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Cook Out Southern 500 (Darlington) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Field

Previewing this year's 16-driver playoff field heading to a crown jewel kickoff at Darlington Raceway.

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are here. This weekend’s Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway isn’t just one of the crown jewels in this sport; it’s also the kickoff for the 10-race, elimination-style playoff system that will determine this year’s champion.

Every year, you hear all sorts of marketing hyperbole (this field is the best ever assembled! We’ve never had a postseason quite like this one!) But in 2022, those statements come with strong evidence to back them up.

For the first time since this format debuted in 2014, we had 16 winners during the regular season, making this field the most difficult to make. Ryan Blaney, who finished third in the regular season standings, is only in the playoff because one of those winners, Kurt Busch, has been sidelined since a concussion suffered at Pocono Raceway in late July. Martin Truex Jr., who was fourth in regular season points, failed to win and was the first driver left out.

Let me repeat: Martin Truex Jr., who has been top 2 in points in four of the last five years, didn’t even make the cut. In his place, we have four drivers making their first playoff appearance and only one driver (Chase Elliott) earning more than two wins during the regular season. In fact, second through 16th in points are separated by only 20 entering this round, the most parity on paper since the stage racing era began in 2017.

Let’s take a closer look at who made it by organization.

Hendrick Motorsports (4)

Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, William Byron

2020 NASCAR Cup champion Elliott is in the best position to win another title in 2022. Four victories and the regular season championship left him the top seed, holding a 15-point advantage over any other driver in the field.

Larson, the reigning Cup champion, had a difficult year that included a four-race suspension for crew chief Cliff Daniels and just two victories. But Darlington is one of his best tracks statistically (8.9 average finish) which should leave him starting this postseason strong. It would be a surprise to see Larson eliminated before the Round of 8.

The wild cards are Bowman and Byron, both drivers who locked down their spots early on in 2022 only to struggle since. Darlington is an inflection point for Byron, who was bumped out of the lead here by Joey Logano and is yet to recover. He enters the playoffs without a top-5 finish since Martinsville in April and has just 42 laps led since Memorial Day weekend.

Bowman is in even worse shape, without a top-5 finish since Dover in May. The Las Vegas race winner has led just three races all year, including 11 laps led in the Daytona regular-season finale.

Both Byron and Bowman are expected to advance as part of the top-performing team in NASCAR. But don’t be surprised if both are gone by the Round of 8.

Team Penske (3)

Austin Cindric, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano

Logano and Blaney, both top 3 in the regular season standings, give Penske hope of reaching the Championship 4. Logano won Darlington in May and is expected to contend this weekend, earning the second seed behind Chase Elliott and a slight cushion on the field.

Blaney, while failing to win a points-paying event, captured the All-Star Race in May and remained consistent: he even led the points briefly during the regular season. The first round is the most difficult for him (finishing 17th and 12th in the Darlington/Kansas races earlier this year) but his outlook improves dramatically beginning in the Round of 12.

Cindric, meanwhile, is expected to be the odd man out despite a season-opening Daytona 500 victory. Seven of his eight top-10 finishes this year have been at pack racing superspeedways and road courses; neither track type is inside the Round of 16.

Joe Gibbs Racing (3)

Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell

Hamlin’s year has been tough to figure out. Two wins have been balanced out by a whopping six DNFs, including a Pocono DQ that negated a third victory. Sloppy mistakes on pit road have cost the No. 11 in multiple races, leaving him just 15th in regular season points. The best average finish among all drivers at Darlington (7.8) makes him almost certain to advance into the Round of 12; after that, all bets are off.

Teammate Kyle Busch is an even bigger wild card, going 11 races without a top-5 finish as his contract negotiations have become a major distraction. With buzz increasing Busch is headed elsewhere for 2023, it’s unlikely his No. 18 team can stay focused enough to advance into the later rounds.

Third-year driver Christopher Bell might actually be JGR’s best hope during a down year. Bell, the New Hampshire race winner, had top-6 finishes at both Darlington and Kansas this spring; across the board, the consistency is there at every track type to make a deep run.

Richard Childress Racing (2)

Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick

Reddick is in a bizarre lame-duck situation at RCR; he’ll be leaving after the 2023 season for 23XI Racing. As long as Kurt Busch’s injury doesn’t move up the timeline, though, his No. 8 team has proved they’re back in the game, winning at Indianapolis a few weeks after the news broke. It’s the best chance this organization has to make the Championship 4 since Ryan Newman did it in the first year of this format (2014).

Dillon, meanwhile, enters with the momentum of an upset Daytona victory. But the No. 3 team has had a down year, failing to match Reddick’s consistency, and advancing to the Round of 12 would be a surprise. Dillon’s 2022 will be remembered more for his reality show on USA than the team’s on-track performance.

Trackhouse Racing Team (2)

Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez

TRT makes its first playoff appearance with arguably the fastest driver in the field: Chastain. The problem is their top driver has made over half the field mad and itching for payback. Bristol would be a great place to do it, positioning his rivals to knock out a top title contender out after the Round of 16.

Suarez, meanwhile, has quietly posted six top-10 finishes in the last 11 races, including a win at Sonoma in June that got him in the field. The No. 99 team feels like that sneaky, under-the-radar pick that makes the Round of 8 simply by surviving the chaos around them.

Stewart-Haas Racing (2)

Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe

Harvick enters the playoffs as one of the hottest drivers in the field, winning back-to-back races in August (Michigan, Richmond) to end a winless streak of nearly two seasons. The most dominant driver in a COVID-19-filled 2020 spiraled out of the Championship 4 that year; could 2022 be the time Lady Luck pays him back as a 46-year-old underdog surging into title contention?

SHR teammate Briscoe is simply lucky to be here; before Busch’s concussion, he looked vulnerable to dropping out of the field if there were 17 regular season winners. His maiden Cup victory at Phoenix in March would give him an edge should the No. 14 team reach the Championship 4; for him to get there, though, would take a minor miracle.

Drivers Eliminated After Round of 16: Ross Chastain, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon

Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick

Cook Out Southern 500

Date: Sunday, Sept. 4
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who's at the Front: Austin Dillon

The seas literally parted for Dillon in a bizarre Daytona finish, where the No. 3 car went from a lap down into the lead in a matter of minutes. When the lead pack drove into a rainstorm on lap 138, a major wreck ensued ahead of Dillon, able to drive through the carnage with ease after earning his lap back and restarting in the back of the field.

“I don’t know what you call that,” Dillon said. “We went from 15th to first. I know what it’s called. It’s called the good Lord was looking after us.”

Who's at the Back: Brad Keselowski

Hopes for a Daytona upset disappeared for Keselowski early, involved in the first serious wreck of the day. His streak of eight straight playoff appearances ended in ugly fashion during his first year as owner/driver of RFK Racing, failing to earn a single top-5 finish in the regular season.

News Briefs

Bubba Wallace will run the No. 45 during the postseason, competing for the owner’s championship in place of Kurt Busch. Ty Gibbs will switch to the No. 23 as 23XI Racing's full-time driver gets some much-needed playoff experience. It’s the No. 45, not Team Penske’s No. 12, who slots into that field of 16 due to their May victory at Kansas.

A new NASCAR damaged vehicle policy goes into effect with this weekend at Darlington. Teams will now have 10 minutes, not six, to meet minimum speed when repairing their car after a wreck before being forced out of the race.

Austin Dillon will be losing crew chief Justin Alexander after the 2022 season. Alexander, who did not give a reason for his decision to step away, has been on top of the pit box for all of Dillon’s four career Cup wins.

NASCAR by the Numbers

17
Top-10 finishes by Chase Elliott during the regular season, the most in this postseason field. Chase Briscoe (four) has the fewest.

100 percent
Of full-time drivers (32) to earn a top-10 finish during the regular season after Cody Ware earned a surprise sixth at Daytona.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Short strokes here as the playoff field should take center stage on your roster. Denny Hamlins best career average finish (7.8) and four career Darlington victories make him a near-certain top 10. He or Kyle Larson should be one pick while whomever you think is better from that Joey Logano-William Byron duel in May should be pick number two.

Related: Best Darlington Raceway Drivers for DraftKings

Middle Tier

Christopher Bell earned a career-best sixth at Darlington in May and enters with the most Toyota momentum. Pair him with Tyler Reddick, a surprise runner-up in that same May race after the Logano-Byron tangle.

Lower Tier

Michael McDowell was a shocking seventh in May at a track he never earned a career top-10 finish. That cheapens his salary for an underfunded Front Row Motorsports team that always looks at the postseason as an added bonus; they won’t take a step back after failing to make it.

The same goes for Corey LaJoie, whose No. 7 Spire Motorsports team was a surprise 15th in the Southern 500 last fall. Expect a number of wrecks once again to eliminate a few top contenders, giving LaJoie a chance to both survive and thrive.

What Vegas Thinks

The vegasinsider.com odds have Kyle Larson pegged as the favorite at +600, followed by Tyler Reddick at +700 and both Chase Elliott and Joey Logano tied at +800.

Looking for a longshot? Michael McDowell is sitting pretty at +3000.

What I Think

I’m picking Joey Logano for a bit of a surprise, pulling off the rare Darlington sweep and asserting Team Penske’s strength as the postseason gets underway. 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.