The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship chase begins on Sunday, Sept. 5 with the running of the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. 16 eligible drivers will not only battle for one of the sport’s crown jewels but begin their title quest for survival in this 10-race, multi-round sprint.
This year’s postseason field is dominated by three multi-car organizations: Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. All 11 of their drivers qualified for the playoffs including the sport’s regular-season champion in Kyle Larson. Larson, who earned 52 playoff bonus points after winning five times, begins with a 28-point advantage over the field and a 47-point edge over 13th place.
In the sport’s current format, with only three races until four drivers are eliminated for the Round of 12, that means Larson should be safe to advance unless he posts back-to-back DNFs. However, everyone else is vulnerable in this top-tier group that’s won 22 of 26 races this season.
For Ryan Blaney, in particular, Darlington will be a pivotal moment. The Team Penske driver enters the playoffs with momentum, posting back-to-back wins at Michigan International Speedway and Darlington Raceway. But three straight poor performances at Darlington, Richmond Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway knocked him out of the postseason in 2020. Can Blaney put that history to bed, earning his first career top-5 finish at the Track Too Tough To Tame Sunday night?
Penske’s other two drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, enter the playoffs vulnerable for different reasons. They’ve combined for just one top-20 finish in the last four races as both remain winless since April at Talladega Superspeedway (Keselowski). If any big team is going to lose a driver entering the Round of 12, keep an eye on them.
Five drivers from other organizations round out the field and hope to slingshot past the Goliaths to advance. Tyler Reddick is making his first playoff appearance with Richard Childress Racing, hoping to give the team its first Championship 4 bid since the first year of the current format in 2014. Reddick outlasted teammate Austin Dillon and a frenetic series of upset bids in the regular-season finale at Daytona to sneak in.
Kurt Busch will carry the flag for Chip Ganassi Racing, making their final postseason push before merging with Trackhouse Racing Team in 2022. Busch is moving on, too, headed to 23XI Racing next year with a brand-new second team. It leaves everyone at the No. 1 car with nothing to lose in a bid for Busch’s second career title (2004).
Aric Almirola enters the playoffs a major underdog for Stewart-Haas Racing after a miserable year was salvaged with an unlikely, darkness-shortened win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. Michael McDowell is an even bigger Cinderella, this year’s surprise Daytona 500 winner who led just the final lap of that race.
These four will be hard-pressed to outrun the biggest wild card in the group: Kevin Harvick. Last year’s nine-race winner is this year’s big disappointment, going winless during the regular season for the first time since 2012.
But Harvick has a bone to pick, the most successful year of his career in 2020 ruined by a tough series of coincidences and bad luck. He failed to make the Championship 4 despite a lead once so massive that, without the playoffs, he would have won the title over Denny Hamlin by 91 points.
That extra edge to Harvick, combined with years of postseason experience, should make him a slight favorite to be the 12th driver joining the Big 3 teams in advancing. But that’s the funny thing about the NASCAR playoffs: it never really works out the way it’s supposed to on paper.
Darlington will have plenty to say about that, the Lady In Black ready to darken up the left side of a car at a moment’s notice. You could be leading one lap, slammed with a Darlington Stripe the next at a track where the best drivers know how to manage tire wear and keep their car off the wall over long green-flag runs.
Expect the cream to rise to the top here after Martin Truex Jr. led 248 of 293 laps to win this spring. The top eight drivers in that race went on to make the postseason; add in their automatic top 16 starting spots and it’s hard to see anyone else breaking through. Who among them will hold up the legendary Southern 500 trophy, earning themselves a free pass into the Round of 12?
Cook Out Southern 500
Date: Sunday, Sept. 5
Time: 6 p.m. ET
Track: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
Why pick an eighth-place finisher in this space? Simple: the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion is entering the postseason right where he wants to be.
In the last three races, Elliott’s led 118 laps, including 36 in last weekend’s regular-season finale. He’s now led laps in six of the last seven races, a stretch that includes a victory at Road America on July 4th.
In all, Elliott scored 25 more points and the same number of victories (two) as he did in the 2020 regular season. This latest surge left him third in regular-season points, four spots higher than he was at this point a year ago. We all know what happened after that…
Who’s at the Back: Austin Dillon
Fifteen races into the season, Dillon sat 11th in the standings, nearly 100 points above the cutline after a sixth-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Dropping out of the postseason looked near impossible in a strong year for RCR.
It’s hard to believe that’s the last top-10 result for a No. 3 car that had the speed to win Michigan last weekend. The grandson of owner Richard Childress did post six more top-15 finishes over these last 11 races. But when Almirola won New Hampshire unexpectedly, that left Dillon vulnerable, and a three-race stretch of 31st-36th-17th to finish up allowed teammate Reddick to provide the knockout punch.
JTG Daugherty announced this week they’ll be scaling back to a one-car team in 2022. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is expected to return to the No. 47 Toyota while former Whelen Modified Series champion Ryan Preece will become a free agent. Preece, in three seasons driving for JTG Daugherty, never seriously contended for the playoffs while posting just two top-5 finishes in 98 starts.
After a roller-coaster season, Noah Gragson will return to JR Motorsports for a full-time effort in 2022. Gragson will continue to drive the No. 9 Chevy he’s poised to take to the NASCAR Xfinity Series postseason despite going winless in his first 23 starts this year. The 23-year-old made news by fighting Daniel Hemric earlier this year at Atlanta Motor Speedway among several other transgressions that briefly left him a center of controversy in NASCAR’s second-tier division.
NASCAR drivers will have to navigate a different section of Darlington this weekend than they did in the spring. A 600-foot long, 32-foot wide section of turn 2 received fresh asphalt for the first time in over 14 years. “You’re going to have one corner that has all that grip,” said Harvick of the repave effect challenge, “And you got the other end that doesn’t have all that grip.”
NASCAR by the Numbers
Final margin between Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon for the 16th and final NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot.
Straight postseason appearances for Kevin Harvick to lead all active NASCAR Cup drivers.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s not just spring’s impressive performance that has me leaning on Martin Truex Jr. The 2016 Southern 500 winner has led a total of 594 laps in his last eight starts at the track, tacking on that victory back in May along with two other top-10 finishes. He’ll start this race from 10th, providing an opportunity for position differential bonuses as long as Truex works his way up through the field.
Kyle Larson has never won the Southern 500 despite coming close several times in his career. 2021 seems as good a year as any to change that, right? Larson has three straight top-3 finishes here, 328 laps led during that stretch and two stage victories. Entering the playoffs as the #1 seed, I’d ride the hot hand early, regardless of price until this driver gives you a reason to walk away.
Which Christopher Bell will show up for the playoffs? Is it the driver who posted two runner-up finishes in July, just before the Olympic break, or the one who crashed out two times in the last three races? Bell doesn’t have an outstanding track record at Darlington, earning a best finish of 11th in four Cup starts. But he’s running for a No. 20 team that’s won this race before and a 13th-place starting spot gives you room for improvement.
Michael McDowell moves up a tier after making the playoffs for the first time in his Cup career. Can he pull another surprise? Keep in mind that, despite a 27th-place finish in the spring race here, McDowell posted his two best Darlington finishes in the two races before that (17th, 16th). A driver with nothing to lose could provide a little boom-or-bust option for the middle of your roster.
Ryan Newman has had a season to forget as he seeks a full-time ride for 2022 and beyond. However, the last three weeks have seen him quietly build up the resume reel; 10th at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course and a surprising third at the Daytona track that nearly took his life while racing for the win in February 2020. A 10th-place finish at Darlington this spring gives hope for a repeat performance.
Erik Jones had the worst finish in his Darlington career this spring, an 18th-place result with Richard Petty Motorsports. And that was still great for daily fantasy rosters who benefitted from his +8 position differential! Jones, with six top 10s and a win in seven starts, could do much better this time around faced with 367 laps to move forward from his 22nd-place starting spot.
What Vegas Thinks
Top seed Kyle Larson starts out the championship chase with +300 odds to win the Southern 500 according to vegasinsider.com. A trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers come next: Martin Truex Jr. sits at +500, then Kyle Busch at +600, and Denny Hamlin at +700.
What I Think
I’ll go with Martin Truex Jr. to pull off the season sweep, resetting the playoff race after three impressive victories earlier this year.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.