August 13, 2022

By Bob Pockras
FOX Sports Writer NASCAR

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

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

The 26-race regular season defines 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 driver scores points? Could a driver with a win actually miss the playoffs?

Denny Hamlin breaks down NASCAR playoff berths

Denny Hamlin breaks down NASCAR playoff berths

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 on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. At this point, it’s easy to imagine five more 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 playoffs.

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

“I don’t think we think about it until there are 16 winners and there is one race or more left.”

Conventional wisdom says that won’t happen. After all, it hasn’t happened yet, and the riders who have won races this year have, for the most part, continued to race ahead.

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. These races are 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 are more winners than playoff berths

Justin Marks on there are more winners than playoff berths

Justin Marks said he wouldn’t think there would be more winners than playoff berths until there were 16 winners with at least one race remaining in NASCAR’s regular season.

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

“There won’t be 17 winners,” he said. “We can drop that one. No chance. You’ll be lucky to get 14.”

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

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

“Never say never, but for us it’s still as smart a race as it gets,” Busch said ahead of Sonoma.

Cindric needed a fifth-place finish in Sonoma to edge Busch in the standings. As much as he wanted to be happy for Suarez (and he was), he sees the growing likelihood of 17 winners and, with that, the possibility that his Daytona 500 win won’t put him in the playoffs as originally thought. .

“It’s obviously something you have to be careful about,” Cindric said. “You are watching the final reboot [at Sonoma], and I line up sixth or seventh, and I’m the first winner in line. You have to pay attention to these things.

“I’m not blind. It won’t change the way I race and try to maximize the day. … Top 16 points is the easiest way to lock myself in.”

Indeed, as long as the pilots take a victory and are among the top 16 in the standings, there is no way for them to be eliminated.

However, a driver like Cindric, currently 18th overall, has to worry about drivers below him in the standings picking up a win and overtaking him in the points. A driver ahead of him in the standings who takes a win won’t make much of a difference.

Austin Cindric on the playoffs and current standings

Austin Cindric on the 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 yet to win this year: Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Bubba Wallace and Brad Keselowski.

Four of them – Blaney, Truex, Bell and Almirola – are in the top 11 of the standings. Almirola is seven points clear of 12th (and winless) Kevin Harvick for the current last points spot.

For his part, Bell does not want to hear about the possibility of 17 winners.

“Stop talking about it,” he said, laughing.

Christopher Bell’s plan for the NASCAR playoffs

Christopher Bell's plan for the NASCAR playoffs

Christopher Bell talks about his strategy to make the NASCAR playoffs.

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

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

Some drivers try not to sweat. They view the bubble and the chatter about whether there might be more winners than playoff berths as noise. Do the work on the trail, and those things take care of themselves.

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

“I have so many other things to think about – trying to help with the cars and going to different places every week – that I can’t really keep track of the points.”

Kevin Harvick on his playoff position

Kevin Harvick on his playoff position

Kevin Harvick says he won’t worry about his position in terms of the NASCAR playoff bubble.

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Thinking out loud

NASCAR made a good call ahead of Saturday’s truck race: If Daniel Suarez relieved Carson Hocevar in the race at Sonoma and then won, Hocevar couldn’t use that victory for an automatic playoff bid.

While NASCAR never faced this issue during the playoff era, it’s something that seemed possible when Hocevar (broken shin) planned to start the race and, at some point, hand over the wheel. to Suarez (who ended up finishing sixth).

The driver who starts the race is the official driver and earns the points. It is well established in motorsport that the starting driver earns points even if the relief driver finishes.

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

It would be better if there was a separate rule; currently, it is NASCAR’s decision whether a win should not count for the playoffs based on infractions or actions deemed detrimental to the race. And while it’s unintentional in this case due to the severity of Hocevar’s injury, it would be detrimental to the race to award a playoff bid for a win when the driver making the playoffs doesn’t. was not in the seat to cross the finish line.

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Statistics of the day

With the victory of Daniel Suarez (Mexico) in Sonoma, five international drivers won the 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 this far, I wasn’t going to give up here.” — Suarez after his victory in Sonoma

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the last 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after 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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