By Jerry Bonkowski, @JerryBonkowski
The time of the NASCAR season that I love – and also the part of the season that the 16 drivers in the playoff field oftentimes have a love/hate relationship with due to the format’s unpredictability – is here.
It’s the time of the season where fans ramp up their excitement for their drivers. And if their driver wasn’t lucky enough to make the playoff-bound 16, they usually pick a driver to cheer for in the 10 races that culminate with the Cup championship and season finale at Phoenix in November.
So, let’s get this out of the way without any delay:
There are four rounds in the playoffs, the first three rounds being composed of three races each, and the fourth and final round being a one-race shootout between the four drivers who’ve advanced to the Championship 4.
I’ll give you my pick on who will win the championship at the end of this column – as if it’s going to be much of a surprise to many.
But first, let’s look at the first round, when four drivers will be eliminated after the first three races.
Nothing against these fine fellows and talented race car drivers all, but Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell, Aric Almirola, the last playoff qualifier in Tyler Reddick and the one pick that is going to surprise people, Brad Keselowski, will not get past the first round.
You may think I’m crazy, saying that about Kes. But he’s struggled far too often in past playoffs – with the exception, of course, when he won the title in 2012. And yes, he did finish second last season, but that was only the THIRD time that he’s reached the Championship 4 round – including his title-winning year.
Seven other seasons, he never got past the first, second or third rounds.
And, even though he is one of the fiercest competitors in the sport, you can’t help but wonder if he isn’t thinking about the startup of his own Cup team for 2022. I can’t help but think he’s already begun preparing to move from Team Penske to his new affiliation with Roush Fenway Racing.
And also, let’s face it, he’s having a non-Brad season, with just one win seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, his worst production since 2013 and 2015.
Here’s another quirky thing: After winning the title in 2012, Keselowski plummeted to a 14th-place finish, never advancing past the first round, the following season.
Last year, he finishes second, but this year he won’t even sniff the championship round.
So, the way I see it, the first round upset ouster has to be the driver of the No. 2 Chevrolet.
Wooooh. That’s over with.
As for the second round, even though he’s failed to win even one race this season – after recording a series-leading nine wins in 2020 – Kevin Harvick will somehow find a way to get past the first round, but the second round will do him in. That is, unless he finally reaches victory lane. And even one win, especially in the first round, may not be enough to save his chances.
Of course, if Harvick wins one race in both the first and second rounds, he automatically advances to the third round. Sounds easy for a guy like Harvick, but given the rough season he’s had this year, it’s hard to believe he can rally back at this point.
Okay, as for the other second-round eliminaties (yes, I know that’s not a real word, but it fits the picture here), Christopher Bell, Alex Bowman and William Byron will not advance. Just call it a gut feeling.
As for those who will be exiting following the third round, it’s likely to be Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. (the big upset loss in the round), Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Which leaves us with the four drivers I predict will make it to the Championship 4 round … and who will emerge as the 2021 champion.
It’s going to be close, but I predict Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are going to take each other out in the race. They’ve really built up a love/hate rivalry on the racetrack, and I believe both their seasons come up short – potentially in the closing laps of the race as they jockey for the win and the title, and end up crashing each other out.
Which leaves us with the championship to be decided between the two Kyles: Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. For my money, Kyle Busch is one of the best playoff performers under pressure.
Consider this: Not only does Busch have two Cup championships under his belt, he’s reached the Championship 4 round six times in the last eight seasons. No other driver comes close.
But there’s just no way – NO WAY – that the other Kyle, Larson that is, will be deprived of his first NASCAR Cup championship after four prior mediocre playoff finishes.
Larson has come back from last year’s suspension to dominate the Cup Series in almost every way, including wins (five). He’s unquestionably enjoying his best Cup year ever.
And now all that will pay off in a huge way when the young driver from bucolic Elk Grove, California finds his way on the champion’s platform, hoisting the NASCAR Cup for the first time ever.
Perhaps the best part of Larson’s accomplishment is that he will have earned it 100 percent. He could have fallen apart after last year, but instead he roared back in the best way he knew how: as the late Al Davis of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders used to say, “just win, baby, just win.”
That’s what Larson has done. And don’t be surprised if he pulls off another two or three more wins in the 10-race playoffs.
Yes, no doubt about it, Kyle Larson will be your 2021 NASCAR Cup champion.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski