As Cup Series Playoffs near, no clear favorite in title pursuit

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As wide-open as the first 26 races of the NASCAR Cup Series season have been, the logic follows that identifying a favorite for the championship isn’t a clear-cut task. Ask that of regular-season champ Chase Elliott, the top seed and the series’ leader in wins this year, and he won’t budge.

“I mean, there’s just there’s been too many people good at different times, right?” said Elliott, the 2020 champion. “Like, just because we have a win more than other people, doesn’t mean other people aren’t capable of winning or having a really good day, too. So you know, you want to … you have to respect the whole field, in my opinion. There’s a lot of really talented drivers, a lot of really smart people working with these teams.”

The topic was front and center in Thursday’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Media Day in the Charlotte Convention Center, where the 16 drivers bidding for the championship held court. The quest for that title opens this weekend down the road at Darlington Raceway, where Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) kicks off the 10-race postseason stretch.

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The season to date has been marked by parity, with 15 winners eligible for the playoffs. A 16th winner, Kurt Busch, withdrew his name from consideration as he remains sidelined while recovering from a head injury.

Still, Elliott has some breathing room at the top of the heap. His four wins are two more than any other driver in the series this year, and his consistency — marked by 17 top-10 finishes — is also unmatched. Playoff qualifiers Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell have the next-most with 14. Elliott’s performance clinched the Regular-Season Championship one race early and secured a 15-point bonus for his playoff tally.

“I mean, you can’t ignore the teams that have been really consistent all year,” said Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick, a two-time winner this year and the playoffs’ eighth seed. “Obviously, I think the obvious one that has capitalized the most and been most consistent, he’s won the most races and he’s gathered the most points is Chase Elliott. So you know, I’d say they’ve been doing their part very well, but I mean, it’s only got them a 40-, 35-point cushion. I mean, in years past we’ve seen drivers accumulate way more than that. So it gives you something, but you know, it just feels like it’s been closer than it ever has. Things change so fast, race to race, especially with three races in each round.”

The same sentiment goes for defending champion Kyle Larson, a teammate to Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports. Larson set the bar as a front-runner last year, entering the playoffs as the top seed with a 28-point gap on his nearest competitors. Elliott’s points gap this season over second-place Joey Logano sits at 15, and the full range from first to last is just 40 points.

MORE: Cup Series standings

“I definitely can’t put my finger on one particular favorite,” Larson said.  “I think you can look at Chase as probably the favorite if you had to pick one, just because you know he’s won the most, he won the regular season title and all that, and his team’s done a really good job executing. But man, it’s hard to expect anything out of each week that we’ve had already.”

“Points are really tight, so there’s no real clear runaway,” said Kyle Busch, who slots as the 11th seed, but sits just four points out of fifth in a crowded middle of the playoff pack. “Chase’s got a bit of a lead. But, you know, the rest of us, it’s all pretty close, especially fourth-on-back. So I would like to think that this year is just going to be a bit different for a lot of reasons. And I think the car is obviously a huge piece of that with just the the parity.”

Owe some of that to the Next Gen car that debuted in the NASCAR Cup Series this year. The layer of uncertainty that the new model has introduced continues into the playoffs, even with return trips planned for several tracks on the schedule ahead.

Drivers anticipate the same trend starting this weekend at Darlington, where Joey Logano prevailed in a late duel with William Byron back in May.

“With this car? I mean, if you tell me who’s gonna win Darlington, and you get it right, I’ll give you 1,000 bucks,” said Trackhouse’s Daniel Suárez, in his first playoff go-around. “I don’t think you’re gonna get it right. There is no one guy. You know, anyone can be good. So I love that about this car, that it’s unpredictable. Everyone has this opportunity.”