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  • Writer's pictureAdam Tropper

A Comprehensive Preview of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs

Adam Tropper - Motorsports Today Contributor



There are many interesting storylines that have developed through the first 26 races of the 2023 Cup Series season. As NASCAR’s historic 75th season is nearing its end, today we’ll be diving right into everything you need to know before watching the 10 race playoff series unfold.





What are the playoffs anyway?


Since 2004, NASCAR has determined it’s champion at the highest level by resetting the top 10-13 drivers in points (depending on the year) after the 26th race of the season. Then known as “The Chase”, the driver with the most points after the following 10 races won the championship.


This was the case until 2014, when NASCAR introduced the playoff format. This is a multi-round, bracket elimination style tournament in which 16 drivers compete for the championship. After the first 3 races, the bottom four in points are eliminated. This process continues until only 4 drivers remain championship eligible, resulting in a one-race, winner-take-all finale would decide the champion.


Seeding is based off of “playoff points,” which are awarded throughout the season. A driver earns 1 playoff point for winning a stage in the regular season, and 5 playoff points for winning a race. Playoff points are distributed to the top 10 drivers in the regular season standings before the postseason as well.


The Tracks


Each round of the playoffs will consist of 3 races. The schedule is as follows:


Round of 16

Darlington (Southern 500)

Kansas

Bristol Night Race

Round of 12

Texas

Talladega

Charlotte Roval


Round of 8

Las Vegas

Homestead-Miami

Martinsville


Championship Race

Phoenix




With that being said, below you will find a comprehensive report of each of the 16 drivers who will be competing in the 10th iteration of the current NASCAR Playoffs.



Bubba Wallace


Seeded 16th on the playoff bracket with 2,000 points is a driver making his first playoff appearance. The 6th-year driver is currently in the midst of his 3rd season with the Michael Jordan co-owned 23XI Racing. As the figurehead of the organization driving the teams’ #23 entry, the Toyota driver has notability put an immense amount of pressure on himself to perform. While some have said the pressure may have gotten to him, he has proven otherwise looking at his 2023 stats. A career year in terms of laps led (159) and average finish (16.8), along with 23XI no longer being just a start-up and showing more consistency has allowed Bubba to show his potential. Having notched top 5s at both Darlington and Kansas (the same track in which he won last fall) earlier this season, he might be the biggest sleeper pick in the playoff field. If Bubba can stay out of trouble, expect him to advance out of the first round and surprise a ton of people.


Kevin Harvick


15th on the playoff grid with 2,004 points is none other than “the closer” Kevin Harvick. In his 23rd and final season, the soon-to-be first ballot hall of famer will be looking to end his career on a high note. While Stewart-Haas Racing has had struggles all across the board, Harvick is continuing to prove his superstar status, bringing his #4 Mustang to the postseason once again. While he has yet to win during his #4ever farewell tour, he has already notched 6 top 5s, 12 top 10s, a very respectable 13.8 average finish, and finished 8th in the regular season standings. Harvick will absolutely be motivated to get a win before he calls it a career, and he has already conquered most of the remaining tracks on the schedule. In fact, the final race of the season is at Phoenix, the track in which he has a record 9 wins. Could Harvick ride off into the sunset and end his illustrious career by winning a 2nd championship?


Ricky Stenhouse Jr.


Stenhouse is having a career defining season. Driving for the single-car organization of JTG Daugherty Racing, he was triumphant at the end of the Daytona 500. This gave him his 3rd career win and first since 2017, and for JTG it was only their 2nd career win (2014 Watkins Glen - A.J Allmendinger). For Stenhouse, he’ll be making his 2nd run at a Cup Series Championship. Via an average finish of 16.7, he has been able to hover around 15th in the regular season standings throughout the year. Realistically, he will likely be knocked out after the round of 16 unless his competitors get unlucky.


Michael McDowell


If you want to see an inspirational story, look no further than the 13th seed of Michael McDowell. The former start-and-park driver has found his home at Front Row Motorsports in recent years and together they have been proving doubters wrong every race. Since his 2021 Daytona 500 win, McDowell and Front Row as a whole made incredible strides, in part due to the introduction of the next gen car. Making the playoffs by virtue of a dominating win at the Indianapolis Road Course, along with consistency and raw speed have put the #34 entry in position to make a legitimate playoff run. While McDowell is only averaging a 18.5 average finish this season (down from 16.7 in 2022), he has led more laps (92) and the entire Front Row organization finally has enough momentum to move out of the mid-pack.


Ryan Blaney


Seeded 12th on the playoff bracket is the driver of the #12 Penske Mustang. Blaney is in an interesting situation, as last season he barely snuck into the playoffs getting in on points as the only winless driver. This year, however, he locked himself in by winning the Coca-Cola 600. Unfortunately, the consistency and speed has just not been there for Blaney - or any of the Penske cars for that matter. His 15.8 average finish and 348 laps led allows me to believe he’ll be in contention to advance past the first round just by being able to run up front, but if he can’t close out any of these races, don’t expect to see a deep run from him this year.



Joey Logano


Blaney’s teammate and the deafening series champion is up next seeded 11th. Frankly, Joey Logano is experiencing a “championship hangover.” While he got a win at Atlanta early in the season by making a last lap pass on Brad Keselowski, he’s not exactly showing that the #22 team is capable of going back-to-back. It should be noted that he has 13 top 10s and an average finish of 15.2, showing that he can keep his car clean and put together solid finishes. Plus, his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is one of the best in the garage. However, as previously noted, Penske Racing as a whole has been in a down year. Logano does have wins at the majority of the tracks left on the schedule, and his experience should be enough to advance to at least the round of 12.


Tyler Reddick


Going into the playoffs last season, Reddick was considered a championship favorite, only to be knocked out in the first round. This year, he’s with a new team, but hasn’t necessarily gotten the same results. Driving the #45 Toyota for 23XI Racing, Reddick was expected to immediately make waves, coming off of a 3 win campaign with RCR. To his credit, he picked up an early win at COTA this year, but after a miserable summer stretch the entire team hasn’t been in the championship conversation. A disappointing 16.9 average finish is not what Reddick was anticipating, but he still has raw talent and great tracks on the schedule for him to bank off of. In the first round alone 23XI and Toyota has had a stronghold on Kansas and deeper into the playoffs tracks like Homestead and Texas suit him well. Whether he flames out or makes a deep run remains to be seen.


Brad Keselowski


Returning to the postseason after a disappointing 2022 campaign is Brad Keselowski. This will be his first playoff appearance as a driver and owner, after moving to the renamed Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing prior to the 2022 season. His efforts to revamp the organization have paid off, and RFK has firmly established that they are the top Ford team in the garage. While Keselowski has yet to win as an owner, he has been knocking on the door for months. This season he’s notched 2 runner up finishes, along with 6 top 5s, 11 top 10s, a 13.8 average finish, and managed to finish 5th in the regular season point standings. Keselowski is a hungry veteran that now has a car that can put him back in victory lane. The biggest question in when. He has wins at half of the remaining tracks on the schedule, and his teammate Chris Buescher won at Bristol last season after Keselowski himself dominated the race. Expect the #6 team to be in contention well into the playoffs.


Ross Chastain


As we head into the top half of this years playoff bracket, it’s fitting to mention maybe the most polarizing driver over the course of the last year and a half. Ross Chastain, otherwise known as the Melon Man, has risen to prominence with Trackhouse Racing. His “Hail Melon” move at Martinsville last year as well as his aggressive racing style has skyrocketed him to a superstar status among fans. Unfortunately for Ross, 2023 has not been the breakout season we were expecting. While he does have a win at Nashville under his belt that came in very convincing fashion, Trackhouse just hasn’t shown as much speed in the latter portion of the season. Since his Nashville win, he has only posted 1 top 10 finish (Michigan) in the 9 most recent races. While he has led 482 laps, including almost 100 laps at Darlington earlier this season, I don’t think he’ll be competing for a championship at Phoenix again this season.


Christopher Bell


While Bell has not emerged as the top JGR driver as many predicted, he has had a very solid season. The 4th year driver will make his 3rd playoff appearance, coming into the postseason with an average finish of 13.6, 13 top 10s, and a regular season finish of 4th which equates to a very respectable season. His consistency, along with having Adam Stevens at the helm of his #20 Toyota team, can lead to a deep playoff run. Expect Bell to be a factor until the very end, almost definitely being in the round of 8 and a sleeper candidate to be in contention at Phoenix.


Kyle Larson


The 2021 Champion has struggled this year by his normal standards. Regardless, he’s still the 6th seed on the playoff grid with 2,017 points by virtue of 2 early wins at Richmond and Martinsville, respectively. Unfortunately for Larson, this season has been plagued by inconsistency. His average finish of 16th along with 6 DNFs is among the worst of the playoff field. The one thing that might save Larson, however, is his team. Hendrick Motorsports is a staple of success, and with only 2 of their drivers competing for the championship this year, more attention might go to the #5 team. Additionally, Cliff Daniels is arguably the best crew chief out there, and if anyone can play the strategy to get Larson to the front it’s him. Putting all of this into perspective, it’s difficult to predict where Larson’s season will end, but if he somehow makes it to Phoenix, he’ll be a player for sure having dominated the race there early in the year.


Kyle Busch


Rowdy is on a revenge tour at the moment. After a very successful 15 year stint at JGR, he moved to the RCR #8 team at the beginning of this year, injecting new life into him. Already having secured 3 wins this year, Kyle Busch is in prime position to go for a historic 3rd Cup Series Championship. There have been some growing pains at RCR, as Busch has 5 DNFs and an average finish of 14.1, but Busch is known for always getting the best out of his equipment. Having Randall Burnett on top of the box, along with a hungry Richard Childress should lead to Kyle making a deep run to Phoenix. Expect at least 1 more win from Rowdy in 2023 and maybe even seeing him take home the gold.


Chris Buescher


I think everyone has known for a while that Chris Buescher is one of the most underrated drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series garage, but almost no one expected the breakout season he’s having. In the last 5 races, Buescher has been victorious in 3, giving him more momentum heading into the postseason than anyone else. He’s more than doubled his career win total in the process and can easily get more before seasons’ end, as he won the Bristol Night Race last season as well. The #17 mustang has put together a quietly incredible season, setting career highs in EVERY statistical category. His average finish of 12.2 is the second best among all Cup drivers this season (Truex), and RFK has showed that these results aren’t a fluke. With tracks such as Bristol, Talladega, and his home track of Texas still remaining, Buescher is a dark horse candidate to make the final 4 and maybe even secure his first championship.


Denny Hamlin


The driver of the #11 JGR Toyota has had a very good season. The aging veteran has showed no signs of slowing down, already having 2 wins to his name this year (including his 50th career cup win at Pocono). With 9 top 5s, and average finish of 12.3, and 4 poles, Hamlin definitely has the speed. Long known for his inability to win a Cup Series Championship, he may finally be poised to take home his first.



Martin Truex Jr.


In one year, Truex went from not making the playoffs to being the regular season champion. While that’s a massive turnaround on the stat sheet, you can’t be too surprised. He already has 3 wins this year to go with great consistency, putting up 15 top 10s and an average finish of 11.4 (both series highs). Truex has already made the championship round 5 times in his career, and there is no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do it again in 2023. Watch out for him and his #19 crew to be a massive threat for the championship.



William Byron


At the top of the playoff grid with 2,036 points, we have the driver of the legendary #24 machine - William Byron. Byron has shown flashes on potential in recent seasons, but this is the year him and crew chief Rudy Fugle are finally putting all the pieces together. Byron has already more than doubled his career win total, earning a series high 5 wins this season. Notching 9 top 5s, 13 top 10s, an average finish of 12.8, and a series leading 877 laps led as well, watch out for Willy B and Hendrick Motorsports to not only make it to Phoenix, but to be the likely driver to beat for the title.



Now that we laid down the basics, get ready to fasten your seatbelts because this is possibly the strongest playoff field we've ever seen. Tune in to the USA network this Sunday, September 3rd at 6:00 p.m and enjoy the ride!


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