After a two-week Olympic break, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season returns to the track with Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen. It’s the first of 14 straight weeks of racing, including the final four races of the regular season before the playoffs get underway.
Here’s what we know about how the NASCAR postseason field is shaping up. Nine drivers have guaranteed themselves a spot, provided they start the final four races of the regular season: Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. It’s a breakdown of the sport’s Big 3 teams: Ford’s trio of Team Penske drivers, Chevrolet’s Hendrick Motorsports quartet and two from Toyota’s Joe Gibbs Racing.
Another four drivers sit in the “should be in” category: Kurt Busch, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola. Each of them has one win and would only be vulnerable if at least three new winners pop up in the final four regular-season races. Right now, the sport has 13 different winners; if we get to 16, one of these drivers could be eliminated as winless point leader Denny Hamlin is guaranteed a spot.
Hamlin is in a weird position, sitting with zero victories after winning seven times in 2020. While he can’t be caught by any other winless driver, Hamlin sits just 13 points ahead of Larson. That leaves the door slightly open for the No. 11 team to fall out if there’s three new winners in the final four races and Larson captures the regular-season championship.
Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick round out the current 16-driver field as it stands. Both drivers are winless, Harvick being another surprise in that category considering he captured a career-best nine victories last year. Harvick’s been running better as of late, leading a season-high 66 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway before the break, but isn’t known as a road course specialist.
That could be a problem with two of the final four regular-season races on this track type: Sunday at Watkins Glen along with one later this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Reddick hopes a decent road course record this year (two top 10s in four starts) will help pad his five-point edge over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon for the final spot.
Dillon’s the only driver capable of catching Harvick or Reddick on points. For all others seeking a road to the playoffs, from Chris Buescher to Bubba Wallace, the formula is simple: they have to win. That’ll be a tall order this weekend at a track where Chase Elliott has dominated the past two events here, leading 132 of the last 180 laps. Elliott has already won two road course races in 2021 and will be looking to add an eighth career victory on this track type, leaving him one behind Jeff Gordon for the most all-time.
How these underdog drivers play their pit strategy is key to determining the upset. The Glen comes with a 50-lap final stage where you’ll have to make at least one stop. Opportunities to tweak your car are limited, as this track has had no more than four cautions in any race during the stage era.
Will Elliott continue his road course domination in western New York? Or will a driver desperate for a postseason bid pull off a big surprise?
Go Bowling at The Glen
Date: Sunday, Aug. 8
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET
Track: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, N.Y.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Aric Almirola
The sport is still buzzing from Almirola’s out-of-nowhere trip to victory lane two weeks ago. Earning just two top-10 finishes in the first 21 races this year, Almirola was suffering through the worst season of his career entering New Hampshire.
Not anymore. Almirola charged from his 22nd starting spot, eventually leading 25 laps in a race that was shortened due to pending darkness. He earned his win the hard way, on raw speed and quieted Silly Season rumors he’d be replaced at the No. 10 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing next season. It’s just the third career win for Almirola and his first outside of the big pack racing superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega.
Who’s at the Back: William Byron
It’s been all downhill for Byron after winning the pole at Road America for the July 4 race. Since then, runs of 33rd, 20th and 21st equal the worst slump of the season for a driver who racked up 11 straight top-10 finishes earlier this year.
Watkins Glen isn’t the best place for a turnaround, either. Byron’s finished no better than 11th at any road course in 2021.
In case you were superglued to the Olympics, Roush Fenway Racing made it official during the break: Brad Keselowski will be joining their team as a driver and minority owner in 2022. A succession plan is now in place for Jack Roush, turning 80 next year while Keselowski achieves his dream of contributing to the sport long after his driving days are over.
The Keselowski move officially leaves Ryan Newman looking for a full-time ride. Roush Fenway revealed they offered Newman a part-time role for 2022 but the driver has yet to decide if he’ll accept the offer. On the other hand, Chris Buescher will officially return to the No. 17 Ford for RFR next season.
Ross Chastain was announced Tuesday as the second driver of the Trackhouse Racing operation in 2022. Chastain will stay with the team he’s driving for at Chip Ganassi Racing, merging with Trackhouse next season, but move over from the No. 42 to the No. 1. Daniel Suarez will be his teammate while Kurt Busch is expected to move on to a new second team at 23XI Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Position in points for Aric Almirola, the lowest of any driver currently qualified for this year’s playoffs.
Drivers who have run all 22 races this year without earning a top-10 finish: Quin Houff, Josh Bilicki and rookie Anthony Alfredo.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to ignore Chase Elliott. He’s a costly DraftKings or FanDuel addition to your roster but it’s unlikely you cash in without him at the Glen. An 11th-place starting spot can only help with a likely position differential bonus.
If you want to save money and look toward consistency, Denny Hamlin is your cheapest option. Hamlin has three top-5 finishes in the last four races out in the Glen, including his lone road course win back in 2016. That battle with Larson over the regular-season title will also leave Hamlin piecing together those stage point bonuses.
Kurt Busch remains one of the sport’s hottest drivers this summer after capturing a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month. Can he continue to find a little extra speed on this road course? Busch has only led three laps at the Glen over the past decade but quietly racked up seven straight top-11 finishes. A 17th-place starting spot gives you potential upside for a driver who knows how to keep his nose clean here and finish the job.
Ryan Blaney isn’t often the first name you think of when it comes to road course racing. But a fifth-place finish at Watkins Glen, back in 2019, offers hope he’ll turn in a decent performance. Blaney was in position to win the exhibition Busch Clash this year before getting turned on the final lap; since then, he’s finished all four road course races this year between 10th and 20th place.
All eyes will be on Daniel Suarez this weekend as the driver most likely to pull a Cinderella-style upset. Suarez was third at the Glen in his Cup debut there in 2017, then followed it up with a fourth-place finish the following year. Can the Trackhouse Racing team shake off their terrible summer luck and give Suarez the speed he needs to contend? They enter this stretch with a win-or-bust philosophy and nothing to lose.
A sixth-place finish from Matt DiBenedetto at Watkins Glen in 2019 provides hope he can end his tenure with the Wood Brothers on a high note. DiBenedetto needs the first win of his Cup career to make the playoffs but has run decently after the news his contract wouldn’t be renewed; he finished 10th, ninth and 11th in the three races before the Olympic break.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott is an almost unheard of +200 odds to win at Watkins Glen according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Larson is next up, sitting at +450 followed by Martin Truex Jr. at +600.
Looking for a longshot? Daniel Suarez is sitting at +8000.
What I Think
It’s hard to bet against Chase Elliott winning his third straight race at the Glen. Look for the No. 9 Chevrolet to cruise to victory as the reigning Cup champ begins building momentum for the playoffs.
— 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.