Did You Notice? … There’s six races left in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season?
After some incredible parity, with 10 different winners in the first 11 races, the 2021 playoff battle has mostly sorted itself out. We’ve had just one new winner in the last nine races as Cinderellas have been replaced by the typical country club up front. Recent hot streaks by both Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing make it within the realm of possibility those multi-car giants could put six, maybe even seven drivers combined in the Round of 8.
With many playoff-bound drivers entering no man’s land, with little to gain over the next six weeks, what are the major storylines to follow as we hid the final stretch of NASCAR’s regular season schedule? Here’s six major storylines worth your attention if you get frustrated, say, with a stretch of one driver (or team’s) dominance up front.
1) Regular season points battle heats up.
So much for Denny Hamlin’s insurmountable lead. Kyle Larson’s contact with Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman at Road America is all that kept him from taking over the top spot. The gap between the two drivers now stands at three points with six races remaining.
Hamlin has held the point lead since the second race of the year at Daytona International Speedway’s road course and is aggressively trying to keep it. The five extra points (15 overall) could make a big difference for him as he’s only collected five playoff points to Larson’s 32. Winless since last fall at Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin could use the boost as he fights Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for top billing over at JGR.
“You have to try to get as many [points] as you can to try to get as much cushion to protect you if something goes wrong,” said Hendrick Motorsports Vice President of Competition Chad Knaus on the rivalry. “Those guys are going to continue to battle for that. I don’t see it ending any time soon.”
2) Can Kyle Larson break the playoff points record?
Even if Larson doesn’t catch Hamlin, he’s on the verge of NASCAR history. The record over the course of a full year is 69 by Truex in 2017, the year he won the title with Furniture Row Racing.
20 races in, Larson has 32. At his current pace, it’ll take about eight wins (and a couple of stage bonuses) for Larson to set the record. Would you bet against him right now at intermediate tracks? He’s the favorite to win Atlanta Motor Speedway this weekend, a track Ryan Blaney snuck past him at after Larson dominated in March. Another Larson-friendly oval, Michigan International Speedway, could leave him on the verge of the record by the time the playoffs begin.
Either way, about 50+ playoff points will create the type of cushion Kevin Harvick had last year. It’s not bulletproof protection for the Championship 4, as Harvick showed, but Larson would need a lot of dominoes stacked against him to miss out.
3) Will Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing sweep the rest of the races? Who has the most momentum entering the playoffs (and does it matter)?
I think there’s a 75% chance the answer is yes. We already discussed Larson is the favorite for AMS this weekend. Then comes New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track where Hamlin led 92 laps and won a stage last year. If there’s anyone who can break the JGR-HMS stranglehold up front, it’s Harvick; he’s won two of the last three races at New Hampshire.
After the Olympic break, we move on to two road courses: Watkins Glen International and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Chase Elliott could have easily won all four events already on this track type; if he falters, Truex has past success at the Glen. Larson is a sneaky pick for Indy and at MIS the following weekend.
Then comes Daytona, up for grabs in a pack race where Michael McDowell won the last time out. Remember, though, it was Hamlin who had the fastest car here in February before poor pit strategy doomed his chances.
4) Who earns the final three postseason spots?
Here’s where it really gets interesting. Austin Dillon (+98) and Tyler Reddick (+75) have a healthy edge over the playoff cutline. Kurt Busch (+25) holds the final spot over Chris Buescher (-25). Behind them sit five drivers who are around the 87-point threshold Busch gained on the cutline in three weeks: Ross Chastain (-69), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-70), Matt DiBenedetto (-74), Bubba Wallace (-79) and Daniel Suarez (-88).
I’d argue Suarez has the most going for him out of all these drivers: 2022 ride secured with Trackhouse Racing and five top-15 finishes in the last six races. But a mechanical issue at Road America left him with only one point and zero margin for error. Seems like too many drivers to leapfrog now unless something bizarre happens.
Instead, the focus shifts to Busch, who’s won a race each of the last seven seasons. Why Dillon and Reddick are in the conversation is Busch could catch them at the rate he’s been climbing up the points ladder. A scenario exists where, say, Dillon drops to the final spot on the cutline and there’s an upset winner at Daytona (DiBenedetto) that knocks him out of the 16-driver field. So even with the number of new winners drying up, no one listed here should feel their spot is secure.
5) Can NASCAR turn things around at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
IMS had a spectacular Indy 500 this year, Helio Castroneves winning his fourth at age 46 in front of over 130,000 cheering fans. It was a special moment, one that signaled a return to large crowds at sports stadiums with COVID-19 cases receding into the background.
That puts pressure on NASCAR to have a similar comeback story with a switch from the 2.5-mile oval to its infield road course. Track owner (and Cup owner) Roger Penske is pulling out all the stops for this mid-August weekend, adding a combo event with the INDYCAR Series. The NASCAR Xfinity Series last year showed the course could put on a more thrilling finish than the oval ever could for stock car racing. The weather and the spot on the schedule should be more conducive for a fan base that hasn’t been able to get out much the past 18 months.
If NASCAR can’t have a good crowd now? After all these changes? You wonder how much longer the IMS experiment lasts.
6) How much will Silly Season become a distraction?
As we talked about last week, I think it’s already thrown off Team Penske. How many more teams get affected with 23XI Racing still considering expansion, JR Motorsports seeking a charter and Trackhouse unsettled on their second driver?
Plenty more dominoes could fall with two main exceptions: Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Both have all their drivers signed through at least 2022 and should be shielded from all the drama and intrigue. All the more reason why the championship race tilts further and further in their direction each day.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Four races into the SRX season and two of its winners are in position for NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rides. First, Doug Coby signs with GMS Racing for Bristol Motor Speedway in September, and now Camping World CEO Marcus Lemonis is reaching out to Ernie Francis Jr. Now, Chase Elliott will be running the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway finale with father Bill. Is NASCAR finally warming up to this all-star summer series?
They say don’t mix family and business, but Awesome Bill couldn’t resist! Who’s ready for a father son showdown!?
— Camping World SRX Series (@SRXracing) July 6, 2021
- I’ve left the Atlanta Motor Speedway repave reaction to others at Frontstretch but want to point out the sport is making conscious choices to shift toward major markets. Note the 1.5-mile ovals they’re committing two race dates to are right outside of Las Vegas, Atlanta, Kansas City and Charlotte (where the ROVAL there is basically saving that track). The sport is clearly betting proximity to urban areas is worth the risk of renovation in an era at-track attendance can be a challenge.
- Don’t believe me? Note that soon-to-be-defunct Chicagoland Speedway was always a myth (over an hour from the Chicago metro area) and Michigan International Speedway (which lost a date) is in the middle of nowhere, Michigan. Kentucky Speedway is near smaller, mid-level markets of Cincinnati (Ohio) and Louisville (Ky.) that have several other races close by.