The first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs kicks off Sunday at Darlington Raceway with the Southern 500.
Two completely different races follow NASCAR’s oldest 500-mile race: A 400-mile Sunday afternoon race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway and a 500-lap Saturday night race at the famed Bristol Motor Speedway.
The playoffs are seeded as follows:
Only four teams will get to race for the Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway while 12 others will wonder “What could’ve been?”
Before the playoffs began, we each filled out a bracket and compiled it into our collective picks here at TRE. Here is who we picked to bow out after the Round of 16:
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
After 15 winners in the playoffs and 19 winners overall saw some strong teams miss the playoffs in 2022, the series took notice when Stenhouse won the 2023 Daytona 500.
A decade removed from winning two straight Xfinity Series titles with crew chief Mike Kelley, and with a noted superspeedway resume under his belt, Stenhouse reunited with Kelley and claimed one of the big crowns in NASCAR.
For everyone on the JTG-Daugherty Racing team, it’s a banner year. Stenhouse and JTG-D are each on track for their best average finish and a career-high amount of top-10 finishes.
That gives some solace to what could be am early playoff exit.
Stenhouse finished 12th and 13th in the spring races at Kansas and Darlington, respectively. At Bristol, the JTG-Daugherty driver is good but he also has five finishes of 33rd or worse in the last six races there.
To advance to the next round with just a few playoff points, you have to be consistently solid and stand out some. While Stenhouse has been consistent, it might not be enough to get to the next round.
The Front Row Motorsports team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent years at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit. It put them in the playoffs for the second time and solidified any doubts over FRM’s progress in recent years.
McDowell making the playoffs, as in the case of Stenhouse and JTG-D, is a win in and of itself. With how the charter system works, the boost in funding could lead to big things in the coming years for the No. 34 team.
For now, McDowell and his team have some work to do.
The No. 34 team have the worst average finish of any playoff team and the third-least stage points. The team’s finishes have declined by around two positions on-average since last year.
To their credit, McDowell finished sixth, 16th and 11th in the first round last year. Even if those finishes dipped to eighth, 18th and 13th, there’s a chance of making the next round.
McDowell has been surprising, like at Loudon when he topped the practice charts and showed top-10 speed.
After McDowell won at Indy, he said “we might upset some people in the first round.” We’ll wait and see.
After winning the Coca-Cola 600 and finishing in the top-10 at Gateway, Blaney held the points lead.
Then came five finishes of 31st or worse, including two hard wrecks, and only three top-10s – all ninth-place finishes – in 11 summertime races.
Blaney slipped to 13th in points at the end of the regular-season, taking him out of some valuable playoff points for his points position. It also followed a worrying trend for the Team Penske driver: Inconsistency
Blaney followed an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500 with finishes of 26th and 13th. Then, finishes of second and seventh were followed by finishes of 21st, 26th and 23rd.
Crucially, Blaney finished 16th and ninth at Kansas and Darlington with one eighth-place stage finish in each race.
He also has had mixed results on short tracks.
What may help Blaney is he appears to be on an upswing. However, he needs to continue that into this round with no issues to maintain the narrow gap he has and make the Round of 12.
So far, with Penske losing speed RFK and some Toyota teams found this summer, the first round doesn’t look the most favorable for them.
One of the feelgood stories of the Cup Series season is Wallace earning a breakthrough first playoff berth in the series.
Also, what’s better than having Michael Jordan be one of the first to congratulate you after a mentally-draining day?
If you look at this first round, everything is working in Wallace’s favor: Top-5 finishes at Kansas and Darlington in the spring, defending winner of the fall Kansas race, an uptick in speed over the summer
Then, there is Bristol, where Wallace had a 30th-place finish last year. And Wallace’s zero playoff points.
For Wallace to advance to the next round, he’ll need to maximize points at Kansas and Darlington. That means no mistakes from his crew, especially.
Often Wallace and his teammate Tyler Reddick have run up front, then had to rally back there after a bad pit stop.
The results are mixed.
At Richmond, Wallace came back to finish top-15. At Michigan, Reddick finished deep into the 30s.
In each race, both drivers had race-winning cars.
For either driver to advance, but especially Wallace who hasn’t shown as much raw speed, the first round will be all about maximizing points and minimizing mistakes.
The team has some work to do but the task isn’t impossible. No matter what, like McDowell and Stenhouse, this team making the playoffs is still a win itself to some extent.