Did You Notice?… The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have flipped the script on two of its biggest teams?
Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled through the worst year of its existence. SHR has just one win, a darkness-shortened New Hampshire Motor Speedway upset by Aric Almirola. Marquee driver Kevin Harvick sits winless a year after setting a NASCAR record with nine victories at age 44. Rookie Chase Briscoe sits without a top-five finish while last season’s Rookie of the Year, Cole Custer, hasn’t run better than seventh since his upset victory at Kentucky Speedway in July 2020.
Things have been so bad for Custer, in particular, he’s ahead of just four full-time drivers in the standings: Corey LaJoie, Anthony Alfredo, Josh Bilicki and Quin Houff. Not exactly a Who’s Who of who’s reaching victory lane every week.
Hendrick Motorsports, meanwhile, romped through the regular season with 11 wins in 26 races, more than any other team. Kyle Larson won the regular season title with five victories while Alex Bowman surprised with three, earning him a two-year contract extension. Reigning NASCAR champion Chase Elliott added two wins, both on road courses, while William Byron earned a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That kickstarted 11 straight top-10 finishes for the No. 24 driver, a new NASCAR record for drivers age 23 or less.
It’s the best year for HMS since 2014, when Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were leading the championship charge and the team racked up 13 wins altogether. Without the playoffs, Gordon would have cruised to the regular season title the same way Harvick trounced the field on paper in 2020.
But neither wound up a champion under the current format. Just like in stick-and-ball sports, NASCAR’s playoffs allow weaker teams a chance to come in and steal the championship.
If the Round of 16 ended today, HMS and SHR would have the same number of cars advance to the Round of 12 — two each. After the Round of 16 finale this weekend, there’s even a chance it’s two to one, where Harvick (+25 to the cutline) and Almirola (+3) move on while Elliott (+19), Bowman (+/-0) and Byron (-18) fall short.
There’s a lot of uncertainty heading to Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night (Sept. 18), a short track that’s known for unexpected crashes. Anything can happen, and it’s possible HMS will find a way to change their luck.
But if Bowman and Byron do miss out, while SHR moves on, it’s simply a product of the playoff system. The young duo had bad luck at the worst possible time, crashing out at Darlington Raceway in the opener to eliminate any margin for error. Their race at Richmond Raceway wasn’t terrible in the grand scheme of things, even though it wasn’t up to HMS standards: 13th for Bowman, 19th for Byron.
SHR, meanwhile, spent 2021 in purgatory before showing some signs of life starting in July. Even then, it’s only Harvick who has picked up the pace consistently; he’s got four top-10 finishes the past seven races, leading 90 of his 129 laps. Almirola doesn’t have a single run of 11th or better since July’s NHMS victory; everyone else at SHR has at least one.
Both Harvick and Almirola, should they advance, did so by surviving: keeping their nose clean when others had trouble. I think that’s the biggest difference with this NASCAR format, at least in the early rounds, that fans still struggle to accept. In stick-and-ball sports, if you have a lower-seeded team reach the championship, they have to beat the best regular season teams one-on-one.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, were the 5th seed in the NFC but won the Super Bowl by winning all their games on the road. The Green Bay Packers were the best regular season team, but they were beaten by the Bucs heads up.
Did Almirola and Harvick really beat anyone? Or did they just catch lucky breaks from a system that puts nearly half the sport’s full-time teams in the championship chase?
Harvick and Almirola could potentially benefit from the gluttony of that system. If the NASCAR Cup postseason cutoff was 12, neither one would have made the field (along with Denny Hamlin and Tyler Reddick). Instead? They have a shot to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
And for HMS, Bowman’s and Byron’s years, which in a non-playoff world would be considered highly successful, get flushed down the drain if they don’t succeed at Bristol. Those drivers would be eighth and 12th in points without the playoffs; in Byron’s case, he’d be 28 points from a top-five spot.
Will people still see it that way or are their years a failure because of a first-round playoff exit? That perception, by the fans and stakeholders in the sport, is the truest sign of how much the postseason mentality has taken hold in this sport.
Did You Notice? … The 2022 NASCAR Cup schedule is on the verge of being released? The Athletic provided a potential leak of the schedule Tuesday but no official word has come from series officials.
A look at the potential schedule can be found here. Here are some quick takeaways if this does, indeed, pan out to be what we see released tomorrow.
- One off week the entire season? A condensed schedule, from Feb. 20 to Nov. 6, will really tax Cup race teams in the first year of the Next Gen. And let’s not forget the L.A. Coliseum date Feb. 6, made official today in a move that — if it happens — will force teams to go 3,000 miles across the country, then back to the L.A. area for Auto Club Speedway all in the matter of three weeks.
- One less date for Pocono? I thought the doubleheaders were gaining steam. But the writing was on the wall for Pocono Raceway, an independent track, to lose one of its race dates. The racing just hasn’t been compelling there for several years now. Ditto for Richmond Raceway, rumored to have both its dates now occur outside the playoffs. While disappointing for that region, I do think it sets an important precedent NASCAR should follow: bad races should not be rewarded, giving tracks incentive to improve their facility and stay on the schedule long-term.
- Intermediate heavy? The whole Next Gen experiment was designed, in part, to improve racing on 1.5-mile tracks. But the rumor of putting Homestead-Miami Speedway back in the postseason would give NASCAR four intermediates in the final 10 races (plus Darlington). That seems heavily weighted in favor of one track type for a sport that’s been trumpeting its newfound diversity.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Based on the Saturday and Sunday weekend ratings from Showbuzz Daily, Formula 1 outrated NASCAR in the 18-49 age demographic this past weekend, 0.31 to 0.26. It’s a sign of how much F1 is growing in the United States along with a warning sign stock car racing has growing competition. To be fair, Saturday night races are always soft for NASCAR in the ratings, and there’s a reason we’ve only had three so far this year: Martinsville Speedway in April, Daytona International Speedway in August and Richmond (Bristol will be the fourth).
- Sheldon Creed to Richard Childress Racing? Great move for him and expect that NASCAR Xfinity Series team to excel. I still maintain, though, GMS Racing should have taken a serious look at him for the Cup program.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.