There are some who still view the modern NASCAR Playoffs format as contrived and convoluted but there is no denying all the ways in which it amplifies the intensity and narrative over the remaining 10 weeks of the season.
It’s the culmination of the longest season in professional sports and nearly everyone in the garage has something worth racing for through November.
While including the 16 remaining contenders, the same pressure cooker also awaits the most popular driver in NASCAR who failed to qualify into the playoffs but is racing for his own championship regardless, so there are no shortage of reasons to watch NASCAR over the next two months.
NASCAR Playoffs preview: The closest ever
William Byron +29
Martin Truex +29
Denny Hamlin +18
Chris Buescher +14
Kyle Busch +12
Kyle Larson +10
Christopher Bell +7
Ross Chastain +4
Brad Keselowski +3
Tyler Reddick +2
Joey Logano +1
Ryan Blaney +1
Michael McDowell -1
Ricky Stenhouse -3
Kevin Harvick -4
Bubba Wallace -8
Do you remember the 60-point, five playoff point penalty issued to William Byron after the spring race at Richmond for a greenhouse violation? It actually cost him seven playoff points in hindsight because the 60 points were enough to drop Byron from second to third in the final regular season standings and this could prove to be extremely meaningful come October.
Instead of having sole possession of the number one seed at the start of the playoffs, Byron is instead tied with Truex with 2036 points instead of 2043 points. We have seen over and over again how even the highest seeded drivers might need just a handful of additional points just to advance into the next round. Kevin Harvick’s ill-fated 2020 playoff run ended by just one point despite a nine-win season to that point.
Those seven points don’t matter until they matter.
The Byron penalty, combined with the general parity established by the second-year spec car, has created the closest playoff field to date. Remember that any playoff points earned over the first two rounds are added to the pre-playoff total and carry over so these standings could spread out or further tighten should those in the mid-pack start winning stages and races.
Byron and Truex have the clearest path to the final four but these are the most evenly matched playoffs in format history.
Is this Denny Hamlin’s year?
“It’s always my year,” he says.
But seriously, this is the 18th year in a row that Denny Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 have entered the season with a realistic aim towards the championship and they have been a legitimate factor in at least 15 of them.
He was the runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and reached the final four on four different occasions in the nine seasons since NASCAR moved to its current elimination format. He has arguably eclipsed Mark Martin as the most successful Cup Series driver to have not won a championship and he’s starting to run out of time at 42-years-old.
He enters the playoffs this year as the number three seed and seems as capable as anyone else to run the gamut to Phoenix and get the job done once reaching the Championship Race.
“I’ve been trying for a while,” Hamlin said. “I have been in the win or go home situations; Phoenix in 2019 we had to win and we did to get to the final four.
“I think it’s so circumstantial. It’s just a race and you just never know what can happen in a race. You just hope to have a shot at it. Again, if I keep putting myself in the final four, I’m eventually going to have a really good shot at a championship.”
Will Kevin Harvick go out like this?
When a team gives Kevin Harvick a car that is remotely capable of running up front, he is capable of winning five to seven races with a remarkably high chance to race for a Bill France Cup by the end of the season.
The past two years at Stewart-Haas Racing has effectively mirrored the end of his Richard Childress Racing tenure over a decade ago where he far exceeds the maximum potential of the car and contends for a championship even when no one else in the stable could even reach the playoffs.
That’s the magic of Kevin Harvick.
But if Harvick is going to contend for the championship in his final season, Stewart-Haas Racing and Ford Performance is going to have to find someway to supply one of the greatest drivers ever and crew chief Rodney Childers a lot more speed.
The No. 4 team is a top-10 machine, which is a testament to both Harvick and Childers but with minimal playoff points, they’re starting the Round of 16 beneath the cutline. Surely that’s not how one of the greatest of all-time will go out … right?
NASCAR Playoffs: Underdog upsets?
The two true dogs of the playoffs this year are Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brickyard Road Course winner Michael McDowell with both serving as interesting case studies because both could be more than just true one-and-done contenders.
It’s far too easy, not to mention inaccurate, to dismiss Stenhouse as a lucky superspeedway winner because this is also his best overall Cup Series season to date. Long considered one of the most reckless drivers on the tour with a DNF record to back it up, Stenhouse has only crashed out of two races this season with one of them coming at Daytona last week, completing 98.2 percent of all laps with a 16.7 average finish.
It might take one of the mid-pack contenders faltering over the next three races but Stenhouse shouldn’t be dismissed as a Round of 12 threat with three of his best tracks coming up in Darlington, Kasnas and Bristol. If somehow he advances to the second round, there’s Talladega and the Roval looming where anything can happen.
A similar argument can be made about McDowell, who has more than punched above the weight of where Front Row Motorsports is at this stage of its existence, winning a race on pure pace at Indianapolis with a penchant for overachieving all season.
Like Stenhouse, if he can simply survive these first three races and find a way to capitalize on someone else’s misfortune, the No. 34 can make things really interesting in the Round of 12.
Rowdy and RCR’s revenge
The next 10 weeks is why Richard Childress hired Kyle Busch. Maybe the legendary Chevrolet team is another year away from really making noise in the playoffs but Busch raised expectations by winning three times over the first 15 weeks of the season. They have cooled off since then but still enter the tournament as the number five seed with a driver that knows as well as anyone on the grid what it takes to navigate this format.
He’s won the championship twice and reached the final four five years in a row from 2015 to 2019. In Busch, Childress hired a driver with the goal of reestablishing the legacy left behind by Dale Earnhardt Sr. Those are lofty goals but one Busch says he embraces. If RCR can get Busch anywhere near the top-five over the next three weeks, Busch will win his way into the next round and could be a threat all the way through. And again, this is still their first season together, meaning this could be the start if a dominant tenure together.
Is Roush back?
Now RFK Racing, this is the strongest the former Roush Fenway Racing has been in a decade, placing both team co-owner Brad Keselowski and three-race winner Chris Buescher in the Round of 16. Now the question is just how strong are they really?
A month ago, it would have been inconceivable that Buescher would enter the tournament as the number four seed but it seems like both cars have really found something over the past month with wins at Richmond, Michigan and Daytona. That kind of diversity bodes well for the tracks in the playoffs, especially considering Buescher won the Bristol Night Race last season as well.
Are they for real or were their gains short-lived and something the rest of the field could soon exploit?
Chase Elliott’s championship
Chase Elliott was eliminated from contention last weekend at Daytona but will still race for the championship that matters the most behind the scenes in the NASCAR Cup Series garage.
Hang with me for a moment.
When Elliott missed his seven starts with a broken leg sustained in a March snowboarding incident, the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 continued to make starts with Josh Berry, Jordan Taylor and Corey Lajoie behind the wheel, accumulating points in the owner’s championship as a result.
Even though the driver’s championship is front and center to fans, it’s actually the owner’s standings that generate 100 percent of the purse revenue for NASCAR teams. It’s structured that way exactly due to what happened to Elliott, allowing a team to race for meaningful positions, even if their primary driver is injured or in the case where a team employs more than one driver.
The Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 is in the Field of 16 for the owner’s standings at the expense of Bubba Wallace’s No. 23 even though that driver made the driver playoffs. In other words, Elliott has a lot to race for over the next 10 weeks, including the chance to paid a championship bonus should he reach the owner’s championship race at Phoenix.
Related: How the modern NASCAR playoff system has forever changed the game
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.