September 23, 2021

The NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture entering Richmond

Read Time:7 Minute, 16 Second

1. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (LOCKED IN)

  • With his victory in the Southern 500, Hamlin’s place in the Round of 12 is guaranteed. The win is his first of the 2021 season and now, the veteran driver can focus on grabbing more bonus points and potentially another race win before the next reset.

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Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Offerpad, burn out

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Offerpad, burn out

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

2. Kyle Larson – No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (+80pts)

  • Larson just missed out on the race win at Darlington, throwing his car into the outside wall in a spectacular attempt to beat Hamlin. He can still feel comfortable with such a large margin, and nearly a 50-point gap to the next driver in the standings.

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Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro HendrickCars.com

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro HendrickCars.com

Photo by: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

3. Martin Truex Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (+36pts)

  • Things get much tighter from Truex on back. The 2017 series champion rebounded from a late penalty to still finish fourth at Darlington, which gives him a bit of a cushion entering Richmond, a track where Truex has been victorious in two of the last four races.
Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Bass Pro Shops

Martin Truex Jr., Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Bass Pro Shops

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

4. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet (+26pts)

  • The first driver to ever win in the playoff era of NASCAR in 2004 remains a threat so many years later. Busch is attempting to give Chip Ganassi his first ever Cup Series title in what will be their last season before Trackhouse Racing takes over. So far, he’s doing a solid job. 26 points above the cut line, two clean races should be more than enough to move him into the next round.
Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet Camaro Monster Energy

Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet Camaro Monster Energy

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

5. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford (+22pts)

  • Blaney’s three race wins in the regular season has given him enough bonus points to be fairly comfortable, even after a 22nd-place finish at Darlington. Much like Busch, consistency is all he needs to remain in the playoffs beyond this round.
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Menards/Richmond

Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Menards/Richmond

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford (+21pts)

  • Logano finds himself in a very similar position to his Penske teammate. The 2018 series champion has won at Richmond twice, but again, just needs a trouble-free race to keep out of the danger zone. Being a short track though, that is easier said than done.
Joey Logano, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Shell Pennzoil

Joey Logano, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Shell Pennzoil

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

7. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (+20pts)

  • SHR may not be very impressive this season, but Harvick quietly made his way into the playoffs without any wins. He showed how at Darlington, overcoming a loose wheel to finish fifth. His average finish of 11.2 this year is only surpassed by Larson and Hamlin, who lead the playoff field. With 17 top-tens in 27 races, it would be a surprise to all if this very experienced and consistent driver wasn’t able to point his way into the next round.

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Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Busch Light Fan Design

Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Busch Light Fan Design

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

8. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford (+12pts)

  • The outgoing Penske driver is far enough away from the cut line that he can breathe a little, but close enough that he must remain at the top of his game over the next two weeks. He quietly finished seventh at Darlington and was one of the only playoff drivers to not encounter major issues. If he can keep that up at Richmond, we should see him move further away from the drop zone.
Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Discount Tire

Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Discount Tire

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

9. Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (+5pts)

  • Bell is where things start to get very interesting. Just seven points cover the next six driver in the standings, leaving them all in a very precarious and unpredictable position. A few stage points here and there could have a big impact on where this all shakes out. Bell is making his first appearance in the playoffs and is just above the cut line after a 20th-place finish at Darlington. He’ll need to improve on that if he wants to escape elimination.
Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Sport Clips Haircuts

Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry Sport Clips Haircuts

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

10. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (+4pts)

  • This is not where we’d expect to find the reigning series champion, but a tire failure and DNF in the Southern 500 has put him firmly on the hot seat. Elliott’s stats at Richmond are not overly impressive with just 36 laps led in 11 starts and three top-fives. He’ll need to change that this weekend.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA/Children's

Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA/Children’s

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

11. Aric Almirola – No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford (+3pts)

  • Almirola was already a long shot to advance into the second round of the playoffs, and a 16th-place finish at Darlington did not help. The SHR driver joined the playoff field with a surprise win at New Hampshire, but now finds himself in danger of being pushed below the cut line. He’s another driver who will need to step it up at Richmond or else he could fall into the elimination zone.
Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Smithfield

Aric Almirola, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Smithfield

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

12. Tyler Reddick – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet (+0pts)

  • Reddick’s gap to the the cut line is nonexistent. After an 18th-place finish at Darlington, the RCR driver is tied with Alex Bowman for the final transfer spot. It’s not a position unfamiliar to the young racer, who just skated into the playoffs at Daytona in a tense points battle with teammate Austin Dillon.
Tyler Reddick, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet Camaro Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen

Tyler Reddick, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet Camaro Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

13. Alex Bowman – No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (-0pts)

  • Three wins during the regular season were not enough to keep Bowman out of the drop zone after a messy playoff opener. Bowman’s race went south early after a cut tire sent him into the outside wall, but he soldiered on to a 26th-place finish while others exited the race. It’s also important to remember who enters Richmond as the most recent winner there. That’s right … Bowman.
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally

Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Ally

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

14. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (-2pts)

  • Well, this was unexpected. A crash during the second stage of the Southern 500 relegated Busch to a 35th-place finish, and also cost him $50,000. The two-time series champion is very impressive at Richmond though, having won there six times. His most recent victory at the Virginia short track came in 2018, and there’s no better time than now to get another. His playoff hopes may depend on it.

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Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M's

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry M&M’s

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

15. William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet (-9pts)

  • A DNF at Darlington has put Byron in real danger of elimination from the 2021 playoffs, but it’s not an impossible climb. To see any Hendrick driver in this position this early into the postseason is surprising, but two of his three teammates find themselves in similar scenarios. He’ll need to perfect at Richmond to ensure he doesn’t fall further behind and be forced into a daunting must-win situation at Bristol.
William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Axalta

William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro Axalta

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

16. Michael McDowell – No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford (-20pts)

  • A last-place finish in the Southern 500 due to an early crash has made an already difficult task that much harder for the shock winner of this year’s Daytona 500. It doesn’t look great for McDowell, but should he stay out of trouble and we continue to see attrition like at Darlington, there is a path forward for the underdog of the 2021 playoffs. But mistakes like the one we saw in the playoff opener could end his postseason run, even with solid showings over the next two races.
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Ford Mustang Love's Travel Stops

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Ford Mustang Love’s Travel Stops

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

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