NASCAR: Kyle Larson’s victory secured the inevitable

Kyle Larson’s victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway made him the third driver to win multiple races in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.

After dominating several NASCAR Cup Series races since securing his first win of the 2021 season and his first win as the driver of the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in early March, Kyle Larson finally sealed the deal and secured win number two of the year on Sunday evening in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Through the first 14 races of the 2021 season, Larson was one of 11 drivers who had found victory lane. He was one of nine drivers who had found victory lane on only one occasion.

The only drivers who had managed to win more than one of the season’s first 14 races were Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman. Truex won three of those races and Bowman won two.

As a result, leading up to the longest race of the year, they were the only two drivers who had technically secured playoff berths.

Now Larson has joined them.

With 26 regular season races and 16 playoff spots available, the playoff format is not technically a win-and-in format. Of course, it has proven to be a win-and-in format ever since the current format was introduced in 2014. But the start of the 2021 season indicated that perhaps this could change this year. The 16 playoff spots are really awarded to the regular season points champion, plus the next 15 drivers whose win totals rank the highest. If there are more than 16 different winners, the tiebreaker among the single-race winners becomes points.

Bottom line, there can be more than 16 different winners in the regular season. So winning one race doesn’t necessarily guarantee a playoff spot, and that has been a topic of discussion quite often so far this season.

There are still 11 regular season races remaining on the schedule, including four road course races and a superspeedway race, and we have already seen 11 race winners. There are far more than five other non-winners capable of taking a checkered flag over the next few months.

But winning two races guarantees that a driver will finish the regular season in the top 15 in the wins category; no more than 13 drivers can win twice throughout the regular season, and even with a winless points leader like we currently have in Denny Hamlin, a two-race winner could not possibly be pushed outside of the 16 playoff spots.

Of course, let’s be realistic; we all knew that Larson wasn’t going to be bumped out of the playoff field, even if his only win of the regular season had remained his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He sits in a second place tie in the point standings — first among the season’s 11 winners.

But his win at Charlotte Motor Speedway confirmed the inevitable, solidifying the fact that he is set to be back in the postseason for the first time since 2019 when he was still with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Will the eight drivers currently sitting at one win through the first 15 races of the season all join Truex, Bowman and Larson in the playoffs, or will we see more than five new winners emerge through the regular season’s final 11 races to force a tiebreaker leading up to the four-round, 10-race postseason?

The 16th race on the 2021 schedule is this Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350, which is set to be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 from Sonoma Raceway beginning at 4:00 p.m. ET.