laps this season, but that includes a handful in each of the last two races. The 32-year-old will always have a puncher’s chance as long as there is a superspeedway on the playoff slate, and momentum is on the No. 3’s side after the clutch win at Daytona.

Tyler Reddick
8 • Richard Childress Racing

Reddick claimed his first career Cup win at the start of July at Road America and quickly got his second at Indianapolis’ road course. The 26-year-old seems to be figuring it out, but his announcement that he’s leaving RCR for 23XI Racing in 2024 has caused some friction in Welcome. His eight top five finishes this year more than doubled his career total and he enters the playoffs with four top 10s in his last six starts.

Daniel Suarez
99 • Trackhouse Racing

Suarez got his first career win in his six-year career with a victory at Sonoma in June. It also gave him his first playoff berth. The 30-year-old Mexican has had far and away his best Cup season, posting six top five finishes and 10 top 10s. Suarez is always a threat on road courses but hasn’t had much success on the one non-oval on the playoff schedule — he’s finished 21st, 34th, 25th and 13th in his four Charlotte Roval races.