After the fifth plate race at Daytona International Speedway, the 16-man field was officially set for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. A new car, new faces and new circuits have created one of the most parity postseason fields in Playoff history.
While there were 16 winners in the first 26 races, Kurt Busch opted out of the Playoffs due to an injury sustained from the race at Pocono Raceway in July. While that opened the door for Ryan Blaney to enter the Playoffs winless, it eliminated Martin Truex Jr. – who finished fourth in the regular season point standings – after Austin Dillon snuck in a last chance victory at Daytona. This, joined with rookie contenders, multiple first-time winners and surprise drivers in new rides, have created one of the most unique and tightest championship runs in decades.
One of those chasing the Cup is Chase Briscoe.
“I think the thing people are overlooking with these playoffs is in the past, the playoff guys were so much faster from a speed standpoint that the non-playoff guys didn’t even have a chance to win any of the races or truthfully contend in the top five to 10 sometimes,” said Briscoe to the media during a virtual meeting. “Now, there are legitimately seven to eight guys that can still go win races that aren’t in the playoffs. So, I think that’s gonna be even tougher this year in the playoffs than ever before just because you’re gonna have a lot of non-playoff guys up there in the mix that normally with the old car you just wouldn’t have that.
“Because it’s so tight, I think it makes it even more important that you can’t have a bad race.”
And it goes without saying that his season started as one of the strongest across all entries.
Briscoe earned two top five finishes in the first four races with a third in the Daytona 500 and his Playoff seed-clinching win at Phoenix Raceway. By the end of the fifth race this year, he sat third in the point standings. Across the history of Stewart Haas Racing, it was one of the strongest starts in recent years for any of their four drivers, making Briscoe an early surprise and potential favorite for the regular season title.
Then the pendulum of racing came swinging back.
A run of 20th or worse in six of nine races dropped the Indiana native to 18th in points. Plus, as the win total across the field neared 16, he was at risk of losing his Playoff berth if enough new winners came around to knock him out of the running.
That was a week ago. This weekend, it’s the Labor Day weekend kickoff of the 2022 Playoffs at Darlington Speedway. And Briscoe hasn’t been more ready to hit the reset button than now.
“The first two rounds, I think, are the toughest two rounds just because you can eliminate yourself and kind of how the race tracks play out. There are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes at those racetracks, so hopefully that’s one thing we haven’t done a great job of this year is limiting mistakes, but hopefully we can do that now.”
As Briscoe has matured in the Cup series during his sophomore season, he admitted his biggest challenge is putting the whole race together, especially the end of races. Despite some strong qualifying runs and good stage finishes, the results have not been there for the No. 14 team.
- Briscoe earned his first career pole position at the series’ first visit to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, but managed a measly 24th place finish.
- After starting fourth at the Bristol Dirt race, he finished 22nd.
- Starting outside pole at Road America, he finished 14th.
- A third starting position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix resulted in 23rd in the final running order.
“For us,” continued Briscoe, “We’ve had small glimpses of, truthfully, I feel like we’ve had speed every week, but unlike a lot of times we run anywhere from seven to 12th for a lot of the race and then we finish 18th to 23rd the last 60 laps, where other teams have kind of done the opposite.”
One thing that Briscoe does carry is experience. How can a sophomore driver have experience in his first career Cup series Playoff berth? By holding nine victories and a Final Four Playoff spot in the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship run. While the car and competition are at a new level, the experience from his previous Playoff charges compels him to outsmart the others.
“The stages (in Xfinity) were some of the hardest racing I’d ever done,” he explained. “Now with the Cup Series, I think it’s gonna be different this year too, just because of what I was saying earlier about all the non-playoff guys that can still run up front. The intensity is gonna ratchet up even more than it already has, so it’s one way to expect what it’s gonna be like just because it’s way more cut throat.”
The helpful part for Briscoe is the experience across his entire team. Leaning on the wisdom of teammate Kevin Harvick – who also qualified for the Playoffs after his win at Michigan International Speedway – and team co-owner and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart helped him find new angles of approaching the final 10 races from the 12th seed.
“Tony in 2011: everybody had written him off and thought there was no way he should even be in the playoffs,” Briscoe shared. “He even said it himself. Then to go out there and make a run like he did, using that (reset) to your advantage. Everything we did the first 26 weeks, yeah, it mattered to get to this point, but now you could win the first 26 races and if you have three bad races in a row, you’re out of the playoffs. It’s all kind of irrelevant to a certain extent outside of getting you here.
“You don’t always have to win the race or try to take a 12th-place car and win with it – that you have to be able to take a 12th-place car and run ninth with it. That’s a huge day when it comes to playoff time.”
While we’ve seen more variables than ever before in NASCAR, Briscoe knows that there are some basics that still apply.
“Every position matters even more.”