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Welcome to the NASCAR playoffs!

Helpful hint: Don’t call it the Chase. And don’t dare call it the Playoff, singular. That’s what they do over in college football, where only four teams are in the College Football Playoff field. Here in stock car country, there are 16 teams in the title fight, but like CFP and bowl season, those 16 teams share their postseason stage with a bunch of other teams that are competing for wins, but not for the championship.

Confused? You aren’t alone. But that’s why we’re here. To answer your stock car queries, no matter if you’ve been watching NASCAR since Richard Petty was battling Bobby Allison or if you don’t know the difference between Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe.

How does NASCAR’s postseason work? Who is in? Who is out (but also still out on the track)? How did we get here? Where are we going? Who is most likely to be standing in Victory Lane hoisting that very large Cup Series trophy 10 weeks from now? Grab a grease pencil and read ahead.

How’d we get here?

At the conclusion of what was easily the wackiest 26-race “regular season” since NASCAR’s so-called “Elimination Era” began in 2014, a whopping 15 of the 16 drivers who made the cut also won a race, and it would have been all 16 had Kansas Speedway winner Kurt Busch not been sidelined in late July by an ongoing bout with concussion-like symptoms.

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The final open spot went to winless Ryan Blaney, who edged former Cup Series champ Martin Truex Jr. by a scant three points, but only because Austin Dillon was able to snake his way through a gigantic Big One crash at Daytona and went on to win the race by all of .128 seconds over a pair of guys who had already won a race this season. Had they won, Truex would be in the Playoff, too; or if Truex, who finished eighth, had managed to get by a couple of cars ahead of him, he would be and Blaney would be out. That’s how close it was.

This season is only the third in NASCAR’s nearly 75-year history that there were 16 different winners over the year’s first 26 races. The gold standard for competitive seasons in the modern era is still 2001, when 19 drivers won over 36 races. Considering that we’ve already had five first-time winners this year, Blaney and Truex are still winless, and another handful of drivers have had close calls but came up short (Bubba Wallace, second in Daytona 500; Chris Buescher, second at Sonoma; Corey Lajoie‘s battle with Elliott at Atlanta, etc.) there is still a chance to match or perhaps smash that mark.

Who is in?

The new, reset NASCAR playoff standings:

If you’re scoring at home — and we are — that’s five former Cup Series champions, only one former multiple-time champ, along with four playoffs rookies and one true rookie in Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric. As for the car manufacturers, Chevy leads the way with eight entries, followed by Ford (5) and Toyota (3).

What happens now?

The next 10 races will eliminate four racers every three weeks. If a driver wins one of those three, he automatically moves on to the next round. The remaining spots are determined by the points standings.

That’s 16 drivers contending in the first three races, 12 remaining in the next three, nine maintaining title hopes in the next three, and four drivers contesting the championship at the season finale at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6. The top finisher of those four is your NASCAR Cup Series champion. Easy-peasy, right? Unless you’re one of those four.

“You think it’s going to be the same, just take care of your business and race and move on, right?” said Joey Logano, who has made it into that final quartet four times. “But there is a definite sense of increasing pressure. We have made it into the finale feeling like the favorites and we’ve made it feeling like the underdog. All I know is that, however you got there, when that green flag comes out and there is 300-something laps to race for everything, for the entire season, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, this is real right now!'”

The round of 16 begins this weekend with NASCAR’s oldest and most grueling speedway event, the venerable Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, a race and place that has been on the Cup Series calendar since its second-ever season in 1950. The elimination races for each Playoffs round are equally challenging. The Bristol night race marks the end of the round of 16, the Charlotte Roval closes out the round of 12, and the flat half-mile bullring Martinsville Speedway, the last track remaining from NASCAR’s first season of 1949, will determine which four will compete for the Cup the following weekend.

Round of 16
Darlington Raceway
Kansas Speedway
Bristol Motor Speedway

Round of 12
Texas Motor Speedway
Talladega Superspeedway
Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval

Round of 9
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Homestead-Miami Speedway
Martinsville Speedway

Championship Race (Round of 4)
Phoenix Raceway

Who are the favorites and who is doomed?

The good news for Dillon is that his dramatic dash into the playoffs was the stuff of movie scripts. Same for Cindric and his fellow first-time winners. The bad news is that since the Elimination Era began in 2014, those who barely make the field also typically make early exits, and even if they hold off elimination for a while, they don’t make the last four at season’s end. In the eight previous editions of this format, the deepest a driver has started the playoffs and gone on to win the title is seventh, accomplished by Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Logano four years later. Meanwhile, four of the eight champs started the postseason right where they ended it, in the top spot.

With that in mind, it’s hard to bet against Elliott, who has somehow managed to turn this 2022 of near-historic parity and unpredictability into a bit of a rout, winning the regular season title by a Snake River Canyon-like margin of 130 points over Logano.

The wise guys agree with that assessment. Headed into the playoffs, BetMGM has Elliott listed as the title favorite at 3-1, exactly where it had him when the green flag waved over the Daytona 500. It has Kyle Larson at 7-1 and Denny Hamlin 8-1. Not surprisingly, those behind the desk in the desert value age and experience, as future hall of famers who have struggled through big stretches of this season, like Kyle Busch, Logano and Harvick, are all among the top eight favorites at 12-1 and better.

There is one playoffs crasher whom the sportsbooks love now, even if they didn’t back in February. Congrats to anyone who put a paycheck down on Ross Chastain in February. Back then, the Watermelon Man was listed at 150-1 to hold the Cup this fall. Now he’s 8-1, fourth best among those in the playoffs.

“I think experience matters, heck, I know so,” explains 2021 champ Larson. “To me, the first time you are in a playoffs situation, it’s like the first time you go to a racetrack you’ve never been before. You need time to get your bearings. Once you do, once you know what to expect, the next time you come back you are more comfortable. You think it’s going to just be, ‘Hey, let’s race and don’t worry about it.’ But it is different. It’s also fun. I’m ready to go.”

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Georgia’s Bennett arrested for public intoxication

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Georgia's Bennett arrested for public intoxication

Former Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to their second straight CFP National Championship earlier this month, was arrested on a misdemeanor public intoxication charge in Dallas on Sunday morning.

In a statement to ESPN, a Dallas Police Department spokesperson said officers responded to a report of a man banging on doors in the 1600 block of Tribeca Way at 7:10 a.m. ET on Sunday.

“The preliminary investigation found when officers arrived, they located the man, Stetson Bennett, 25, and determined he was intoxicated,” the police statement read. “Bennett was taken into custody, transported to the City Detention Center and charged with public intoxication.”

Bennett left the detention center Sunday morning, but he could not be reached for comment.

Bennett, who started his college career as a walk-on, was a Heisman Trophy finalist this past season, after leading the Bulldogs to a 15-0 record and SEC championship. He passed for 4,127 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for another 10 scores.

Bennett was named the offensive MVP in both of Georgia’s victories in the CFP, a 42-41 comeback win against Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and a 65-7 rout of TCU in the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T.

Bennett, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, is considered a potential selection in April’s NFL draft. He recently won the Manning Award, which is given to the top quarterback in the FBS by the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

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Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.

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Sources: Ex-Buffs QB Shrout picks Arkansas St.

Former Tennessee and Colorado quarterback J.T. Shrout is transferring to Arkansas State, sources told ESPN.

Shrout visited Arkansas State over the weekend and his commitment looms as a significant win for Butch Jones, who is entering his third season as Arkansas State’s head coach.

Shrout will graduate from Colorado this spring and plans to enroll at Arkansas State in May, according to sources. He has one year of eligibility remaining and potentially a second if he gets a medical redshirt after missing the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.

Shrout most recently played at Colorado in 2022, where he threw for 1,220 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions and delivered the game-winning touchdown pass against Cal in overtime in Colorado’s lone victory of the season. He started seven games at Colorado and had one start during his three seasons at Tennessee (2018-2020).

Shrout is one of three Buffaloes quarterbacks who have entered the NCAA transfer portal since the school hired Deion Sanders as head coach. Sanders has made it clear that his son, Shedeur, will be the starter next season. He introduced him at his opening news conference by saying, “This is your quarterback.”

According to sources, Shrout was attracted to the potential opportunity at Arkansas State, including playing in offensive coordinator Keith Heckendorf’s West Coast-style offense. Shrout also had some teammates at Tennessee who played for Jones, and sources said the former teammates endorsed Jones both as a person and a coach.

Arkansas State (3-9) ranked No. 118 in total offense last season and No. 85 in scoring offense. The Red Wolves open the 2023 season at Oklahoma on Sept. 2.

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Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal

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Sources: Harbaugh, Broncos meet but no deal

Broncos owner Greg Penner and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh met last week in Ann Arbor to discuss Denver’s head-coaching position without any deal materializing, league sources told ESPN.

Although Harbaugh two weeks ago announced he was staying at Michigan, Penner did his due diligence and still traveled to Ann Arbor to meet with the coach in person, like he’s done with seven other candidates during the Broncos’ head-coaching search.

The follow-up conversations were part of the process for both Denver — led by Penner with general manager George Paton — and Harbaugh. The face-to-face meeting came after Harbaugh’s initial video interview with Denver, after which he pulled his name out of contention and reaffirmed his commitment to Michigan.

“I love the relationships that I have at Michigan — coaches, staff, families, administration, president Santa Ono and especially the players and their families,” Harbaugh said in his statement Jan. 16. “My heart is at the University of Michigan. I once heard a wise man say, ‘Don’t try to out-happy, happy.’ Go Blue!”

The Broncos moved on as well, continuing their discussions with several other candidates. Denver has interviewed former Saints coach Sean Payton, former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell, former Stanford coach David Shaw, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and their own defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero.

Harbaugh now has met with the Vikings and Broncos in back-to-back years. While one source wondered how many more chances Harbaugh would get, another league source said “The league is likely to be interested in Jim as long as he is successfully coaching. He’s proven at every level including the NFL. That’s a hard resume to match.”

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