The regular season of the NASCAR Cup Series is now in the books. Now the 2021 Postseason begins this Sunday with the annual running of the Southern 500 at Darlington. This year’s playoff field has no shortage of interesting headlines and championship-contending drivers. Ultimately, only four of them will have a shot at the title come November when Phoenix rolls around. That said here is the breakdown of the field and some predictions that will not age badly whatsoever.
Be sure to check out all of our NASCAR coverage.
Cup Series Playoff Field
No. 4 Kevin Harvick– Stewart-Haas Racing (2002 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 0, Average Finish: 11.46, Top 10s: 16, Top Fives: 6, Laps Led: 109, Stage Wins: 0
This year was a far cry from 2020 for the tandem of Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers. Since his choke job in the Round of 8 a year ago, the Bakersfield, California native has zero trips to victory lane in the Cup Series. A calamitous turn of events from his nine-win campaign in 2020. Darlington starting off the postseason this year is a godsend for Harvick here though. If he can find some momentum this weekend it would go a long way.
No. 8 Tyler Reddick– Richard Childress Racing (2003 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 0, Average Finish: 14.62, Top 10s: 13, Top Fives: 2, Laps Led: 26, Stage Wins: 3
The former two-time Xfinity Series Champion makes the Cup Series playoffs in his sophomore year. He has shown steady improvement in 2021 and is on pace to triple his top ten finish total from a year ago. A win however still eludes Reddick to this point in his young Cup Career. Bristol could be a track to see him take a surprise win, he has run well there in both Cup and Xfinity so be sure to keep an eye out in a few weeks.
No. 10 Aric Almirola– Stewart-Hass Racing (2005 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 20.96, Top 10s: 3, Top Fives: 2, Laps Led: 51, Stage Wins: 0
Despite holding the worst average finish in this year’s field, Almirola still managed to pick up a rather impressive win at New Hampshire. In what was a bad year for Stewart-Haas all around, that still stands as the team’s only win this year. Almirola has made the playoffs in all four of his seasons with Stewart-Haas but has not been back to the Round of 8 since his first. It would be hard to see that streak break this year considering the talent pool, but bigger upsets have happened, speaking of which.
No. 34 Michael McDowell– Front Row Motorsports (2005 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 19.64, Top 10s: 5, Top Fives: 2, Laps Led: 26, Stage Wins: 0
The 14-year Cup Series Veteran makes his first career postseason appearance. What better way to do so than by winning the Daytona 500 which was also his first career win. Despite clearly being at an equipment disadvantage, McDowell had a great start in 2021, but his results have dipped recently. In his last seven starts, he has finish 20th or worse in all seven races, and 30th or worse in three races. Obviously, that will not cut it in the playoffs, but McDowell is certainly not a mortal lock to be a Round of 16 elimination either. If he can manage to survive the first cutoff, McDowell is as good as they come at plate tracks and road courses. Keep that in mind.
No. 20 Christopher Bell– Joe Gibbs Racing (2005 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 17.04, Top 10s: 10, Top Fives: 4, Laps Led: 68, Stage Wins: 0
Bell punched his ticket to the playoffs one week after McDowell did on the Daytona Road Course. The former three-time Chilli Bowl Nationals champion since then has had an overall strong sophomore year in Cup. Cannot realistically pin down his expectations in these playoffs, but making it to this point should have been expected. Also, keep in mind his incident with Kyle Larson from Watkins Glen. While it felt like a racing incident at worst, Bell did not seem to take kindly to that incident, nor seem thrilled with Larson. He doesn’t seem like the type for blatant retaliation, then again neither did Matt Kenseth before 2015.
No. 1 Kurt Busch– Chip Ganassi Racing (2008 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 16, Top 10s: 9, Top Fives: 4, Laps Led: 175, Stage Wins: 3
You never eat half-priced sushi, you never ask a woman if she is pregnant, and you never let Kurt Busch get hot. These are words to live by. Since Sonoma, the elder Busch brother has scored seven top 10s, three top-fives, and a win at Atlanta. Not to mention running well inside the top 10 last weekend in Daytona before causing the final wreck of the evening.
He is one of the top sleepers in this entire playoff field and is one of the bigger betting underdogs in most markets. Keep in mind he has made the Round of 8 on four separate occasions since the format switch in 2014. Additionally, Busch is also the last hope for car owner Chip Ganassi to win a NASCAR Cup Championship as the team is merging with Trackhouse.
No. 2 Brad Keselowski– Team Penske (2008 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 14.54, Top 10s: 10, Top Fives: 7, Laps Led: 302, Stage Wins: 2
Another driver headed for greener pastures in 2022 is Keselowski. Making the jump from Penske, to becoming a Driver/Co-Owner at Roush-Fenway Racing. While it feels like a lifetime ago, do not forget that Keselowski finished second in last year’s championship hunt to Chase Elliott. This year he is entering coming in on three finishes of 24th or worse in his last four races.
While that is concerning, Keselowski also was on a run of 19 top 20 results in the opening 23 races. He got locked into this year’s field with a win at Talledega, where he has won in the playoffs twice before. This of course including his 2014 win, is one of, if not the single most clutch win of the playoff/chase era.
No. 22 Joey Logano– Team Penske (2013 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 13.46, Top 10s: 13, Top Fives: 8, Laps Led: 409, Stage Wins: 5
Logano is another driver who feels under the radar entering this postseason. Like his teammate Keselowski, he is also entering this postseason on a rough stretch. Scoring four consecutive finishes of 20th or worse in the last four races. On the flipside, Logano has consistently been one of NASCAR’s top playoff performers since the format came to light in 2014. The Connecticut native has made the final four all but three times and won in 2018. It would be hard to imagine a deep run is not in the cards this year as well.
No. 24 William Byron– Hendrick Motorsports (2014 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 1, Average Finish: 13.08, Top 10s: 16, Top Fives: 9, Laps Led: 278, Stage Wins: 3
After getting fast-tracked to the Cup Series a few seasons ago, the 23-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina native has rounded into form at NASCAR’s top level. Currently, Byron is in the midst of a career year to this point. In addition to qualifying for his second postseason much quicker than last year. Nabbing a strong win at Homestead-Miami in race number three of the year. Ironically enough, after getting knocked out in round one a year ago, Byron rattled off four top 10s in the final seven races of the year. Keep the fourth-year Cup driver on your radar, as he could potentially be a player.
No. 11 Denny Hamlin– Joe Gibbs Racing (2015 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 0, Average Finish: 9.08, Top 10s: 23, Top Fives: 17, Laps Led: 821, Stage Wins: 5
Hamlin has statistically one of NASCAR’s best all season long, that of course considering you take wins out of the equation. No one has a better average finish than Hamlin, to this point, and he is tied with Larson for the most top 10s. It probably helped that he opened up the year with a mind-numbing nine top-fives in the opening 10 races.
Hamlin is most certainly due for a race win, so it feels more of a when than if situation. Winning the title is another story however for the nearly two-decade veteran (I feel old saying that). He has finished fifth or better in the championship on six different occasions. That includes a trio of final four appearances in this playoff format, where he has finished fourth twice. Not to say time is running out, but Hamlin is about to turn 41 in November. How many more shots will he have to bring home the big one?
No. 48 Alex Bowman– Hendrick Motorsports (2015 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 3, Average Finish: 14.12, Top 10s: 13, Top Fives: 6, Laps Led: 151, Stage Wins: 0
Bowman, like his teammate Byron, is also in the midst of a career year. In his first year with crew chief Cliff Daniels, he picked up some nice wins at Richmond, Dover, and at Pocono. The concern with Bowman this postseason, however, is that he can go hot and cold with rapid frequency. He had just one stretch of three or more straight top 10 finishes all year. That may slide in the Round of 16, after that however is highly unlikely. While wins are big, consistency will be the thing to watch with Bowman.
No. 9 Chase Elliott- Hendrick Motorsports (2021 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 11.04, Top 10s: 16, Top Fives: 11, Laps Led: 337, Stage Wins: 3
The defending Cup Series Champion has enjoyed a solid title defense season to this point. Elliott, who is already near the top of the Cup road course wins list, added a pair of more tallies this year at COTA and Road America. Not to mention he still has the Charlotte Roval to look ahead to, which he has won the last two years. In fact, Elliott has been historically good at a wide majority of tracks on this year’s playoff schedule.
If there is one thing that could prevent a back-to-back bid for the pride of Dawsonville, Georgia, it is pre and post-race inspection. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have had numerous inspection failures since they first hooked up back in 2016. In fact, they failed pre-race inspection twice before winning the title last year in Phoenix. Not even mentioning a pair of major penalties happening just this year. An outright disqualification at Nashville for a loose tire, and an engine infraction at New Hampshire. If Elliott’s team can be straight shooters, a Round of 8 birth feels like the floor.
No. 18 Kyle Busch– Joe Gibbs Racing (2022 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 2, Average Finish: 12.12, Top 10s: 16, Top Fives: 11, Laps Led: 247, Stage Wins: 5
The big news for the two-time Cup Champion this year was a crew chief swap. Going from Adam Stevens to Ben Beshore. Busch struggled to just get one win in 2020, taking him until race number 34 of the season to do it. Despite having two to his name this year, the overall statistics feel close to the same. Even then Busch is, as always, a title threat and should be considered as much. Before last year, he was on a streak of five consecutive championship round births and is still one of the top race car drivers in the world.
No. 19 Martin Truex Jr.– Joe Gibbs Racing (2024 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 3, Average Finish: 12.96, Top 10s: 13, Top Fives: 8, Laps Led: 694, Stage Wins: 5
It was another status-quo year for Truex Jr. in 2021 coming off a one-win campaign a year ago. A good omen for Truex is that he is historically great at a good amount of playoff tracks, more so in the second half. He also won earlier this year at Phoenix, which is certainly a gigantic confidence booster if he can make it that far. Based on the numbers, that feels more likely than not, as he had made the championship round all but twice since 2015.
The only true concern with the 41-year-old is lacking that killer instinct. After getting moved for the win at Martinville by Logano in 2018, he proclaimed the following. “He won the battle but he ain’t win the damn war.” Then when asked by Parker Kligerman how he will retaliate he said, “I’m just not going to let him win, I’m gonna win it.”
No. 12 Ryan Blaney– Team Penske (2024 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 3, Average Finish: 11.77, Top 10s: 14, Top Fives: 8, Laps Led: 310, Stage Wins: 4
If you are a believer in the momentum game, Blaney may be your guy. The man they call YRB is riding into the postseason on back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona. Not to mention a nice six top-fives in his last nine races. Despite a Round of 12 elimination last year, Blaney still picked up six top 10s in last year’s postseason, including a pair of top-fives at Round of 8 tracks. If he can avoid disaster, Blaney should factor in as a legit contender in 2021.
No. 5 Kyle Larson– Hendrick Motorsports (2052 Points)
2021 Stats- Wins: 5, Average Finish: 9.73, Top 10s: 18, Top Fives: 14, Laps Led: 1566, Stage Wins: 12
Do not know what else can be added to the discourse on Larson’s 2021, the man was borderline unbeatable in stretches this year. Additionally, he was a Daytona wreck away from entering the postseason with five straight top 10 finishes. In years past with Ganassi, Larson had brutal amounts of bad luck that kept him away from ultimately gaining the opportunity to be champion. If he can avoid any mechanical issues or accidents, it would be the upset of the century if he does not at least make it to the Round of 8. Especially taking his massive points buffer into account as well, which he carries up until Phoenix.
Joshua Abbe Predictions
Round of 16 Eliminations: Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski
Round of 12 Eliminations: Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, William Byron, Alex Bowman
Round of 8 Eliminations: Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr.
Championship 4: Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson
2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion: Kyle Larson
Brandon Baasch Predictions
Round of 16 Eliminations: Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Michael McDowell, Kurt Busch
Round of 12 Eliminations: Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman
Round of 8 Eliminations: Brad Keselowski, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott
Championship 4: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson
2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion: Ryan Blaney
Jack Gaffney Predictions
Round of 16 Eliminations: Kevin Harvick, Tyler Reddick, Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell
Round of 12 Eliminations: Michael McDowell, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr.
Round of 8 Eliminations: Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch
Championship 4: Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson
2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion: Kyle Larson
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyPTST
Follow Joshua Abbe on Twitter @jabbe05
Follow Brandon Braasch on Twitter @brandonbraasch3
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images