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Get ready, race fans. It’s that triumphant time of year we’ve all been waiting for. All those tee ball games, PTA meetings, traffic debacles and monotonous neighborhood barbecues where you force yourself to gum down something that you mistake for chicken – all that pain and suffering you’ve endured these last, few sweltering months ends right here and now because the final countdown to the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs has arrived, and with it, a talented bunch of drivers. As the clock ticks down to the first race this Sunday, Sept. 4 with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, this elite echelon of 16 wheelmen is gearing up for glory and, perhaps, a little payback.
16. Austin Dillon
The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing stands at 2,005 points and one win. Austin Dillon is tenacious behind the wheel, and with Darlington first up, he knows he has a chance to get hot early with a course where he was the runner-up in 2020. If he can’t get off to a good start and find his rhythm, the underdog may not have much of a bark in this fight.
15. Alex Bowman
Bowman’s accumulated 2,006 points while chalking up one win in. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports has been steadily making his mark in past years, though never fully making it over the hump. He was eliminated in the Round of 8 in 2020, and exited in the Round of 12 in 2018, 2019 as well as 2021. Bowman’s looking to right the ship as he’s been trending downward this season in laps led at just 29 in the regular season.
14. Austin Cindric
The frontrunner for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year has been a bit rocky after his exciting win at the Daytona 500 in February. Though he still might be adjusting to his first year, the up-and- has proven to be one of the sport’s best road racers. How far he can go remains to be seen.
13. Daniel Suárez
Though he’s only notched one win and 2,007 points, Daniel Suárez, who’s featured on USA Networks’s “Race for the Championship,” is one of the most competitive drivers in the sport. The driver of the No. 99 Chevrolet for Trackhouse Racing earned his sole victory at Sonoma and showed brilliant flashes in a stretch from Road America to Pocono that has some people wondering if he can be a real contender. Right out of the gate, the key for him will be to establish some consistency in the saddle.
12. Chase Briscoe
The driver of the No. 14 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing has had his ups and downs this season, earning 2,009 points along the journey. His one win could prove to be a crucial advantage because it took place in Phoenix, and that’s where the championship race will take place Nov. 6. His top-10 finish at Martinsville could also be pivotal for Briscoe, if he can survive up to that point, of course, because that’s the penultimate race of the playoffs.
11. Kyle Busch
NASCAR’s aging talisman finds himself in a tricky spot with just one win and 2,010 points, but if history’s on anyone’s side, it’s Kyle Busch. He won the Championship in 2015 and 2019, and he reached the Championship Round in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Though he has the pedigree and ice in his veins, road courses have proven to be problematic for all the Toyotas this year. He’ll need to pay close attention to that and not get caught up in his back-and-forth beef with Ross Chastain.
10. Christopher Bell
The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has racked up 2,011 points and one win. Bell opened the season on shaky ground, but he’s been steadily improving, cutting his average finish down to 14.5 for the entire season. In just his third year, the 27-year-old has already tripled his laps led count, and his sole win at New Hampshire could be crucial if he can make it down the stretch as that course bares several similarities to Phoenix.
9. Kevin Harvick
The crafty vet has notched 2,012 points and two wins this season. He’ll be leaning on his experience as he won the Championship in 2014 and reached the Championship Round in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019. While Harvick and his No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t appear like much of a threat early in the summer, he’s been steadily gaining momentum and could be a real contender. The difficulty lies ahead at Martinsville, where he hasn’t led a lap since 2016.
8. Tyler Reddick
After failing to make the playoffs in 2020 and being eliminated in the Round of 16 in 2021, the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing is on a mission make history. He’s been steady as a rock on road course this season, and he nearly earned a third win at Bristol. Reddick shows immense moxie, evident in his superb starting average of 9.9. He’s shown he can lead by double digit laps, but that has failed to materialize in more wins because he can’t consistently sustain being the leader of the pack.
7. Ryan Blaney
Despite not making the playoffs in 2016, the driver of Team Penske’s No. 12 Ford has been steadily clawing his way through the field, and this year might just be where he makes it to the top. He was eliminated in the Round of 12 in 2018 and axed in the Round of 8 in 2017, 2019 and 2021. Ryan Blaney and his Mustang have been fast the entire season, garnering the fourth-best average start of 10.4 and finish of 13.7 this year among all drivers. It’s true that Darlington and Bristol are notoriously tough for Blaney, potentially hampering his playoffs start; however, Martinsville and the Charlotte Roval have been bright spots for the No. 12 Ford driver. As the only winless driver in the field, he's got something to prove, and he’s got the speed to do it.
6. Denny Hamlin
The veteran driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing has looked elite all season, earning three poles this season along with two wins and 2,013 points. He’s considered to be a favorite to reach the Championship Round, though he and his pit team must get on the same page to prevent more penalties from piling up. Like Busch, things could get interesting between Hamlin and Chastain, who have certainly had their fair share of dust-ups. If he can hunker down and focus on the task at hand, he’ll be Toyota’s best shot at a title this year, but he’ll need to finish better than his 19.0 average to really give JGR a viable shot.
5. William Byron
Compiling a total of 612 laps led, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrik Motorsports ranks second in that category for the season, and his two wins are a sure-fire sign of that. He possesses the speed to be a real threat, and his eyes are likely already glued to Phoenix, where his 13.8 average finish is his best on any track. Still, he might be his own worst enemy as his inconsistency after his Martinsville win led to one paltry top-10 finish in 18 races. The key could come in the form of performing well right out of the gate at Darlington, which notoriously has been his worst track out of the 10.
4. Kyle Larson
Repping the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Larson is looking for a Championship repeat after clinching the title in 2021. Not only did he take home the Bill France Cup last year, but Larson also dominated the field, winning five of the playoffs’ 10 races. Regarded as one of the most versatile drivers in the sport, he’ll look to bump up his average start of 8.1 to position himself to win just as much as he did a year ago. He has a great shot at starting off with bang at Darlington, which is his best track.
3. Ross Chastain
Sitting in third with 2,020 points, Mr. Controversy is absolutely magnetic for viewers because you never know if he’s going to make a move that triggers a wreck or if he’s going to make a move that leads him to cruise into Victory Lane. His advantage lies in making it to the Charlotte Roval where he owns a 4.0 average finish. Though Chastain has two big victories under his belt with the Circuit of the Americas and Talladega, his one weakness may lie in his overly aggressive nature that’s been the source of much friction with other drivers. With the spotlight on him, other drivers might be looking for a little payback.
2. Joey Logano
Joey Logano has been on fire this season, racking up 2,025 points and two wins in the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske. Having won the Championship in 2018 and reaching the Championship Round in 2014, 2016 and 2020, his winning history and track knowledge give him a slight edge. He can emphatically make his mark in the Round of Eight at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he’s won twice and has an 8.9 average finish. When the stakes are high, Logano’s your guy.
1. Chase Elliott
Though he only made it to the Round of Eight in 2017, 2018 and 2019, he flipped the switch in 2020 and won the Championship. He’s got a clear favorite at the Charlotte Roval, where he’s scored two impressive wins while earning a 2.7 average finish in three starts. Elliott is a master of big moments, and his unwavering nerves delivered him a whopping four wins this season. If he and his team behind the No. 9 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports can continue to fire on cylinders without hitting a lull, there’s no reason Elliott can’t take home the Championship.
Can't get enough NASCAR action? Watch “Race For The Championship,” which follows the lives of NASCAR's biggest stars on and off the track, premiering on Sept. 1 on USA Network at 10 p.m. ET. And catch up on all race action on Peacock.
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