As hard as it might be to believe, the NASCAR regular season is over halfway complete.
It’s been nearly four months since Michael McDowell‘s breakthrough win in the Daytona 500. Over that time we’ve seen numerous winners, stretches of dominance and a basic playoff field take shape.
With the opening 16 Cup Series races down, the NASCAR fields are off to Texas Motor Speedway for the All-Star Race. But once that’s done, there will be just 10 races separating the sport from the start of the 2021 postseason.
Here are 10 questions heading into the stretch.
1. Where did the parity go?
Remember when the talk of the garage area was over which drivers or teams would win next?
The 2021 Cup Series season kicked off with 10 different winners in 11 races, including first-time breakthroughs from McDowell and Christopher Bell in the opening two weekends of the year. At the time it made anything seem possible for this season, especially when William Byron scored his second Cup win in the third race and Kyle Larson earned an early victory with Hendrick Motorsports one week later.
But over the past month, those talks of parity have taken a turn in the opposite direction. Intermittent success from three-time winner Martin Truex Jr. has given way to outright dominance from Hendrick Motorsports, which has claimed four straight races heading into the All-Star Race weekend.
Talk of outright parity was always a bit overblown. Sure, there were multiple different winners early on, but they were all representatives of top-tier organizations in Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske – with the sole exception of McDowell. The fact that so many of these teams just happened to get that first win early was more coincidental than anything else.
2. Can anyone stop Hendrick Motorsports?
Everyone not competing with Hendrick has likely asked themselves this once or multiple times over the past few weeks. I wouldn’t even be surprised if HMS employees themselves ponder the thought.
The now-winningest organization in Cup Series history has been a dominant force over the past month, winning four times in a row with three different drivers and claiming at least the top-two spots in each of them. This streak has arisen despite a multitude of different rules packages and challenges to each race, from rain at Circuit of the Americas to varying pit strategies at Sonoma Raceway.
A late spring and summer stretch of dominance isn’t unheard of in NASCAR. We saw it just last year from Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. But the fact that it’s all come from within one organization has resulted in Hendrick becoming the carrot everyone is chasing heading into the All-Star Race.
Recent history would suggest that the company may be peaking too early. Harvick and Hamlin both fell short of the 2020 title, losing to HMS themselves with Elliott securing the title. The Big Three in 2018 lost out on that title to a late Joey Logano surge. In fact, only twice in the seven years of the elimination playoff era has the winningest driver secured the series title.
So don’t write Hendrick Motorsports into a title in Sharpie just yet – though you can probably pencil at least one team into the Championship 4.
3. How long will Kyle Larson’s reign of terror last?
Rarely in sports history has someone fallen upward just as well as Larson has this year.
Fresh off his racial slur controversy last year and nearly a full Cup season spent on the shelf because of it, Larson has made a step up to HMS and quickly emerged as an early favorite to make the Championship 4 alongside Truex. His three wins in 16 races are just one shy of his personal-best of four. Meanwhile, the Californian’s 11 stage wins to date matches the most earned by any driver in all of 2020.
What’s scariest about Larson being so dominant right now is that his team should actually be doing even better. He had the field covered for most of the day at both Atlanta Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway before seeing wins fade away to an ill-handling car and a lost spot on pit road, respectively. Circuit of the Americas was also positioned to go Larson’s way until it was called early due to significant rain.
That’s at least six races out of the opening 16 that Larson’s had a chance to win, with three of them coming to fruition including dominant performances where he swept the stages at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Sonoma.
Larson arrived at an organization housing the defending champion and arguably established himself as the de-facto top guy early in the year.
Hendrick could regress closer to the mean as the year goes on. Even if not, each of Larson’s HMS teammates are performing nearly as well and could dethrone him.
But for the time being, all those years of speculation that Larson could be a title contender at a power team are looking pretty accurate.
4. Can consistency be enough for Denny Hamlin?
Lost a bit to the talk of Larson and Hendrick’s unstoppable pace of late is the fact that Hamlin still sits well ahead of them in the championship standings.
Hamlin’s case this season is a peculiar one – a true litmus test for the perception of a consistent championship leader in an era of NASCAR primarily focused on wins.
With a level of consistency that could make 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth smile, Hamlin shot out to a massive early points lead thanks to strong early stage performances and eight top-fives in the opening nine races with the other result being a respectable 11th.
The run was among the best in recent NASCAR history. But it largely flew under the radar because Hamlin never won. Despite there being double-digit winners in the opening 11 races of 2021, the series’ points leader wasn’t one of them.
Hamlin’s since fallen a bit closer to the norm, with only one top five in the past seven races. The stretch has seen him run more in the seventh to eighth range, with setbacks in the form of a poor 32nd-place outing at Talladega Superspeedway and a pair of finishes outside of the top 10 at Kansas Speedway and COTA.
That’s caused a regular-season points lead that once seemed impossible to close to methodically shrink, all while Hamlin continues to fail to reach victory lane.
Despite that, on paper his 2021 is going better than his 2019 and ’20 seasons. His 7.7 average finish to date is nearly two positions better than last year’s 9.3, and Hamlin’s already led 756 laps – just 327 short of the 1083 he managed in 2020.
That’s a good sign, given that Hamlin reach the Championship 4 in each of those seasons. But he also had a combined 13 wins that helped him get there. Whether he can replicate the feat without making more of those trips to victory lane remains to be seen.
5. Can anyone make the points race or playoff positions interesting?
One other storyline emerging over the past month has been the establishment of a clear line of demarcation between playoff contenders and those on the outside looking in.
The battle for the playoff bubble is typically still a tight one around this time of year, but thanks to early wins from Bell and McDowell, this season’s postseason fight could already be settled without some plot twists over the summer.
Each of the Daytona winners sit 15th (Bell) and 16th (McDowell) in the standings, but their wins all-but lock in their playoff spots. That means the actual driver on the bubble at the moment is 14th-place Chris Buescher, who has 391 points in a quietly consistent year for his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team.
Matt DiBenedetto is the first driver out of the playoff field right now, but he sits a full 60 points behind Buescher with 331 points after an inconsistent spring. Kurt Busch is only three points behind DiBenedetto in 18th, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is an additional 19 points behind in 19th.
With such a sizable gap to those behind them, Buescher and a pair of Richard Childress Racing teammates in Austin Dillon (+105 on DiBenedetto) and Tyler Reddick (+67) need only to avoid disaster to have a strong chance at making the playoffs in 10 races without any surprises.
Which poses the next question…
6. Will additional new winners emerge?
Save for chaos from one of the three drivers near the bubble, the only other thing that can add some spice to the current playoff situation is a surprise win from someone deep in the field.
So… Can it happen?
Of course, but the playoff hopefuls might need some help.
Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Busch (18th) and Ross Chastain (20th) have shown strong pace in recent road course races, which means they could potentially find themselves in contention with a bit of luck or strategy fortune at a track like Road America.
DiBenedetto and Wood Brothers Racing can run as strong as their Team Penske pseudo-teammates on their best days, which means a win isn’t out of the question. Daniel Suarez and newcomers Trackhouse Racing were in contention at the Bristol Dirt Race and could conceivably manage another strong run. Bubba Wallace and 23XI Racing haven’t been able to put a full race together, but there are glimpses of pace and promise on occasion.
And of course, there’s always Daytona at the end of the regular season. Previous winners like Stenhouse or Erik Jones could make magic happen there.
So it’s certainly possible that someone currently deep in the standings could snag a season-altering win. But will it happen?
That remains to be seen.
7. What’s going on at Stewart-Haas Racing?
When McDowell took the checkered flag in the Daytona 500, one of the running jokes online was that he and Front Row Motorsports had gotten Ford a win before Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Over the ensuing weeks, Penske’s driver trio each found a way to victory lane as well. But SHR is still searching – and frankly, they often haven’t been close.
Nearly halfway through an atypically poor 2021 campaign, the 2014 champions have a combined four top fives from their four full-time Cup entries. Worse yet, they all come from Harvick and the No. 4 team, which has carried the company to give it a solitary playoff hope heading into the summer.
Harvick sits a quiet ninth in the standings, winless just one year removed from a nine-win 2020 season. But his teammates are much worse off.
Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer and Aric Almirola currently sit 26th, 27th and 28th in the championship. The only full-time drivers they’re ahead of are Spire Motorsports’ Corey LaJoie, Front Row Motorsports rookie Anthony Alfredo, StarCom Racing’s Quin Houff and Rick Ware Racing competitor Josh Bilicki.
Respectfully to those teams, that’s a damning statement for an organization that just placed all four of its team inside of the playoff field nine months ago.
There’s still a little time to right the ship. Custer, 2020’s Rookie of the Year, won at Kentucky Speedway around this time last year. But with the company struggling for pace and largely out of contention, it’s looking increasingly likely that SHR’s 2020 will be remembered as a write-off year spent yearning for the Next Gen car’s arrival.
8. Will the All-Star Race be more than a footnote?
I can forgive you if you’re like me and forgot, for a brief moment, that the All-Star Race was even a part of the calendar this year.
Once a signature part of the sprint schedule, NASCAR’s annual exhibition for the sport’s biggest stars has become a bit lost in the shuffle over recent years.
It’s not that the race doesn’t hold appeal for those that compete in it. The All-Star Race is an event that’s difficult to win and held in high regard by those that have triumphed in it.
But the event, already a difficult sell in a sport where everyone races everyone else each weekend, has seen a lot of what makes it unique vanish over the past decade.
Segments? We see those every week in the form of stages. Night races are nothing too special, either. Winning a race to qualify for the event now pale’s in comparison to the playoff spot that the win also secures, particularly with qualifying for the event becoming easier over time as things like stage wins are added as potential qualifiers.
In recent years, gimmicks like trialing new rules package concepts or throwing things like underglow and unique number placement on the cars have added a little intrigue. But even the unique-looking cars and a mid-week trip to Bristol Motor Speedway couldn’t save the 2020 edition from being lost to the many races held around it.
The race has been shifted to Texas Motor Speedway this year, a one-lane intermediate track known more for track position racing than the sort of hard-nosed battles that the All-Star Race is meant to inspire. Race planners are trying to add excitement with a six-segment event featuring inverts and incentive to finish well each time, but it may still prove a difficult sell on Sunday evening.
For a race that’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify or build excitement for, a good 2021 race would be significant. Hopefully, Texas can pull off something special.
9. Can Xfinity underdogs steal playoff spots?
Heading into the 2021 season, the Xfinity Series playoff grid seemed almost easy enough to pencil in from the jump. There were three cars apiece from JR Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Kaulig Racing, along with single entries from Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
There. Twelve cars. Nice and simple.
Only it hasn’t been that easy.
Even with usual underdog hopeful Ryan Sieg struggling slightly, Jeremy Clements and Brandon Brown have each put together solid campaigns to throw themselves into the mix. Clements sits ninth in the standings after 13 races, 25 points above Brown on the cutline. Brown is 15 points behind Noah Gragson on the bubble, but still in contention while sitting ahead of Riley Herbst and SHR.
Many of the power teams and drivers have lived up to expectation and locked in their postseason place. But JRM, JGR and SHR each have at least one entry sitting within range of a possible playoff miss as the postseason slowly draws near.
There’s still a strong chance that each of them lifts up their form and takes care of business down the stretch. But as long as they continue to let Clements and Brown hang around, the question over whether one or both of the Xfinity Series underdogs can slide into a playoff spot at a top program’s expense will continue to linger.
10. How will the new races play out?
After an unprecedented 2020 season ran amid the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR was prepared for significant change heading into 2021. Some of it has already been seen in a dirt race weekend at Bristol and theroad course at COTA, but there’s still more to come.
Nashville Superspeedway is just days away from hosting its first Cup Series race weekend, rising from solitude at the expense of one of the two former Dover race weekends.
Pocono Raceway gets another shot at a doubleheader the ensuing week, then NASCAR is off to scenic Road America in Wisconsin for the first time on Independence Day. Throw in a road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you’re left with a few unique races and potential for unexpected variables associated with them.
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