NASCAR playoff field already looking drastically different

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Three drivers who were not in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have already won a race in the 2021 season through just four events.

With his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, Kyle Larson joined Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, and William Byron as drivers who have effectively punched their tickets to the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Of those four, only Byron competed in the 2020 playoffs, and he needed a win in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway to clinch his spot.

On the flip side, three drivers (McDowell, Bell and Larson) are headed to the playoffs who did not make it in 2020.

This is concerning if you’re somebody such as Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto or even Tyler Reddick.

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Almirola and DiBenedetto made the playoffs last year based on points while Reddick missed out entirely but was in the playoff hunt for much of the season. Almirola and DiBenedetto may not have the luxury of pointing their way in this time around. As for Reddick, that second place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway could come back to haunt him.

To make matters worse for Almirola and DiBenedetto is the fact that they are already forced to play catchup in terms of points. Almirola sits in 28th place in the point standings while DiBenedetto sits in 30th, 49 and 52 points behind 16th place Chris Buescher, respectively.

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There is still plenty of racing to come before the field of 16 playoff drivers is decided, but you could argue that Almirola and DiBenedetto are already thinking “must-win”.

Not to single out Almirola or DiBenedetto, but other perennial contenders such as Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are probably going to win eventually and not end up having to worry.

If for some reason they don’t, they’re still strong enough to make it to the playoffs on points.

But each time there’s a new winner or, more significantly, a new surprise winner, pointing your way to the postseason becomes a lot more challenging and a lot more unlikely.

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The bottom line is that the playoffs are already set to feature three new names this year, and that total could still grow, meaning that at least three names from last year’s field will be out. And there are still 22 races to go before the postseason opener at Darlington Raceway in early September.