NASCAR Playoff Picture Revs Into Richmond

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Red White Blue Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders at Richmond Raceway on September 11, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

One down, two more of this phase to go. That is the state of play in the playoffs, as the Round of 16 digests the goings on at the recent Cook Out Southern 500 and with four men doing their best to avoid reaching the end of the road, the travel ling circus soon moves on to Richmond, Virginia.

That is because the Federated Auto Parts 400 is approaching on the horizon and for those who had a poor showing at last week’s race in Darlington, South Carolina, they will be offered an attempt at quickfire redemption.

One that the likes of Michael McDowell and William Byron will certainly need and with their heads being on the figurative chopping block, they can ill afford another poor showing in Richmond this weekend.

For McDowell, it was a rather forgettable classification of 37th that is now recorded in the history books. Then again, there was little for his counterpart Byron to write home about either, as he limped to 34th place by comparison.

Which means these two men are at the greatest risk of not making the next phase of the playoff and with 16 soon becoming 12, it means added pressure on those who are currently bringing up the rear in the points standings.

A position that Kyle Busch can be not best pleased with either and with Las Vegas-born driver currently two points short of safety, he knows that a repeat of his lackluster 35th place finish at Darlington cannot be repeated.

Standing between him and the invite to advance are both Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman and with these two drivers currently tied on points in 13th, there is every chance that high drama could be on the menu during the next two races.

Of course, it is not just the race for survival that will generate the headlines, it is also the race itself and with the Federated Auto Parts 400 being one of the more keenly anticipated events of the year, it is one that everyone will want to win.

Then again, it is not just the people behind the wheel who will be looking for victory, it will be those who like to place a wager from the comfort of their own home and with online sports betting being so prevalent, there will be plenty of opportunity for supporters to test their gambling acumen.

While when it comes to acumen, it is fair to say that Kyle Larson has this in abundance and with the 29-year-old currently leading the points standings, that is a position he will look to keep hold of by the time the checkered flag is waved in Richmond.

Because even though the first sight of the flag has eluded him in the last four races, there is no question regarding his consistency and when you want to win a championship of this kind, that attribute is absolutely key.

Even though the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was a relative blemish by his own standards – as he could only register a 20th place finish, he has recorded three podiums either side of that event and last week saw a 2nd recorded in Darlington.

One that currently gives him a 26-point lead over rival Denny Hamlin and if momentum can be measured by who won the previous race, it is the 40-year-old who currently has the most of it at his disposal.

A win at the Cook Out Southern 500 does not mean that a NASCAR Cup championship is necessarily heading his way, but it does mean that confidence can be found in spades and if back-to-back wins can be recorded, it may well be advantage Hamlin.

At the same time, it may be too early to proclaim one man will be the champion elect at this stage of the season and it only needs one DNF in any of the early playoff phases, to truly scupper any racers title tilt.

Then again, if either of Larson or Hamlin hit bad form, there will be 14 other men who will be ready to take full advantage and although not all of those can be considered in the mix, it would be unfair to overlook the likes of Martin Truex Jr or Kurt Busch.

These two men are currently 3rd and 4th in the standings and if they can simply stay in the hunt in the early rounds, they could be best placed to pounce when it really matters. While it really will matter come November 7th.

That is the evening in which the season finale takes place and at this stage only four men will be afforded the opportunity to race for the honor of being the 2021 NASCAR Series Cup champion. The question though, is just which four of the 16 drivers will it turn out to be?