NASCAR: Why only three Cup drivers are ‘safe’

Ross Chastain, Trackhouse Racing Team, William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Ross Chastain, Trackhouse Racing Team, William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) /

While there have been 11 different winners through the first 14 races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, only three have clinched a playoff berth.

23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch became the 11th different driver to win a race in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season three Sundays ago, winning the AdventHealth 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Busch made a late pass on Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson to secure his and 23XI Racing’s first win of the year. The win was the 34th of the 2004 series champion’s career, and it was the second of 23XI Racing’s existence. It also made the 2022 season Busch’s ninth consecutive winning season.

While it was widely believed that Busch’s win clinched him a playoff spot, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

The playoff format is typically considered a “win and in” format, but with 26 regular season races and just 16 playoff spots, there can mathematically be more than 16 regular season race winners.

With 11 winners in 13 races, that remained a very good possibility for 2022, and even though Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin has since won the following race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to keep that number at 11 winners in 14 races, it is still a good possibility with 12 regular season races remaining.

Five drivers who have yet to win this year have secured at least one runner-up finish, and seven full-time drivers who won last year have not yet done so this year.

The playoff spots officially go to the regular season champion and then the 15 drivers who rank next highest in wins. As a result, the only three drivers who are truly “safe” at this point in the year are the three drivers who have won twice.

In addition to Hamlin, those drivers are Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, who became the season’s first repeat winner by winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway, and Trackhouse Racing Team’s Ross Chastain, who entered the year without a single career win before winning at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega Superspeedway. Hamlin earned his first win of the year at Richmond Raceway.

With two wins each, these three drivers cannot mathematically drop out of the top 15 in the wins category in a 26-race regular season.

The only thing that could keep them out of the playoffs is if they drop out of the top 30 in the point standings. But suffice it to say that in a series with 32 full-time drivers, no driver who wins twice is going to fall out of the top 30.

As for the single-race winners, most of them should be safe as well, considering the fact that many are comfortably within the top 16 in the point standings. But at this point in the season, for all intents and purposes, those eight drivers have yet to mathematically clinch their spots.

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Those drivers include Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, and Chase Elliott, Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and rookie Austin Cindric, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, and of course, 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch.