By Jerry Bonkowski
The first cut of the 2021 NASCAR Cup playoffs will come following Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The original 16-driver field will be sliced to 12 drivers after the event at the self-billed “world’s fastest half-mile” track.
Divers such as defending Cup champ Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell, 2012 Cup champ Brad Keselowski and two-time champ Kyle Busch are in the semi-danger zone. Odds are they will advance to the second round, but remember that this is Bristol, baby, and anything that can happen potentially will happen there.
Right now, Alex Bowman, Tyler Reddick, William Byron and 2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell are below the cutoff line. Each one of them will likely have to finish in the top-five at the very least Saturday to have even the slightest chance of advancing to Round 2.
And then there are the two drivers who potentially have the most pressure on them heading into Saturday’s race: Aric Almirola (currently 11th) and 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch (12th). The elder Busch brother is actually tied with Bowman for the 12th spot, but in the actual standings, Kurt gets a slight edge over Bowman, even though Busch has one win this season and Bowman has three.
If I was a betting man, trying to be definitive of who makes it and who doesn’t is a foolish exercise at a place like Bristol. To me, that little bull ring is as threatening to a driver’s hopes to advance to Round 2 as the biggest wildcard track of all in NASCAR, namely, Talladega Superspeedway.
But somebody’s got to advance and four others will have to lament and “wait ‘til next year” to try and win the championship.
So let’s break it down in how we see how everything will go down:
In my opinion, I still believe Almirola fails to make it, while Bowman moves up into the top-12, assuring him a berth in Round 2. That being said, however, if Bowman gets into a wreck, especially early on in Saturday’s race, his playoff run will end. But … one thing kind of bothers me about Bowman, even with his three wins this season: he’s driving the No. 48 car made famous by seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson. If numbers or coincidence are taken into consideration, the No. 48 went from taking Johnson to his seventh title in 2016, but from there things dropped and dropped and dropped some more to 10th in 2017, 14th in 2018 and completely missing the playoffs in both 2019 and 2020. Bowman has to hope Johnson’s ghost doesn’t ride alongside him in Saturday’s race. Otherwise, it will be wait ‘til next year for the Tucson, Arizona native, plain and simple.
To many, it’s a foregone conclusion to some that Tyler Reddick (ranked 14th) will be an also-ran and will not advance to the second round. However, as the late comedian John Pinette would say, “I say, nay, nay!” To me, Reddick, who is only five points below the cutoff line heading to Bristol, is the biggest threat of all. If Bowman or Kurt Busch or Almirola or even Kyle Busch (ranked 10th) have issues and end up with DNFs, a strong run would easily put Reddick into the second round. While I originally predicted Reddick would not make it past the first round when I made my initial playoff picks, keep an eye on him. He could be the biggest spoiler of all Saturday night, both for himself as well as other drivers.
William Byron (ranked 15th) has had his best of four Cup seasons with one win, nine top-fives and 16 top-10s. While that’s been good, in the whole big scheme, it’s not enough for him to move on to Round 2. There’s just not much more to say, frankly. He’s done.
While McDowell is one of my favorite drivers to talk to, seemingly always with a smile on his face, I don’t believe he’ll be smiling after Saturday’s race. He is currently 16th – last in the playoff field. It would take nothing short of a win for him to advance to the second round. While this has statistically been the best season of McDowell’s career, he has really struggled as well. The only reason he is in the playoffs is due to his Daytona win, which automatically put him into the playoffs. But since then, McDowell has just one other top-five and three other top-10 finishes. Even worse, since his seventh-place finish at Austin in the 14th race of the season, McDowell has – as much as it pains me to say it – a terrible rest of the season to date. From Austin on, McDowell comes into Saturday’s race with finishes of 20th, 28th, 16th, 19th, 17th and then gets much worse with showings of 30th, 27th, 25th, 21st, 30th, 20th, 39th, 37th and 28th this past Saturday at Richmond. As nice of a guy as he is, there’s no way McDowell moves on to Round 2.
That’s how I see the end of Round One will wind up. Who do you think makes it or doesn’t? Let’s circle back after Saturday’s race to see if you or I wind up being right or not.
And as an added bonus, here’s your chance to tell who you think will or won’t advance to Round 2 of the playoffs in the following poll:
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski