Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron enter the playoffs at the very top of the standings, equal with 36 bonus points each.
Before the green flag even flies for the Southern 500 at Darlington, four drivers already have some ground to make up. They are Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Bubba Wallace. All start the ten-week championship playoffs below the cut-line.
On Saturday, Christopher Bell claimed pole position at Darlington in a Toyota 1-2-3 with Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick close behind. It was a rough day for several other contenders with William Byron, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ross Chastain and Truex all qualifying deep in the field. Joining them will be Kyle Busch, who has to go to the rear after making unapproved adjustments after contact with the wall in practice.
You can take a look at the playoff standings HERE and the complete starting lineup HERE.
Now let’s get to those predictions!
Advancing into the Round of 12
Jim Utter: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Keselowski, Reddick, Logano, McDowell, Harvick, Wallace
Eliminated: Bell, Chastain, Blaney, Stenhouse
Nick DeGroot: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Bell, Chastain, Keselowski, Logano, McDowell, Harvick
Eliminated: Blaney, Reddick, Stenhouse, Wallace
Charles Bradley: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Bell, Chastain, Keselowski, Reddick, Logano, Blaney
Eliminated: McDowell, Stenhouse, Harvick, Wallace
Joey Barnes: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Bell, Chastain, Keselowski, Reddick, Logano, Blaney
Eliminated: McDowell, Stenhouse, Harvick, Wallace
Advancing into the Round of 8
Jim Utter: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Reddick, Harvick
Eliminated: Keselowski, Logano, McDowell, Wallace
Nick DeGroot: Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Larson, Keselowski, Logano, McDowell, Harvick
Eliminated: Byron, Busch, Bell, Chastain
Charles Bradley: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Busch, Larson, Bell, Logano, Blaney
Eliminated: Buescher, Chastain, Keselowski, Reddick
Joey Barnes: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Buescher, Busch, Larson, Bell, Chastain
Eliminated: Keselowski, Reddick, Logano, Blaney
Championship 4 Drivers
Jim Utter: Byron, Truex, Buescher, Harvick
Nick DeGroot: Truex, Buescher, Hamlin, Larson
Charles Bradley: Byron, Truex, Hamlin, Larson
Joey Barnes: Byron, Truex, Buescher, Bell
2023 NASCAR Cup Champion
Jim Utter: William Byron
Nick DeGroot: Martin Truex Jr.
Charles Bradley: William Byron
Joey Barnes: Chris Buescher
Reasoning behing the predictions
Jim Utter: While Byron hasn’t always been the most consistent driver throughout the 2023 season, when he and his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports are on it, they are lights out better than the competition. If they get locked into the Championship 4 early, which I suspect they will, they will be well prepared to cash in on Byron’s breakout season with a first Cup title.
Nick DeGroot: The playoffs have proven to be unpredictable a times and are always full of surprises. I believe Byron’s early exit will be one of those, leaving Larson to carry the banner for Hendrick Motorsports. I could also see McDowell making it further than most would predict, especially with how the second round plays to his strengths. In 2022, Chastain upset the established order and stormed through the playoffs, nearly winning it all. This year, that driver will be Buescher. He is the guy who can and will provide RFK Racing with their best shot at the championship in over a decade. Then there’s Hamlin, who will have another opportunity to finally claim the crown, but he too will be denied in the end as Truex bests the field and wins his second Cup title.
And hey, past history is on his side. The last time he won the regular season title in 2017, MTJ went on to win it all.
Charles Bradley: Controversial take – None of last year’s Final Four will make it to the championship race this time! It’s time for Byron to take his first title, but he’ll be pushed hard by team-mate Larson and JGR Toyota boys Truex and Hamlin.
I just feel the Hendrick Chevys will have the edge in Phoenix, like Byron did in March. I can’t see any Fords getting into the Championship 4 this time around, despite Logano’s heroics here last year.
Joey Barnes: There is always one driver that surges into the playoffs and delivers a special run. That guy right now is Chris Buescher, who has captured three wins in the last five races – all of which have come on different track styles of a short oval (Richmond), high-speed oval (Michigan) and restrictor plate (Daytona). The Texan is simply peaking at the right time with the aid of the RFK program beginning to come into its own.
Truex and Byron have been the overall class of the field, so they won’t make life easy on Buescher, or anyone else, by any stretch. Additionally, Bell has continually been lurking around and with likely shenanigans coming into the fold during the Round of 8, I could see a scenario where he advances ahead the likes of Hamlin and Busch and put himself in position to do better than his third-place finish in last year’s title race.