NASCAR playoffs scouting report: The garage breaks down the Round of 8

While the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs’ Round of 8 should ideally feature the top eight drivers and teams from the season, that’s not always the case. Upsets happen, and teams that were expected to perform well sometimes disappoint. However, this year’s Round of 8 field is strong, with seven of the drivers having multiple wins this season. Christopher Bell is the exception, but his fourth-best average finish among drivers who’ve started every race this season speaks for itself. Among the remaining championship contenders, there are no weaklings or underdogs on a magical playoff journey. The field is competitive, and each of the eight drivers has a case to make it to the final race at Phoenix.

To determine who is best positioned to advance in this three-race round, The Athletic interviewed drivers, crew chiefs, and competition directors. The interviewees were granted anonymity to give honest assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the eight drivers. Here is what they had to say:

William Byron:
Strengths: The interviewees consider Byron and his team the strongest in the garage. They have been consistent throughout the season, with impressive performances and wins. Byron’s chemistry with crew chief Rudy Fugle is excellent. They are a threat to win at any track.

Weaknesses: The interviewees found no weaknesses with this team. The only concern is their lack of experience in must-win situations, but they believe Byron and his team will handle the pressure well.

Martin Truex Jr.:
Strengths: Truex’s team is known for performing well at the tracks in the Round of 8. The interviewees expect them to bounce back and return to their winning form. Truex is a talented driver, and his crew chief James Small and race engineer Jeff Curtis add to the team’s strength.

Weaknesses: Truex’s recent performances have been disappointing, with no top-15 finishes in the playoffs so far. The interviewees are unsure about the team’s current form and speed. Truex’s performance seems unpredictable, as he can go from finishing low to winning dominantly. The team’s overnight decline in performance is a mystery.

Denny Hamlin:
Strengths: Hamlin is considered due for a breakthrough year. His team is strong and consistently executes well. The interviewees have respect for crew chief Chris Gabehart and believe he is one of the best. Hamlin’s confidence and embrace of his current self give him an edge.

Weaknesses: Speeding penalties have been an issue for Hamlin. While the interviewees do not believe he has choked in the past, they acknowledge that he has made critical mistakes. Phoenix has been a challenge for Hamlin, and they doubt he can overcome it.

Kyle Larson:
Strengths: Larson is known for his exceptional speed and ability to perform well at various tracks. His team is on par with William Byron’s team in terms of speed. They have a strong pit crew and rarely make mistakes. Homestead is a track that suits Larson well, and a win there could secure him a spot in the final four.

Weaknesses: Larson’s team has been inconsistent, with surprising low finishes in the second round of the playoffs. The interviewees also noticed a heated moment between Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels during a previous race. Mistakes have been a downfall for the team.

Chris Buescher:
Strengths: Buescher’s team showed potential at the end of the regular season and can compete with anyone if they maintain that level of performance. He is an underrated driver who can capitalize on others’ mistakes and consistently finish races.

Weaknesses: Despite his capabilities, Buescher’s team is not expected to win to advance. They may rely on points to secure a spot in the final four.


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