At Least 4 of Last Year’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Drivers Will Be Missing This Season

Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen narrowed the implications of next weekend’s race at Daytona to conclude the NASCAR Cup Series regular season.

For starters, Kyle Larson may have muscled Chase Elliott out of a likely victory on the last restart, but his Hendrick Motorsports teammate still wrapped up the regular season championship and the 15 playoff points that go with it. Also, no one will be able to deny Kurt Busch his place in the playoffs, regardless of what transpires on the Florida superspeedway.

But while Busch will be back in the playoffs, a minimum of four drivers who joined him there last year will be left on the outside looking in after the Daytona results become official.

‘Win and you’re in’ remains true, but it was a close call

NASCAR assembled Cup Series playoff drivers for a group photo in the pre-pandemic days. This one was taken on Sept. 8, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. | Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
NASCAR assembled Cup Series playoff drivers for a group photo in the pre-pandemic days. This one was taken on Sept. 8, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. | Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NASCAR has never had more race winners than available spots since switching to a playoff format, but the first year of the Next Gen car started shaping up as a close call right out of the gate. The first seven races ended with seven different drivers rolling onto Victory Lane: Austin Cindric, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, William Byron, Ross Chastain, and Denny Hamlin.

When Daniel Suarez won at Texas Motor Speedway, the count was already up to 12 by mid-June. From there, though, the pace slowed. Kevin Harvick became No. 15 by notching back-to-back wins this month at Michigan and Richmond, but Kyle Larson’s win at Watkins Glen kept the number steady.

The Daytona summer race may produce a 16th victor, but that’s as far as it can go. In that case, as many as four drivers ranking in the top 16 in points but winless on the season won’t make the playoffs.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. could settle the final NASCAR playoff berth between themselves

As it stands right now, at least four and possibly five of last season’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff participants will not be making a repeat appearance.

Most prominently, Ryan Blaney or Martin Truex Jr. (or both) will miss the playoffs after making it to the final eight and the Championship 4, respectively, in 2021. Blaney, who is third in points, and Truex, who is sixth, have a bit of an edge over the others trying to battle their way back in.

Should a driver who has already qualified win at Daytona, then either Blaney or Truex will nail down the final berth based on season points. Blaney holds a 779-754 lead in that department, meaning Truex likely will need to pick up some stage points and also cross the finish line significantly ahead of Blaney.

Michael McDowell is a viable candidate to pull through

Picking winners in NASCAR superspeedway racing is often a crapshoot. “The Big One” invariably wipes out strong contenders, and someone invariably gets antsy in the closing laps. In 2021, Michael McDowell became the first playoff qualifier by winning the Daytona 500 after Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano collided on the last lap.

McDowell finished seventh in this year’s Daytona 500 and eighth at Talladega, so he ranks only slightly behind Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. among the five 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers capable of cashing in at Daytona after showing up without a guaranteed berth.

Aside from Blaney, Truex, and McDowell, there are two other 2021 playoff qualifiers trying to find their way back. Depending on which report you believe, this may or may not be Aric Almirola’s final season in the Cup Series. He has managed just seven top-10 results this year, but that’s still four more than Brad Keselowski, the longshot in the group of five.

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