Written By Gabriel Tsui, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri
The regular season finale in Daytona was no doubt an absolute fun race to watch, ending the regular season on an absolute high. With Austin Dillon clinching the final playoffs spot, it’s time to look into the drivers who advanced to the Round of 16. Who will be advancing to the round of 12? Who will be dropping out of the race for the championship? Is an upset elimination a possibility? Using statistics and other factors, I will list every driver as either a: 100% making it, a most likely to make it, a 50/50, or a dark horse. Today I will start with the top eight drivers in the rankings.
The first driver on our list, the overwhelming favourite to make it out of the round of 16, is regular season champion Chase Elliot,who secured 40 playoff points. Having won four races in Dover, Nashville, Atlanta, and Pocono, he heads the field in terms of average finishing position and average position, being 9.9 and 10.2 respectively. In the round of 16 race tracks: Darlington, Kansas and Bristol, he finished in 5th, 29th, 8th respectively during the regular season. While the 29th in Kansas is quite the contrary here, Elliot is the most consistent driver on the field nonetheless, and he will most definitely progress into the Round of 12.
Next up is Elliot’s teammate, and defending NASCAR champion Kyle Larson. Falling to fifth in the regular season championship after the final race in Daytona, he managed to secure only 19 playoff points. However, he is another favourite to advance to the next round of the playoffs, with wins at Auto Club and The Glen. He led the field in terms of average starting position, 8.1, which shows his advantage in terms of qualifying position. And the tracks in the Round of 16 are shorter tracks, generally giving drivers who qualify higher an advantage. Although Larson has failed miserably in Darlington in the regular season, I do not expect him to be eliminated. If Larson does get eliminated, it would be a huge surprise for the fans and Hendrick motorsport.
Next up is the most unpredictable driver on the field: Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing. This season, Chastain racked up 2 race wins and 4 stage wins, with his last race win coming at Talladega in April. Thanks to his good run of form early in the season, he finished with 20 playoff points, and 5th in regular season championship. However, approaching the end of the season, he got caught up with incidents more and more often, leading to him finishing races at the back of the field. Will Chastain show up to the playoffs strong in a “Go big or go home” attitude, or fail miserably and get knocked out of the playoffs? With doubts lingering over his performance, I will place him into the 50/50 category, where things might go both ways, depending on the driver himself.
The next driver on our list is Joey Logano. Analysing his performances throughout the season, one can conclude that he is an extremely strong performer on medium-length tracks, which would serve him well in Kansas and, especially Darlington, where he converted pole position to a win. In the final few races, Logano showed up strong, gaining multiple stage wins and high finishes to secure 25 playoffs points. There is a huge chance for Logano to carry the momentum into the playoffs, possibly securing a win to lock him in for the Round of 12. He is most likely to advance, but an elimination would not be entirely impossible.
The fifth driver is William Byron, the 24-year old driving the number 24 car. The young driver suffered from DNFs early in the first few races, but then bounced back strongly, winning in Atlanta and Martinsville, thus securing a playoffs spot. Having secured three more stage wins and finishing tenth in regular season standings, Byron earned 14 playoffs points. Looking into his regular season races, he is quite strong on short to medium tracks, but a run of poor form in recent races is worrying. Losing a fourth place start to a 11th place finish at Richmond and losing another fourth place start to an even worse 22nd place finish at the Glen is inexcusable. Given the unforgiving “winner takes all” environment, Byron must take it upon himself to get better to advance further than the Round of 12. Byron would most likely gain enough points to advance past the Round of 16, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he gets eliminated in this stage, if he doesn’t step up his game.
The sixth driver is Ryan Blaney, the only driver who made it to the playoffs without taking a single win this season. He barely made the playoffs in the dying seconds in Daytona, outscoring Martin Truex Jr. by three points to make it through. By finishing third in the regular season and taking five stage wins, Blaney secured 13 playoff points. This season he performed very consistently, having solid Sunday performances. However, there are concerns whether Blaney can perform on the tracks in Round of 16. These are particularly medium to short tracks, which don’t play as much into Blaney’s strengths. These tracks have seen him often fall down the pecking order miserably. He is likely to make it through to the next round, and once again, potentially do just enough to squeeze past the elimination bubble.
The seventh driver is Denny Hamlin, who picked up wins in Richmond and Charlotte, along with three more stage wins, leaving him with 13 playoff points, too. He has been performing rather well throughout the season, but nothing flashy nor eye catching. He mostly finished within the midfield, seldomly joining the battle for the win. There will be concerns whether he can still keep up and finish races with more points than others, let alone win a race. Will he be able to surprise everyone or just manage? There are serious question marks on Denny Hamlin, and it is a 50/50 if he will advance to the next round. It won’t be surprising if the situation goes either way, whether he advances or not.
The eighth, and final driver for this part is Kevin Harvick. Kevin Harvick finished the season strongly, taking back-to-back victories in Richmond and Michigan. While he wasn’t winning frequently, he was consistently challenging for higher finishes, leading to a ninth-place finish in the regular season. Taking into account his two wins, Harvick gained a total of 12 playoff points. Harvick is in an extremely favourable position to perform well in Darlington, based on his performance in May, which saw him storm up the field from a 35th place start to a 4th place finish. While there are doubts over him keeping up at the age of 46, he is most likely to advance to the next round.