Countdown to the Playoffs

Last week we took a look at the 10 darkest horses to win a Cup race in 2021 after Kurt Busch tied for third on the list with a 33/1 odds win in the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. If we had waited one week, we could have showcased the longest odds yet for the season.

Aric Almirola was not on very many radar screens heading into New Hampshire Motor Speedway except as a teammate to Kevin Harvick. Stewart-Haas Racing has been on a gentle uptick and we suspected that would make the three teammates run better – but we did not expect any kind of domination. Almirola not only won the race, but he did so in convincing fashion.

Along with Busch the week before, they became the 12th and 13th unique winners in 2021 – and they kept alive the conversation about what will happen if NASCAR hits 16 or more winners and overfills the playoff bucket. It also got us thinking about who could be some dark horses – or at least, new unique drivers – to watch in the coming weeks now that most of the favorites already have wins to their credit.

Watkins Glen International

Last week Denny Hamlin had 200 points added to his Championship Odds and currently sits at +900. That was because one of his last great opportunities came and went to win a regular season race on the flat 1-mile oval in New Hampshire. We agree that was the track on which we expected him to shine greatest in the final weekends of the regular season, but he is not yet done. He can win on any of the next four tracks, but we will be paying particular attention to him at the Glen where he won in 2016 and scored two top-fives in the last three races.

Daniel Suarez is not the first driver who comes to mind when one thinks about road courses, but that is part of what makes him a compelling dark horse. Suarez swept the top five at Watkins Glen in his first two starts there. Granted he was in some of the best equipment in the field at Joe Gibbs Racing, but his car control on the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track this spring in the Trackhouse No. 99 caught our attention.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course

Don’t sleep on Ross Chastain on either of the next two road courses because he will enter Watkins Glen with three consecutive top-10 finishes – and we suspect he will leave there with four. His seventh-place finish at Sonoma Raceway was somewhat controversial after he did not receive a penalty for shorting the course, but he also finished that well a couple of weeks later at Road America. His best road course effort this year was a fourth on the Circuit of the Americas.

Is there something special about road and oval courses? They don’t have quite the same uniqueness as a street course, but they definitely have a different personality than permanent road courses. Ryan Preece has been solid on the hybrids with results of 23rd of better in his last four attempts at Daytona and Charlotte. Equally important, he finished ninth at Daytona this February. He hasn’t been in the top 10 in the last three permanent RC races, so perhaps he is waiting for that special magic.

Michigan International Speedway

Come one: this is some low hanging fruit. If Kevin Harvick is going to turn his season around at all, chances are good it will happen at Michigan where he has four victories and a second-place finish in his last six attempts. Last year he swept Victory Lane, so all he needs to do is resurrect his notes – right? Of course, if it was that simple he would have won earlier this year at Phoenix Raceway. If he fails to win at the Glen or Indy, chances are he will have moderately long odds in Michigan.

The odds are good that if any longshot wins at Michigan, it will come as the result of a roll of the dice. Richard Childress Racing gambles as well as anyone in the field, so this is a good place for either Austin Dillon or Tyler Reddick to snatch a surprise victory. Both drivers have been solid on unrestricted, intermediate speedways in 2021, but Dillon gets the nod because he has more experience on this track. His last Michigan top-five came in fall 2018 when he finished fourth.

Matt DiBenedetto knows he has limited chances to wow potential, future owners before he hands the keys of the No. 21 over to Harrison Burton next year. He has been able to surprise us on a number of tracks in the past two years and one never really knows when he is going to swing for the fence. Last year, he swept the top 15 on 2-mile tracks with a best of seventh in Michigan 2.

Daytona International Speedway

If we get to Daytona with 16 unique winners and the only way to get into the playoffs is by beating and banging your way to Victory Lane, our money is on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. There are few drivers more aggressive in the draft than the driver of the No. 47 and Stenhouse is not afraid to get his hands dirty. He earned his first Cup win on the sister track of Talladega Superspeedway in 2017. His most recent win came at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400 that same year.

In his first Daytona 500 appearance, Bubba Wallace came close to notching a victory in 2018. Notably, he used up the side of Hamlin’s Toyota as he scraped across the finish line and that determination might have had something to do with why he is in the No. 23 this year. Wallace always seems to be in the hunt on the aero-restricted superspeedways. At Daytona, he’s been worse than 17th only once in eight starts.

Stranger things have happened at Daytona than a Corey LaJoie win. We’ll refer you to Justin Haley’s 2019 Coke Zero win that made a mockery of running points’ paying races on wild card tracks. So long as NASCAR counts them, a lottery-style win is just as meaningful as one on tracks where drivers control their fate – and there are no asterisks behind drivers’ names when you get to the pay window. LaJoie has three top-10 finishes in his last four Daytona attempts.

Despite the Odds
Average Running Position: Kansas thru Sonoma
Road course aces