Too soon to call someone a Playoff favorite

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 12: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, (L) and Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, walk the red carpet prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 12, 2022 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The result of such a long NASCAR Cup Series winner’s list in 2022 – which features so many non-championship eligible race winners – has only increased the suspense and intensity of the Playoff standings, which go into Round 2 now separated by only 34 points from leader Elliott to 12th place Austin Cindric.

And with the list of “new” winners amid a contender list of “consistency” many of the very drivers competing for the big trophy, say they don’t know who the odds-on driver to beat may be just yet.

Perennial championship favorite Hamlin, who struggled this season to stay among the Top-15 in points despite a pair of victories, seems to be upping his game in time for the Playoffs. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Darlington, S.C. and Kansas and then a ninth place showing at Bristol last weekend.

“I don’t think that there’s a championship favorite,’’ reigning champion Kyle Larson said. “Chase (Elliott) is getting through the first round, it wasn’t a great first round for his standards, his team’s and what they had for points going in. So, I feel like for him, making through the round and resetting – as long as he can get through this round, I think he’s still probably still the favorite.’’

Obviously as a former champion and the current championship leader Elliott’s name was raised as a favorite, but so was a young driver in only his second Playoff. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell earned the most points among the championship slate in the opening race and while many Playoff drivers insisted there was no overwhelming favorite, Bell’s name came up a lot.

Bell, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had the best first round among the original 16 Playoff drivers. He was the only one to earn all Top-5 finishes in the opening round – fifth place at Darlington, S.C., third place at Kansas before leading a season-high 143 laps for a fourth place at Bristol, Tenn. in last week’s first-round elimination race.

“I think Bell has shown so far in the Playoffs that he’s really strong,’’ Larson said, adding, “But I don’t think you can pick a favorite until you get through this round because whoever the favorite is right now, could easily not make it into the next round just because how wild this round is.

“I think three weeks from now, you’ll be able to pick a better [championship] favorite. But right now, there’s so many unknowns, as far as craziness that’s going to happen.’’

Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman agreed.

“There are a couple of guys that have been really consistent through the Playoffs, but other than that I don’t think there is (an odd-on favorite),’’ Bowman said.

“Anyone can make it happen still and hopefully it’s us at the end of the year, but it’s cool. I think this car has created a lot of parity right now. Different teams have different strengths right now, which is pretty cool to see.’’