Without a doubt, I would have to characterize the 2022 NASCAR season, and the betting associated with it, as the craziest one I’ve witnessed since turning my attention to the sport fully about 20 years ago. Never before has such a diverse and unexpected cast of race winners come to the forefront in the sport. From the unprecedented rookie win by Austin Cindric at the Daytona 500 to start the season to the almost miraculous avoiding of a big wreck leading to the Austin Dillon playoff clinching victory at that same track this past Sunday, it’s been a wild 26 races that have gotten us to this point. What point is that? In my opinion, the point of the most wide-open playoff race for the title that we’ve seen. As far as I’m concerned, there are 11 of 16 drivers that I could see making it to Phoenix for the season finale with a shot for the championship. Does that make handicapping this year’s field more difficult? Yes, but it also adds value to the amount of return you’ll get by accurately assessing the drivers that will be in the mix. That’s what I’m here to help you do in this piece.
The NASCAR Cup series has seen 16 different winners in the first 26 races of the season, which would have made for a perfect field for the playoffs had Kurt Busch not been forced to back out due to lingering concussion symptoms. As such, Ryan Blaney is the only driver to make the playoff group without winning a race. Of course, the manner in which he finalized his qualifying spot this past Sunday at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was movie-worthy by itself. Only one driver on the circuit has won more than two races, that being Chase Elliott, and as such, the 2020 champ comes into the playoff proceedings as the favorite according to DraftKings, listed at + 270 to win it all. Among the seven two-time winners in the series this year, defending champion Kyle Larson has the lowest odds at + 600. The next two drivers, in terms of odds-to-win, have never won a series title, with Dennly Hamlin at + 700 and Ross Chastain, at + 850. With the championship pedigree of Elliott and Larson leading the way, do any of the other 14 drivers stand a realistic chance? Absolutely, and I’ll give you some reasons why as I breakdown some of the key performance indicators you should be considering before you place your 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoff wagers.
If you recall the 2019 playoffs, Kyle Busch went into the playoffs struggling for an extended period of time but with a nice lead he built early in the season. He continued to flounder for much of the playoffs but qualified for the season finale at Homestead-Miami and managed to put it together for that one most-important race. In the 2020 postseason, Kevin Harvick went in as a heavy favorite but failed to even qualify for the season finale at Phoenix. Last year, some predictability returned to the sport, with four of the top 5 favorites clinching a spot in the championship race and the expected winner getting it done. Summarizing, the last three years of playoffs have presented three completely different finishing scenarios. Plus, unlike any of those seasons, this year’s leader goes into the playoffs with a smaller cushion than usual. Considering at one point this season, Elliott had consecutive finishes of 29, 33 and 21, a similar start to the 10-race series could have him eliminated by round 2. Things are that unpredictable this season.
This year’s playoff race schedule is tweaked a bit, with round 3 being the one most affected. However, the series has stuck with the concept of placing the three elimination races at tracks that have proven to be highly competitive and intense in recent years. This is not by accident. Drivers will have to maintain their poise and avoid trouble to advance. The first elimination race is at Bristol. The second is at the Charlotte Roval, and the third is at Martinsville. Drivers are tightly packed typically at these tracks, and only the most skillful tend to thrive there.
I’ll give my own breakdown of each driver’s chances a little later, but for now, let’s look at some key statistics you’ll want to consider when analyzing the field. Let’s start out by looking at the standings entering the postseason:
1. Chase Elliott: 2040 (-), PP - 25
2. Joey Logano: 2025 (-15), PP - 15
3. Ross Chastain: 2020 (-20), PP - 15
4. Kyle Larson: 2019 (-21), PP - 13
5. William Byron: 2014 (-26), PP - 13
6. Denny Hamlin: 2013 (-27), PP - 13
7. Ryan Blaney: 2013 (-27), PP - 5
8. Tyler Reddick: 2012 (-28), PP - 12
9. Kevin Harvick: 2012 (-28), PP - 10
10. Christopher Bell: 2011 (-29), PP - 7
11. Kyle Busch: 2010 (-30), PP - 7
12. Chase Briscoe: 2009 (-31), PP - 9
13. Daniel Suarez: 2007 (-33), PP - 7
14. Austin Cindric: 2006 (-34), PP - 6
15. Alex Bowman: 2006 (-34), PP - 6
16. Austin Dillon: 2005 (-35), PP – 5
Which drivers have the most momentum?
The Cindric win at the Daytona 500 set the pace for what became an unpredictable first part of the season. It wasn’t until race #8 that we saw a driver win a second race, that being William Byron. Two races later, of all drivers, Ross Chastain equaled the feat. For Cindric and Chastain, the wins were career firsts, and they were joined this season by Chase Briscoe, Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick in making first-ever trips to Victory Lane. The four-win run by Elliott began in race #11 and concluded in race #21 at Pocono. Ironically, Elliott, who had become the series road course ace the last couple of years, grabbed his checkered flags at tracks not of the road course designation. Those were Dover, Nashville, Atlanta and Pocono, four completely varying tracks, and a reason why many experts feel he has what it takes to become champion again. The presumed new road course top threat figures to be Tyler Reddick, who won at both Road America and Indy Grand Prix and the most recent hot driver could be Kevin Harvick, who snapped a 60-race winless streak with back-to-back August victories at Michigan and Richmond. All the while, drivers like Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney have shown the ability to run up front at virtually every track, and this makes them contenders almost by default. There is a growing sense that Blaney might have the luck on his side this season after surviving a winless 26-race regular season to make the field. Of course, you can never count out Kyle Busch, a 2x past champion, who seems to have lost a bit of focus as the season has worn on as he has been embroiled in difficult contract negotiations that will decide his racing future.
Take a look at the chart below illustrating the playoff leaderboard for the last 10 handicap races, both in terms of driver ratings and points earned. I use the term “handicap races” to describe those in which the driver completed 95% or more of the required laps. I use this method to eliminate the fluke circumstances that NASCAR racing presents, choosing to focus on general strength level instead.
NASCAR Playoff Drivers L10 Handicap Races Standings
Kyle Larson: 96.87 (2) / 37 (1)
Chase Elliott: 106.73 (1) / 36.2 (2)
Tyler Reddick: 92.26 (4) / 31.4 (3)
Kevin Harvick: 90.41 (6) / 31.3 (4)
Joey Logano: 86.82 (9) / 30.3 (5)
Ryan Blaney: 86.44 (10) / 30.2 (6)
Christopher Bell: 92.18 (5) / 29.9 (7)
Austin Cindric: 78.12 (11) / 29.7 (8)
Daniel Suarez: 89.08 (7) / 29.5 (9)
Denny Hamlin: 93.79 (3) / 27.2 (10)
Ross Chastain: 86.85 (8) / 26.2 (11)
Alex Bowman: 77.59 (12) / 25.9 (12)
Kyle Busch: 74.16 (14) / 25.9 (13)
William Byron: 76.18 (13) / 25.7 (14)
Chase Briscoe: 69.06 (15) / 21.9 (15)
Austin Dillon: 66.34 (16) / 20.1 (16)
There is a good grouping of strong running young drivers in the top half, a much different feel from past seasons. Furthermore, 11 of the 16 playoff drivers have never won a title and only Busch has captured multiple championships. At the bottom of the field, it would seem that Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would have the least momentum, and only a slight chance of advancing in the playoffs, but in this season of uncertainty, who knows. Add Cindric, Suarez and Alex Bowman to that pair and you have a handful of drivers that can’t afford any kind of slump to survive what should be a hotly contested first round.
Which playoff contenders have the best driver ratings at the remaining tracks?
Naturally, with every track offering a unique set of circumstances, and drivers possessing varying skill sets to perform at each, the makeup of the schedule plays a huge part in how the playoffs transpire. Let’s take a look at some key driver stats for each of the 10 remaining tracks. The races are listed in order of the schedule.
The races on the chart above are in order and separated by round by the color designations. The grey shaded races make up round 2 and the yellow shaded Phoenix race represents the championship race. When analyzing the chart closer, a pair of underdogs really stand out, those being Blaney and Byron, both ranking in the top 4 overall for the 10-race run. Blaney also has the top rating at Phoenix, the site of the championship race. He has to be believing that if he can just make it there in one of the final four spots, he has a good shot at a crown. Of course, he hasn’t won yet, and if the playoffs have proven one thing, winning races is paramount. Still, using this type of analysis, he might be Larson’s biggest threat to a title run, with the prices not actually reflecting it.
Here are my thoughts on each driver’s chances as we head into the 2022 NASCAR Playoffs. The odds listed are courtesy of DraftKings.
(Championship Odds: + 270)
Elliott is the series favorite at + 270 and has shown the ability to win at several different types of tracks, not only this year but throughout his career. He has a big enough lead where any single race struggle or fluke occurrence won’t impact his standing that greatly. He has only endured one stretch this season where he’s finished 15th or worse in three straight races. Elliott would seem to be in a very good position to lock in a spot at Phoenix with a shot to win another title, and once there he will be one of the top one or two favorites.
(Championship Odds: + 600)
Larson’s odds were + 240 last year when he went on to a first title. This year’s price of + 600 feels a lot more reasonable when you consider the dominance he enjoyed in 2021. In fact, to describe his 2022 performance best, I would characterize it as wildly inconsistent. He has more finishes of 14th or less (11) than he does top 5’s (10). At one point he finished 34th, 30th and 29th in consecutive races. His championship run of last season has as much to do with anything else of him being positioned a higher favorite than the other 2-race winners. He is very capable of making a run, however, and none of the three rounds present any unusual statistical challenges for him. Larson should be one of the four finalists at Phoenix.
(Championship Odds: + 700)
Hamlin won two races and is 6th in the championship standings heading into the playoff opener at Darlington. His championship odds are third best in the field, a sign of the level of respect he seems to be given from oddsmakers. I can’t say I love his chances that much, however, as he only has five top 5’s all season long and 13 finishes of 20th or worse. He seems to be focused all too much on his ownership of Team 23XI Racing over this current driving assignment with Joe Gibbs Racing. Plus, the entire JGR Team seems to be floundering at the imperfect time. Even if he does find a way to the final 4 at Phoenix, Hamlin has never really been a threat to win at that track. I’ll call for an earlier playoff ousting, let’s go with post round 2.
(Championship Odds: + 850)
Chastain is the final of the four drivers with odds of better than 10-1 to win a championship according to DraftKings. Had the playoffs started 10 weeks ago, I would have been a huge proponent of his chances to advance deep into the playoffs. As great of a story he was early, at this point I simply can’t endorse it any longer. Not only is Chastain on a team (Trackhouse Racing) that is new to the playoff proceedings, his driving style over the last two months can best be described as aggressively desperate. In races #3-#20 of the season, Chastain scored 14 top 10 finishes. Since then, in six races, he has a best finish of 18th and an average of 25.8! That is the sign of a team/driver not ready for the pressure-packed stage and I will call for Chastain to be eliminated in round 2.
(Championship Odds: + 1000)
Another driver headed in the wrong direction right now is Kyle Busch, who is commanding respect from the DK oddsmakers by name only. Looking at the numbers, it makes little sense why he would be a stronger title contender than a handful of guys I’ve yet to detail. Busch has not finished better than 9th in any event since race #15 at Gateway. At that point, he was on a run of five top 3 finishes in seven races and a legit contender. Since then his average finish is a modest 20.5, and clearly not good enough to be a playoff advancer. With his sights set more clearly on his contracted racing future than the 2022 postseason, I’ll call for an early ouster for Busch.
(Championship Odds: + 1000)
Blaney is the first of a few underdogs that I’m really giving a chance to “upset the apple cart” in this year’s playoffs. Yes, I know that this young gun has not won a race in 2022, but he’s led a bunch of laps and has a handful of stage wins to his credit. His team as a whole has made many crucial mistakes throughout the season to keep him from Victory Lane. That said, he was the all-star winner at Texas, and that is one of the tracks in round 3. A win there again would put him in the series finale with a chance for the title, assuming he survives the first two rounds, where he has put up very good stats. After his team saved his season this past Sunday at Daytona, it seems things may be going in the right direction finally for Blaney at the perfect time. I would count Blaney among my favorite options for championship and other prop wagers regarding this year’s NASCAR playoffs.
(Championship Odds: + 1200)
Harvick’s season seemed dead in the water until the calendar flipped to August and he won back-to-back races at Michigan and Richmond. The latter is a somewhat similar track to Phoenix where he has also run well, so the strategy for the #4 team would have to be “just get to Phoenix”. Can he? It’s possible, as the first two rounds of the playoffs offer fantastic chances for him to advance. The third round is the big stumbling block, however, Las Vegas and Martinsville have been tough on Harvick of late. His season was mostly down, and prior to the two wins, he topped out as “good.” In the playoffs, you have to be great to win a title. He just hasn’t demonstrated that ability consistently at all, as even the two wins were relatively fluky, having led only about 15% of the laps in those races. Final 8 contender yes, title contender, no.
(Championship Odds: + 1400)
Logano makes an interesting case as an underdog capable of making a deep run in these playoffs. After struggling to find the right recipe for the new car for most of the regular season, the #22 team has come on strong of late, scoring four finishes of 6th or better in the final five races and an average finish of 6.2 Prior to that he only had five top 6 finishes in 20 races. Momentum is definitely on the side of this past champion, who looks for his first title since 2018. He is no longer the wide-eyed kid that was the “best thing since sliced bread” many years ago. He is a veteran with a ton of experience that seems to be finding a groove at the right time. Like his Penske Racing teammate Blaney, I consider Logano a decent longshot option to make the final race and win a championship.
(Championship Odds: + 6000)
Sometimes drivers just burst onto the scene and force oddsmakers to give them respect. Such is the case for Reddick, who won his first two races of his career in July, both at road courses. He was a huge profit generator for my simulation in each of those races, as the numbers had him pegged as the winner in each. Do those two wins make him a legitimate threat for a title in 2022? Probably not, but considering that the Charlotte Roval is a road course event to wrap up round 2, you have to like his chances to reach the final 8. It’s easy to forget that this second-year star also made the playoffs last year but entered the field as the biggest longshot at + 6000. He’s run well lately and has decent stats at nearly every track in the 10-race slate. I’d be surprised if he’s ousted early, but don’t see a trip to Phoenix in the final 4 as realistic.
(Championship Odds: + 1600)
From an optimistic standpoint, Bell might actually be JGR’s best chance at winning a title this season, as he seems to be the only driver fighting exclusively for his team at this point. The #20 driver has shown solid potential all season long and has led at least three laps in 10 of the 26 races. In other words, he has been consistently up front. That said, it feels at this point like it’s just not in the cards for the Joe Gibbs Racing Team in 2022, and the whole organization is going to have to go back and regroup in the offseason. I like Bell’s chances to advance past round 1, but beyond that, it’s sketchy.
(Championship Odds: + 1800)
Byron might be the third ranked team in the Hendrick Motorsports garage heading into the playoffs, but he might be the most undervalued underdog as well by oddsmakers. You have to remember that this same group of experts setting the odds loved the #23 driver’s chances at a title to start the season. Since that point, he has been inconsistent and hasn’t even scored a top 10 since race #16, but he is in the hunt, and his recent history at the tracks involved in the playoffs makes him a viable option. In fact, Byron has at least one track in each round in which he has a ranking of 4th or better among the 16 contenders for recent rating. Only Larson, Blaney, Elliott and Busch can also stake that claim, so it gives him a shot to win and advance in each of the three rounds. I’d say this team is at least final 8 with a reasonable underdog chance at final 4.
(Championship Odds: + 3000)
The real longshots start at Daniel Suarez at + 3000. He has been boom or bust in 2022 with his only win coming at the road course at Sonoma. That would mean he has probably circled the calendar for the second elimination race at the Charlotte Roval, where he would like to be in a position to advance to the final 8 with a huge performance. Can he make it there? I’d say it’s doubtful, considering he is 13th in the standings now and has the second worst recent ratings averages in the first round of races. Plus, the Trackhouse Racing team seemed to lose momentum in the last month. I’ll call for a first-round exit.
(Championship Odds: + 3500)
Bowman seems to have taken a step back in 2022 after he appeared to be on a fast track upward. He is the fourth and final playoff representative from the Hendrick Motorsports team, but if you ask me, he is a distant fourth. In the second half of the regular season, he didn’t have a single finish better than 10th. Something is just off with this group lately, and without any extended time between the regular season finale and the playoff opener, it will be hard to fix. His lone race win was at Las Vegas, so his chances would improve significantly should he survive the first two rounds. Don’t bet on it.
(Championship Odds: + 4000)
Briscoe is another driver that did his best work in the first half of the season while most of the other teams were still trying to figure out the new car. Since a 4th-place finish in race #14 at Charlotte, it has been a struggle, however, for the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driver. With a best finish of 13th and an average of 20.3 in that 12-race stretch, this would not appear to be a team firing on all cylinders at this point. Briscoe will be fortunate to survive the first round.
(Championship Odds: + 7000)
While I’m not going to go out on a limb and say there is great value in + 7000 with Cindric for the series title, I will suggest that I find his price far more attractive than those of Suarez, Bowman or Briscoe. Why? He has shown a lot better capability lately than those guys, and the Penske Racing team seems to be figuring things out at the right time as a whole. Can a rookie with just one win at the Daytona 500 reach deep into the playoffs? I doubt it, but 10 top 13 finishes in his last 12 races is certainly enough evidence to suggest that Cindric can advance past at least the first round, with an outside shot of winning at Talladega and reaching the third round.
(Championship Odds: + 8000)
There were a lot of people that didn’t like the bump Dillon gave Cindric late at Daytona this past Sunday to eventually pass him and win the race, but he did what he had to do to secure a playoff berth, and now he has a chance to accomplish bigger goals. Dillon is the obvious biggest longshot at the title, however, and the overall stats would indicate that his chances of getting past the first round are not great. Prior to his victory, his last finish better than 9th was a 2nd at Talladega in race #10. He would have to be considered a legitimate option at race #5 at ‘Dega, but that would be the only chance at a race win to advance. I don’t see the #3 Childress Racing Chevrolet team reaching round 2.
Larson, Blaney, Elliott, Byron, Hamlin, Busch, Harvick, Logano, Reddick, Bell, Cindric, Chastain
Larson, Blaney, Elliott, Byron, Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Reddick
Larson, Blaney, Elliott, Logano