Written By Gabriel Tsui, Edited by Sean McKean
As NASCAR heads toward Charlotte this weekend for the Coca-Cola 600, it is time to look at the playoff picture and review how the first half of the season went so far. Who is in the top 16 right now? Who is having a disappointing season so far and looking to bounce back in the final 13 races?
After 13 regular season races, we already have 9 different race winners, with William Byron in the #24 car leading the way in playoff points and wins. Byron also has nearly 600 laps led throughout the season, most top-five finishes and stage wins. Holding 22 playoff points at the moment, Byron snatched two consecutive wins in Las Vegas and Phoenix during early March, then took a win last week in Darlington after a late crash between Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain.
Speaking of Ross Chastain, he is the second in the playoff rankings. Though not having a single win yet, he is leading the regular season points standings by 27 points. This season, he has put forth consistent driving week-in and week-out, with multiple top-ten finishes, even with some races jumping from outside of top 25 into a top 15 finish. However, this season he has had multiple different scraps with other drivers. His poor decision making in late stages of the race had led to him losing opportunities to win races. If he wants to win races in the road towards the playoffs, or even potentially winning a championship, Chastain has to race with a cool head and not make anymore enemies.
Christopher Bell is the number 1 Toyota driver right now, third in the playoff standings and has 15 playoff points. He took home a win in the dirt race, and is second in regular season standings. His performance has been top notch, with eight top-ten finishes up until Darlington, the most in the field.
To round out the top four is the teammate of Byron, that being 2021 champion Kyle Larson. One of the two drivers to have two wins so far, he has secured 12 playoff points through wins and stage wins, and two more from regular season standings. After taking home the million dollar prize in the all-star weekend, he would certainly be looking for more wins later on this season, but so far has performed remarkably well with five top-ten finishes and, in many occasions, challenged for the win.
The two Toyota drivers in fifth and sixth are the two oldest drivers in the field: Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. They both have one win so far and own 14 and 11 playoff points respectively. Hamlin has five top-ten finishes so far in the season, while Truex Jr. finally broke through his win drought and returns to the playoffs after narrowly missing out top 16 last year.
A few more older drivers who are not getting talked about enough are Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. Since moving to RCR at the start of the season, Kyle Busch earned two wins in Auto Club Raceway and Talladega. While Kevin Harvick hasn’t earned a win yet, he has been racking up points and consistent finishes, standing on third place in regular season standings. Since these four experienced drivers clearly still have the fight in them, best believe that they will carve out more wins and points in the second half of the season.
Other drivers that are in the playoff picture include single race winners Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Other drivers who are around the playoff picture include Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and Ty Gibbs.
Ty Gibbs is having a decent season so far, avoiding controversies and crashes for most of the time. He only has 2 DNFs and took home four top-ten finishes. Another driver who is having a surprising season so far is Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR champion is having a bounce back year, after a terrible 2022 season which saw him gain only 629 points and finish 24th in regular season standings and without a win for the first time since 2010. With six top-ten finishes, he is in the playoff picture and eighth in the regular season standings, and he could further secure his playoff spot by winning a race.
There are also drivers who are having underwhelming seasons, with Daniel Suarez being one of the most disappointing. After starting off the season with three consecutive top-ten finishes, his performance dipped, having five consecutive races finishing below 20th. Even after a bounce back in Talladega, he had two poor races in Dover and Darlington, finishing 35th and 34th respectively, leading to only 5 points gained across these two races. He has to step up his game if he wants to go back to the playoffs again.
Another driver who has to step up is Noah Gragson. After high hopes from the fans to perform and get a good start to the season, he sits at 32nd in points standing, the fourth worst record in the standings. He seems to not be able to get the best out of his car, and other than getting punched by Ross Chastain, he has done nothing remarkable this season. So unless he clutches up and wins a race, this season looks unsalvageable with the heavy competition around him.
As NASCAR approaches the second half of the regular season, the excitement will only grow.