Did You Notice? … 17 winners in a NASCAR regular season isn’t going to happen in 2021? After 10 NASCAR Cup Series winners in the first 11 races, we’ve had just one in the last five as Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports have started pulling away from the pack.
This conversation comes up yearly due to NASCAR’s quirky playoff rules. Since the field expanded to 16 drivers, beginning in 2014, the best way to clinch a spot is by winning a race. As long as you stay inside the top 30 in points, one victory is all you need to qualify. It’s created a bizarre situation where the Daytona 500 winner in the season opener has already punched their playoff ticket … a full seven months early (We’re looking at you, Michael McDowell).
I’ve written about this point a few times now, but it never gets any less ridiculous. Can you imagine if the New York Mets made the playoffs in baseball by sweeping their first three-game series in April? Or if the Philadelphia Eagles earned a Wild Card berth with a win on NFL’s opening night? The format may work well for NASCAR, but the way in which drivers make the playoffs (or the number of spots available) needs serious work.
This year, there was hope 17 winners might lead to some competition as the push for the postseason heats up. Right now, McDowell has the fewest points among drivers with at least one win. He’s nine behind Christopher Bell, the only other driver who’d be in serious jeopardy (Brad Keselowski, next up on the list, is +118).
I don’t think either one has reason to worry. With the way Larson, Chase Elliott and others stepped up their game last month, we may be stuck at 11 winners, not 17, by the time Daytona International Speedway wraps up the regular season in August.
The better question may be whether anyone has what it takes to earn their first win of 2021 the next two months. Here’s a look at the most likely drivers to break through over the final 10 races.
1. Denny Hamlin
The current point leader is so far ahead of the playoff cutline, he has more than double the points of 17th-place Matt DiBenedetto. Hamlin’s postseason bid is all but assured; even if 16 other drivers won, the regular season champion is guaranteed a spot.
However, Hamlin’s performance has slipped in recent weeks. He earned eight top-five finishes in the first 10 races, leading 737 laps while establishing a point lead of over 100, nearly two full races’ worth of points. That’s dwindled down to just 47 over Larson in second, with Hamlin posting just 19 laps led and one top-five finish over his past six starts.
The logjam at the top between HMS, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing has made it difficult for Hamlin to win. He missed out on a third straight Daytona 500 victory due to some bad pit strategy that trapped him back in the draft. Then, in April, he led a race-high 276 laps at Martinsville Speedway only to get passed in the final laps by teammate Martin Truex Jr.
But Hamlin, who won seven times last season, is too good to be shut out the whole year. The Pocono Raceway doubleheader gives him a great chance at a breakthrough later this month, a track where he’s got a career-high six wins. New Hampshire Motor Speedway in mid-July is another great track for Hamlin, who’s run top two in three of the past five races there. Both tracks aren’t featured in the postseason and offer limited upside for Larson, Truex and other contenders who’ve already won.
A nine-win season for Harvick in 2020 has turned into an agonizing ninth in points, still winless during 2021. After a disappointing run at Texas Motor Speedway’s All-Star Race, a track where Harvick has three victories in his last seven starts, crew chief Rodney Childers let loose on Twitter.
Goodness.. I don’t even know what to say anymore. I figured lower HP and a track where we have been really good, we would be back to having a shot at it. That was like taking a knife to a gun fight.. Unreal..
Thanks @NASCARONFOX for the first half! Ready to move to the 2nd! 👊🏼
— Rodney Childers (@RodneyChilders4) June 14, 2021
It’s incredible that Harvick, who led 1,531 laps last year, has only 39 laps led in 16 races this season. He’s on pace for a career low in that category, and consider all but 12 of those laps were led at the pack races of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, tracks where all 40 drivers are stuck together in the draft like superglue.
Those numbers don’t inspire confidence in the No. 4 team. But you also can’t ignore past history. Harvick had NASCAR Xfinity Series success at the next track on the schedule, Nashville Superspeedway, posting two wins in four starts. Could that spark an upset win this Sunday (June 20)? Pocono and Michigan International Speedway, in theory, are other tracks where we could see him have a surprise breakthrough.
Harvick has won at least one race every year in his time with Stewart-Haas Racing (2014-present). Kyle Busch had a similar slump last season and still managed to eke out one win at Texas the end of October. Never say never here, but the gap between Hamlin and Harvick is…rather large.
3. Kurt Busch
I almost put Busch ahead of Harvick despite his tumultuous 2021 season. Busch sits 63 points outside playoff position, hasn’t scored a top-five result since February and has his worst average finish (20.4) since driving for single-car Phoenix Racing in 2012. He’s been openly talking to other teams about 2022, from Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing to Trackhouse Racing.
That said, Busch’s Chip Ganassi Racing team has shown some speed in recent weeks. Sixth at Sonoma Raceway was his best run in the No. 1 in over four months; teammate Ross Chastain followed up with an All-Star Open victory. CGR may be riding some coattails of HMS speed found across the pond at Chevrolet.
It could give Busch just enough to win a race under the right circumstances. His best runs have been on road courses, making Road America next month a primary target. There’s also the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course debut in August, a track Ganassi always puts special emphasis on with his open-wheel background.
Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, has won a race every year since 2014. He’s extended the streak in all sorts of strange ways that make it hard to bet against him the next few months.
A win by anyone other than those three drivers would be considered a huge upset. If I had to pick a fringe candidate, I’d go with Reddick, who’s quietly put together a solid second season with Richard Childress Racing. He’s posted seven top 10s in the past 10 races, rising up 15 positions to 13th in points and solidly above the playoff cutline (+67).
Two of those top 10s have come at intermediates, including a seventh at Kansas Speedway earlier last month. Could a weird tire strategy, say, push Reddick to the lead at Michigan? It’s how teammate Austin Dillon won at Texas last summer, with Reddick running second. New Hampshire (10th last summer) is another place you can’t count him out.
Then, there’s the wild card of Daytona the end of August. Dillon has the better history of success but a little luck could leave Reddick the one in front. It’s hard to see both RCR drivers winning a race (hasn’t happened since 2017) so I’m putting my money on the No. 8.
If you’re looking for a real long shot, try the overachieving ragtag bunch at Trackhouse Racing. Suarez has been opening eyes virtually everywhere we’ve been, posting almost as many laps led this year (74) than he had during two full seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing (75).
The race to watch for Suarez is Watkins Glen International in August. He’s got two top-five runs there in three starts, leading 14 laps in 2018 in a solid third-place finish behind Elliott’s first Cup Series win. Should the No. 9 team falter, the No. 99 has a chance to capitalize, running with a nothing-to-lose attitude in their first full-time season on tour.
I also like Suarez in Daytona due to that same aggression. There’s real chemistry here with crew chief Travis Mack and the team is in position to build something special when the Next Gen car comes around in 2022 and beyond.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- So how did SRX do in the ratings? An 0.8 Nielsen rating and 1.297 million viewers puts it ahead of any other major competitor besides the NASCAR Cup Series. That level of U.S. viewership is higher than any Formula One race, the average viewership for NASCAR’s Xfinity Series and is a larger audience than all but two IndyCar events this season. As for Cup, there were 2.74 million for the All-Star Race on FOX Sports 1, leaving it the top-rated event of the weekend.
- You get the feeling releasing Greg Erwin as crew chief makes the next 10 races now-or-never for DiBenedetto’s stint with the Wood Brothers. There’s so much up in the air at Penske right now, leaving Matty D’s future in the sport there for the taking. Doesn’t it feel this dramatic for him every year?
- Larson’s dirt track success makes it easy to forget how disappointing he was in Cup before this season. He had just six wins in his first six seasons on tour, four of them coming in one year (2017). So to add three wins this early, plus the non-points All-Star Race and a $1 million bonus one year after losing his full-time ride…you can’t say enough about it.
- How will the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway race a decade later? Inquiring minds at the Monster Mile want to know with that track’s competition in steady decline. It’s hard to see Dover Motorsports, Inc. ever getting more than two dates on the yearly Cup schedule, meaning this weekend will do a lot to determine the future of that one-mile oval out in Delaware.