8. No. 24 William Byron (2014 points, +9 ahead of 12th-place)
For the third time in his career, William Byron will have a chance to race for a championship in NASCAR’s elite series by having qualified for the Playoffs.
Byron was the third driver to earn a win in the 2021 season, scoring a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February.
“I’ve been motivated all season, and I feel like we’ve put ourselves in good positions,” Byron said. “We’ve prepared really hard for every weekend and every race. I’m really proud of how we’ve done that all year.
“I don’t think anything changes in that aspect, going into the Playoffs.”
In many statistical categories, Byron is having the most successful season of his four seasons in the Cup Series, earning 9 Top-5 finishes, 16 Top-10 finishes and leading 276 laps.
In his two prior playoff appearances, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has not advanced out of the second round of the playoffs. Byron’s highest finish in points came in 2019 (11th).
7. No. 11 Denny Hamlin (2015 points, +10 ahead of 12th-place)
After a spirited battle over the summer months with Kyle Larson for the regular season championship, Hamlin ultimately finished with the second-most points and will enter the playoffs seeded seventh.
With five playoff points earned with stage victories, Hamlin netted an additional 10 points via his rank in points after Daytona.
While winless through 2021, Hamlin has the second-most Top-5 finishes (13), second-most Top-10 finishes (17), and second-most laps led (821) — all to Larson.
“Every track we’re one of the top two to three favorites every week,” Hamlin said. “If Vegas believes in us, more than likely everyone should.
“I like our chances simply because it’s been a very long time, I mean maybe never, other than the last two years where I show up every week and I love what I do because I know I can win. I would say some years haven’t been like that, so I’m really happy with where we are as a team.
2021 marks Hamlin’s 5th appearance in the postseason and eighth consecutive. Since the implementation of the current playoff format in 2014, Hamlin has qualified for the Championship 4 race as a title contender three times, including the last two seasons.
6. No. 48 Alex Bowman (2015 points, +10 ahead of 12th-place)
No matter the outcome in the playoffs for Alex Bowman, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has arguably set up his finest season yet in NASCAR’s elite series.
Bowman has rattled off three victories this season — a career best for a single season — at Richmond, Dover and the first Pocono race.
“I think you need to be maximizing each and every week throughout the entirety of the Playoffs,” Bowman said.
“I don’t think you can turn it up towards the end of the Playoffs. You need to be strong each and every week. While we didn’t have the summer that we wanted, I think we can have a great Playoff run.”
Bowman has qualified for the playoffs in each of his four seasons driving for HMS, finishing a career-best sixth-place finish in points last year.
5. No. 9 Chase Elliott (2021 points, +16 ahead of 12th-place)
Elliott will look to defend his 2020 Cup Series championship seeded fifth to start the playoffs.
Elliott has qualified for the playoffs in every season he has competed full-time in the series, never finishing outside the Top-10 in final points.
“These next three weeks are exciting races,” Elliott said. “Three, I feel like, really cool racetracks with fun environments for us. It’s getting to be that time of year. Fall is an exciting time of year for a lot of things around sports and our season is getting down to it, as well.
“We are just excited to get going. It’s hard to believe we are 26 weeks in. It doesn’t really seem like it, but here we are starting another playoffs and heading into the final 10 of the year.”
Elliott’s two victories thus far in 2021 have come on road courses — Austin (COTA) and Elkhart Lake (Road America).
I am a co-owner and reporter for TheRacingExperts.com.