NASCAR Playoffs 101: How It Works, Who Stands the Best Chance In Round 1

By Brennen McCalll

After 26 grueling races, we now know who will compete for the biggest prize in NASCAR: The Cup Series Championship. Sixteen of the best drivers and teams from this season will have 10 races to determine who will hoist the coveted Bill France Cup and be crowd the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion. The Playoff structure and the distribution of points can be a bit confusing to new racing fans, so let’s break it all down.

How do drivers make the playoffs? NASCAR puts a huge emphasis on winning. Win a race during the regular season and you’re eligible to compete for a championship just so long as that driver attempted to qualify for all regular series races and meets the minimum top-30 in overall points. If there are fewer than 16 unique winners during the regular season, the remaining seeds are filled based on regular season points.

How does the NASCAR Points System work? Every NASCAR race is divided into three stages (four stages for the Coke 600). Winning Stage 1 or Stage 2 earns you 1 Playoff Point each. Winning the race earns you five Playoff Points. The Regular Season Champion earns a bonus of 15 Playoff Points. These points are then carried over to the Playoffs when points reset at the end of the regular season.

Second place in the regular season standings earns 10 Playoff points, 3rd place earns 8, and points awarded decline to one point for 10th (4th = 7 points, 5th = 6 points, etc.) Championship-contending drivers can earn additional points throughout the Playoffs through Stage wins and overall race wins. At the start of every round, Playoff points earned in the previous round are added to a new reset points total until that driver is eliminated from the championship.

Any Playoff points earned during the regular season by a driver who failed to make the top-16, those points are eliminated from the scoreboard.

How do the Playoffs work? 16 drivers compete over a 10 race stretch. These 10 races are divided into 4 separate rounds. The first three rounds take place over 3 races each (Round 1 = 3 races, Round 2 = 3 races, Round 3 = 3 races).  The fourth and final round is a ‘winner take all’ single race event.

At the conclusion of the third race in each round, 4 drivers are eliminated. The field of Playoff-eligible drivers shrinks over each round until 4 drivers remain to compete in a ‘winner take all’ Championship race at Phoenix. No points are awarded in the final race. The driver who finishes ahead of his three competitors wins the Championship.

Just like the regular season, if a Playoff driver wins a race they are automatically locked into the next round.

Who is competing for the championship in 2021?

#1 – Kyle Larson – 2052 pts.

What a comeback season it has been for Kyle Larson. After missing out on most of the 2020 season due to losing his ride over uttering a racial slur during an online iRacing event, Larson has been given a second chance by one of the best organization in the garage. His new Hendrick Motorsports team has led the field in wins, poles, top-5s and top-10s in 2021. Larson has also earned the 15 Playoff point bonus by winning the Regular Season Championship. With this point gap, Larson is almost a lock to make it all the way to the Championship race in Pheonix.

#2 – Martin Truex Jr. – 2024 pts.

Martin Truex has remained one of the more consistent driver in the field. Truex become the first driver in 2021 to earn multiple wins. While he hasn’t started a race from pole, Truex has earned 3 wins, 8 top-5s and 13 top-10s. Truex has made it to the Championship round on 4 separate occasions and earned his only Championship in 2017.

#3 – Ryan Blaney – 2024 pts.

Ryan Blaney is the hottest driver in NASCAR heading into the Playoffs. Blaney won the last two races of the regular season at Michigan and Daytona, earning him the third seed and much needed point gap to his competitors. While Blaney’s season didn’t heat up until the summer, the Penske racing driver has been quietly inching his way toward the front the field earning more points than any driver since the Pocono Doubleheader. Blaney has never made it to the Championship 4.

#4 – Kyle Busch – 2022 pts.

The two-time Champion has had a bit of a quiet season by his standards. Earning wins at Kansas and Pocono, Busch has remained consistent all season by running toward the front of the field and collecting much needed Stage points. Busch has made it to the Championship 4 five times in his career and both of his Championships have come under the current points format. If experience says anything, Busch might be one to watch to turn it on in the Playoffs.

#5 – Chase Elliott – 2021 pts.

The defending Champ heads into this season in a different position that he was a year ago. Chase Elliott was the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports, that is until Kyle Larson was added to the ranks. Elliott has been bad fast this season. Earning two wins at COTA and Road America, Elliott has still proven he is one of the best on road courses. However, there is only one road course in the playoffs. If Elliott wants to hoist the Cup for the second year in a row, he’s got to find a way to win on an oval.

#6 – Alex Bowman – 2015 pts.

It has been a breakout season for Alex Bowman. For the first time in his career, Bowman seems to be poised to make a true championship run. After taking over the famed #48 car after NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson stepped down, Bowman has blossomed behind his HMS teammates earning 3 wins. While he has struggled at times this year to the match consistent front-running pace needed to be a Championship 4 favorite, Bowman should be safe to make a deep playoff run and remain a legitimate contender.

#7 – Denny Hamlin – 2015 pts.

Whether you consider Denny Hamlin’s season a success or failure is up for debate. Hamlin has been bad fast this season and has remained one of the most consistent front-runners on the grid, but there is a goose egg in the win column. A stark contrast to a very successful 2020 which saw 7 wins and over 1,000 laps led. The opportunities Hamlin has had to win races in 2021 have been taken away in the form of empty fuel tanks, crashes and late race spins. Despite the lack of wins, look for Hamlin to lean on his playoff experience. He has made it to the Championship 4 on three separate occasions since 2014 and has had plenty of experience in past playoff formats since his rookie year in 2005. But despite all his experience, Denny Hamlin has never been crowned champion.

#8 – William Byron – 2014 pts.

William Byron shocked many with his only win at Homestead earlier this season. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has had a bit of an up and down season. He’s shown plenty of speed earning 9 top-5s and 16 top-10s this year. But, Byron seems to lack the dominating, lights-out speed his teammate Kyle Larson has shown this year. When Byron runs well his teammates are right up there with him, but he often trails them.

#9 – Joey Logano – 2013 pts.

Joey Logano made history earlier this season at Bristol Motor Speedway by becoming the first driver to win on dirt in the Cup series in 50 years. As great as this moment was, Logano hasn’t been able to match that success in 2021. He’s managed to match his younger teammate, Ryan Blaney, in top-5s this season but hasn’t seen winning speed on pavement. Logano shouldn’t be slept on, however. Logano outdueled Martin Truex Jr. for a championship in 2018 and has made it to the Championship 4 on four separate occasions. Plenty of experience to lean on for the driver of the #22 Ford.

#10 – Brad Keselowski – 2008 pts.

2021 is Brad Keselowski’s last chance to earn another championship in the #2 Penske Ford. It was announced earlier this year that Keselowski would move to Roush-Fenway Racing next year in an owner/driver role. Given the lack of success the Roush Fords have had in previous years, 2021 might be “Bad Brad’s” best chance to end the year on the top step. Despite another win at Talladega in the Spring, Keselowski has only seen 7 top-5s and 10 top-10s. Decent numbers for most of the field, but that isn’t championship winning speed. If Keselowski wants to win another one for “The Captain”, he’s got to find his way to victory lane.

#11 – Kurt Busch – 2008 pts.

The Las Vegas native finally notched a win at his home track earlier this season. This has been the theme for Kurt Busch in recent years. Splashes of front-running speed here and there and that’s enough to find victory lane once a season. Unfortunately, that kind of speed doesn’t win you a championship. Despite this, Kurt Busch is still a solid driver that can surprise the field. His career will take another step in 2022 alongside Bubba Wallace at the Michael Jordan-owned 23II Racing. Can Kurt dribble his way past the competition this year?

#12 – Michael McDowell – 2005 pts.

Michael McDowell is THE underdog story of the year. The surprise Daytona 500 winner has done his best to wheel his underperforming #34 Ford to 12th in the Playoff standings. While it’s unlikely to see McDowell have any kind of winning speed again this year, he has had decent runs this season. If enough drivers run into trouble in Round 1, McDowell could sneak his way past the less fortunate.

#13 – Christopher Bell – 2005 pts.

In a year that started off on a high, Christopher Bell has failed to match his maiden win at Daytona’s Road Course. While there have been shades of winning speed, Bell has remained the weak link at Joe Gibbs Racing. Sure, it’s a tall task to beat Martin Truex, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin on a weekly basis, but you’ve got to find a way around your teammates and the rest of the competition if you want to make a run for a championship.

#14 – Aric Almirola – 2005 pts.

In a season plagued by multiple DNFs, Aric Almirola stunned a field with a brilliant win at Loudon’s “Magic Mile”. It was a shining moment in a year that has seen little success from any car at Stewart-Haas Racing. Handling and balance issues have left Almirola and his teammates stuck in the mid-field with no answers to the problem. Almirola simply lacks the speed to contend with faster cars. Does he have any of the that “magic” left?

#15 – Tyler Reddick – 2003 pts.

Tyler Reddick’s journey to the Playoffs has not been an easy one. Reddick didn’t know if he made the big dance until crossing the line in Daytona a week ago just a handful of points ahead of his teammate Austin Dillon. Reddick has been remarkably consistent this season. While only earning two finishes inside the top-5, Reddick was only a few laps away from denying William Byron at Homestead. He’s also scored inside the top-10 thirteen times. The two-time Xfinity Series Champ is one of NASCAR’s hottest young prospects and could upset his more experienced competitors.

#16 – Kevin Harvick – 2002 pts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season has been the lack of success from Kevin Harvick. After coming off a dominate 2020 season which saw 9 wins and a deep playoff run, Harvick has remained winless in 2021. Handling and balance gremlins have left Harvick and the rest of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates scratching their heads all year. Despite the disappointment, Harvick has managed to finish inside the top-10 sixteen times this season. Some speed is there, but it hasn’t been enough to best the rest of the field. Round 1 will tell whether Harvick’s team has shown all their cards this season. Regardless, 2021 has been nothing but an uphill battle for the 2014 champion.

Who Does Round Favor?

The first three races of the Playoffs feature some of the toughest track on the schedule: Darlington, Richmond and the Bristol Night Race. All three races will feature the 750hpr motor paired with the low downforce configuration. The cars will be difficult to drive and will favor drivers best known for their throttle control. Drivers like Martin Truex, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch should maintain their front running status. Drivers on the bubble, like Tyler Reddick and Kevin Harvick, should have enough speed to keep themselves alive and survive to Round 2.

Above all, it’s critical for all Playoff drivers to stay out of trouble. The completion is fierce and one small mistake on pit road or behind the wheel can shatter chances to advance. The drama of the NASCAR Playoffs is about to begin.

Let’s have a race!  

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