This is the 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 Kyle Busch through Kyle Larson, who are ranked 4th through 1st in the NASCAR Cup Series standings.
4. No. 18 Kyle Busch (2022 points, +17 ahead of 12th-place) by Dominic Aragon
2021 will mark Busch’s ninth consecutive playoff berth and 14th overall.
Busch picked up his two victories at Kansas Speedway and the second race at Pocono Raceway, racking up 15 playoff points between his wins and stage victories.
“Hopefully we can get a couple wins in the first round,” Busch said. “We’ve got Darlington and we ran third there in the spring. Richmond we always run well at and Bristol we always run well at.
“It would be nice to get a win or two in the first round. That would be great. The second round is probably the most challenging round for us with the Roval and Talladega being in there.”
Since the implementation of the current playoff format in 2014, Busch has made the Championship 4 race as a title contender five times (2015-2019).
3. No. 12 Ryan Blaney (2024 points, +19 ahead of 12th)
One can argue that no other driver is carrying as much momentum coming into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as Ryan Blaney is – and that argument will be met with little opposition.
After a 37th-place, crash-related DNF result at Nashville, Blaney earned seven finishes of sixth or better in the following nine races with no finishes of 20th or worse – 14th-place and 20th-place finishes at Watkins Glen and Road America, respectively.
In that time, teammate Brad Keselowski announced his departure from Team Penske to race for Roush-Fenway Racing and have an ownership stake in the team. Since then, Blaney, as he addressed, has felt the need to step up and he stepped up in a big way.
With three wins in 2021 – at Atlanta, Michigan and Daytona – Blaney is tied with Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman for the second-most wins of any driver this season.
Where Truex’s strengths have been on the 750 HP tracks – Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington – and Bowman has been good but very lucky on a variety of tracks – Richmond, Dover and Pocono – Blaney is a consistent winner on the speedways.
For Blaney, the first two rounds will be about survival, except Talladega given his status as a superspeedway racer in his prime.
Once the Round of 8 hits, Blaney could win anywhere, whether it is Texas, Kansas or Martinsville. Blaney contended for the win at Kansas and Martinsville earlier in the year and he could easily point his way into the Championship 4 with a solid enough performance that may not require a win, as Denny Hamlin did last year on the basis of a competitive year.
Blaney brings the momentum all the way down to the wire, as we have seen many times. If he even sniffs clean air at Phoenix, a track that has been good for him, then it is safe to say we may be talking about Blaney as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion sooner rather than later.
2. No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. (2024 points, +19 ahead of 12th) by Adam Coon, Dominic Aragon
The 2017 series champion will start the playoffs in a familiar spot: towards the top of the grid.
Truex has qualified for his seventh consecutive playoff appearance and ninth appearance overall.
The 2017 series champion has made it to the Championship 4 four different times and only missed it once in the last three seasons. Truex’s three wins have been a dramatic increase from 2020, where the New Jersey driver only captured a single victory with rookie crew chief James Small.
All three of the races Truex and his Joe Gibbs Racing team conquered all happened to be at tracks that hold Playoff dates — at Martinsville, Phoenix and Darlington, where this weekend’s Playoff opener will be.
“I feel good in confidence,” Truex said. “I feel like we are in a good spot. Our team is confident. They are doing a great job. Good tracks are always a good sign.
Truex has tamed the Lady in Black twice, including the aforementioned Goodyear 400 this May and the 2016 Southern 500. At Richmond Raceway, he swept the races in 2019. While he hasn’t won a Cup race there before, Truex has won a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Bristol. However, he finished 20th and 24th in the pair of races there last season.
“There are still a few tracks there that are tough, and the Playoffs are always tough in general with the eliminations. If you have a bad week or two, you could find yourself in a bad spot. That’s something that can happen to anyone.”
“We are confident in what we can do.”
The second round kicks off at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another track kind to Truex, where he has two wins there. If he can navigate the wild card races at the Charlotte ROVAL and Talladega, he’ll be set up to strike for a second Cup with Kansas, Texas and Martinsville in the penultimate round.
Truex has another pair of wins in Kansas, a second-place finish at Texas last fall and dominance at Martinsville lately. Truex won Martinsville earlier this year and scored his only win of 2020 there. Then, he heads to Phoenix where he’s the most recent winner.
Truex might not be the odds-on favorite, largely due to the fact that the No. 19 hasn’t visited victory lane in 14 races, however, this team has the potential to win their way through the Playoffs and take it all.
- No. 5 Kyle Larson (2052 points, +47 ahead of 12th)
A year ago, Kyle Larson was tearing up local short tracks, pulling off daring moves and likely grasping to the hope to one day be back in a NASCAR Cup Series car.
Now, after proving himself all over again, Larson is back and better than before in an almost improbable way from what many people thought a year ago.
Larson is unique among his competitors this year. He can win just about anywhere and dominate in doing so. His run of six consecutive top two finishes in May through June has yet to be matched by any other driver this season.
The first two rounds should be a breeze for Larson and, if anything, could be a time for him to build up his Playoff points total. As we saw with Kevin Harvick last season, even if a driver has dominated a season, there is still no guarantee that they will make the Championship 4 to race for the Cup, but building up bonus points is a way to make that guarantee come true.
Larson’s best chances to win – besides just about anywhere – will come at Darlington, Bristol or at any of the three 1.5-mile tracks. If Larson gets to Phoenix, he will be prime threat to win there, as long as he has no issues which is something that he’ll have to avoid all throughout the Playoffs. Larson has not had a great track record at superspeedways and road course races can often throw a curveball
Larson has finished