This is the first of four parts in our NASCAR Cup Series playoff preview series ahead of Sunday’s Cookout Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET; TV: NBCSN, Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
We will be previewing Kevin Harvick through Christopher Bell, who are ranked 16th through 13th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings.
16. No. 4 Kevin Harvick 2002 points (-3 behind 12th) by Jonathan Fjeld
As the old adage goes, “what a difference a year makes” and this could not be any truer for Harvick, who led the playoff standings at the end of the regular season in 2020. In 2020, Harvick held a 37-point lead over fifth place in points. This season, he is 20 points behind Kyle Busch who sits fourth in points and is even three points away from being 12th in points to advance out of the first round. Not to mention, he is on pace for the fewest laps led he has ever led in a single season in his 22-season career.
Despite this, advancing out of the first round should not be hard for Harvick. Although he has struggled this season, he has shown good speed on the higher HP tracks, like Almirola has. Unlike Almirola, Harvick has a 9.7 average finish in races at intermediate tracks and an 11.5 average finish overall this season; the latter being the fourth-best of any driver.
Harvick should be a lock for the Round of 12, a feat that typically boils down to strong, consistent finishes. Beyond the Round of 12 – and while in that round – wins and playoff points will be crucial for advancing; each of which Harvick lacks. In facing a sizeable amount of points to make up in each round, barring any wins or stage wins, Harvick will need to win at some point in the playoffs to secure a spot beyond the Round of 12.
Harvick has had a quietly decent season that would pass or be stellar for most drivers but is seen as a decline for Harvick who has been on top of his game for so long. This season, however, is not a continuation of that. It would not be surprising to see Harvick go winless and be out of the playoffs at the end of the Round of 12.
15. No. 8 Tyler Reddick (-2 points behind 12th) by Adam Coon
Reddick is just one of three NASCAR Playoff drivers to enter this postseason without a win, joining the likes of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. However, the Richard Childress Racing driver looks to change that this weekend at Darlington Raceway.
Reddick will try to mute the doubters and score his first Cup Series win at one of his favorite tracks and automatically advance into the second round of his first Playoffs. Reddick will need to hope for a breakthrough victory, as he just narrowly snuck into the Top-16 grid with a close battle between teammate Austin Dillon.
So far in just his second Cup Series season, Reddick has two Top-5 finishes and 13 Top-10s. His best performance so far this season came at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where his No. 8 became the fastest machine on track with a set sun. Laps ran out, however, before he was able to catch race winner William Byron. His performance at the worn-out Miami track was extremely impressive, as he passed nearly a dozen cars just in the final handful of laps. Darlington this weekend is another worn out track where Reddick finished 12th in the spring.
Accompanying his runner-up at Miami, the two-time Xfinity Series champion’s only other top five this year occurred Saturday night at Daytona, where his damaged Chevy snuck through a chaotic last-lap crash to secure his Playoff berth with a fifth-place result. Reddick will need to find the speed his RCR teammate has had in the last month if he wants to sneak out of the opening round, considering he enters with just three Playoff points, thanks to a trio of stage victories throughout the season.
14. No. 10 Aric Almirola (2005 points, tied for 12th) by Jonathan Fjeld
For the fourth season in a row, Aric Almirola made the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs but 2021 may be his most dramatic playoff appearance yet.
Almirola jumped from 27th to 23rd in points, plus more, with his first non-superspeedway win in July at New Hampshire and subsequently secured one of the oddest NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearances since Chris Buescher earned a fog-laden win at Pocono 2016.
Almirola has shown little speed on the lower HP/higher downforce tracks, but, in a case of night and day, he has shown some signs of life on the higher HP/lower downforce tracks, including New Hampshire.
Almirola has one win, two Top 5 finishes and three Top 10s, all of which came at higher HP tracks. The Round of 16, featuring all higher HP tracks, plays perfectly into Almirola’s strengths and Talladega Superspeedway lies in the Round of 12, which could take him into the Round of 8.
From there, the going gets tougher for Almirola. Almirola has an abysmal 27.0 average finish in this season’s intermediate races. In the Round of 12, Las Vegas is the only intermediate race but Kansas and Texas await Almirola in the Round of 8.
A playoff appearance has been enough of a blessing for Almirola who, along with the rest of Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole team, is having a relatively poor season. However, Almirola has a chance to make it to the Round of 12 with the same consistent performance he has managed at the higher HP tracks and possibly into the Round of 8 with his superspeedway prowess. If Almirola miraculously made it to the Championship Four from the Round of 8, his chances at one of the biggest championship upsets in the sport’s history would be strong given his higher HP track performance.
However, Almirola will need to significantly step up his performance elsewhere. No matter how the playoffs turn out for the No. 10 team, however, it is a major victory for Almirola and his team that they are in the playoffs to begin with.
13. No. 20 Christopher Bell (2005 points, tied for 12th in pts.) by Adam Coon
Bell broke through for his first career Cup Series win early in the season, winning at the Daytona Road Course. To start his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing, Bell scored five straight Top-20 finishes to open the season, including the win, and enters his first NASCAR Playoffs with ten Top-10 finishes.
Bell underwent a lull through the early months of the season, including only one Top-5 in the first half of the season, as his best finish since his maiden victory was a fourth at Richmond. Since July, Bell and his No. 20 team have turned up the heat, with two runner-up finishes and four Top-10s. However, three crashes in as many races at Indianapolis, Michigan and Daytona interrupted his summer success.
At the seven Playoff tracks that the Cup Series has already visited this year, Bell has four Top-10s.
If the only Cup Series winner from Oklahoma advances out of the opening round, it’ll be a tall hill to climb. Bell enters the Playoffs with just five Playoff points, all earned from his victory at Daytona. Currently at the bottom of the grid, Bell, paired with 2015 championship crew chief Adam Stevens, will need to keep their recent summer speed and actually put full races together.