The playoffs are set and the bubble burst for a lot of names, but the 16 drivers who are going to compete for a championship are set. There are a lot of names who are for sure going to make it deeper into the playoffs, but some guys are going home and going home soon. After these first three races of the first round, there will be four drivers who won’t be going much further.
This first round is going to be a mixture of fluke wins and guys who’ve been consistent but unable to take that next step. Anyone in the playoffs deserves to be there, but this win and you’re in format does offer a lot of guys who unfortunately cannot contend for multiple weeks against the best teams putting their best out on the track.
Austin Dillon’s 2020 playoff campaign is proof that fluke winners can put their best performance on in the playoffs. This season we have an odd mix of drivers who are expected to go deep in the playoffs but have been dealing with their struggles. Both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick both have struggled this season, and if they can’t find a way to win, this will be a shorter playoff than expected.
With so many oddities in the playoffs this year, there is the potential for some upsets. Whether this comes from surprise drivers making their way to the next round or some names you’d call sure bets not making it. There is a lot of bold predictions that can be made, and these are mine:
Whose the First Out?
This is the easiest prediction, and it’s no offense to McDowell, but the fact of the matter is FRM is not up to snuff. They turned some heads at the beginning of the year being consistent through the first handful of races, but as the season went on we realized this is the same FRM and McDowell we’ve always known.
There are no tracks in the first round that offer McDowell a chance at a surprise win, so I think this is pretty cut and dry. This was a solid year for the team and they can look at it as a success. If I’m McDowell, my goal is to walk into this race and not embarrass myself and look at this as a tryout for a new team next season.
The next one up is a guy who is arguably the least qualified to be in the playoffs. If Stewart-Haas was having a stronger year, I’d say that there was the chance for an upset. Almirola could potentially be the lowest playoff driver in points by year’s end, so he should be looking at this the same as McDowell, a tryout.
Almirola had a good run at Richmond earlier this year and a top-five last time we were on the true Bristol surface. I won’t call it impossible, but with the dreadful year this team has had, I don’t see how they’re going to fight against the momentum of a lot of these other drivers.
His time is coming, but it’s not this year. I think Bell will be the victim of inexperience this season and choke in the playoffs. Outside of his lone win in the second race of the year, he’s been mediocre at best.
He has not been consistent enough for me to think he will be able to turn it on come playoff time. He’s talented and in JGR equipment, so a win is of course in the cards, but I don’t see it coming. This was a tough season for Bell, and I think his biggest concern should be watching and learning from his three veteran teammates on how they conduct them in these playoffs.
After having one of the best seasons in NASCAR history a year ago, Harvick finds himself without a win and no momentum heading into the playoffs. While he performs well at all these tracks we’re heading to, this season has been so hard to predict for SHR.
Harvick has been the picture of consistency, but this team does not have their act together and I think we will see a choke job in the first round. With only 2 playoff points to lean on, these three races will have to be on point for him to get it done. I have no doubt Harvick will be in contention, but I think that he will miss the next round by a hair.
Whose Making it In?
With all that being said, there are three other names that I had in contention to be taken out in the first round: Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski. I believe all three of these guys will make it to the round of 12.
This team has all the momentum they could ask for. Kurt has been knocking off top tens left and right and has the perfect mindset heading into this round. His plans for next year are set, and he knows he’s going into a great situation, and his team knows that they have a bright outlook for next year as well.
I think this team will dump all their assets into Kurt Busch and take a big shot at giving Chip Ganassi a shot at his only Cup championship before his exit. It will be tough for them to hold off Harvick, and I could honestly see those 6 extra points coming in handy. I think this team will squeeze in front of Harvick barely, but survive for another round.
Just like with Kurt, the momentum is on the 8-teams side, and not only that, but we have three tracks that Reddick could pull an upset win at. Both Darlington and Bristol have been great tracks for him in the past and I can easily see him sneaking a win out of this round.
Even without a win, I can see RCR dumping all their assets into this ride and giving Reddick the best cars he’s driven in his career. With an extra boost in performance, I predict three top tens in a row for this team, allowing them to be the surprise team to easily walk out of the first round.
It is odd to think Keselowski has a chance at being kicked out of the first round, but this team has been off for weeks. They are catching a dry spell at the worst possible time and I could see them having a bad race or two that takes them out of contention for the next round.
With Penske’s power behind him, I think Keselowski will find a way to stay alive. I feel that he and his team are too experienced to let this season get away from them this bad. Unless we have a couple of surprise winners like Harvick and Reddick, I see Keselowski making it to the next round with relative ease.