COLUMN: NASCAR Playoff Outlook after Darlington

Favorites and Dark Horses with two races remaining in Round of 16

By: Colin C. Rhodes

For the Yellow Jacket

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs are upon us, which means the end of another race season is ever closer. This season has seen its fair share of interesting and unexpected moments, from a dirt race to flying cars, racing in heavy rains on a road course, and even a part-time driver winning at a road course. Plus, a larger number of road courses than usual this year. 

Regardless, 16 drivers have qualified for the playoffs, and only one of them can finish the season as the Cup Series Champion. Here’s a subjective list of 3 favorites and 3 dark horses to win the Cup Series according to this writer:


Favorite: Kyle Larson

Many thought Kyle Larson’s racing career was over when he was let go by Chip Ganassi Racing for let’s just say using words that should never be said. However, Larson was surprisingly picked up by Hendrick Motorsports to drive the number 5 car. He outperformed everyone’s expectations for him, finishing the regular season with the most wins with five total, and leads NASCAR Cup series with the most Top-5s (15), Top-10s (19), and stage wins (13). He’s definitely not the most likeable driver on this list, but he’s by far the best set up for success in these playoffs at the #1 seed.


Favorite: Martin Truex Jr.

The 2017 Cup Series Champion has had another strong year at Joe Gibbs Racing, nabbing three wins, nine Top-5s, 14 Top-10s, and five stage wins, setting him up at the third seed to start the playoffs. He’s up there with the best in total laps led this season with 695, behind only Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson. He may not be as dominant as his 2017 season self, but he’s a force to be reckoned with. 


Favorite: Ryan Blaney

Blaney finished the regular season strong with back-to-back wins at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway in August, giving him three wins this year to put him at the second seed. He’s got eight Top-5s and 14 Top-10s, but he also did-not-finish twice and only has four stage wins. However, the momentum he’s riding right now can be incredibly important, so keep an eye on car number 12. 


Dark horse: Denny Hamlin

Hamlin entered Sunday as the highest seeded car in the playoffs without a win at the #7 seed. Pretty impressive, but it was also worrisome. He’s led the second most laps this season at 967 and is second in both Top-5s (14) and Top-10s (18), and he’s got the second most stage wins (6), but had no wins to show for it. That was until taking the checkered flag in Darlington. Expect him to stay in it with high finishes for most of the playoffs, but should his #11 Toyota get to the Final Four, he’ll absolutely need to win a few more times now that the drought is over. 


Dark Horse: Alex Bowman

Bowman’s been performing well in the shoes of the former #48 car driver, Jimmie Johnson. He’s got three wins this year as well as six Top-5s and 13 Top-10s, good enough to be the sixth seed. The only thing that’s held him back from the other 3+ win drivers is his three DNFs and no stage wins. He’s also the only driver in the Top-10 of the standings with fewer than 200 laps led. He’s obviously been able to get to the front when it matters at the end of a race, but it’d be nice to see him consistently be in the front. 


Dark Horse: Joey Logano

Logano has a history of performing well in the NASCAR Playoffs ever since they were introduced for the 2014 season. He made the Championship 4 in four of the seven years in the current format and won it all in 2018. He’s the ninth seed coming into this year’s playoffs, with just one win but a good number of Top-5s (8) and Top-10s (14). He’s got five stage wins to go along with these finishes, but also failed to finish four times. Don’t count out the 22 car just yet, he’s always got a chance.


The Round of 16 started last Sunday, Sep 5 at Darlington Raceway. With Hamlin’s win in that race, he’ll automatically make it to the next round. The other two races of the first round will be at Richmond Raceway on Sep 11 and Bristol Motor Speedway on Sep 18. After Bristol, the four lowest drivers in the playoffs get eliminated, and the process begins anew until the final race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov 7, where this writer will either be proven wrong or right.