We’ve got just seven races remaining in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. With that said, the race for the final playoff spots are heating up. There’s 11 drivers that know that they’ll be in the postseason via wins accumulated already this year. There’s also five wildcard spots left. With some wildcard races still left during this regular season, how many drivers can win their ways into the playoffs?
You have inaugural races in Road America this weekend as well as on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August. You get Watkins Glen a week prior to Indy followed by Daytona two weeks after Indy.
That’s four of the seven races left to set the field. Do we get any more unexpected winners? Do Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick finally find victory lane?
Heading into the May 9 race at Darlington, we had 10 different winners in 11 races run. We also had seven different winners in as many races to start the year off with too. But, in the last eight races, we’ve only had one new winner (Chase Elliott). I wrote at the beginning of this month that someone is eventually going to get hot. We’re going to run out of legitimate winners.
Well, that someone was Kyle Larson. He’s won three of the last five races. So, with seven regular season races left, how many new winners do we get vs. anyone that’s already won?
At this rate, it’s hard to find anyone new.
Hamlin and Harvick make the upmost sense as the only other drivers that I can find who can win. The road courses used to be wildcards but Hendrick Motorsports have won six of the last seven on them. How can you bet against them for Road America, Indy or Watkins Glen, especially since Elliott has won the last two on the upstate New York race track in general. If not him, Martin Truex Jr. was runner-up to him in each of those last two races and won the one prior to that.
In Loudon, Hamlin has finished runner-up in each of his last two starts. Harvick, has two wins in his last three. Maybe that’s the place they can come out of their winless slump. If not New Hampshire, then Michigan may be their only other logical spot with Hamlin being runner-up in two of his last three Michigan tries and Harvick having won three straight and four of the last five there.
Hamlin, could always win Watkins Glen with having won there in 2016 but can he find the speed and luck to beat HMS and his teammate Truex Jr. too?
Last year, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick split wins in the doubleheader weekend at Pocono. In fact, they went 1-2 in both races. This year, we get to the 18th and 19th races of the season. Both leave winless still.
Combined, they won 16 races in 2020. We’re 19 races into 2021 and neither have won a race this year. The question now comes up, will they ever?
Harvick hasn’t won since the Bristol night race last Fall. That’s a 26 race winless drought. Hamlin’s last win came in Talladega last October. He’s up to 24 races without a win himself.
If I told you this time last year that only one of the two would make the Championship 4 and neither would hoist the championship trophy at Phoenix and they’d follow that up with going 0-19 in 2021, you’d have said that I was crazy.
What even crazier is that Hamlin finished fourth on Saturday in Pocono and Harvick there himself on Sunday. Harvick was also eighth on Saturday with Hamlin having had the lead coming to the white flag a day later but running out of gas and having to pit instead of getting the win.
The luck just hasn’t been there for Hamlin. The speed hasn’t been there for Harvick.
Hamlin, had eight top five finishes in the first nine races of the season. He could have won multiple times in that span but bad breaks or untimely cautions cost him victories. Over the last 10 races, he’s had just two top fives. Sunday was a prime example of what could go wrong for him.
Can they turn it around?
Harvick meanwhile, has 14 top 10’s in 19 tries this season. Its just that he’s not dominating up front like he was last year. Among those 13 top 10’s are only six top fives with just one finish better than fourth all year. Can he find he speed?
Other than that, the next two wildcard spots go to the Richard Childress Racing duo of Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick.
Heading into last weekend, Dillon (+108), Reddick (+49) and Chris Buescher (+24) held onto the final three playoff spots. Leaving Pocono, two of the three remain the same but Dillon’s lead dropped to +91 after finishes of 21st and 13th respectively. Reddick only lost one point to +48 (11th and 9th) while Kurt Busch leap frogged Buescher to gain 27 points to go from -24 to +3.
Reddick, maintained by scoring four stage points too, three of which coming on Sunday. Busch, didn’t score any stage points on Sunday but he had 14 on Sunday including a second straight race with a stage win. He’s had 35 stage points in the last four races including three top eight results in his last four tries.
Meanwhile, Buescher scored no stage points on Sunday, nor in the last four races and has finished 16th, 36th, 20th and 19th respectively.
That’s how Busch went from -83 to +3 in four races.
Another big mover is Daniel Suarez. He went from -102 four races ago to -48 in making up 54 points in that span. He’s finished ninth, 33rd, 15th, 12th, seventh, 13th and 15th respectively in his last seven races.
Bubba Wallace also made a leap in going from -95 to -54 following a fifth place run on Sunday. He’s had three 14th place finishes and a top five in his last five races run on the season.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a mechanical issue towards the end of Sunday’s race and finished last in 38th. That’s a disappointment for him after being sixth in Nashville and 15th in Race 1. Stenhouse, was -62 four races ago to -82 back to -42 then up to -54 again leaving Pocono.
Matt DiBenedetto is also slumping with finishes of 19th, 24th, 23rd, 18th, 23rd, 24th, 32nd and 18th respectively in his last eight races.
With seven races left now in the regular season, the chase for the final few playoff spots may be actually heating up. The RCR duo have to hope they still can maintain while no one behind them wins with Busch, Buescher, Suarez and Wallace there battling for that final wildcard spot.