The time is here. 16 drivers, 10 races, four rounds and one champion. Who ends up making it to the Championship 4 and who wins the title?
The favorites are obvious this year but they were last year too. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win half of the 26 races during the regular season then 3 of the 1st 5 in the playoffs. Neither won the title with Harvick not even making it to the Championship 4.
The door is open right now for a new champion, but who?
Kyle Larson has the best car. Chase Elliott is the defending champion. Ryan Blaney is the hottest driver. We have three (Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Michael McDowell) making their first postseason appearance. Martin Truex Jr. is backing his way into the postseason but has won on 3 of the 10 playoff tracks this past season including the ones that serve as the final two races of the year. Harvick was the No. 1 seed last year and the bottom seed this. Does anyone in the middle shine?
I do think HMS can vie for the Round of 8 spots, but how many and what can they do in that round?
We’ve not raced at Texas yet this year for a points paying event, but we have done so at Kansas and Martinsville. Larson led 132 laps but got into the wall while battling for the win in the end in Kansas. He can very much win there again. His other teammates that day led a combined zero laps and finished 5-9-18 with Larson the worst finish in 19th among them. For Martinsville, they did place three cars in the top five but they also led a grand total of nine laps all day. Denny Hamlin led 276. Martin Truex Jr. led 20. They went 1-3.
On playoff tracks in general this season, HMS led no laps at Darlington, 10 laps at Richmond, 150 laps at Vegas, 132 laps at Kansas, nine laps at Martinsville and one lap at Phoenix. Larson accounted for 236 of those laps led.
You can make a strong case for Larson then, but what about the other three?
Elliott’s finishes on these tracks are 7th, 12th, 13th, 5th, 2nd and 5th respectively. Byron’s are 4th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 4th and 9th with Bowman’s 17th, 1st, 27th, 18th, 34th and 13th.
That’s why I pause to say that HMS can continue this all the way to Phoenix. I think getting 2 cars to the final round is more realistic but if they don’t win the title, is this season going to be considered a disappointment?
To me, the factor is that maybe that they’re lacking on the 750 package on short tracks in general. Larson was seventh in Phoenix, fifth in Martinsville, 20th in Richmond, second in Dover and now seventh in Loudon. Elliott was fifth, second, 12th, third 18th and on the same tracks. Byron was eighth, fourth, seventh, fourth and 21st respectively while Bowman actually won twice (Richmond, Dover) and was 13th, 34th and ninth in the other two.
Dover was their obvious best at 1-2-3-4 but they’ve not been as dominant on other short tracks either. Where this could be the most worrisome is they’re not the best on short tracks right now in general. Even more so, Loudon has been an early preview of the Fall Phoenix race too.
Since New Hampshire went down from two races each year to one annually, this race has ended up being a Championship 4 preview. Last year especially since Loudon can translate over to Phoenix. In fact, with Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix all being in the playoffs, that’s 30% of the postseason being on like tracks to Loudon. That’s why this race is arguably so important.
Plus, the tire used in New Hampshire will be used in November at Phoenix. There’s a lot that can transfer over.
JGR on the flip side is arguably the best organization on 750 tracks this year and 2 of the 3 in the first round are on them as well as the final two races of the year at that.
Hamlin, finished third in Phoenix, third in Martinsville, second in Richmond and seventh at Dover. We have Richmond, Bristol, Martinsville and Phoenix to make up 40% of the playoffs on short tracks. He led 276 of 500 laps in a third place run at Martinsville. He led 207 of 400 laps a week later in Richmond. He also led 33 laps in a third place effort at Phoenix. He may have been 10th in Loudon but he was already behind the eight ball from an opening lap spin.
Truex Jr. and Busch never got to flex their muscles due to an early race crash not of their doing in Loudon too. But, Truex won at both Phoenix and Martinsville earlier this season. He was also fifth in Richmond after what should have been another top two or three result.
Busch looks like the strongest of them right now and capable of going on a deep run. Bell, has some good tracks in the first couple of rounds for him too.
I would be shocked if we didn’t get at least one JGR car in the Championship 4 this November. After all, they’ve produced at least one car in the final round in each of the seven years of this formats existence.
For Penske, they’ve not been at their best on 550 tracks and that may plague them in the third round. 2 of the 3 races are on 550 tracks. Penske is at their best on 750 packages.
They looked really good in New Hampshire for a second straight year. That translated well over to last year in which Keselowski won the playoff race at Richmond and led the most laps in the Championship 4 at Phoenix. Logano, led the most laps earlier this year in Phoenix and finished second. He was sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond and if not for an early race penalty would have likely been in the hunt for a win as he made up two laps to finish fourth, one spot behind Keselowski but one spot ahead of Blaney in Loudon.
But, I don’t like the win or go home scenario for them at Martinsville with JGR and HMS cars in that race wanting a spot to Phoenix.
Ryan Blaney enters having three top two finishes in the last three races including five top five finishes in his last seven tries and seven top six results in his last nine starts overall.
What about his teammates?
Brad Keselowski is leaving at seasons end and is backing his way into the postseason. He’s had one top five in the last seven races run this season and only two top fives in his last 15 overall.
Joey Logano is in a similar boat. He’s had one top 10 over the last seven races and only four top fives in the last 17. Can they turn it on in the playoffs? Logano says they can. Keselowski says that if they do, or don’t, the 550 tracks and them being behind on those circuits will be the reason as to why.
They put 2 drivers in the Championship 4 last year and have had at least one driver in the final round in 4 of the last 5 years and 5 of the 7 overall.
DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – MAY 09: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Freightliner Ford, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Throwback Ford, lead the field to star the NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway on May 09, 2021 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Round by Round Predictions
- 1st Round Exit: Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch
McDowell has 12 finishes of 16th or worse in his final 12 starts of the regular season. 15 of his last 16 were 13th or worse at that. I don’t think he gets by the opening round because of their recent performance. Same for Aric Almirola. He’s had one top five all season and seven of his last eight including 15 of the last 18 of his finishes were 14th or worse. I don’t think they magically turn it on now. This would be his third first round exit in five playoff appearance. The next two are surprising in I think Harvick and Kurt Busch are done. Harvick, has two top 10’s and no top fives in his last seven starts on the year and one finish better than fourth all season. He’s in the bottom of the points and with a tough first round, getting top 10’s won’t get him by. Busch has been hot lately but I do think he narrowly misses out on the next round due to other drivers’ success on the first round tracks.
What’s somewhat shocking by this is, Harvick has made it to the Round of 8 every year with five Championship 4 appearances. Busch, has four Round of 8 appearances but this would be his fourth opening round exit. He’s either bounced in the Round of 16 or Round of 8. I think it’s the latter this time.
- 2nd Round Exit: Tyler Reddick, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski
For Keselowski, I think he narrowly gets by to the second round but he’s not been good on the 550 package, has struggled on road courses and we have Talladega in the middle of the round and we know how that can go. This would be his third Round of 12 exit in the last four years and fourth in six. He’s scored just one top five in his last seven starts on the season and only two in the last 15 in general. These tracks aren’t necessarily the best for Bowman or Byron either with their worst tracks arguably being on road courses, Las Vegas not being particularly strong for them and Talladega also looming. Bowman, has one tp five in his last nine starts on the season with Byron having five finishes of 20th or worse in his last seven. Reddick’s run ends due to him needing to win in this round to get by and he’s winless so far in his brief Cup career. I don’t think it magically comes now. The only reason he gets by the first round despite having just two top fives all season is due to Darlington suiting him best, him finishing fourth at Bristol last year and being 11th in the playoff race at Richmond last year. I think he pulls what Austin Dillon did as a Cinderella story.
- 3rd Round Exit: Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell
This is the toughest round and one that’s going to take a win to get by for a shot at the championship. I don’t think any of these four win with what I feel like Blaney winning at Texas, Larson in Kansas and Elliott at Martinsville. Kyle Busch will points his way to the championship round from this point forward.
Logano has backed his way into the postseason and I think he can turn things around based off the tracks in the playoffs but fall short. Hamlin, just doesn’t have enough playoff points as he sits seventh right now and only twice did someone outside the top five in playoff points entering the postseason make it to the final round. Truex and Bell narrowly miss out to their teammate.
- Championship 4: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney
JGR’s best tracks are on 750’s. HMS’s are 550’s. It’s going to be a classic battle in one that I feel like Busch winds up the champion. He fits the trend criteria, is good at Phoenix and enters hot coming into the playoffs. All the factors are for him and I feel like we get a driver with a third championship come November.
HAMPTON, GEORGIA – JULY 11: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Advance Auto Parts Ford, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart at Atlanta Motor Speedway on July 11, 2021 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Top Championship Trends
- Repeat Champ? Not likely — Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since, no one has repeated as a champion. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson to do so as he did it in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Elliott accomplish this feat in 2021? Just 3 of the 6 years prior has the defending champion made it back to the Championship 4 the following season. The last 2 were bounced in the Round of 8 and Round of 12.
- The driver to finish 2nd in the points the previous season made it to the Championship 4 in 2 of the last 3 years and at least to the Round of 8 4 of the last 5. Twice though they missed the playoffs all together but that’s not the case for Brad Keselowski. By these trends, he gets to the Round of 8 at the very least.
- The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 4 years with 3 of the 4 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Joey Logano.
- Playoff points during the regular season matter – 3 of the top 4 in playoff points entering the 2017 season made the Championship 4. In 2018, it was the top 3 making it to the final round. For 2019, all four in the top four of playoff points accumulated entering the playoffs made it to the Championship 4 while last year saw 4 of the top five.
- Ranks of Championship 4 drivers in playoff points entering the postseason:
- 2017: 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th
- 2018: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th
- 2019: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th
- 2020: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th
- Just twice since 2016 did the #1 seed entering the playoffs win the championship. It happened in 2017 and 2019. Does that odd season streak continue? 2017, 2019…2021?
- The 16th seed has been eliminated in the first round in 3 of the 4 years. They’ve never made it past the Round of 12.
- The 15th seed has made it out of the opening round every year. That’s great for Tyler Reddick.
- Parity – We’ve had this playoff format since 2014. In the seven years of this, we’ve seen six different champions. By those accounts, that means Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Chase Elliott won’t win the title at Phoenix this November. Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to win a title in this span but he’s since retired.
- Champion likely won’t have won most races during the season — 5 of the 7 champions in this era has won five times during the season that they were crowned. One of them won just three times. Only twice in seven years did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself.
- Eventual champion has actually started each season off slow – It actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Just last year, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.
Denny Hamlin would be a big one but the only factor is that he’s not won a race in the regular season. No driver in this era has won the title but was also shut out in the first 26 races run. Ryan Blaney fits the bill as the trends champion. He has 3 wins in 26 races, hasn’t won the title before, is young and driving for a big team.
For the playoff point factor, all but one year did the top seed entering the playoffs make the Final round so that’s good news for Kyle Larson. The second place driver in playoff points made the final round in 3 of the 4 years too. Also a good sign for Ryan Blaney. The third place driver made it every time which is great for Martin Truex Jr. The thing is, 3 of the 4 years someone outside the top 4 did get through to the Championship 4 but none lower than seventh.
Does that mean we’ll get a Championship 4 of Blaney, Truex Jr. sharpied in with Larson, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin vying for the other two spots?
Combine all the trends and you get –
By trends, Michael McDowell, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola are out in Round 1.
Round 2 exits: William Byron, Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick
Round 3 exits: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch
Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr.
Champion: Ryan Blaney