By Jerry Bonkowski
Four down, 11 to go. No, my math isn’t off: four of the 16 drivers that qualified for this year’s NASCAR Cup championship were eliminated this past Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.
That leaves 12 drivers left to battle for the championship. But in reality, 11 more will ultimately be eliminated, leaving one driver standing as the 2021 NASCAR Cup champion.
I admit I was a bit surprised at how things turned out at Bristol. While I kind of figured Michael McDowell and Aric Almirola would likely be eliminated, I’m a bit surprised that 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch was booted from advancing to the second round. I also am surprised that Tyler Reddick, who I picked last week as my dark horse, also was eliminated.
So as we start Round 2 of this year’s playoffs, we have three very difficult races – perhaps arguably on the three hardest tracks in the playoffs – starting this Sunday with Las Vegas, next week at the biggest wildcard of all, Talladega Superspeedway, and the elimination race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, otherwise known as the Roval.
So given two of my picks to be eliminated in the first round – Alex Bowman and William Byron – both survived the initial cut, I have to readjust my elimination lineup somewhat for Round 2.
Unless he gets moving, Kevin Harvick is practically a sitting duck. He heads to Las Vegas last of the 12 remaining playoff competitors. He has endured, rather than enjoyed, a season that will statistically go down in the record books as one of the worst in his career.
That is, unless Harvick goes on a roll and wins at least one race in Round 2 – which gives him an automatic berth in Round 3, otherwise known as the Cup playoff semifinals.
That being said, and even though he still has yet to earn his first win of the season – after leading the series last season with nine wins – Harvick could be one of the most dangerous drivers to deal with in Round 2 (Chase Elliott, take note).
In Round 1 of the playoffs, Harvick finished fifth (Darlington), eighth (Richmond) and second (Bristol). Going to places like Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval, he potentially could be in line to finally break that winless streak.
What about other drivers that are on the bubble? I have to admit, two of the three Team Penske drivers still in the playoffs – Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski – are in trouble, no doubt about it. While teammate Ryan Blaney is in great shape, in fourth place heading to Vegas, Logano and Keselowski need to significantly pick up their respective games if they hope to advance to Round 3.
I see Christopher Bell, currently 11th, being ousted from the playoffs after Charlotte. Likewise, even though they successfully managed to advance to Round 2, I see Bowman and Byron knocked out, as well.
That leaves only one other driver who will potentially be knocked out of the playoffs. While I don’t have a great deal of confidence in Harvick, I also feel that his veteran experience – especially at both ‘Dega and the Roval – will be his salvation.
While a win would be great and give him a guaranteed spot in the semifinal Round of 8, pretty much all Harvick needs to do in Round 2 is what he did in Round 1: stay close, keep adding points and stay out of trouble (especially at Talladega).
Just for the record, I’m not deviating from my other picks to advance to the four-driver championship round six weeks from now. I still see Kyle Larson winning it all. Heck, with the season he’s had thus far, he pretty much could mail in his finishes for the three Round 2 races, as well as Round 3.
But Larson has a problem: he’s overly competitive. If he has a chance to win, even if he’s already locked into the next round, he’s still going to go for the checkered flag. It’s in his nature, his DNA and, frankly, he is looking to win perhaps as many as 10 times this season. He already has six wins with seven more races to go, so he has a decent chance to make it double figures in the wins category.
Lastly, even though I was wrong about Reddick being the first round dark horse who would advance to the second round, my dark horse for Round 2 may be a surprise, as I picked him to be eliminated in Round 1. And yet there he is today, ranked seventh and potentially could knock off several more experienced drivers and former champions.
Of course, I’m talking about Bowman. Admittedly, he’s shown some significant inconsistency this season. But he also has three wins and I’m not going to be surprised if he takes the checkered flag at Las Vegas. That would give him the necessary breathing room to not have to worry about Talladega and Charlotte.
What do you think? Who is eliminated when Round 2 concludes three races from now.
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