After Erik Jones’ NASCAR Cup Series win at Darlington Raceway, how many more wins do you expect from non-playoff drivers this season?
Luken Glover: At least two more non-playoff drivers’ wins would not be out of the realm of possibility. Kansas Speedway presents a favorable opportunity for Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace. Jones has a solid history at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL fits into the wheelhouse of Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger. And then there’s the great unknown of Talladega Superspeedway. If you thought 2022 has been crazy, it’s likely to get more bizarre.
Brad Harrison: There is absolutely no reason for there to not be at least one or two. 23XI Racing was very good at Kansas earlier this year, and there is no reason for that not to be the case again. You definitely have to look at Wallace both there and at Talladega Superspeedway, since he runs well on superspeedways. Truex showed us last week that no playoffs doesn’t mean no intensity for the No. 19. Plus, with the Charlotte ROVAL coming up, anything can happen.
Amy Henderson: Truex headlines a list of drivers who are absolutely capable of winning races this fall. Brad Keselowski also comes immediately to mind. Buescher has looked close. Pretty much everyone is a contender at Talladega. I hope we see many non-playoff winners; the constant playoff talk on the broadcasts gets old fast and a bunch of other guys contending for wins force their hand to change the way these races are covered. Plus, it changes playoff strategy when those teams know they can’t count on wins to move them forward, particularly this year when nobody really has enough playoff points to rely on to move on. The more the merrier at the victory party.
Mike Neff: While the thought of non-playoff drivers writing Cinderella scripts is intriguing, the bottom line is the best 16 drivers in the sport make the playoffs. It is possible that there may be a surprise winner at the Charlotte ROVAL or Talladega, the odds simply are in favor of the 16.
Michael McDowell continued his strong season at Darlington and has career highs in top 10s and laps led. Is McDowell emerging as a 2023 Cup playoff contender?
Harrison: I’ll be stunned if he is not in the postseason next year with either a win or by points. Crazy as it seems to say, McDowell has had a better year this year than last year, when he made the postseason via his Daytona 500 win. Running consistently sets the tone for the next season, and McDowell has done just that.
Henderson: With the newfound parity in the sport, provided NASCAR doesn’t do anything in the offseason to change it, drivers like McDowell are showing what they’re made of. It also means, as we’ve seen this year, pointing into the playoffs is not a done deal for anyone, and McDowell will have to win his way in. But on a superspeedway or road course in particular, he’s got a very good chance of doing that. An underfunded team won’t be a championship threat, but he can absolutely make the show.
Neff: McDowell has honestly been a playoff contender since he won the 2021 Daytona 500. He had great road racing skills, and Front Row Motorsports has gotten better at fielding competitive oval cars. McDowell has a better-than-average shot at making the playoffs next season.
Glover: McDowell will be a playoff contender in 2023. One thing we’ve learned with the Next Gen car is that road courses may be the tracks at which smaller teams can focus on winning. McDowell’s top 10 total of 11 is equal to or more than seven playoff drivers, including William Byron and Denny Hamlin. With the consistent strides FRM has been making, expect McDowell to be in the playoff hunt next year.
With the rule changes NASCAR made for the Next Gen car following a pair of fires at Darlington Raceway, will there be a noticeable difference at Kansas?
Henderson: I hope not. NASCAR did the right thing by hopefully fixing the fire issue, but I don’t want it to change the racing or give anyone an advantage. That would be a real shame, as good as the racing has been this year.
Neff: Noticeable? Can you tell the difference between 195 and 194? NASCAR added some changes to the rulebook that will hopefully reduce rubber buildup and ultimately reduce the potential for fires. It shouldn’t really make an aerodynamic difference, so the cars should not race any differently.
Glover: The new changes to fix the fire issues likely will provide an extra variable to cope with, but how much it affects the car remains to be seen. One thing that will be interesting is that Goodyear changed the tire code for Kansas, meaning a different tire construction will be on display from the spring. With the exception of Kyle Larson, Toyota dominated the spring race, but tire alterations can alter things in a hurry, especially in two different weather seasons.
Harrison: Maybe a little bit, but not by much. With so much info available today, teams will pick up pretty quickly on what to expect. At the end of the day, it’s an intermediate trackm and by this time in the season, teams have picked up on plenty off of which to work.
Which two drivers will be eliminated from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs this weekend?
Neff: Unquestionably it comes down to three drivers: Matt Crafton, Christian Eckes and Carson Hocevar. Eckes drives for ThorSport Racing, the strongest team in the series. Crafton has the best average finish at Kansas among the three contenders. Hocevar has kept it close and should have an opportunity but is going to be struggling against odds to advance.
Glover: Barring issues for drivers seventh or above in points, it comes down to Crafton, Hocevar and Eckes. Ben Rhodes isn’t comfortable by any means, but the defending champion should make his way through. Crafton is obviously the most experienced and has several Kansas wins. However, Hocevar’s momentum and grit are more favorable, leaving Crafton and Eckes below the cut line.
Harrison: Hocevar and Crafton. Hocevar has fought through adversity to make the postseason, and at some point you wonder if the grind may take a toll. Crafton has been down this road before but needs something to click in a hurry to make another championship run.
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