CONCORD, N.C. – The NASCAR Cup Series off weekend serves as a de facto midseason break and a chance to take stock of where things stand following 16 of 36 points-paying races in 2022. The regular season is nearly two-thirds complete with just 10 races remaining before the playoffs begin at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 4.
The four-car team saw all of its drivers win within the first 11 races of the year – the fastest that an entire four-driver team has won in the Cup Series. Chase Elliott holds the points lead and with that would come a 15-point bonus for the top spot in the regular season standings. William Byron is one of four drivers to post two wins on the season. Kyle Larson has seemingly been knocking on the door of win No. 2 in 2022 over the last month and Alex Bowman’s consistency should have him positioned for more shots at winning in the coming weeks.
What has transpired so far? Where do things stand from a playoff perspective? And what opportunities are there for the quartet of Hendrick Motorsports drivers as the regular season enters the home stretch?
Editor's note: The projected playoff point total accounts for any race wins and stage wins already earned as well as the current position a driver has in the regular season standings (and any subsequent playoff points awarded from that for a driver that is in the top 10 of those standings). The driver that is first in the point standings at the end of the regular season receives 15 playoff points, second place earns 10 playoff points, third place earns eight playoff points, fourth place earns seven playoff points and it is a sliding scale down to the 10th position in the final regular season standings earning one playoff point.
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Chase Elliott, No. 9 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet team
Regular season standings rank: First
Wins in 2022: One (Dover Motor Speedway)
Top fives in 2022: Three
Top 10s in 2022: 10
Laps led: 471
Projected playoff point total (rank): 2,023 points (second) if playoffs started today
Elliott's three major opportunities in remainder of regular season:
1-Road courses. It’s no secret that Elliott is an ace when it comes to this style of racing. He has seven of his 14 Cup wins to date on that track type. Three of next nine races are at road courses: Road America (July 3), Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course (July 31) and Watkins Glen International (Aug. 21). Elliott is the defending race winner at Road America. With two wins and three straight top-two finishes, Watkins Glen stands as one of his best tracks period. He also finished fourth in the first road race at Indianapolis in 2021.
2-Michigan International Speedway. Elliott has not yet won at the track in the Irish Hills but based on average finish (7.7), it stands as his best non-road course venue on the circuit. He has three runner-up finishes and 10 top 10s in 11 starts at the two-mile track. In last year’s race, he led 68 laps – his most at the facility.
3-Maintaining the regular season points lead. Elliott’s been consistent this season with the most stage points (136), the second-most laps led (471), the second-most top 10s (10) and the third-best average finish (12.6). In order to hold on to that top spot, he’ll need to turn some of those top 10s into top fives – of which he only has three. The 15 playoff points for the regular season champion are a big boon heading into the playoffs and the drop if he slips to second would be just 10 playoff points awarded. Those five playoff points, essentially an extra win, could mean the difference in advancing or not advancing in the postseason.
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Kyle Larson, No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet team
Regular season standings rank: Seventh
Wins in 2022: One (Auto Club Speedway)
Top fives in 2022: Six
Top 10s in 2022: Eight
Laps led: 273
Projected playoff point total (rank): 2,011 points (seventh) if playoffs started today
Larson's three major opportunities in remainder of regular season:
1-Nashville Superspeedway. Larson is the defending race winner at the next track on the schedule (June 26). He dominated the Ally 400 last year, leading 264 of the 300 laps en route to the victory. Concrete surfaces have been strong for Hendrick Motorsports of late with four straight wins on that type of track. The driver of the No. 5 has been knocking on the door of win No. 2 in 2022 for several weeks as he led late at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. In addition, he has led at least 19 laps in seven of the last eight races. Cliff Daniels won’t be on the box for this race as well as the following three races (Road America, Atlanta Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway) but just to note, Denny Hamlin won with his fill-in crew chief at Charlotte last month.
2-Road courses. Last season saw Larson win three of the seven road courses. He is the defending race winner at Watkins Glen and has scored three straight top-eight results at the upstate New York track. He earned a top-five finish at Indianapolis as well. The speed was there at Sonoma Raceway as he led 26 laps from the pole for his second stage win of the year. As we noted with Elliott, three of the next nine races are on road courses, so there is a major opportunity there.
3-Michigan. The 29-year-old has solid numbers at Pocono Raceway too, with two top-five finishes and a ninth-place result after he cut a tire heading into the final corner in his last three runs there. Yet, at the two-mile track that will be run on Aug. 7, Larson has won three times during his Chip Ganassi Racing days. He finished third at this track last year and led 70 laps in his second straight third-place result at the venue. The Elk Grove, California, native also won at its sister track, Auto Club Speedway, earlier this year.
William Byron, No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet team
Regular season standings rank: Eighth
Wins in 2022: Two (Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway)
Top fives in 2022: Four
Top 10s in 2022: Five
Laps led: 570
Projected playoff point total (rank): 2,016 points (fourth) if the playoffs started today
Byron's three major opportunities in remainder of regular season:
1-Atlanta. Byron won in March on the reconfigured and repaved track so it’s natural to peg him as the favorite for the return trip on July 10. He led over a third of the race (111 laps) and grabbed six playoff points with a stage win on top of the race win. The 24-year-old also ran well with this rules package at Talladega Superspeedway in April. As a whole for the season, he has run the second-most laps inside the top five (1,689) and has a knack for finding the front.
2-Pocono. At tracks where he has had more than one start, Byron’s best average finish (9.1) comes at the "Tricky Triangle." He has finished in the top 10 in five of his last seven starts there and his track-best third-place result came in the first race there last year. With the standings positions very tight, this could also help boost his spot in the regular season points battle. At this track, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has scored at least 30 points in six of the last seven races there.
3-Richmond Raceway. Byron finished third here in the spring and led 122 laps. He was on older tires than eventual race winner Denny Hamlin in April and lost the lead to him with five laps to go. Overall, though, the 24-year-old has looked stout on short tracks this season. In addition to the Richmond result, he won at Martinsville Speedway the following week – dominating the second half of the race and holding off Joey Logano in an overtime finish. Sometimes it just clicks for a driver on a track type and that seems to be the case for the Charlotte, North Carolina, native and crew chief Rudy Fugle on short tracks.
Alex Bowman, No. 48 Ally Racing Chevrolet team
Regular season standings rank: Ninth
Wins in 2022: One (Las Vegas Motor Speedway)
Top fives in 2022: Three
Top 10s in 2022: Nine
Laps led: 18
Projected playoff point total (rank): 2,008 points (ninth) if the playoffs started today
Bowman's three major opportunities in remainder of regular season:
1-Superspeedway-style racing. Bowman has posted top-10 finishes in two of the three races where the superspeedway rules package has been utilized this season – Atlanta and Talladega. The series is set to return to Atlanta in three weeks on July 10. He also has two straight seventh-place finishes in the summer race at Daytona International Speedway, which will host the regular-season finale on Aug. 27. With two of those tracks part of the remaining 10 before the playoffs, those provide a solid chance for the Tucson, Arizona, native to add to his playoff point total.
2-Pocono. The 29-year-old won one of the two races at the 2.5-mile track in Pennsylvania last year and the track will host the Cup Series on July 24. In the last three races there, he has two top-10 finishes to go with his win, the third-best average finish (5.7), led the sixth-most laps (34) and has scored the fifth-most points (101). Richmond is another track that Bowman won at in 2021 that is in the final 10 races of the regular season. He has three top-10 finishes in his last four starts at the .75-mile track.
3-Getting stage points. Among the 12 drivers to already nab wins this season, Bowman has the third-fewest stage points (57). You might look at that and think that the driver of the No. 48 isn’t qualifying well but he has the same number of top-10 starting positions this season (seven) as teammates Elliott and Byron. With nine top-10 finishes and his 12.1 average finish – both totals are his best at this point in a season in his Cup career - the end results are there, it’s just a matter of getting the points in the middle. Why is this important? That would be because of the playoff points that the drivers in the top 10 of the standings earn at the end of the regular season and Bowman is within striking distance of as high as sixth (21 points behind Martin Truex Jr.).