On September 4th, the playoffs will begin. Sixteen drivers enter, and only one will win it all. The top sixteen will be fighting for a win to lock themselves into the Round of 12. The Round of 16 starts with Darlington Speedway, aka “The Lady in Black.” Darlington Raceway is a 1.366 mile oval. The track is asymmetrical, meaning that turns one and two differ from turns three and four. The track is also very narrow, passing will be difficult, and tempers will flare. Due to 23XI withdrawing Kurt Busch from the playoffs, Ryan Blaney has earned his way into the playoffs, and Truex has just missed out. I wouldn’t say I like it for Truex, but he did his best. Better luck next year.
However, before we get into playoff predictions, some news from the NASCAR world: 23XI has announced that Bubba Wallace will drive the #45 car for the rest of the season with Kurt still out due to his concussion. The decision to switch stems from the team’s owners’ points. This also puts the young driver, Ty Gibbs, into the #23 car. Kyle Busch may have something in the works; we may hear something about where he will drive next year within the coming week. With some minor housekeeping out of the way, I will throw my hat into the ring of playoff predictions and give my predictions, starting with the driver I expect to win the championship.
- Chase Elliott: Yes, I am very original with this pick, but he is a great pick to win it all. He has had the pace all season and is still fighting for wins week in and week out. He has proven he can win anywhere, so picking him to win it all is logical. Chase has come out swinging for his chance at a second championship, and nothing will stop him from achieving that goal.
- Kyle Larson: Larson and the third pick might be the only ones that could roadblock Chase. Larson has the rawest talent of the Hendrick drivers, and while this season has not been dominant for him; he has been in the fight all year and has not let last year’s championship go to his head and with tracks that suit his wheelhouse coming up, now is his time to strike.
- Ross Chastain: The “Watermelon Man” has had a breakout season with Trackhouse and, while controversial, has proven he can wheel a car around with the best of them and come out on top on occasion. I can expect him to make it to the Championship Four because he drove this season, and he and Larson might be the only ones to have a shot at stopping Chase Elliott. Chastain can do it, but only time will tell.
- Joey Logano: Although I have put Joey in the Championship 4, he only has one win, and it was achieved under controversial circumstances. He has been finishing stages well and is ranked second in the standings, but he has not been his championship-winning self. If Logano wants another championship, he must come out swinging and put NASCAR on notice.
- Kevin Harvick: Sorry, Harvick fans, I see Harvick going into the Round of 8 but not making the Championship 4. Yes, he has two wins; both were back-to-back, but I do not see him carrying that momentum to a championship. He could make the Championship 4, but it is a long shot. Stewart-Haas have some work to do to make Harvick a contender.
- Ryan Blaney: Despite not having a win, he ranks seventh in the playoff standings going into Darlington. He has been consistent all year, which got him in. He may have been sandbagging all year, and now that we are in the playoffs, he might unleash his pace and be a championship favorite, but with his lack of wins, that does not seem likely.
- Denny Hamlin: The best Gibbs car all season, and he will not see the Championship 4. Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled with the next-gen car all season, but Denny has been giving it everything he has. He has two wins, but he has only been a threat to Ross Chastain, and I am afraid that may be the nail in the coffin for his season. Things can change, but Hamlin doesn’t have the means to get to the final Round.
- William Byron: Bryon has one win this season and some playoff points. He has been quiet all year but has done much better than in years past. Honestly, he has not been terrible, just quiet. If he could flex his muscle throughout the playoffs, he may end up shocking us, but we will have to see.
- Tyler Reddick: I want to say he will make it to the Championship 4, but I am not sure. He has had a great year with Richard Childress Racing, but the Championship 4 might be out of reach for him. His wins have been on road courses and nothing else. There is only one road course in the playoffs, and he may be able to get to the end if he can be consistent and snag a win somewhere, but it is a hard ask of him.
- Kyle Busch: Busch has not been himself this year. Contract talks may have something to do with it; however, this has not been his year. He is ranked 11th going into Darlington, and I do not see him doing any better than tenth in the standings. It is a shame that he has not been himself, but with him maybe announcing something soon, he may get that speed that he has been lacking back.
- Christopher Bell: I feel bad for putting Christopher this low, and while he may be one of the better Gibbs drivers (debatably), I do not see him going the distance. Like his teammate, Kyle Busch, they have not performed this year to make them championship contenders.
- Alex Bowman: Bowman has not performed this season. He has one win, and it is knocking on time for him to get another win, but I do not see him a win or getting far. With him being ranked 15th in the playoffs, maybe I am being too generous for Bowman
- Daniel Suarez: Despite being on the same team as Ross Chastian, I do not see Suarez making past the Round of 16, but just missing out. He has done well with Trackhouse, and much like the 14th spot on this list, he needs to come back next year swinging. He has proven he can win, but now he has to put a whole season together.
- Chase Briscoe: The other Stewart-Haas driver in the playoffs, and I see him exiting early; however, this is a step in the right direction. He did not make the playoffs last year, and he did this year. Even though he may exit early, he needs to take it this year and build on it next year.
- Austin Cindric: The Daytona 500 champion will have an early exit. Like Austin Dillon, he has won but has done nothing all year. He is ranked 14th in the playoffs and may end up finishing there or worse unless he can turn it around, but I do not see that happening.
- Austin Dillon: Yes, he did win at Daytona last week, but I do not see Austin making it to the Round of 12. He has not been very flashy all year, and if we are being real, if Daytona weren’t the cut-off race, Dillon would not have made it in. An early exit is in store for the #3. Thus, he ranks at the bottom of the list.\
Now, this could all be bunk in a few weeks’ time, but at the same time, I could be spot on. We will have to watch the playoffs and see what this year will bring us. Tune in to USA Sunday at 6:00 pm EST to watch the first race of the playoffs, the Cook Out Southern 500