If you’ve been keeping track of the NASCAR Cup Series standings, you’ll notice that there are a lot of different winners this season and only 16 playoff spots up for grabs. You may be wondering who makes the cut and why. That’s okay because we’re here to help.
It’s not something that NASCAR and its fans have really taken seriously in previous seasons, but how is the Cup Series playoff field determined if there are more than 16 different regular-season race winners?
Generally, the saying “win and you’re in” applies: a driver wins a regular-season race and automatically qualifies for one of the 16 spots available in the postseason to compete for the championship.
If there are more Cup winners available than playoff spots, then what? Let’s get into it.
The epitome of the NASCAR playoff format
After 26 regular-season races, the NASCAR playoffs begin in November with a 10-race postseason that culminates with championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
There are four playoff rounds: the first three consist of three races each, and at the end of those rounds, the bottom four playoff drivers are eliminated as the field shrinks. After the first nine playoff races, the 10th is the championship’s 4th round, a single winner-take-all race.
The playoff field begins with 16 championship-contending drivers, the Round of 16 beginning with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4. When that round ends, four drivers are eliminated from the championship field and the rest move on to the round of 16. 12. Three more races, four drivers are eliminated and the rest advance to the Round of 8 and eventually the Championship 4.
Race winners in the first three playoff rounds automatically advance to the next stage, and the rest of the field is determined by playoff points.
How do NASCAR drivers typically qualify for the playoffs?
The simplest, but easiest way for drivers to make the playoff field is to win a race. “Win and you’re in,” as the saying goes, and it’s usually true.
For example, there are 12 different race winners in a regular season. Those 12 drivers automatically make the playoffs, and the rest of the postseason field is filled out by the next four most winless drivers in the regular-season standings.
Easy enough — at least, when there aren’t more than 16 different winners in a regular season.
What happens if there are more than 16 winners in the regular season?
Zooming out to see the bigger picture, the top-16 drivers in the standings advance to the playoffs, and that’s true no matter how many different race winners there are. But if there are more than 16 different winners, how the top-16 drivers are decided is a bit more complicated.
But first, a couple rules to remember:
- A playoff spot is guaranteed even if the regular-season champion doesn’t win
- Even though there have been 16 different winners, if the regular-season champ doesn’t get the win, the race winner with the fewest regular-season points misses the playoff cut.
- To be playoff-eligible, drivers must be in the top 30 in regular-season points and attempt to qualify for every race, unless NASCAR grants them an exemption (e.g. Kurt Busch’s current situation).
With all that in mind, let’s consider some hypothetical scenarios.
Say at the end of the regular season, there have been 17 different winners, including the regular-season champ (likely to happen this season). The playoff field will then consist of the 16 drivers with the most wins.
So drivers with at least two checkered flags are pretty safe.
In fact – this hypothetical and in reality – there is probably a significant group of drivers each associated with a victory. In that case, the one-win drivers with the most regular-season points will complete the playoff field.
So after multi-win drivers, say there are four playoff spots to fill and five drivers with one win each, the four with the most regular-season points make the playoffs, while the ones with the fewest don’t.
Has NASCAR ever had more than 16 regular-season winners?
No, since this playoff format was implemented in 2014, there have never been more than 16 different winners in the regular season. And even when having a diverse group of winners and seemingly more likely than allotted playoff spots, the scenario never materialized.
Looking at the 2021 playoffsThere have been 13 different regular season winners, so the final three spots are filled by the top winless drivers in the standings.
This year, though, it seems more plausible that “success and you’re in” doesn’t necessarily apply.
NASCAR Drivers With Multiple Wins in 2022 (So Far)
This season, there are five drivers with at least two checkered flags: Chase Elliott (four), Ross Chastain (two), Joey Logano (two), William Byron (two) and Denny Hamlin (two).
NASCAR Drivers With One Win (So Far)
There are currently nine drivers with a win: Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman and Austin Cindric.
And depending on where they are in the standings, some of them could be in trouble if there are more than 16 different winners.
Winless NASCAR drivers are currently on the playoff bubble
If the NASCAR playoffs started today, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. would be in contention despite having yet to win a race this season. On the outside looking in right now are Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Eric Jones and Austin Dillon (along with the rest of the field, but those drivers aren’t on the bubble).