5 Races until Playoffs ’21 – Who’s in and Who’s out?

As of today (July 14, 2021), the NASCAR Cup Series regular season has 5 races remaining, all at very different tracks which all provide a unique challenge for drivers. The Foxwood Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Go Bowling At the Glen at the fan favorite Watkins Glen International, the Verizon 200 at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International, and the regular season finale, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.

Currently, 12 drivers are locked into the playoffs via win. Though he doesn’t have a win so far this season, the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Denny Hamlin is the points leader after having many consistent runs throughout the season. I have confidence he will keep the consistent streak for the rest of the regular season, and even without a win I have confidence he makes the playoffs. Another driver without a win, surprisingly, is 2020 regular season champion and 2020 wins leader Kevin Harvick, driving the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Harvick has outrun the unexpected slow pace of the fleet of SHR Fords. Being statistically the best car on his team, I have a good feeling Kevin will qualify for this year’s playoffs.

At the moment, the 2 remaining playoff spots are occupied by the Richard Childress Racing duo, the No. 3 of Austin Dillon and teammate Tyler Reddick in the No. 8. The RCR Chevrolets have shown significant speed this season, improving on their relatively great season last year. Reddick, 16th in the playoff standings, has opened a nearly 100-point gap between himself and 17th place driver Chris Bueshcer in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. In the situation that the next 6 races don’t see any first time winners (besides Hamlin and Harvick, as they are basically guaranteed to advance), I am very confident that the RCR Chevrolets will qualify for the playoffs.

Now, who outside the top 16 has a good chance of advancing into the round of 16? By the numbers, if Chris Buescher has great results the next 5 races, he can pass Reddick in points. A similar thing can be said for a few drivers behind Buescher in points, though it is unlikely someone in that group such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can get enough points with so little races to pass Reddick, or even Buescher for that matter.

Though looking just at points and not taking into consideration the regular season finale at Daytona can limit the possibility that we predict the remaining 2 championship contenders accurately. Looking at prior races at Daytona, especially the second race, it can give us a thought that can undo a lot of points I brought up.

4 of the past 5 Summer races at Daytona International have resulted in an unexpected winner (William Byron, Justin Haley, Erik Jones, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.). Given this information, even if Reddick is passed by Buescher for the 16th playoff spot, a driver who may not even be in the conversation now can take the spot from the drivers of both the 8 and the 17 cars.

I believe the regular season finale will have a first time, or at least unexpected, winner. Many people would disagree with me and say the driver of the No. 11, Denny Hamlin, is the one to watch out for, though I have reason to believe this isn’t the case. Arguably the best superspeedway racer of the past 5 years, Denny Hamlin would be the clear favorite to win the playoff cutoff. Of course he’d be a contender for the regular season finale win, though he hasn’t sealed the deal in the summer race at Daytona in all his years of Cup racing.

One candidate for an unexpected winner I have in mind is the very polarizing driver of the No. 23 Toyota for Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. In his fourth full season of NASCAR Cup Racing, Bubba has proven himself to be a very exceptional superspeedway racer. Though the results don’t show, besides for a 2nd place finish in the 2018 Daytona 500, Bubba usually runs near the front at the superspeedways, especially at Daytona.

A driver with similar superspeedway stats, who has had an amazing run this season in a brand new team in Trackhouse Racing, Daniel Suarez in the No. 99 Chevrolet. Though the past few races have not been what that team needs, Daniel qualified 10th in this year’s Daytona 500, and nearly had a top 10 run at the other superspeedway, Talladega, earlier this year, had it not been for a last lap shove from William Byron.

A more veteran driver who does have success at superspeedways is Aric Almirola in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Ford. Almirola is currently, in my opinion, the 2nd best SHR driver, next to his teammate, the previously mentioned Kevin Harvick. Though Aric has not been very consistent this season, he is always strong at Daytona, and his experience can maybe give him the edge over the relatively younger Suarez and Wallace.

The fourth and final driver I think has a realistic chance to win at Daytona and upset the playoff standings is the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy driven by Ross Chastain. In previous years, he has shown a good amount of strength at Daytona. In his first season in a semi-competitive ride, Ross Chastain has had some good runs, though with the recent acquisition of CGR by Trackhouse, Ross’s future is unknown. I believe that the potential to race for a contract for next season and impress possible team owners would be motivation to take his superspeedway skill and pilot his car to a victory, and clinch a spot in the playoffs.

Who do you think will make the playoffs? Who would you like to see in the playoffs? Be sure to comment, we love hearing you feedback!

Image credit /// @NASCAR on Twitter

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