NASCAR: The case for — and against — all 16 playoff drivers

NASCAR Cup Series Championship Trophy - Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Trophy - Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /
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Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR – Mandatory Credit: David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports /

NASCAR playoff contenders: No. 4 – Kyle Larson

Much like the past few years, 2021 Cup Series champion Kyle Larson is one of the title favorites entering the playoffs. While the Hendrick Motorsports driver only has two wins this year, he has still had the speed to win on almost any given week.

The case for Kyle Larson

Two wins doesn’t tell the story about Larson’s performance throughout the 2023 season. Outside of his two early wins at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, he appeared to be on his way to wins in several races before late race calamity shuffled him out.

Of these races, the one at Pocono Raceway is the one that comes to mind first, with Larson, who had spun earlier, effectively having had the race won before a late caution came out to bunch the field back up. On the ensuing restart, Denny Hamlin knocked him into the wall in a controversial move that ended up relegating him to a 21st place finish. Hamlin went on to win.

While Pocono may be the most obvious example of a win taken from Larson late in the race, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, and Darlington Raceway, Larson appeared to be on his way to victory or, at the bare minimum, seriously contending for the win before a wide array of issues ranging from late cautions to dustups with other drivers ultimately cost him.

At this point, it’s just a matter of when Larson finds victory lane again, and with several of his strongest tracks on the playoff schedule, there is a good chance it could be more than once. He knows how to get it done in the playoffs, and him making a deep playoff run feels to be all but a given.

The case against Kyle Larson

The case against Larson is way smaller than that of almost any other driver. However, even Larson and the No. 5 team may have their own fatal flaws.

While many of the races Larson lost out on can be coughed up to those aforementioned issues, the No. 5 team have undoubtedly seen a bit of a recent dip when it comes to execution throughout race weekends. Plus, in several races this season, Larson has been hampered by mechanical issues and issues in the pits.

In the second race of the season at Auto Club Speedway, Larson looked to have an extremely fast car, but issues arose within the first 20 laps, ultimately sending him to the garage. Something similar happened in last season’s elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, where he looked set to easily advance to the round of 8 before he ended up behind the wall and eliminated.

If these issues arise in the playoffs for Larson, it could be costly and may result in another surprising early elimination.