Larson ties Hamlin on points now, what’s at stake this weekend at Indy in the Cup Series playoff push

INDIANAPOLIS — 23 races down, 3 to go in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season. The pursuit to set the 16 driver field for this year’s playoffs is coming down to the wire with two different factors on the opposite side of the playoff grid.

See, we’ve had some surprising winners this year.

We’ve seen 13 different race winners in 23 races completed. With another road course this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as well as Daytona looming, how many more do we end up getting?

If we get another repeat winner in the next three weeks though then Denny Hamlin is guaranteed to be in the postseason whether he wins a race or not. Remarkably, the driver who marched all the way to the Championship 4 a year ago and had amassed seven trips to victory lane, is winless so far in this campaign.

But, Hamlin is in a fight in itself to remain as the overall points leader. He’s held that distinction since the second race of the season and isn’t ready to give it up just yet despite Kyle Larson’s best efforts to wrestle it away from him.

Larson, has stormed back from a 144 point deficit leaving Darlington this past May to being tied with Hamlin now in points accumulated through 23 races.

Leaving the Lady in Black back on Mothers Day weekend, Hamlin had accumulated 529 points on the season already. That day was his ninth top five result in the first 12 races of the season. Meanwhile,  Larson finished runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. in that race and now had 385 points of his own. As we come into Sunday’s Verizon 200 (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, IMS Radio Network) this weekend, that advantage is gone. It’s mono y mono.

How?

LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA – JUNE 26: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics CBD 325 at Pocono Raceway on June 26, 2021 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

In the last 11 races, Hamlin has just four top five results with a best finish of fourth in the first Pocono race. Larson meanwhile, has seven top five finishes in that span including all seven being in the top two. That’s allowed him to make up 144 points on Hamlin in 11 races. Can he hold him off in the final three events of the regular season and take home the crown of being the regular season champion?

It’s going to be close.

“(Hamlin) is so good at Daytona, too, so it would be nice to get a couple good weeks and get that point lead because I know he’s going to go there, and anything can happen at Daytona,” said Larson following his Watkins Glen win. “But I know he’s going to go there, and he’s going to get stage points, and he’s going to challenge for the win. I know he’s looking at me as the same

“If he could go into Daytona being even or ahead, he’s going to feel like he’s got the advantage. I’d like to have a good couple weeks before we get there and give us a little bit of wiggle room.”

First up is Indianapolis this weekend to where neither has any past experience at on the road course. On the season though, Larson has two wins and a runner-up in five road course starts this season. In the other two races, he spun at Daytona while running in sixth back in February and was third towards the end of the July 4 race at Road America before being spun accidentally by his teammate Alex Bowman.

Hamlin meanwhile has four top eight finishes in five road races this season too.

That’s why this weekend could really be a wash among the two.

Then it’s to Michigan where Hamlin has two runner-up finishes in his last three tries including four top eight finishes in his last five starts in the Irish Hills. Larson though, has also been at his best on 2-mile tracks too. He 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.

Then it’s to Daytona to close out the 26 race regular season to where Hamlin is obviously far better than Larson on superspeedway’s.

That’s why this is going to be an interesting battle to the finish because I can make a case for either to win the regular season.

The other battle to watch is at the bottom of the grid in Tyler Reddick vs. Austin Dillon. Reddick has five top 11 results in his last six starts on the season including scoring 48 stage points in this span. Dillon, hasn’t had a top 10 finish since May 30 in the Coca-Cola 600 and has finished behind Reddick in each of the last six races. He’s has scored just six stage points in this timeframe as well which combine that with Kurt Busch and Aric Almiorla winning in two of the last three races and you get why Dillon went from +104 to -15.

What makes the playoff bubble more interesting is that this was pretty much set, or so we thought, back in June. At that point, Kurt Busch was 83 points back. Even last month, Aric Almirola was -232 points entering New Hampshire. Both have won and are now in.

This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when they created this format.

Last year, it seemed like shoo-in that Kevin Harvick or Hamlin would win the championship. Harvick, won nine times. Hamlin seven. Neither did. In fact, Harvick didn’t even make the final round and Hamlin was even first or second in the end.

Now, we have a driver that was 27th in points, 232 markers out of the playoffs and now he’s in by winning the fifth to last race of the regular season. Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.

Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 but has since earned nine finishes of 16th or worse in his last nine starts on the season and has also been 13th or worse in 12 of his last 13 overall. Eight of those were outside of the top 20.

Credit: DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, crosses the finish line to win during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

These two are playoff bound and if anyone else 17th or worse now in the playoff standings wins, they can be too.

The thing is, it’s entirely possible for it to happen in Daytona. But prior to that, the race to stay off the 16th spot is going to be a race to watch but Reddick is 80 points behind Harvick in doing so. That’s why it’s really two points battles to watch and both are the top two in the top of the playoff grid and the bottom. Everyone else is just racing for wins now.

The thing is, do we really get anyone behind Dillon stealing a win over the next three races?

It boils down to Dillon, Chris Buescher, DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo and if at least one of them can win one of the final three weeks.

Well, half of those 14 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer have just one win a piece. Erik Jones hasn’t won in the last 70 races. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t won since 2017.

Why would they magically win a race now?

Buescher, is back sliding with no stage points in the last eight races and no finish better than 16th in that span. He hasn’t won a race since 2016 (182 starts).

DiBenedetto has four straight top 11’s but prior to that was eight straight finishes of 18th or worse. He’s had 10 stage points since the Coca-Cola 600 and while he’s starting to heat up again, it may be a little too late in doing so.

Chastain, has 25 stage points since the ‘600 and has his best shot at a win in two of the final three weeks with solid top 10’s in almost every road course as well as a top 10 at Daytona back in February.

Wallace, has had one top 10 all year.

Stenhouse Jr. has 13 finishes of 15th or worse in his last 16 starts on the season.

Suarez, has just one top 10 in the last 10 races overall. He has seven finishes of 15th or worse in his last 10 races in general.

Then you get guys 23rd on points and further back with them struggling even more.

In terms of the tracks, I don’t think the Indianapolis road course is necessarily a wildcard.

Hendrick Motorsports has won 8 of the last 9 overall road course races in general and has been 1-2 in three of the five races on them this season. Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 10 road course races and went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 on Sunday in Watkins Glen. Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 13 of the last 14 road course races. The only one they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap or else it would be 14 straight.

Stewart-Haas Racing is the only other team to have won since 2015 on road courses. Hendrick has won 9 times, JGR has won 4 times, Furniture Row, SHR and Penske each twice themselves. That’s 19 races.

Of the winners in this span, only Elliott (7 wins), Truex Jr. (3 wins) and Larson (2 wins) have won multiple times. Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart are the only other winners. Among them, Stewart has since retired and the others are currently inside of the playoff grid.

After the road course stretch ends this weekend, we go to 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. Kyle 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 Dillon could all easily win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With all but Dillon facing must wins anyways, this is the point to where a surprise winner from that crop could alter the playoff picture.

Since the ‘Win and Your In’ format to the Playoffs was initiated in 2017, Erik Jones’ 2018 summer race win and William Byron’s last year are the only summer race at Daytona to catapult a driver into the postseason – the other three winners were either not eligible for the Playoffs due to not competing for a championship in the series (Haley in 2019) or the drivers had already previously won in the same season (Keselowski in 2016 and Stenhouse in 2017).

In the third iteration of the Playoff championship format from 2014-Present – Only one driver outside the Playoff cutoff has raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale through points or last-minute wins.

  • From 2014 to 2018 – the drivers that won or were inside the top 16 that were expected to make the Playoffs did, no drivers raced their way into the Playoffs in the regular season finale on points or wins.
  • In 2019, heading into the regular season finale at Indianapolis, Ryan Newman was tied with Daniel Suarez for the 16th and final transfer position to the Playoffs. Newman finished eighth in the regular season finale to Suarez’s 11th, earning the final transfer spot into the postseason.

But, for the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last four winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second. A total of 21 drivers have posted their first NASCAR Cup Series win at Daytona; 11 of the 21 drivers posted their first win in the summer race – the most recent was the 2019 July race with winner Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports and last year with William Byron. Does that bode well for Saturday night for someone on the outside looking in?

Eight drivers below the cutline have never won a Cup race before.

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