Predicting the Cup Series Playoff Field: 2021 Edition
It’s never easy to predict who is going to make the Chase, and that’s especially true in a year with so many variables like this. But based on how I see the season playing out, I feel confident that at least a few of these drivers will wind up in the postseason. There’s always going to be wildcards who win at plate tracks or otherwise come out of left field, but that’s where the fun comes in.
Without further adieu, here is my guess on who makes the Chase, along with some commentary, and who ultimately will be the champion come November. These are ranked in predicted finish order, starting with number one and finishing with 16th place.
If you have any issues with my picks, please contact your local congressperson (if you are in the United States.)
- Chase Elliott
As the 2020 champ, Chase should find his way to the Chase to Chase another title easily. Okay, enough, NASCAR’s already exhausted the Chase puns and I really don’t need to contribute to that. Even more so than in 2020, when he looked dominant more times than he won, I would expect Chase to collect checkered flags at the bevy of newly slotted road courses, and find himself in contention more often than he doesn’t. If Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin don’t crush the schedule as much as they did in 2020 (which I predict they won’t), Chase can easily become one of the few elite drivers in contention for the championship, if not claiming his second straight title in the final year before the Next Gen car.
It’s been noted by other writers that Chase won last year without being anywhere near his best, and I tend to agree. It’s hard to win a championship in any circumstances, even after already winning one, but if Chase seals the deal on a few wins, his consistent performance on the last half of the Chase schedule could easily vault him into another championship. More so than anyone else, I feel this makes him the leading championship contender going into 2021.
2. Denny Hamlin
This is one of about three completely no-brainer choices for drivers to get into the Chase. You don’t just make the championship four in back-to-back years for no reason, and it’s entirely possible Denny will make it one race into the season and already lock his position in the Chase. The big question for Denny will be, as it has always been, if he can finally finish the finale strong and take home his first championship.
While he’s been consistent enough with wins and performance over the years to be a champion, he just hasn’t secured the last race at Homestead/Phoenix. Unfortunately, the field is getting stronger and not weaker — which is a bit of a shock considering just a few years ago he had to contend with a championship-form Jimme Johnson. 2020 was likely going to be Denny’s best shot at a title, before it was swooped away from him by Chase Elliot coming out of nowhere to win at both Martinsville and Phoenix.
With Chase looking to be stronger in 2021, Kevin Harvick not backing down, and the rookie classes of the past couple of years coming into their own, it’s going to be tough for Denny to finish the season in P1. Not impossible, but tough.
3. Kevin Harvick
The ‘would-be’ 2020 champion is another automatic bid into the Chase. Going from double digit wins to none would be hard to believe, and with wins automatically locking you into the playoffs, Kevin should be able to get in there and compete yet again.
We can debate whether he is the ‘legitimate’ 2020 champion, but the end result is that his name isn’t on the trophy and the tag on his firesuit will only say ‘Champion’, not ‘2x Champion’. When it comes down to it, the Chase system is what it is, and it benefits those who can play the game. If Harvick can’t find a way to get stronger in the final four races on the schedule — he’s plenty strong on the others — he will once again fall short.
That question will hover over him and the team regardless of how much success he finds in the other 32 races in 2021.
4. Brad Keslowski
One driver who always seems to have his name thrown around as a contender at the end of the season, Keslowski should see himself in the same boat this year. Not as popular as Chase or as consistently contentious as Kyle Busch or Logano, Brad does mix it up but does so in select spots. He’s someone who knows how to keep his equipment in shape and can generally get good finishes and a few W’s throughout the run of a season.
2020 was his best season in terms of finishing position, averaging just a touch above 10th place, matching his career high (which, funnily enough, was not during his championship season but the season before.) Still, with Hamlin and Harvick’s dominance, it wasn’t until the last round when he was in and Harvick was out of the picture that he was considered a true title threat. At 37, he’s reaching what should be his peak years in the sport, and I don’t expect him to drop off from last year’s performance.
It’ll be a tall task to fend off an incredibly skilled field filled with a lot of hungry drivers, but I think he’ll end up in the championship four and could, possibly, collect another trophy at the end of the year.
5. Joey Logano
Can you believe Joey Logano is only 30? I can’t! It’s throwing me into an age-related personal crisis!
Joking aside, it’s hard to believe he’s only 30 and has already won a Cup and a Daytona 500. Before the break last year, he was arguably on the hottest streak of any driver, having won two of the first four races at Las Vegas and Phoenix before everything shut down. He never got back to that level after the races resumed, winning just once more, but at the best time possible, at Kansas to clinch a spot in the Final Four. He ended up finishing third at the championship round in Phoenix. If Joey can find that same hot streak from the beginning of last year, he could become a force in 2021.
With a revamped schedule, I don’t see him having quite that streak, but finding a little lightning in the bottle shouldn’t be out of the question. If he’s able to do so, and survive the first rounds of the Chase, I can see it playing out the same way as it did in 2020, with him winning his way into the Final and being a threat to win the title based on that alone.
There’s been chatter about the package, and how it makes it impossible to pass and encourages blocking; okay, by ‘chatter’ I mean I’ve been someone who has been saying that. But as a competitor, you can only play the hands you’re dealt. Joey knows his driving style has made him no one’s favorite driver on the track, but he knows how to play the game; aggressive blocking, track position, and cornering skill has made him a consistent title threat, finishing in the top five in points five times including three years in a row. The more he ages, the better he’s going to get.
6. Ryan Blaney
Oh, Ryan Blaney. If there’s been a guy who has had as much speed and ability to just not be able to piece together a title threat as him, I can’t think of him. Maybe someone like Jimmie Johnson circa 2003–2005, but we all remember how that turned out. I’m not convinced Penske has the power to claim five titles in a row, especially not when competing with Joe Gibbs and Hendrick, but they can at least contend for one. If Blaney doesn’t do it, then his teammates just might be able to pick up the slack.
The fact that Ryan claimed only one win last year is a little misleading, considering he was threatening for far more. But as in most things, coming close to a win doesn’t count as one, and he’ll need to get better at actually winning if he’s to become a true title threat. It doesn’t help that his luck has been terrible, but that’s the nature of luck. You can’t rely on it, and you can’t get angry when it doesn’t go your way because it can just as easily flip to being in your favor.
Consistency will get you into far more favorable positions, and will help limit the necessity of luck. If Blaney can find that consistency in 2021, he can bump his way up this list by year’s end.
7. Alex Bowman
Alex is a tough driver to get a read on; at times, he’s incredibly fast and shows the ability to compete against anyone else in the field. At others, he’s inexplicably slower than other cars even from the same team. This could just be cause and effect of driving for an up-and-down Hendrick team over the past couple years. It could also be due to his team having inconsistent sponsorship, and seemingly being on the lower end of the line at Hendrick.
2021 will be one of the few years Alex will have full backing, positioning him further above Larson in the Hendrick depth chart. Regardless of whether or not he achieves what it sometimes looks like is possible, he should at the least be able to get into the Chase with a win.
8. Kyle Busch
Although I can’t imagine him having the same level of success he’s had in years prior to 2020, I also can’t imagine him not being in the Chase. With a new crew chief, it’s possible that things will click a little more than they did in 2020 for Kyle. It’s also possible things can go completely sideways and he can miss winning a race for the first season in his career.
But if I’m a betting man, then I’m not betting against Kyle Busch getting into the Chase, if for no reason other than you don’t want to challenge karma like that. It seems like counting Kyle out at any point is basically telling whatever outside forces are out there to come at you — and of course he will prove you wrong in the face of a God.
Or he could just keep up the 13.6 average finish position he’s had thus far in his career, which is more than enough to qualify for the Chase in a crowded and chaotic field.
9. Bubba Wallace
I’ve written about this before, but I think Bubba has a real shot to be a contender for wins this year. If nothing else, he should be more competitive and see more time in the top ten, which alone should put him into contention for a spot in the Chase so long as nothing else goes horribly awry.
It’s a big ask for someone in a new team for the first time in his Cup career, and also a new team in general, but with the monetary backing they have (and Bubba’s skill), I believe they should have a good shot at getting into the Chase if not further. But to start out with, this is a good marker of success.
10. Martin Truex Jr
Add this name in the pile of ‘should be a can’t miss selection, but…’ The 2017 series champion was in line for much more success last year, but could only find one win at Martinsville to show for it. Granted, he’s averaged a top fifteen finish in each year since 2016, but it’s hard not to think about him failing to tidy things up at several races last year and wonder if there’s something amiss with the team. JGR clearly has the horsepower to win, and it’s entirely possible that between MTJ and Kyle Busch’s let downs last year that there was just something off in 2020.
I can’t imagine Truex leaving 2021 with just one checked flag. But I also wouldn’t have expected that after a 2019 Final Four appearance, and there’s just too many maybe variables to think he’s going to be in the championship hunt for ’21. He’ll be in the Chase, but another trophy at season’s end seems to be out of reach.
11. Tyler Reddick
Though Cole Custer may have won rookie of the year last year, stemming from his being the only rookie Chase driver after a wild Kentucky finish, the most consistently threatening rookie throughout the season was Tyler Reddick. With nine top tens and three top fives last season, he found himself in the running more than once, and finished two spots higher on average than Custer.
That’s pretty impressive considering he doesn’t have a Cup series win to his name yet, but as he adjusts to the car and the series, it won’t be surprising to see him continue to look primed for one, even if he doesn’t finish the deal. I like him over Austin Dillon, who made the Chase last year due to a pit strategy win that was more due to the package making passing impossible at Texas than his own skill (and Reddick finished second in that one for much the same reason, but at several times looked like he should have been able to pass Dillon.)
I don’t expect him to win, but it also wouldn’t be too shocking if he finds himself in contention at a plate race. If nothing else, he should increase his top ten finishes and eliminate some of the mistakes that took him out of races last year, giving him the bump he needs to finish in the playoff field.
12. Christopher Bell
Admittedly we’re getting into ‘this is a reach’ territory now, but beyond MTJ, I couldn’t think of any drivers I would consider to be ‘locks’ to be in the Chase field. These last few slots are ultimately going to be wildcards, I feel, but if there aren’t any surprise winners — or if one of these drivers becomes the surprise winner — I would put them about here.
For Christopher Bell, moving up to the big-boy Joe Gibbs racing team in just year two is going to be quite the switch, but it will also come with a load of pressure. Just look at the last few rookies and rookie adjacent drivers to land in JGR, and how long their stints landed with the team. The track record isn’t great!
JGR certainly has the power for consistent finishes, and Bell showed flashes of quality last year. Sometimes these ended by others errors, and sometimes by his own driving, but if he can get the kind of finishes JGR equipment is capable of on a regular basis, he should be able to find his way into the Chase, barring an onslaught of random winners. At the very least, he should be able to improve on his 20th average finishing position from 2020, and that alone should put him on the playoff bubble.
If only the pressure isn’t too much, which is never a guarantee with this team.
13. Kyle Larson
I didn’t want to put him on this list. In fact, I didn’t want to see his name on the Cup series roster at all this year, and especially not on a team like Hendrick. While I can take a little bit of solace in the fact that they’ve struggled to find consistent sponsorships, and will probably continue to do so, it still is a bit of a bummer to see him get such a big time ride.
Alas, I don’t have any choice in the matter and he’s going to be driving this year in the number five regardless. Based on how much winning he did on dirt last year (spoiler alert: a lot), and his career finish in what might be considered weaker equipment than Hendrick’s (six wins and a career average finish of about 15th), it would be silly not to expect him to slot into the sixteen team Chase field. He may not find his way to victory lane, and it may take him a few races to shake off the rust, but if he doesn’t end up in the Chase, that would be pretty shocking.
14. Aric Almirola
This pick could be hit or miss. Aric had an incredible run of pole position draws last year, not that it means much in terms of performance, but he was able to get into the Chase with consistent performances. Though he finished in the top ten 18 times, he only converted that to six top fives and no wins, which won’t be enough to get him far into the Chase. Even a slight dip in performance, a few less top ten finishes and a couple of worse rough finishes could see him land on the outside of the Chase field looking in.
But he’s a veteran who knows how to take care of his stuff, and the team and car are both familiar to him. I wouldn’t expect that big of a drop off or enough wild card winners to take him out of the top 16.
15. Kurt Busch
It really feels like Kurt (and Kevin Harvick) should have had career drop offs by now. Well, Kurt did have a drop off, but that was more self-inflicted than anything due to aging. But that age-related decline hasn’t happened, and as such, there’s no reason to think he’ll be any less consistent than he has been since joining CGR. There may be some let-off with Chastain stepping into the 42, and conceivably more resources being pointed his way, but that didn’t stop Busch when it was Larson and there was far more focus on him.
He won’t light the world on fire and I doubt he’ll be a real title threat, but his name will at least be in the bucket, which is what CGR and Kurt himself will no doubt be expecting.
16. Ross Chastain
In what is probably the wildest of wild cards, Ross Chastain could find himself in the playoffs in his first full season as a CGR driver. It’s not for lack of trying — he should have been in a higher end ride much sooner, if his sponsorship hadn’t turned out to be a ponzi scheme. That in and of itself is a risk to pick in the Chase, but it’s not helped by Chastain’s notorious driving style. Constantly on the edge of control and with aggression in every turn, it’s a risk/return calculation every lap for Ross. It’s that kind of feast or famine mindset that will leave it up to one thing for him to get this playoff spot or not: luck.
If he makes an aggressive move and is able to play it off, avoid a wreck, or time it right, he could wheel his way into victory lane and the Chase. Winning will likely be the only way he’ll find himself in the playoffs, as this style will also inevitably lead to wrecks and a lower average finishing position. Like I said before in this post, luck won’t win you a championship, but it can certainly get you into the playoffs.
Kyle Larson made his way into the playoffs in this car for four straight years, and Chastain will absolutely be an improvement over the AARP-level Matt Kenseth. But it’s going to be tough for him to squeeze out the other talented drivers in the Cup field to nail down this last spot.
I made this disclosure before, but I’m no analytics master and I don’t have a lot of hard data to back up my picks. Most of them are from looking at the stats and watching races from the past year, but I feel confident in most of these. Maybe don’t bet money on them, though.
I should also note that I did leave out some Chase contenders from last year that could conceivably be better than in 2020 — most notably William Byron and Matt DiBenedetto. In this case, I feel for the most part that there are other drivers more likely to win their way in. Both Byron and DiBenedetto’s Chase bids last year came down to the wire, and with an even more talented pool of drivers that are now more accustomed to pandemic scheduling, they can’t rely on that to get them in the Chase. Mostly, I don’t see DiBenedetto as consistent enough to point his way into the Chase and he’s not particularly close to winning, either. I can also see Byron’s performance dip with the loss of Chad Knaus on the pit box.
Whether or not these predictions come true, or something totally out of left field comes out and destroys my entire lineup, it’ll be fun to watch everything play out in the 2021 season.