An in-depth look at the NASCAR season so far

With the NASCAR Playoffs approaching in September, the regular season is coming to a close. There have been a wide range of winners; there had been 13 different winners across the first 22 races of the 2021 season with seven different winners in the first seven races. As more drivers keep finding wins, this could put the playoffs in a position it has never been before where even a driver with a win may not make it through.

The season started off in an exciting manner with veteran Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell winning his first career race in nearly 350 starts. McDowell has continued to race well throughout the season and is close to qualifying for the playoffs

The Food City Dirt Race in Bristol was the first dirt race in Cup Series since 1970 in NASCAR and was won by Joey Logano. Bristol trucked in 23,000 cubic yards of dirt into its famed bullring as NASCAR looked to bring more diversification to the racing schedule. This has given Bristol more prestige as a venue and brought back the crowds to an event that has been difficult to sell in recent seasons.

Kyle Larson has won five different races this season with three pole positions and 13 top five finishes. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has also led for the most laps in 2021 with 1,441 which are around double of rival Denny Hamlin who has led for 771 laps. Larson has one of the favorites odds according to DraftKings Sportsbook.

Larson picked up his fifth win of the season at Watkins Glen International and stopped teammate Chase Elliott’s good run at the course having previously won the last two meets there.  Larson collided with Christopher Bell in turn one of the race which resulted in Bell spinning out and having to settle for seventh place in the end. It was a tough one to take for Bell who was extremely frustrated and added that he “had an opportunity taken away”.  Bell has one win this season at the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 race in February at the Daytona International Speedway (Road Course) at Daytona Beach.

Larson is the outright leader on wins and poles, with a slight lead over Denny Hamlin who has 12 top five finishes despite no wins and only one pole so far. Hamlin is second in the points standing, one of three drivers currently in the playoff places without a win to date.

Denny Hamlin clinched his playoff sport after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course was won by a non-playoff eligible driver, AJ Allmendinger. Hamlin had been close to victory but a crash with Chase Briscoe in the final two laps sent him spinning off and ended up finishing 23rd overall in the race. Hamlin has managed to clinch his playoff spot despite not winning a single race so far this season and is the only driver to clinch a playoff spot so far based solely on points.

This will be Hamlin’s 15th trip to the NASCAR Playoffs and last season he made it all the way to the Championship 4. His best ever finish was in 2010 when he was runner-up in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kyle Busch has been on strong form this season with two wins, one pole and eleven top five finishes. During the chaos of the Indianapolis Mort Speedway, Busch dropped down the pack and finished 20th, only the third time in the last ten races that he finished outside the top 10. Busch also had a frustrating race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway where his race ended on lap three after spinning off and his car receiving significant enough damage to end his race. He also let his frustrations show while tailgating the NASCAR pace car and pushing it as he made his way to the pit road. He will need to keep his composure going into the playoffs to stand a chance of competing for the title.

Kyle Larson’s teammate Chase Elliott, last season’s winner, is also in the running for playoff success once again.  One thing that could have a major impact on Elliott is penalties; the Hendrick Motorsports’ driver has now lost 72 points due to penalties over the last seven races leading up to the Watkins Glen International. To regain the title he will need to ensure this trend of point’s deductions is brought to a halt.

Going in to the final race in Daytona there will be lots to race for and this is the perfect venue to bring the regular season to a close. There looks like there will be around 15 winless riders in the top 30 in points looking for a last chance at reaching the playoffs.  With so many different winners this season, even the favorites like Larson and Hamlin will know anything can happen going into the decisive playoff races for the overall 2021 championship.

The win-and-in nature of each playoff individual round will be something drivers like Chase Elliott will be looking to capitalize in and there will be plenty of pressure on Hamlin should he enter the playoffs without a single win all season. Hendrik Motorsports’ look the strongest going in to the playoffs and the team will hope its drivers, especially Larson and Elliott will be in the running going in to the final race at the Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona.