The NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Battle is Already Wild

Chase Elliott

Getty Chase Elliott's advantage disappeared after Darlington Raceway.

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are off to a wild start. The 16 drivers entered the opening weekend in a tight points battle, and they left sitting in drastically different places on the leaderboard due to unexpected wrecks, mechanical issues, and a fire.

Heading toward Darlington Raceway, regular-season champion Chase Elliott was in a great spot. He had 40 bonus points, putting him 33 above the cutline. However, an early wreck relegated him to a 36th-place finish. Now Elliott is a mere 14 points above Austin Cindric, who is the first driver below the cutline.

Elliott still has two more races to keep himself above the cutline and secure his spot in the Round of 12. However, any room for error that he had has now disappeared. He will have to focus more on stacking points at tracks where he has past success in order to avoid elimination after the cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

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2 Drivers Have a New Advantage After Darlington

Joey Logano

GettyJoey Logano has the points lead after Darlington Raceway.

While Elliott fell closer to the cutline, other drivers made some big moves at The Lady in Black. This includes Joey Logano, who used a fourth-place finish to move from second in the standings to the top spot. He is now 38 points above the cutline with two races remaining in the Round of 16.

William Byron, for comparison, entered the playoffs fifth overall. He had gone through a summer of struggles that featured only one top-10 finish, and he was in need of a strong performance. Byron went out and won the first stage before finishing fifth in the second. Byron overcame some unexpected engine issues and capped off the night with a top-10 finish.

The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro is now second in the standings behind Logano. He is 32 points above the cutline, and he has a two-point advantage over perennial championship four contender Denny Hamlin.

Granted, one strong performance does not guarantee that either Logano or Byron will automatically move on to the Round of 12. However, both drivers will have some extra confidence heading toward Kansas Speedway. Logano, in particular, has three previous wins at the intermediate track in his career.

Below the Cutline Looks Noticeably Different

There was a shakeup at the top of the playoffs leaderboard after the Southern 500, which will create intrigue heading toward Kansas Speedway. There was also a noticeable change below the cutline as a former champion fell into dangerous territory.

Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric, Alex Bowman, and Austin Dillon all entered the playoffs below the cutline. Now, only two of them are below. Cindric is now the first driver below the cutline, and he is only two points behind Suarez. Dillon moved up from 16th to 14th, and he is only four points out of the final transfer spot.

Bowman, for comparison, enjoyed a quiet evening in South Carolina. He secured points in Stage 2, kept the No. 48 out of the wall after contact from Kevin Harvick, and he ended the day 10th overall. He is now 10 points above the cutline with two races remaining in the Round of 16.

The final two spots below the cutline belong to members of Stewart-Haas Racing. Chase Briscoe is now 10 points back of Suarez after finishing 27th and four laps behind the leaders. This is due to Elliott collecting him in a Stage 1 crash and sending the No. 14 to pit road for repairs.

“We just really struggled with the balance,” Briscoe told NBC Sports after the race. “At the beginning of the race we were starting off extremely tight and then we got to where we were extremely loose and then we had nowhere to go with the 9 car when he wrecked.

“That kind of killed our day, but we were able to get lucky because a lot of those guys had issues, too. It’s not the way we wanted to start the round by any means, but we’re gonna have to improve and we’re probably gonna have to win.”

Kevin Harvick entered the playoffs as the ninth seed after winning two races to close out the regular season. He is now 16th in the standings and 13 points below the cutline after his No. 4 Ford Mustang suddenly caught fire and forced him to pull off the side of the track. Harvick ended the day 33rd overall.

Rebounding from the fire will not be easy, but Harvick has plenty of success at the two tracks remaining in the Round of 16. He has three wins at Bristol Motor Speedway and three wins at Kansas Speedway, so he will likely be in contention as the pressure mounts.

READ NEXT: Chase Elliott’s Playoff Schedule Starts With a DNF

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