After 26 races, the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs begin tonight at Darlington Raceway (6 PM EDT on NBCSN). The consensus favorite is none other than Kyle Larson. With five wins to his credit this season, and others that slipped through his grasp for one reason or another, Larson should be considered to be the only driver virtually locked into the Championship Four.
No driver enters the playoffs with more momentum than Ryan Blaney. Blaney, who has won two straight Cup Series races, has three wins this season and is in a prime position to capitalize on recent performance. He’ll need to, considering his performance in the Round of 16 last season that led to his premature dismissal from NASCAR’s postseason.
As we saw last year with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin’s dominance, regular season performance is not necessarily an indicator of playoff success. Harvick was eliminated after a lackluster Round of 8 and Hamlin, despite making the Championship Four, fell victim to his Joe Gibbs Racing team’s resistance to prioritizing the 750-horsepower package. Hamlin ultimately finished last among the title-eligible competitors because of Hendrick and Penske’s emphasis on the championship-awarding rules package.
With all that being said, let’s break down each round.
Round of 16 – Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol
Eliminated: Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, Brad Keselowski
There’s usually a surprise elimination in the first round, but it’s reasonable to go “chalk” with this pick. Keselowski, who will depart Team Penske at the conclusion of this season, would qualify as a surprise to most, but he and his team have simply not had the performance necessary to advance in the playoffs. Richmond is a great racetrack for him historically and could potentially be a must-win.
Michael McDowell started the season in style by winning the Daytona 500. Making the playoffs is an incredible achievement for his team, and they’re honestly just happy to be here. They’re playing with house money and will need to gamble for a win to advance to the Round of 12.
Aric Almirola qualified by virtue of his surprising victory at New Hampshire earlier this summer. The No. 10 team has not the speed or performance this year and will need a lot of things to go their way in order to advance.
Tyler Reddick earned the last spot on points following Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. The always aggressive Reddick will have to put it all on the line in order to earn a win to advance, as advancing on points for his Richard Childress Racing team will prove to be quite challenging.
Round of 12 – Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte Roval
Eliminated: Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman
Harvick, who won nine races last season, astonishingly enters the playoffs winless. Harvick’s lone playoff points come from his regular-season points finish. Barring an unexpected massive uptick in performance, he will likely need a win within this round to advance to the Round of 8.
Kurt Busch, who is heading to 23XI Racing next season, constantly outperforms the equipment he is in. Considering he won the Las Vegas playoff race last year, it would be foolish to discount his ability to get it done when it matters. Ultimately, his equipment will hold him back to the point that will likely eliminate him here.
Christopher Bell earned his first career Cup Series victory at the Daytona Road Course in February. Bell has performed well on road courses and the Roval presents an opportunity for him to win. If not, he’ll likely go out in the Round of 12. Bell is talented and his cars are fast, however, I do not believe he is ready for a deep playoff run at this point in time.
Alex Bowman has enjoyed a successful season with three wins so far. Even though the No. 48 was technically the worst-performing Hendrick Motorsports team in the regular season, the cars have speed and his pit crew is elite. After a great playoff run last year, I think his performance won’t be enough this time around.
Round of 8 – Texas, Kansas, Martinsville
Eliminated: Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, William Byron
Kyle Busch enjoyed a nice resurgence after nearly going winless in 2020. Despite showing tremendous speed early in the summer, the No. 18 team hasn’t shown the consistency needed to advance to the Championship Four apart from winning. Busch is clearly capable of winning in this round and could potentially have to do so in order to contend for the title.
Blaney has all the momentum in the world at this point. This season presents his first real opportunity to become a Cup Series Champion. Despite this, I don’t believe Team Penske, or the Ford’s in general, have the performance to win a championship this year.
Joey Logano, who only has one victory this year, enters the playoffs fairly underrated for a driver of his caliber. As I said for Blaney above, I doubt Ford’s ability to consistently perform on tracks outside of superspeedways and two-mile ovals.
I believe William Byron has an opportunity to prove himself in the playoffs this year. As I said with Bowman, his cars are fast and he has performed well to this point. He will need a strong Round of 8 to advance to the Championship Four, but it’s not completely out of the question.
Championship Four – Phoenix
Contenders: Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott
Denny Hamlin has done everything he can possibly do this season apart from visiting victory lane. His 9.1 average finish is the series-best this year and has been consistently fast every single week. He has been elite on 750-horsepower tracks this year like Phoenix and Martinsville. If Hamlin is able to pair his speed and consistency with some good luck, he will be hard to beat.
Martin Truex Jr. has been a bit of an enigma this year. He was considered a title favorite in March and April, and since then has been wildly inconsistent. He’s been fast on the 750-horsepower tracks this year and Martinsville presents his best opportunity to advance to the Championship Four. Like Hamlin, he will be fast at Phoenix if he makes it there.
Defending Cup Series Champion Chase Elliott has the blueprint to contend for a second-straight title. His cars are fast and he knows what winning at the highest level is like. Considering the performance of Larson, Hamlin, and Truex, I’m not sure it will be enough. However, I wouldn’t count him out.
2021 Champion: Kyle Larson
Larson has unquestionably been the class of the field during the regular season. Although I referenced earlier the fact that regular season performance didn’t matter last year, I don’t think it will matter for Larson. He has seemingly won just about everything he’s entered this year from Cup Series races to Sprint Car and Dirt Late Model events. It just feels like it’s his year and I just can’t offer a dissenting opinion on this notion.
Written by Greg Atkins