Enter your email to read this article
Read news on any topic, in one place, from publishers like The Economist, FT, Bloomberg and more.

NASCAR playoff predictions: First 4 out, championship and sleeper picks

Sixteen drivers, 10 races, three elimination rounds, and when it’s all over, NASCAR will crown its newest Cup Series champ at Phoenix Raceway in November.

The 2022 NASCAR playoffs open with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Sunday in the first of three races before the championship-contending field is shaved down to the top-12 drivers. Three more races, and it’ll shrink to eight and eventually down to the final Championship 4 at Phoenix.

The regular season delivered parity with the debut of the Next-Gen car, and there were 16 different winners this season, 15 of whom are in the playoffs. So although Chase Elliott and defending champ Kyle Larson are among the favorites, anything can happen.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about the 2022 NASCAR playoffs

“I definitely think there’s favorites,” Larson said Monday. “But there’s a lot of craziness that’s happened all year long, even though I’ve got favorites, I’m not confident in anything just because of how wild and inconsistent the season has been for so many people.

“So I think I think you look at us as being a favorite. I think you can look at Chase obviously. In my opinion, Ross Chastain. I would say us three probably, and definitely the [Joe] Gibbs [Racing] guys that are in the playoffs. There’s there’s a lot of tracks I think in the playoffs that suit you know their cars and setups very well.”

Larson has his picks, and so do we. So ahead of the playoffs opener at Darlington, here are our NASCAR predictions for the first four drivers out, the champion and a sleeper pick.

(All stats according to Racing-Reference.info and DriverAverages.com.)

Predicting the first four out

(Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports)

Michelle: Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe
These are four of the bottom five drivers in the playoff standings, and if they don’t win in the Round of 16 to advance to the next, they’ve got a sizable points gap behind the leaders. That will be difficult to overcome without a win.

Austin Dillon snuck in the playoffs with a win at Daytona International Speedway last weekend, but with a 17.3 average finish in the last 15 races, plus a 16.7 average on the season, he and the No. 3 team lack the consistency to survive a round at three very different tracks.

Bowman, Cindric and Briscoe had strong starts to the season, each winning their lone races (so far) in the opening four weeks. In the 12 races since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bowman has struggled with just one top-10 finish (Michigan International Speedway). Cindric had a solid summer, but the rookie is also inconsistent and doesn’t have the Cup playoff experience to advance. And Briscoe, despite winning at Phoenix in March, has had just four top-10 finishes on the season, most recently in May. So he won’t move on to the Round of 12 either.

Nick: Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suárez, Austin Dillon
Briscoe hasn’t posted a top-10 finish since the Coke 600 in May and is a lock to drop out in the first four. Bowman is one of the better drivers in the field at Kansas Speedway historically, but Darlington and Bristol Motor Speedway (average finish: 19.2 since 2019) are weak links for the No. 48 car. Suárez has struggled in the past at Darlington (avg. finish: 19.1), and especially Kansas (21.4) — though, to be fair, his past stats don’t reflect the current strength of Trackhouse cars. Finally, Dillon has excelled at Darlington recently with four top-5s in his last seven starts, but he’s got the biggest hill to climb, and the other cars in the playoffs have simply been more consistent throughout the year.

You may have expected me to pick Austin Cindric here, but the No. 2 car has quietly had a very strong second half of the season. Cindric has finished no worse than 13th in 10 of his last 12 races and has posted four top-5s in that stretch.

Predicting the 2022 NASCAR champion

(Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports)

Michelle: Denny Hamlin
There will be a first-time champ this year, and it will finally be Denny Hamlin’s turn. He has an OK cushion in points, but that won’t be enough to carry him to the Championship 4. He by no means has the most consistent stats so far this season, he didn’t finish five races and was disqualified from another.

However, Hamlin and his No. 11 team know what it takes to advance through to the Championship 4, even if the season has never ended with a title. A win at Darlington — his checkered flag in this race last season was his fourth at the track where he also has the fourth-best average finish (10.7) among active drivers — would give him a helpful boost. The Round of 12 will be his biggest hurdle, but if he can make it through to the top-8, I can see him winning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway or at Martinsville Speedway to lock himself into the final four. Then, of course, it’s anyone’s game in a one-race shootout for the championship. But for some reason in an unpredictable year, it feels like Hamlin could pull this off.

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Nick: Joey Logano
Logano is on a hot streak entering the playoffs with four top-6 finishes in his last five races, and while he’s a virtual lock to advance at least past the first round, he’s also arguably the strongest driver at the final four tracks the series will head to this season.

The Round of 8 will begin at Las Vegas, where Logano has won twice and had four top-10s in the last seven races, then head to Homestead, where Logano won to clinch the 2018 title, and conclude in Martinsville, where Logano’s average finish of 7.4 since 2019 trails only Ryan Blaney. At Phoenix, Logano has the second-best average finish in the field, and a win as recently as 2020.

Sleeper pick

(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Michelle: Kevin Harvick
Look, I very incorrectly predicted at the beginning of the year that Harvick would have a second consecutive winless season. I was very wrong. Instead, the old-timer of the Cup Series won back-to-back races in August at Michigan and Richmond Raceway, reminding everyone that the 2014 champ can’t be overlooked for too long, new car or not. His regular-season results are scattered with seven top-5 finishes and 13 top-10s, but also didn’t finish five races. Harvick has ample playoff experience up against a historically young playoff field, and that will serve him well for a deep postseason run.

However, in his 22 seasons, he’s racked up three wins at each of the next four tracks: Darlington, Kansas, Bristol and Texas Motor Speedway. A scenario I could easily see happening is Harvick having a strong opening round, advancing to the Round of 12 and then winning at Texas — he won the fall Texas races in 2017, 2018 and 2019 — to lock himself in early to the Round of 8. If he can make it to the Championship 4, he could win it all with Phoenix being one of his best tracks.

Nick: Kevin Harvick
Much has been made of Harvick coming to terms with the Next-Gen car, as evidenced by his slow start to the year followed by surprise back-to-back wins at Michigan and Richmond. If Harvick has figured it out, he’s heading into a stretch of tracks that he’s dominated in the past. His average finish of 3.4 in the last seven Darlington races is nearly six positions better than the next-best driver, and he’s also got the best average finish at Kansas since 2019, edging Denny Hamlin. It would not be a surprise to see Harvick in Victory Lane at least once during the opening round of races — and if he can make it to Phoenix, he’s got a record nine wins in the desert.

Related Stories
2022 Southern 500 - Start time, how to watch, entry list & more
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is set to begin this weekend at Darlington Raceway.
From analysis to the latest developments in health, read the most diverse news in one place.
Logano tops Bell in Southern 500 qualifying at Darlington
Joey Logano will lead the field to the green flag in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff-opener at Darlington Raceway (S.C.).
NASCAR championship odds for all 16 drivers in the 2022 playoffs
Who's favored to win it all and who might be a solid dark-horse pick for the 2022 NASCAR playoffs.
Logano: "Everyone is concerned" about NASCAR Next Gen safety
Joey Logano says he feels 'concerned' by the ability of NASCAR's Next Gen racer to withstand certain impacts, with Kurt Busch spending an extended spell sidelined suffering concussion symptoms.
Logano on Next Gen car safety: "I think everyone is concerned"
Kurt Busch’s extended absence from competition and some recent big hits in accidents are prompting NASCAR Cup Series drivers to express doubt about the ability of the Next Gen car to withstand certain impacts.
One place to find news on any topic, from hundreds of sites.
Austin Cindric fastest in Saturday's Darlington Cup practice
Playoff drivers, led by Austin Cindric, posted three of the top-five speeds in Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series practice at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.