NASCAR: Nobody has actually clinched a playoff berth

Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ryan Blaney, Team Penske, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

With Ryan Blaney winning Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are still technically zero secured playoff berths for the 2021 season.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season became the first since the 2014 season to begin with six different winners in six races, with Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney becoming the latest driver to add his name to this year’s list of winners.

It was Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson who led 269 of the 325 laps of Sunday afternoon’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Blaney passed him with nine laps remaining and went on to win by 2.083 seconds.

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Blaney led just 25 laps around the four-turn, 1.54-mile (2.478-kilometer) oval in Hampton, Georgia behind the wheel of his #12 Ford en route to securing his fifth career victory and making the 2021 season his fifth consecutive season with a win.

In doing so, he ensured that one thing would remain the same for at least another week: zero drivers have clinched spots in the 2021 playoffs.

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Under the current playoff format, the Cup Series has never seen more than 16 regular season race winners, so this has never become an issue. But if it was ever going to happen, the 2021 season was going to be the season, given the fact that it is the final season with the current generation car.

Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell won the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway before Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell won at the Daytona International Speedway road course and Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Larson then won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. won at Phoenix Raceway. With Blaney’s win, the 2021 season’s six winners combined for just three wins throughout all of last year.

Meanwhile, the five drivers who combined to win 28 of last year’s 36 races (Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and reigning champion Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports) are all 0 for 6.

At no point last season were more than two consecutive races contested without one of those drivers finding victory lane.

There are still 20 races remaining on this year’s regular season schedule, and any more than 10 different new winners would ensure that a race winner fails to qualify for the playoffs.

And there are easily more than 10 drivers who are capable of winning at least one of those 20 races.

Assuming all five of those drivers listed above find victory lane, that means we’d need just five different winners in the other 15 races.

That is by no means impossible when you consider all of those not included in that list and all of the remaining “wild card” races on the regular season schedule.

As a result, there are still no playoff berths secured.

This would have changed had Larson held on to his lead, but he couldn’t do so. The 16 playoff drivers include the regular season points champion and the remaining 15 drivers with the most wins. Remaining open spots are determined based on points, and points serve as the tiebreaker if there are more than 16 winners.

So any driver who wins two of the 26 regular season races is locked into the playoffs no matter what (provided he ranks in the top 30 in points), since there can be no more than 12 other two-race winners.

But that still hasn’t happened this year, and at this rate, nobody knows when it will.

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Will the 2021 season become the first since the 2014 season to see seven different winners in the first seven races? The Food City Dirt Race, the first Cup Series race on dirt in over five decades, is scheduled to take place this Sunday, March 28, and it is set to be broadcast live on Fox from Bristol Motor Speedway beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.