When the checkered flag flew at Daytona on Saturday night, the playoff field was set. From the likely contenders of Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney, to the surprises of Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola, to the unknown of Kyle Larson, this year’s playoff field might be one of the most diverse, surprising, and exciting one yet.
From February to August, the 16 driver playoff field was being set. With all the unknowns and new tracks, this season was wild from the start. The craziness started right out of the gate with nine different winners in the first 10 races, including two first time winners (Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell). There was even talk about having more winners than playoff spots! When all was said and done however, 13 different drivers took a checkered flag in 2021. The full 16-driver bracket for 2021 (in no particular order) is as follows: Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.
Two major surprises of the season revolved around Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. In 2020, Harvick and Hamlin won a combined total of 16 races (9 for Harvick and 7 for Hamlin). In 2021 (as of the Daytona August race), they are winless. Hamlin led the season standings in points for a large portion of the year. Harvick, on the other hand, was nearly eliminated from the playoffs due to the amount of winners.
Let’s start with the first four out. At the end of the first round (Bristol), four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs. The given is unfortunately Michael McDowell. The heartwarming, surprise Daytona 500 champion is going to be the one of the first four eliminated. Along with him, I see Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, and Christopher Bell exiting after Bristol. The reason is simple; consistency. None of these drivers have been consistent enough throughout the season. Three of them, (McDowell, Bell, and Almirola), all made it in on a single win. They really weren’t in contention to win for a majority of the season, and that will sadly end their playoff runs.
OUT after Bristol: McDowell, Reddick, Almirola, Bell
The next four out, following the Roval, are Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Kurt Busch. The second of three winless playoff drivers, Kevin Harvick, points his way through round one, but meets his fate in round two. Harvick has had a pretty “off” year by his standards, and unfortunately, this ends his playoff run early. Busch, Logano, and Keselowski have also had down years. Logano won one race early on, but hasn’t really contended since. Keselowski fits into the Logano category, however, he was much more consistent than his soon-to-be ex-teammate. Lastly, Kurt Busch has had a rather “normal” year by his standards. Busch is usually due for one win a year, which he captured at Atlanta. Not to say he can’t win again, but it looks like his playoff run ends after the Charlotte Roval.
OUT after Charlotte: Harvick, Logano, Keselowski, Kurt Busch
The final elimination after Martinsville bids farewell to Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex, Jr., and William Byron. Hamlin is the third winless driver in the playoffs, and the only one to make it to the Round of 8. His lack of wins is the nail in the coffin for the 11 team. Truex won three races very early on in the season, but really fell off after Darlington. He did bounce back a bit towards the end, and he might sneak a win at Darlington, but the rough patch in the middle of the season is what will ultimately end the road for the 19. Chase Elliott, the defending champ, won two races (the rain-shortened COTA race and Road America), but didn’t really contend on ovals. He makes it to the Round of 8 via a win on the Roval, but doesn’t make it past the third round. Lastly, William Byron, the “deep-run surprise” of the playoffs finally reaches the end of the line in Martinsville. His one very early win was the only major point of the season for the 24 team. He manages to point his way through to the third round, but comes up short on making it to Phoenix.
OUT after Martinsville: Hamlin, Elliott, Truex Jr, Byron
This sets the Final Four at Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney. Larson has easily been the most dominant and consistent driver all season. 5 wins, 14 top 5’s and 18 top 10’s, plus the regular season championship. Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney both are having career seasons. Three wins apiece, a career best for both, plus a little over a dozen top 10’s each has set them in prime position to make their first ever Championship 4 appearances. Lastly, Kyle Busch has two wins on the season, but 11 top 5’s, 16 top 10’s, and decent consistently allow the 18 to move into the Final Four.
My final Championship pick is…Alex Bowman. Bowman has had the best season of his career, and he’s been quite successful at Phoenix in the past. In fact, his performance in the 2016 fall race, in which he was subbing for the concussion-stricken Dale Jr., might be a leading reason he has his ride at Hendrick Motorsports to begin with. Aside from that, Bowman took over the 48 from the retired Jimmie Johnson in 2021, the car where Johnson won 7 championships. But what about Larson? We’ve seen quite a few times in the past a driver be dominant throughout the year, but come up short on the title. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick in 2020 is a great example.
At the end of the day, this is all a prediction. What is written here is just my thoughts on what I believe will happen in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Let me know your predictions on the playoffs by commenting on this article or Tweeting me. Also, share the article and check out the competing articles by my friends Matt and Jake!