The sixteen drivers who will race for the NASCAR Cup Series title in the NASCAR Playoffs have been named and now it is time for the ten-race stretch run that will determine the eventual champion to begin. Three separate rounds made up of three races each will be used to whittle the contenders down until only four remain for the series finale at Phoenix Raceway on November 7th. The bottom four drivers in the rankings of those who do not score a win within that particular round will be eliminated after each of the first three rounds in order to get to the Championship 4.
So with that said, what four drivers will be the first to go following the races slated for the Darlington Raceway, the Richmond Raceway and the Bristol Motor Speedway?
Here are the drivers I predict will not survive beyond the first round:
Michael McDowell: This seems like an easy pick. The Front Row Motorsports driver qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs by virtue of his surprising win in the season opening Daytona 500. Since that time, the No. 34 Ford has registered only one other top-5 finish with that coming on Daytona’s sister track at Talladega. And there are no Daytona or Talladega races in the first round.
But what’s more discouraging in regard to McDowell’s chances of making it beyond the first round are his most recent finishes. If entering the Playoffs with momentum on your side is important, this team is in trouble. Over the past 12 races, their best finish was a 16th in Nashville. In seven of those 12 events, finishes outside the top-20 have been registered.
To make it to the second round, a driver only has to outperform four other competitors. But with finishes like he has been scoring over the past three months, there will not be four drivers who will be outperformed by this driver and team.
Ultimately, the real victory for this team was to win a race, particularly the biggest race of all, and to just make it to the NASCAR Playoffs.
Aric Almirola: Like McDowell, this is a driver and team who needed a win in order to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs. And also like McDowell, the recent performance of this Stewart-Haas Racing team, with the exception of the victory in New Hampshire, has been less than inspiring.
Almirola has failed to score a top-10 other than the New Hampshire win in his last nine races. And more, in half of the 26 races contested so far on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, the No. 10 Ford has finished 20th or worse. It also doesn’t help that the three tracks that will comprise the first round have not been overly kind to this driver with average finishes respectively at Darlington, Richmond and Bristol of 18th, 15th and 24th.
Quite frankly, Almirola and his team were having a poor season until they managed to score that lone win. That victory will give them something to be proud of and to build on but it will not get them out of the first round.
Please consider also reading “Could Denny Hamlin be set to make a Stewart-esque run to the championship?“
Tyler Reddick: Only three drivers made it into the NASCAR Playoffs without scoring a win during the regular season and one of them was Tyler Reddick. But unlike Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the status of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team was in doubt almost up to the checkered flag in the series finale at Daytona.
This just has the feel of a team that used itself up just making the Playoffs. And considering that Reddick has only had two top-5 finishes in the first 26 races so far this season, it doesn’t seem like there was a lot to use up.
After getting off to a horrendous start to the 2021 campaign with finishes of 27th and 38th in the two races held at Daytona in February(traditional track and road course) this team did well to fight their way back into the Playoff picture but it remains to be seen how much fight they have left going forward.
Brad Keselowski: Do you ever just have a feeling about something?
The first three drivers I picked to not make it past round 1 were at least somewhat based on statistical analysis. And while Keselowski’s stats are not overly inspiring, this pick is more based on the knowledge that this driver and team are going their separate ways at the end of the 2021 season. And no matter what everyone involved might say, it’s almost impossible not to be looking ahead rather than in the moment under those circumstances.
Almost certainly, Team Penske wants to win a championship with one of its three drivers. But at the same time, it would seem likely to be more beneficial for them to win it with Ryan Blaney or Joey Logano than with someone who will be departing in ten weeks. In the end, I just don’t believe Keselowski and his team will find the magic to make a serious run toward the title.
So there they are. The four drivers who I believe will be out of contention after the completion of the next three NASCAR Cup Series races. Share your predictions by responding on Twitter or Facebook by clicking on the links posted below.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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