Sonoma Proves Yet Again Why the Battle For 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Spots Will Be the Most Intense Ever

The second road-course race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season did not have the banging and smashing of the initial road-course event nearly three months ago in Austin. But Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway offered a glimpse into how wild the battle for playoff spots could be the rest of the regular season.

Daniel Suarez added his name to the list of Cup Series winners this season that is now a dozen drivers long, but the drivers who were next to cross the finish line are who could really add intrigue to the summer months.

Four of the first five drivers who finished behind Suarez on Sunday have yet to win a race this season, and that comes after seven of the top 11 finishers in March at the Circuit of the Americas road course in Texas were part of that same winless group.

Chase Elliott had also not won a race by that point and finished fourth at COTA but grabbed a win five weeks later at Dover Motor Speedway.

Road courses have long been known as wild card events in the NASCAR Cup Series

The variety of names at the front of the field in road course races is nothing new. Road courses require a very different skill set of drivers compared to oval tracks, which naturally means the road courses will play to some drivers’ strengths and hurt others.

For example, William Byron has grown to be a terrific oval driver and has two wins this season, which are tied for the most of any driver in the series. However, he has yet to post a top-five finish in 17 career road-course races, and seven of those results have been outside of the top-20.

On the other side are drivers such as Chris Buescher. He ranks 20th among active drivers with an average finish of 19.2 on intermediate ovals, which make up the bulk of the Cup Series schedule, but he ranks eighth on road courses since 2019 with a 13.2 average finishing position. He was runner-up Sunday at Sonoma and has finished inside the top-20 in 13 of his last 14 road-course races.

Recent history at the upcoming road courses also suggests a wide variety of drivers will compete for a win that could launch them into the NASCAR Playoffs. The series heads to Road America in Wisconsin in three weeks, and seven of the top 14 finishers from that race a year ago do not have a win this season. Nine of the top 16 drivers at the Indianapolis Road Course race a year ago fit that bill, as do seven of the top 16 from the 2021 race at Watkins Glen International.

Upcoming NASCAR Cup Series schedule plus Next Gen car should make for an exciting summer

Daniel Suarez celebrates after winning the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350
Daniel Suarez celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 12, 2022 | Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Couple those tracks with the Next Gen car model, which has allowed more drivers from different teams to compete for wins this season, and the next 10 weeks could be quite the battle to reach the postseason with a chance to win the championship.

The series already has 26 drivers with at least one top-five finish through 16 races this season, which is the same number of drivers who accomplished that in the full 36-race schedule a year ago.

Fans and media have debated whether it was realistic that more than 16 drivers could win a race during a 26-race regular season since the current playoff format was adopted in 2014. It has yet to happen, but this year is shaping up to at least challenge that mark. If more than 16 drivers win a regular-season race, NASCAR will still take only the top 16 winners in order of the points standings.

NASCAR leaders said before a massive schedule overhaul in 2021 that they wanted more variation in the schedule in terms of both the markets it races in and the types of tracks it visits. They have met both of those goals, and it is turning the 2022 season into one of the most interesting in recent memory.

It helps that all teams are having to learn the Next Gen car at the same time, no doubt, but at least for one year, it looks as if there will be no easy predictions about who makes up the remainder of the playoff grid. 

With three more road courses and the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway, it’s now almost just as likely that Buescher or Michael McDowell could make the playoffs as Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, or Austin Dillon.

Sure, the typical Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske drivers will likely still be the ones who ultimately battle for the championship come the end of the season at Phoenix Raceway, but the college basketball bubble watch feel to this year’s regular season is an interesting twist.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.

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