Is this the year NASCAR has more winners than playoff spots?


By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

SONOMA, Calif. — A common thought in sports is to not doubt the mathematically possible.

Except when it comes to the number of winners in the NASCAR regular season.

The 26-race regular season sets the 16-driver playoff field, which consists of the regular-season champion and the next 15 drivers based on wins, with ties broken by points.

In each of the eight years of the current format, at least three winless drivers have made the playoffs on points.

But could this be the year no drivers make it on points? Could a driver with a victory actually miss the playoffs?

Denny Hamlin breaks down NASCAR playoff spots

Denny Hamlin doesn’t think there will be more winners than NASCAR playoff spots in 2022. “You’ll be lucky to have 14 [winners],” he said.

Daniel Suarez became the 12th winner in 16 races this year when he triumphed Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. At this point, it’s easy to imagine five additional winners in the next 10 events.

But ask Suarez team owner Justin Marks about it, and he doesn’t want to predict that a driver with a win could miss the postseason.

“Anything can happen,” Marks said Sunday. “I don’t really feel like it’s going to be that way.

“I don’t think we think about that until there’s 16 winners and a race or more left.” 

Conventional wisdom says it won’t happen. After all, it hasn’t happened yet, and the drivers who have won races this year have, for the most part, continued to run up front.

Three road courses (Road America, Indianapolis and Watkins Glen) as well as two drafting tracks (Atlanta and the regular-season finale at Daytona) remain in the regular season. Those races are the most likely to produce unpredictable results. The other five tracks (Nashville, New Hampshire, Pocono, Michigan and Richmond) tend to have more traditional winners.

Justin Marks on there being more winners than playoff spots

Justin Marks said he won’t think about there being more winners than playoff spots until there have been 16 winners with at least one race remaining in the NASCAR regular season.

Before Suarez won at Sonoma, Denny Hamlin scoffed at the idea of 17 winners.

“There’s not going to be 17 winners,” he said. “We can give up that one. No chance. You’ll be lucky to have 14.”

Hamlin has two victories, so he has no worries about making the playoffs. The first tiebreaker is wins, so with two victories each, Hamlin, Joey Logano, William Byron and Ross Chastain all know they are in.

But Hamlin’s 23XI Racing driver, Kurt Busch, now sits lowest in points among those with one win, seven behind Austin Cindric and 11 behind Suarez.

“Never say never, but for us, it still is racing as smart as we can,” Busch said prior to Sonoma.

Cindric needed a fifth-place finish at Sonoma to move ahead of Busch in the standings. As much as he wanted to be happy for Suarez (and he was), he is seeing the increasing likelihood of 17 winners and, with that, the possibility that his Daytona 500 win might not put him in the playoffs as initially thought.

“It’s obviously something you have to pay attention to,” Cindric said. “You look at the final restart [at Sonoma], and I’m lining up sixth or seventh, and I’m the first winner in the line. You have to pay attention to those things.

“I’m not blind to it. It’s not going to change how I race and try to maximize the day. … The top 16 in points is the easiest way to lock myself in.” 

That’s because as long as drivers have a win and are top-16 in the standings, there is no way for them to get knocked out.

However, a driver such as Cindric, currently 18th in the overall standings, has to worry about drivers below him in the standings earning a win and vaulting over him in the points. A driver ahead of him in the standings earning a win won’t make much of a difference.

Austin Cindric on playoffs and current standings

Austin Cindric could be on the playoff bubble if there are 17 Cup winners. He shares his thoughts after Daniel Suarez became the 12th winner of the season.

Seven full-time Cup drivers who won last year have not yet won this year: Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Bubba Wallace and Brad Keselowski.

Four of those — Blaney, Truex, Bell and Almirola — are in the top 11 in the standings. Almirola is seven points ahead of 12th-place (and winless) Kevin Harvick for the current last spot on points.

For his part, Bell doesn’t want to hear about the possibility of 17 winners.

“Stop bringing it up,” he said with a laugh.

Christopher Bell’s plan for the NASCAR playoffs

Christopher Bell talks about his strategy for making the NASCAR playoffs.

He did, however, acknowledge that his team makes a strategy choice at the end of stages on road courses whether to earn stage points even if it might hurt track position for the next stage.

“At some point, we’re going to run out of new first-time winners,” he said prior to Suarez’s win. “Hopefully it’s rather soon for the position I’m in in points. We’re focused on trying to become one of them.”

Some drivers try not to sweat it out. They view the bubble and the chatter about whether there might be more winners than playoff spots as just noise. Get the job done on the track, and those things take care of themselves.

“Just tell me where I’m at at the end of 26. If we are in, we’re in. If we’re out, we’re out,” Harvick said. “We either did good enough or not good enough.

“I have so much other stuff to think about — to try to help with the cars and go to different places every week — that I can’t really count points.”

Kevin Harvick on his playoff position

Kevin Harvick says he won’t be worrying about where he stands in terms of the NASCAR playoff bubble.

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Thinking out loud

NASCAR made a good decision prior to the truck race Saturday: If Daniel Suarez relieved Carson Hocevar during the race at Sonoma and then won, Hocevar wouldn’t be able to use that victory for an automatic bid to the playoffs.

While NASCAR has never been faced with this issue in its playoff format era, it is something that looked possible when Hocevar (broken tibia) planned to start the race and at some point hand the wheel to Suarez (who ended up finishing sixth).

The driver who starts the race is the driver of record and earns the points. It’s well established in motorsports that the starting driver earns the points even if the relief driver finishes.

But NASCAR can’t have teams trying to game the system by putting a relief driver in early in hopes of getting the starting driver an automatic bid with a win. 

It would be better if there were a distinct rule; currently, it’s NASCAR’s decision if a win shouldn’t count toward the playoffs based on any infractions or actions considered detrimental to racing. And while not intentional in this instance because of the seriousness of Hocevar’s injury, it would be detrimental to racing to award a playoff bid for a win when the driver making the playoffs wasn’t in the seat to cross the finish line.

Social spotlight

Stat of the day

With Daniel Suarez (Mexico) winning at Sonoma, five international drivers have won in Cup. The others are Marcos Ambrose (Australia), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Earl Ross (Canada) and Mario Andretti (Italy).

They said it

“If I was able to come all the way here, I wasn’t going to give up here.” — Suarez after his Sonoma victory

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

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