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NASCAR Cup Playoffs: Format, odds and everything you need to know

Set the NASCAR Cup Playoffs to boil and watch them begin to simmer.

That is what the next 10 weeks will represent for the 16 teams set to chase a championship in the most dramatic and intensity fueled format imaginable. There will be close finishes, closer points battles, the occasional fight and NASCAR’s equivalent of the Game Seven Moment.    

It’s a pressure cooker that continually resets over and over until 16 becomes 12, 12 becomes 8 before establishing the final four in November at Phoenix Raceway. There will be upsets and heroics, disappointments and letdowns in equal parts.

The format, which has changed the ethics of competition over the past decade, routinely asks those in the gauntlet what they were willing to do to advance and the answers still occasionally shock us year-after-year.

Survive and advance.

Related: How the modern NASCAR playoff system has forever changed the game

NASCAR Cup Playoffs format

NASCAR: Ally 400
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The format begins with 16 different drivers and three rounds of three races that eliminate four drivers at a time. Just like the regular season, eligible drivers automatically advance with a win, but they can also get in on points. That’s where the seeding plays a factor. Drivers are reseeded at the start of the playoffs, and each round, based on the number of playoff points they have accumulated to this point.

This is why Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron begin the Round of 16 with 36 more points than Bubba Wallace. The points also reset for the start of each round, sans the four drivers who were eliminated, those playoff points giving the top contenders a greater margin of error as the field begins to tighten.

Once the final four are established, they race amongst themselves in the final at Phoenix, the best finisher amongst them winning the championship – no championship points, no playoff points and just beating the other three head-to-head.

The odds (BetMGM)

Martin Truex Jr. (+425)
William Byron (+500)
Kyle Larson (+600)
Denny Hamlin (+600)
Kyle Busch (+800)
Christopher Bell (+1200)
Ryan Blaney (+1600)
Joey Logano (+1600)
Ross Chastain (+1600)
Chris Buescher (+1600)
Tyler Reddick (+2000)
Kevin Harvick (+2000)
Brad Keselowski (+2000)
Bubba Wallace (+4000)
Ricky Stenhouse (+15000)
Michael McDowell (+15000)

Related: NASCAR Cup Playoffs schedule

The NASCAR Cup Playoffs favorites

NASCAR: Cup Series Championship
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William Byron and Martin Truex Jr. are the 1A favorites to reach the championship race, and win it outright, but they are unique in the past decade of the sport in that their playoff total doesn’t create that much of a separation from the cutoff.

That’s a testament to the second-year racing platform, a spec car that has tremendously leveled the playing field, but it also means their margin of error isn’t that substantial to the cutoff beyond the first round. They are going to be sweating figurative bullets like everyone else once the Round of 12 begins even with a slight advantage.

Of note, a five playoff point and 60 championship point back in March actually left Byron with seven fewer points than he would have otherwise and that could prove to be a difference in reaching the championship race.

Still, Byron has a sizeable points cushion, not that he wants to rely on it to make his first career championship race appearance.

“It’s a little bit of a safety net, I guess, but it can all go away pretty quickly,” Byron said. “We can’t really just lean on that all the time. We have to perform well. We have to average 30 points a race in this first round, I think, and continue to work our way toward the second round … just take it one race a time and a three-race stretch at a time.”

He’s also won five times at five of the tracks that make up the schedule.

“That’s a nice stat,” Byron said. “I didn’t know that. Good to know.”

Truex, who won the 2017 championship for Furniture Row Racing, has the best average finish of all drivers (11.4) and the most top-10s of all competitors. Not counting the annual summer Daytona crashfest, he is riding six consecutive top-10s.

“I feel good,” Truex said. “I feel as good as I ever have going into the playoffs. It’s been a really strong year for us, consistently up at the front, and doing what we need to do. Certainly, let a few wins slip away, which is always disappointing but to have three and the Clash win is a pretty good regular season, so you just have to keep putting yourself in the right position.”

Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and defending champion Joey Logano are the 1b favorites to reach the final four, lacking the sheer number of wins as Byron and Truex, but each having both a high degree of consistency and a historical record of reaching the final race with a shot, with Busch and Logano both winning a pair of titles under this format.

Hamlin is still seeking his first championship so could this be the year?

“It’s always my year,” Hamlin said.

But seriously, does he really believe that?

“I do,” he said. “I think that we’re stronger than we’ve been. Road courses: I’ve got speed now and short tracks our cars, if we get to the final four, I’m not worried about being at a deficit. I think the pit crew is better, they’re coming into their own so all the pieces of the puzzle are there. There’s no excuses for sure.”

Busch advanced to the championship race five years in a row from 2015 to 2019 and says having experience dealing with the pressure cooker means a great deal.

“I mean anytime you have experience doing something, you’re only going to think back to the moments that you can be better at it and not make the same mistakes over and over again,” Busch said. “I’ve been through years of playoffs where we’ve had wins through the playoffs and have been really strong and not won the championship. I’ve had years where we barely make it through each round, and then we get to Homestead and we won, you know what I mean?

“Like we were written off in 2019. Nobody thought we were even close to having a chance. So, we went out there, executed on the final day and we smoked everybody, but in 2018, I thought we were destined for the championship and we got to Homestead and ran fourth of the four and had just had a bad day.

“That’s just how it comes down to it in that last race.”

The NASCAR Cup Playoffs contenders

chris buescher
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Chris Buescher is such an interesting case study for this playoff season because a summer surge actually leaves him the fourth ranked seed with wins at Richmond, Michigan and Daytona but no one would have realistically predicted that even a month ago.  

It’s obvious that RFK Racing has found something with their aerodynamics, with Brad Keselowski also running equally competitive over that stretch, so they’re kind of wild cards to this point.

This is either a competitive edge that the two drivers will carry with them throughout the next two and a half months to make them true favorites or everyone else will catch up and place them back into the contender category.  

At the same time, Christopher Bell is kind of in the same place he was in last season, but he caught fire at the end of last season with a pair of walk-off style victories at the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville to advance to the final four.  

Bell has won just a single race to this point, on the dirt at Bristol no less, and just six top-fives. At the same time, he maximizes his races and his 13.6 average finish is fifth amongst those in the playoffs. Like last year, when it comes down to the Round of 8, Bell is going to have to win some races again.

“Ultimately, I hope that we are never in that position again, but it is nice to know that we are not going to give up and throw the towel in before it’s over,” Bell said.

Kyle Larson with crew chief Cliff Daniels will always be a threat and could catch a heater in the races that matter the most, so who could confidently count them out as well? The Hendrick No. 5 leads the series in top-fives but hasn’t finished higher than fifth since New Hampshire in mid-July.

Ross Chastain made the final four last year with the gutsy and dramatic ‘Hail Melon’ but also doesn’t quite seem as competitive as they were last year. For example, Chastain has nine top-10 finishes this season but none since his win at Nashville at the end of June.

Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney have both won once this season, but their average finishes of 16.9 and 15.8 do not inspire a ton of confidence, nor do either have the proven track record that indicates they will find another gear once the chase for the championship starts.

That isn’t to say they are incapable but that figurative gear hasn’t show up yet thus far.

The same can be said for 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, the inaugural winner under this format, who has made the most of an under-performing Stewart-Haas Racing program this season with a 13.8 average finish but with no wins. In fact, in his final season, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers just haven’t had the speed needed to race up front.

But come on, it’s Harvick and Childers, and certainly their last season together in the No. 4 can’t be winless with an early elimination from the playoffs … could it?

The underdogs

NASCAR: Cup Series Playoff Media Day
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Michael McDowell is such an interesting case study because at face value, he is a definition underdog, especially with no road courses until the end of the second round and that’s the Charlotte Roval. But they’ve also been a consistent presence inside the top-15 all season.

But at the end of the day, they are going to need to punch well above their 18.5 average finish to advance to the second round and take advantage of the races at Talladega and the Roval.

For his part, Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. relishes his status as an underdog, even if their season has been more successful than merely being the guy that won the first race this year and was immediately guaranteed a playoff spot.

“We definitely are,” Stenhouse said of his underdog status. “Obviously, all the powerhouse teams we’re going up against are manufacturer teams. Definitely an underdog but I think we like our role. All 40 of us at the team, we like where we are. We have great partners behind us, and great fans. I’ve seen a lot of fans that are pumped up about what they feel like we can do. Hopefully we can go prove all those people right.”

If the job before them is merely survive and advance, their consistency this year could see them through as they seemingly always run near the top-10 and finish the laps. This is from a driver who has historically had amongst the highest DNF rates in the Cup Series, but he says faster cars have given him more patience this season.

Simultaneously, Stenhouse is also a popular pick to be a first-round exit but he also believes that to be a mistake because the first three races are amongst their best track and Talladega is always an opportunity for their team in the second round.

“I think Darlington, Kansas, and Bristol are all three good racetracks for us that I feel we’re capable of running inside the top-10 at all three of those,” Stenhouse said. “I think they would go in order the way they are. Darlington is probably the least of the best tracks for us, but I feel strong about all three of them. Bristol, being my favorite by far. I feel really good about the first round.”

And then there is Bubba Wallace, who by definition survived all the way to the final checkered flag and advanced but now faces an uphill climb just to get through again in three races time.

He too embraces the underdog role.

“I think I’m pumped to be an underdog,” Wallace said. “We know we are way more capable of being better than 16th, but we know if we don’t execute, we can see our happy asses in 16th. We just have to go out and do what we know how to do, and just do it. Not get complacent and be one of those front running cars over the next 10 weeks. We know it’s a tall task, but we can do it.”

The races

Sept. 3 Darlington 6 p.m. USA
Sept. 10 Kansas 3 p.m. USA
Sept. 16 Bristol 7:30 p,n USA
Sept. 24 Texas 3:30 p.m. USA
Oct. 1 Talladega 2 p.m. NBC
Oct. 8 Charlotte Roval 2 p.m. NBC
Oct. 15 Las Vegas 2:30 p.m. NBC
Oct. 22 Homestead 2:30 p.m. NBC
Oct. 29 Martinsville 2 p.m. NBC
Nov. 5 Phoenix 3 p.m. NBC

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.