When FOX Sports debuted their “Best Season Ever” campaign before the season even began, it set a tone that the racing put forth by NASCAR and its teams would be nothing but the best. Everyone has different opinions on what makes the best racing, but whether you consider it good or bad, great or awful, 2021 has already become a year that race fans won’t forget anytime soon.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has produced seven unique winners in seven races. Last time that happened was 2014. Before 2014, the last time there were seven different winners to start a year was back in 2003 when the season opened with nine different winners in as many races. If you add the Busch Clash and Bluegreen Vacations Duel race winners to the 2021 winner tally, and we’re 10 for 10 in the new year.
The parity of winners and front-runners in 2021 has been unmatched by recent years, and with just under 25% of the season complete, we’re only starting to get a sense of what the next seven months of racing have in store. Here’s what we’ve seen and where we might be headed:
THE WINNERS SO FAR AND THE PLAYOFF IMPACT
2021 has had a variety of winners from the sport’s most experienced veterans to some of the most talented stars that have long careers in front of them. McDowell surprised the NASCAR world not only with his Daytona 500 victory, but also with his three consecutive top-10 finishes to start the year. The next pair of winners, Christopher Bell and William Byron, scored their first and second career wins, respectively, in the next two races. Kyle Larson won the fourth race of the season when he won in just his fourth race with Hendrick Motorsports after not being behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car in nearly a year, and finally, the fifth week brought NASCAR fans some normalcy when Martin Truex, Jr. won at Phoenix. Blaney stole a win from Larson the following week, and his Penske teammate, Joey Logano, conquered the Cup Series’ first race on dirt in over 50 years.
Why is any of this important? Well, Mike Joy, the lead commentator for FOX Sports’ NASCAR broadcasts, has said he believes we’ll see 16 or more different winners this season, and with only 16 playoff spots available, that means it’s going to take a win to get in. Each of the seven winners have basically secured their playoff spot assuming nothing too crazy happens.
There’s nothing abnormal about having seven unique winners in the regular season, so why is there so much hype around the seven winners this season? Because of who they are.
Logano, Blaney and Truex were expected to win at some point during the season and were part of the 2020 playoffs. Larson was also expected to win at some point, I’m not sure anyone expected it to happen so fast and for him to be one of the best drivers of the season to this point. It was pretty questionable whether Byron and Bell would win this season and McDowell’s win came out of left field. While Byron was part of last year’s playoffs, Bell’s no. 20 team and McDowell’s no. 34 team were not part of last year’s playoffs. Larson didn’t drive the full season last year and couldn’t be a part of the playoffs, and his no. 5 team, which was Jimmie Johnson’s no. 48 team in 2020, was not in the playoffs either, making for a total of three teams who weren’t in NASCAR’s postseason last year. If all of the 2020 regular season winners won during this year’s first 26 races, we’ll have 14 drivers with wins, leaving only two spots available for drivers to make their way in solely on points.
There’s more than a handful of drivers who haven’t won yet in 2021 who we expect to see in victory lane before the start of the playoffs: Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch are the most likely to win, but there’s other drivers who have shown strength this season and could find their way to victory lane as well, including Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon.
WHO’S IN TROUBLE
With all of the notes just made, it’s pretty fair to expect to see two to four drivers make the playoffs on points (although, don’t be surprised to see 16 winners this season). For as many surprisingly good runs we’ve witnessed for some drivers, we’ve also seen a number of bad ones. One of last year’s playoff drivers, Matt DiBenedetto, has had a rough ride so far. In the first seven races of 2020, DiBenedetto had 1 top-five, 2 top-10s, no DNFs and was 11th in points. After the first seven races of 2021, DiBenedetto doesn’t have a single top-five or top-10. The only thing he does have is a DNF. He sits 24th in points, 55 points behind the cutoff to be in the playoffs. He only squeaked by to get into the 2020 playoffs, and with a few new teams already locked in, it’ll likely take a win for DiBenedetto to get back into the race for the championship.
Aric Almirola, who was also in the playoffs in 2020, is one of the drivers struggling early this year. He sits 28th in the standings, 84 points behind Alex Bowman in 16th with the final playoff spot. Like DiBenedetto, Almirola has zeros across the board in the major statistical categories through seven races except for DNFs, which he has three of. At this point last year, three was the number of top-10 finishes Almirola had along with a 10th place position in points, a night-and-day difference between this season and last.
Finally, there’s Tyler Reddick. Unlike DiBenedetto and Almirola, Reddick has shined a bit this year. He has a top-five and 2 top-10s and only has 1 DNF as opposed to his 2 DNFs last season. However, outside of his pair of top-10s this year, Reddick has finished 22nd or worse in every other race. Reddick was tied for the last playoff spot at this point in 2020 and, while he did fail to make the postseason, he was in striking distance of the playoff cutline for many of the 26 regular-season races. Currently, Reddick is 25th in points, 60 back of the final transfer spot into the playoffs.
Even if all three drivers were to begin running similarly to how they did in 2020, all three would still very likely need to win to get into the playoffs later this year. Their early troubles have put them each in a hole that will be hard to escape from if they’re unable to score a victory.
The NASCAR Cup Series will race next on Saturday, April 10 at Martinsville Speedway. The Series will then head to Richmond Raceway, Talladega Superspeedway, Kansas Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Circuit of the Americas (COTA) to close out the spring portion of the series. With everything we’ve seen this season and the uncertainty surrounding Talladega and COTA, we could be in for one of the most unforgettable seasons in NASCAR history.
Featured photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images