Craziness Reigns As Cup Barrels Toward Its Playoffs

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 7 2021

So, where’s Harvick as the Playoffs loom? (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

With four races remaining in the NASCAR Cup regular season, the homestretch run to determine this year’s playoff contenders could be the most stressful ever faced by many since the post-season format was implemented.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who won the most races last year, have yet to visit victory lane this season. However, Hamlin leads the standings and the regular season champion is guaranteed a position in the playoffs. That, however, could change since Kyle Larson trails Hamlin by only 13 points entering Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen. Even if Larson overcomes the deficit and defeats Hamlin for the regular season title, Hamlin still would make the playoffs provided each of the next four races don’t have a first-time winner this year.

Richard Childress Racing teammates Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon are battling for the last playoff position to be gained via points with just five points separating them. 

Nine drivers have clinched a post-season berth. They are: Larson. William Byron, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman. Each driver has secured his position in the playoffs due to his spot in the driver standings coupled with his number of victories.

Four other drivers – Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola — possess a victory this season; however, due to their positions in the standings whether or not they make the playoffs hinges on who wins the next four events. Reddick and Dillon are ahead of all four in the standings, so a victory by both of them could eliminate Almirola and McDowell from the playoffs. Reddick has produced three top-10 finishes in the last four races. Dillon owns a Daytona victory, three top-five and eight top-10 finishes at the speedway.   

Kurt Busch can clinch a playoff berth with a repeat winner and 46 points. If that doesn’t occur, then everything rests on who visits victory lane in the next four races.

When one looks at the final four tracks in the regular season – two road courses, a 2-mile track and a superspeedway – each race could be considered a wildcard. Between Bell and Almirola in the standings are six drivers who could pull-off an upset win in one of those races. They are Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez. 

Indianapolis is an unknown for everyone this year since the race is a road course event for the first time. 

The regular season finale at Daytona appears to provide Buescher, DiBenedetto, Chastain, Wallace and Stenhouse with their best chance of making the playoffs via a victory.

  • Half of Buescher’s six top-five finishes in his Cup career have occurred at Daytona. 
  • DiBenedetto has produced three top-10 finishes at Daytona and the Wood Brothers always provide a potent superspeedway entry. 
  • Chastain’s Chip Ganassi Racing team has picked up momentum, producing two top-10 finishes in the last three races. Two of his top-10 finishes since he joined the Cup Series have come at Daytona. In the Xfinity Series, Chastain owns one victory and seven top-10 finishes at the 2.5-mile track. He also has produced one top-five and two top-10 finishes at Daytona in NASCAR’s Truck Series.
  • The best finish of Wallace’s Cup career occurred at Daytona in 2018 when he placed second in the Daytona 500.
  • Stenhouse recorded both of his Cup victories on superspeedways in 2017, one at Daytona and the other at Talladega.

For Suarez, statistics show that of the four remaining tracks in the regular season, Watkins Glen and Michigan provide him with the best opportunity for a victory. Of the nine top-five finishes he has acquired during his young Cup career, four of them have come at those two tracks – two at Watkins Glen and two at Michigan. In 2016 when Suarez claimed the Xfinity championship, he won at Michigan and recorded a top-five at Watkins Glen.

Once the 16-driver playoff field is set, those competing for the championship could be as much of a surprise as those not contending for the title. There is a possibility Kevin Harvick could be absent from the title battle just as seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt was in 1992 when he finished 12th in the standings. 

No matter what occurs during the next four weeks, the 2021 regular NASCAR Cup season has been one of the most unpredictable and interesting in quite some time.      

(Editor’s note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 7 2021
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