Through the Field: Circumstance
One of the tough things about the lives we live is that not everything goes the way we want it to. Of course, it would all be so much better if everything we wanted would just happen, and we could live in perfect harmony.
Alas, it’s not the way life works and it’s not the way that sports work either.
Only one NASCAR team and one driver will complete their ultimate goal of winning a championship this year. The rest will all head into the winter with at least a slight sense of disappointment and failure that they aren’t heading home with the championship trophy.
Generally, there’s at least one good reason why things don’t work out when you’d like them to. Most of the time, that analysis isn’t too difficult to complete, and you come back next time around knowing how to be better.
But sometimes, even if everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong, it still doesn’t pan out.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard character from the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV series: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”
In some situations in our lives, and likely to be the case for at least one team or driver that fails to win the title in 2021, that will be absolutely true. Even if it doesn’t work out, you just keep on keepin’ on, and it will hopefully go better next time.
And, so it goes.
With two races left to lock into a Championship 4 spot, the favorite, Kyle Larson, has already won and punched his ticket to the final round.
As for the other seven drivers (who, as usual by this stage of the playoffs, are going to be your absolute best bets and pickups from a fantasy standpoint), some are fairly comfortable, while others are already boxed into a must-win position.
Here’s a rundown of the current playoff standings and my projections for how it all shakes out:
Cup Series Playoff Drivers Still Vying for a Final Four Spot
#12 Ryan Blaney – 4,072 points (+17)
Ryan Blaney continues to consistently run well and pick up good finishes as the No. 12 team is quietly having a stellar playoff run. Though he hasn’t won yet in the playoff rounds, he’s in the best position to point his way in, and he may need to; Kansas and Martinsville have been hit-or-miss tracks in his Cup Series career.
#11 Denny Hamlin – 4,064 points (+11)
I believe Denny Hamlin has to be the favorite to win this coming weekend at Kansas. It’s not the most dominant track statistically for him (outside of back-to-back wins in fall 2019 and spring 2020, he’s been 12th or worse since 2018), but he’s had good enough results on these tracks and in these playoffs to clinch his spot in the final round.
#18 Kyle Busch – 4,064 points (+8)
The younger Busch brother is the most hit-or-miss driver for me remaining. He can take a mediocre car to a good finish but has continued to express his displeasure in both his cars and the Cup Series in general throughout the playoffs. If he was in a better point position I’d be nearly certain that he would advance, but unless he can pull off the Kansas sweep for 2021 I’m a bit worried.
#9 Chase Elliott – 4,055 points (-8)
Chase Elliott’s No. 9 team has shown nothing close to the momentum they did on their way to the 2020 championship. Obviously, the feud with Kevin Harvick hasn’t helped things, but some of his latest runs just haven’t been what they need.
Having perhaps the full resources of Hendrick Motorsports behind him given that the other team cars are either advanced or eliminated will be helpful, and Elliott has won before at both remaining Round of 8 tracks.
#2 Brad Keselowski – 4,048 points (-15)
Brad Keselowski’s 2021 playoffs have reminded me a lot of Alex Bowman from 2020; not a favorite whatsoever coming in, but has consistently run well and lasts longer than you ever expected.
Just as Bowman did last season, however, I expect the run to stop here for Keselowski’s final shot at another title with Penske. I don’t expect it to be because of bad runs, just by not having the necessary points or a victory.
#19 Martin Truex Jr. – 4,041 points (-22)
Similar to his teammate Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. has been hot and cold as of late. The No. 19 won Richmond in a stretch of four consecutive top-seven finishes dating back to the regular season. But outside of that was no better than 10th dating back to August’s Watkins Glen race.
As Truex knows well as a defending champion, this round leaves no room for mistakes or mediocre runs like his troublesome 25th at Las Vegas. But even without that crash, his lower-end top-10 or top-15 finish he was headed for wouldn’t be good enough either.
#22 Joey Logano – 4,020 points (-43)
What a terrible time to have your first major engine failure since 2014. Joey Logano needed everything to go well in this round and it immediately has turned sour. Logano has also won at both remaining tracks in this round, but they came when Team Penske had much more consistent, dominating speed than they do now.