The NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are finally upon us! Ten races to determine the overall winner with three cutoffs and then of course the final at Phoenix…like it or lump it, this is the only system we’ve got so might as well make the best of it. Two of my NASCAR writing buddies challenged me to a prediction article, and as I’m old enough to be both of their fathers, it’s time to take ’em behind the woodshed and learn ’em a few of the facts of life. Let’s keep it nice and simple: I’ll play out a bit of each round of the Playoffs and make the cuts accordingly, all the way down to picking the champ in Phoenix. It’s hard enough to get even half the driver picks correct, so I won’t be stressing too much about who’s going to win each race or getting the exact point standings correct. But enough BS, let’s get right into it with the first round starting at Darlington!
The Round of 16 is the “old school” round with Darlington, Richmond and the cutoff at Bristol, all of which should benefit the short track favored drivers, and hopefully will be more of a reflection on driving ability over strength of car. Still, most of the top drivers will have a comfortable cushion and barring any catastrophic collapses, the top 8 or so should be considered relatively safe. Here’s a couple things I see happening. At Richmond, RCR has been weirdly good and I’m thinking whatever secrets Austin Dillon’s team has had will transfer over the 8 and Tyler Reddick may end up sneaking into the next round combined with his tendency to excel at tracks like Darlington and Bristol. Michael McDowell had a charmed start to the season, but Front Row Motorsports appears to have their eyes on other things besides a Playoff appearance this year. Some big news involving them is soon to follow their first-round elimination…or at least that’s the very strong implication. Given the recent performance and the background noise, the handwriting is on the wall.
OUT after Bristol: McDowell, Harvick, Almirola, Bell
The Round of 12 is the wild card round with Las Vegas, Talladega, and the Charlotte Roval, as all three of these races could cause a major shake-up. This is the round where those stage wins really start to benefit the strong performers, and single race slips bite other guys right in the ass. Also, this will be the round we start seeing early season contenders start to fall off the map. Denny Hamlin’s had a very interesting year, but I think the Round of 12 is where the bad luck will overtake the consistency and cause an early exit for the 11 team. The flip side of that coin, Tyler Reddick’s season continues after another blessed set of races and becomes the underdog story of the Playoffs. Cars will be destroyed at Talladega, and Chase Elliott will win at the Roval… some things will never change.
OUT after Charlotte: Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Byron
The Round of 8 is two fairly tame races historically at Texas and Kansas with the insanity of a cutoff race at Martinsville. I haven’t mentioned anything about Kyle Larson to this point but it’s in this round where he separates even further and will yield another barrage of hot takes about the unfair nature of a winner take all final race. You’ve seen it all before: articles with Winston Cup point structures, F1 point tables, Busch North Mid-Summer Short Season point Imagineering…all of it nauseating. But in any event Larson will end up the people’s champ in some regard no matter what happens at Phoenix. This round will also be the unfortunate end of Tyler Reddick’s charmed Playoff run as the point deficit becomes too much to overcome. Hendrick rises to the top, and sets up a “RIGGED OMG!!” tone for the finale in the desert.
OUT after Martinsville: Truex Jr, Blaney, Logano, Reddick
The Final at Phoenix comes down to Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Alex Bowman. This could end up as a fascinating race if these four really do end up being the final. Larson has been good everywhere this year, and the other three are very good performers at Phoenix. Alex Bowman, who I have down as fairly quiet in the Playoffs, could shock the world with a Championship win that would be a perfect illustration of his season to date…and possibly ruin the Playoffs forever in a beautiful, beautiful way. Alex Bowman could end up as the Matt Kenseth of a new era and frankly that would make me a fan of his for life. It’s not that hard to fathom either. Kyle Busch with a badly timed mechanical issue or shunt with a teammate, Chase Elliott with a flat tire late in stage three…a late caution where Kyle Larson is compelled to start on old tires and suddenly loses drive off the corners…and a driver like Bowman who’s mysteriously good on final restarts, man this could actually happen. Screw it, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Alex Bowman leads 3 laps total and wins the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Everyone is mad, everyone is seething…and NASCAR heads back to the drawing board to reinvent the point format for another season.
Inject it right into my fucking veins.
Check out Max’s picks on MOTORMAX
Check out Jake’s picks on THE SLOW RESTART
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