The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs start for 16 drivers next weekend at Darlington, but the season doesn’t end for anyone. Drivers like Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can continue to compete for race victories even though the series championship is out of reach.
Those drivers may be disappointed, but others have to be more disappointed because they’re the ones who underachieved by not qualifying for the playoffs before the close of business on a wild Sunday at Daytona.
Here are the three drivers who top that list based upon resources at their disposal, self-inflicted damage over 26 races, and the results of their teammates.
3. Erik Jones in the Petty GMS No. 43 Chevy
This was a tough call because Ryan Blaney was a no-brainer for the list until the completion of the rain-relayed, rain-suspended NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona allowed him to squeeze into the playoffs. We’ll deal with the Martin Truex Jr. aspect of the situation below.
Erik Jones tracked as close to the dictionary version of disappointment as he did underachievement. He ran in or near the lead often enough during the season that winning for the first time since his Joe Gibbs Racing days in 2019 seemed inevitable. But others out-maneuvered Jones on late-race restarts in some of his best races and has only two top-five finishes thus far.
Jones made a good call in hiring Dave Elenz away from Noah Gragson’s Xfinity Series team to serve as crew chief, and Maury Gallagher infused new life into the organization as a whole. One does wonder, however, if this was Jones’ best chance in the short term; with Gragson coming aboard in 2023, does Jones fall behind the same way Bubba Wallace regressed at 23XI Racing upon the arrival of Kurt Busch?
2. Bubba Wallace in the 23XI Racing No. 23 Toyota
While it’s true Year 1 of the Next Gen era has not been especially kind to Toyota, two-thirds of the manufacturer’s six cars drove onto Victory Lane. Bubba Wallace and Martin Truex Jr. have been the exceptions, but MTJ can at least point to a bunch more top-10 results and far fewer DNFs, though he could certainly own Erik Jones’ spot on this list.
Wallace typically does his best work on superspeedways, and Atlanta Motor Speedway gifted him another regular-season opportunity by turning its oval into a shorter NASCAR version of Daytona and Talladega. But he made it through his fifth straight winless regular season anyway.
Wallace came to Daytona sixth in points among winless drivers in an Oprah Winfrey-inspired (“You get a win! And you get a win! And you get a win!) NASCAR Cup Series season.
The No. 23 Toyota was indisputably hindered by shoddy work in the pits for much of the season. Christopher Bell, who drives the No. 20 Toyota at JGR, can sympathize. But Bell fought his way through his own issues with pit crews to win his way into the playoffs and make Labor Day weekend at Darlington meaningful.
1. Brad Keselowski in the RFK Racing No. 6 Ford
Even after backing out the 100-point NASCAR penalty early in the year, Brad Keselowski finished behind Bubba Wallace, teammate Chris Buescher (who missed one race), and Austin Dillon. That’s not an optimal start to his career as a partner at Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing.
Missing the playoffs concludes a string of indignities that began with rookie Austin Cindric, Keselowski’s replacement at Team Penske, starting the season with a win the Daytona 500.
Keselowski has won a race every year since taking a bagel in 2010, his first full season. Don’t bet against him going through the 10 playoff races without keeping the streak intact, but every number on his 2022 stat line thus far, including not finishing on the lead lap 11 times already, is ugly.
The 2023 Busch Light Clash can’t get here soon enough for Keselowski.
All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.
Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected]