Not-so slowly but oh-so surely, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs picture is coming into focus.
Ten events remain in the regular season, and most of the 16-driver postseason field is already set. There have been 11 different race winners who are all currently guaranteed berths. That leaves five spots up for grabs by the way of victory or points.
Then, of course, there are the three playoff rounds before the championship race itself.
“I mean, it‘s still a lot of racing left,” Kyle Larson said. “I think if you were to point right now at a favorite, I think for sure you‘d have to look at us.”
Not wrong. Larson has been on fire lately, rattling off five top-two finishes in a row. The two most recent were wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway. He now has three wins this season, with the other coming at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March.
Larson is one of three drivers with more than one win this year. He is tied with Martin Truex Jr. from Joe Gibbs Racing for the series’ lead, while Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman has two of his own. The other eight unaccounted-for races were each won by a different driver.
Also with victories: the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports garage (Chase Elliott and William Byron), all of Team Penske (Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney), two more Joe Gibbs Racing members (Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell) and then one Front Row Motorsports surprise (Michael McDowell).
It has been four weeks since someone outside of Hendrick Motorsports has won, though. Two weeks since the victor was someone other than Larson.
“It‘s hard to say it‘s good when you‘re not winning, at least that‘s for me,” Logano said. “You get paid to win. Top fives are great and running towards the front is good, but we need more speed to beat them. The 5 is the class of the field right now.”
Even still, Larson does not top the point standings. Denny Hamlin does by 47 points, which matters for the event Regular Season Champion title. That puts him 12th on the playoffs leaderboard (above the cutoff line by 333 points).
Hamlin is tied with Larson for most top-five results (nine) and with Byron for top 10s (12). Hamlin just hasn‘t won yet. This drought comes after a series and career second-best seven-win season in 2020.
Another winless surprise: Kevin Harvick, who sits ninth in points and 13th in playoffs (safe by 152). He has had four top fives and 11 top 10s. Harvick won a series-high and career-high nine races last season.
At this point last season, Hamlin and Harvick accounted for half of the race wins with four apiece.
By no means should Hamlin or Harvick — or really anyone — be counted out. Again, there are 10 points-paying races left, starting at Nashville Superspeedway on June 20. There are three new venues on deck (Nashville, Road America and Indianapolis Road Course), along with five familiar tracks (Pocono Raceway (twice), Atlanta Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen International and Michigan International Speedway) before the wild-card finale at Daytona International Speedway.
Only then will the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs picture be in full focus.
“We‘ve got to stay sharp,” said Larson‘s crew chief, Cliff Daniels. “Then, come playoff time, that‘s when we‘ve really got to be on top of our game.”