The NASCAR Cup Series season is now 16 races old, which means we are 10 races away from the Playoffs. The Playoff grid is as wide open as is has been in years. Due to penalties, suspensions, and injuries, many contenders find themselves either on the bubble or on the outside looking in.
What will the final Playoff grid look like come the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend? We at the Daily Downforce took our best guess as to how things will shake out based on how things currently stand.
Who is Already In?
In order to predict who will be in, it’s important to know which spots are taken up. With 10 races left in the season, there are 10 different winners. It is still possible, however unlikely, that there could be as much or more than 16 winners, or that there could be as much or more than 15 winners with the regular season points champion having no wins.
Therefore, only those with two wins or more are currently, technically, locked in. These four drivers are Martin Truex Jr., William Byron, Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.
All other race winners are still pretty safe, though, especially given that they are all in the top-14 in points, 70+ points above 17th in the standings. Even there were to be more than 16 winners this season, they would likely be behind the current winners in the points standings. These drivers include Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tyler Reddick, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
So, for all intents and purposes, all current winners are going to be considered locked in to the postseason. Sure, having more than 16 winners is a possibility, but there would need to be seven new winners in 10 races. That’s a pretty tall order.
Who can point their way in?
That leaves six playoff spots for the remaining 23 full-time Cup Series drivers. For many of them, pointing their way into the Playoffs is not unrealistic.
Six winless drivers currently sit in the top-16 in the points standings as follows: Ross Chastain (+173), Kevin Harvick (+172), Chris Buecher (+102), Brad Keselowski (+96), Bubba Wallace (+26), and Alex Bowman (+3).
It’s also worth noting that Chastain and Harvick currently sit only 24 and 25 points out of the regular season points lead. The regular season champion will make the playoffs regardless of whether they have won or not.
Of those currently out of the top-16, eight of them are within one race of 16th as follows:
- Daniel Suarez (-3)
- Ty Gibbs (-11)
- Michael McDowell (-14)
- AJ Allmendinger (-33)
- Austin Cindric (-39)
- Corey LaJoie (-40)
- Justin Haley (-47)
- Todd Gilliland (-52)
With 10 races remaining, there is time to gain some of these points given some stage points and some solid finishes.
Obviously, each of these drivers can win races as well. That cannot be discounted moving forward, but how necessary is a win for these drivers that are truly on the Playoff bubble?
The amount of winners does complicate which drivers can point their way in. Martin Truex Jr. missed the Playoffs last year despite being fourth in the regular season standings due to having no wins. Who are the drivers that can spoil these aspirations?
Who can burst the Playoff bubble?
A surprising amount of drivers from top teams are in must-win territory. The nine drivers sitting more than one race out of the Playoffs on points are as follows:
- Ryan Preece (-62)
- Aric Almirola (-71)
- Chase Elliott (-84)
- Austin Dillon (-108)
- Harrison Burton (-112)
- Erik Jones (-141)
- Chase Briscoe (-148)
- Ty Dillon (-185)
- Noah Gragson (-188)
Multiple drivers on this list can realistically win races.
Chase Elliott is the most obvious candidate. Despite the fact that he has only led 37 laps in nine starts this season, last year, he won three of his five races during this summer stretch winning at Nashville, Road America, and Pocono. It’s not a guarantee that he wins a race by any means, but it’s hard to believe that he won’t break though at some point given how fast his teammates have been.
Ryan Preece showed race-winning speed at Martinsville before a speeding penalty, so, he cannot be totally discredited. Austin Dillon is in race-winning equipment as is evidenced by how well Kyle Busch has run, plus he won at Daytona last fall.
Even looking at the drivers closer to the Top-16, a couple stand out as serious wild card contenders. Michael McDowell is in the midst of his best season, and he was a top-5 car at Sonoma last Sunday. With three road courses still remaining at Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, and the Chicago Street Race, plus his prowess at Daytona, McDowell cannot be discounted either to point his way in or to win a race.
A.J. Allmendinger is in the same boat as McDowell on the road courses. Allmendinger won the inaugural Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course back in 2021, and his first career Cup Series win came at Watkins Glen in 2014.
Corey LaJoie has two top-five finishes at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Atlanta has a race coming up in just a few weeks, and LaJoie is eager to prove himself.
That puts potentially five drivers outside of the top-16 with a realistic chance to win. If this scenario occurs, that only leaves one spot for drivers to get in on points.
Will all of that happen? Probably not, but it does show how treacherous relying on points is becoming when it comes to the Playoffs. Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman particularly are on shaky ground given that they are both 70+ points behind the next closest winless driver.
The Predicted 2023 Playoff Grid
Taking all of that analysis into account, here is how we predict the Playoff grid will shake out, and how those drivers will qualify.
Already Locked-In: William Byron, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
New Winners: Chase Elliott, Michael McDowell, and Kevin Harvick
In on Points: Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher, and Brad Keselowski
Notable Absences: Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez, and Ty Gibbs
This by no means is expected to be a perfect representation of what will happen, but it is a realistic look at where the Cup Series currently stands. The Playoffs are on the horizon, and the intensity of the drivers is going to continue to get higher and higher as time goes on. Who knows how this Playoff grid could shake out?