Kurt Busch’s win on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway makes 12 different winners during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. While some may say the win was shocking in nature, I’m honestly none too surprised. See, Busch had been running as well as anyone lately. Since the calendar turned to June, he’s now had five top eight finishes in the last six points paying races including accumulating 62 stage points in the process.
That propelled him from 83 points down to 25 points up heading into last weekend’s Quaker State 400 at that. Still, by Busch winning, it takes another wildcard spot away leaving just four. In saying that, are the playoff spots now set? Will we see anyone new knock their way back in?
You also have this, Denny Hamlin currently has another automatic spot via leading the regular season points standings too. He’s winless in his last 26 races, but he also doesn’t have to win a race to take a playoff spot so long as he holds Kyle Larson off for that distinction.
Leaving Darlington back in May, Hamlin’s lead over Larson was well over 100 points. It was almost a preconceived notion that Hamlin would run away with the regular season championship.
Then, Hamlin got cold and Larson caught fire.
Hamlin, had eight top five finishes in the first nine races but three over the last 12 now. Larson, has seven top two finishes in his last 10 tries. As a result, Hamlin leads Larson by just 10 points with six races remaining in the regular season.
Can he hold him off?
If he can, Hamlin will take a guaranteed playoff spot by virtue of that to go along with a much needed 15 playoff points with him. That would give us 13 guaranteed spots into the postseason leaving three more open.
That in turn would put Kevin Harvick, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick on notice as Harvick is only 55 points ahead of Dillon while Dillon leads Reddick by just eight himself. That’s 63 points separating three drivers going for the final three spots.
With only five races remaining in the regular season, can anyone make up those 96 points on Reddick?
By comparison, Busch was 83 points down and it took him a month to make up that much ground. Chris Buescher doesn’t have a month to make that much ground up. Plus, Matt DiBenedetto is next up at -138 which is honestly way too far to come back from in that short amount of time on points.
Reddick, has seven top 11 finishes in his last nine starts including improving on his finish in each of the last six races. He’s accumulated 36 stage points since Sonoma too and getting hotter and hotter meaning he’s going to be a difficult driver to catch.
Really, it makes anyone from 17th on back in a win or go home scenario. But, can they actually win?
It boils down to Buescher, DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo and if at least one of them can win one of the final five races?
Well, eight of those 14 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer has just one win. Erik Jones hasn’t won in the last 68 races. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t won since 2017 while Aric Almirola is winless since 2018.
Why would they magically win a race now?
Buescher, is back sliding with no stage points in the last six races and no finish better than 16th in that span. He hasn’t won a race since 2016.
DiBenedetto has two straight top 10’s but prior to that was eight straight finishes of 18th or worse. He’s had four stage points since the Coca-Cola 600.
Chastain, has 15 stage points since the ‘600 and three finishes of 21st or worse in his last four tries.
Wallace, has one top 10 all year.
Stenhouse Jr. has 11 finishes of 15th or worse in his last 14 starts on the season including one top 10 in his last 14 starts.
Suarez, has two straight 36th place finishes with one top 10 in the last eight races overall. He has five finishes of 15th or worse in his last eight races in general.
Then you get guys 23rd on points and further back with them struggling even more.
Then, you have to look at the tracks over the final five races. New Hampshire isn’t an easy one to win for struggling drivers. The JGR cars as well as Hendrick Motorsports should be the favorites this weekend. Maybe Team Penske can make a cameo.
From there it’s to Watkins Glen to where Martin Truex Jr. has three straight top two results and Chase Elliott has won the last two races there. Elliott, has won two of the last three road course races on the season as well. Again, not an easy track for a driver to steal a victory.
The Indianapolis road course could potentially be with it being an inaugural event, but Elliott has won the last three first time road course races.
After there is Michigan to where Harvick has three straight wins and five top twos in his last six tries. Hamlin has two runner-ups in his last three tries there. Busch has six straight top six finishes. Truex has four straight top fours. Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six starts including two in the top three. Kyle Larson has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them. Elliott has nine top 10’s in 10 tries.
Can anyone steal a playoff berth against these guys in the Irish Hills? Not very likely.
That leaves it all up to Daytona for the cut race at the end of August. This is where things can get interesting. DiBenedetto, Stenhouse, Buescher, Chastian, Suarez and Almirola all could easily win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With them facing must wins anyways, this is the point to where a surprise winner from that crop could alter the playoff picture.
That would have the battle to stay off that 16th and final playoff spot an interesting one to watch over the next four races because I can assure you that you don’t want to go to Daytona sitting on it The 14th and 15th placed drivers in the wildcard standings want to distance themselves from 16th badly.
That’s why the battle between Harvick, Dillon and Reddick is going to be just as interesting to watch moving forward than the one from 17th on back. I feel that it’s too late and too far back for anyone new to points themselves back in. I know we said that earlier then Kurt Busch went on his run, but Busch was capable of that. I don’t see anyone of these other drivers being able to pull off what Busch has done over the next five races.
The playoff grid is set barring a shock in Daytona next month.