The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin Sunday night with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Over the 26-race regular season, we saw: Michael McDowell score a dramatic first Cup win in the Daytona 500; Kyle Larson firmly re-establish himself in NASCAR and lead Hendrick Motorsports in its return to dominance; Aric Almirola jump from 27th in points to the playoffs with an upset at New Hampshire; and Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin, last year’s winningest drivers, both go winless.
Larson overtook Hamlin to win the regular season title and 15 additional playoff points. That pads his total to 52, most among this year’s playoff field.
But that may not be enough to protect him on his way to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
After all, Harvick had 57 playoff points last year – and was eliminated in the Round of 8 cutoff at Martinsville Speedway.
The only guarantee to stay alive in the playoffs is to win. A victory automatically moves you to the next round. Failing that, playoff drivers can keep earning playoff points (five for a race win, one for a stage win) on top of those earned in the regular season to help them advance.
In the initial three rounds of the playoffs (three races each), the field of 16 will be winnowed down to four for the Phoenix finale. There, playoff points will no longer matter and the four remaining playoff drivers are on equal ground. The highest finisher among them wins the championship.
It’s a simple way to end the season. But the preceding nine weeks will likely be anything but simple.
Here’s a look at where it all stands entering Darlington…
NASCAR Cup Series playoff schedule
(All times Eastern)
Round of 16 – Four drivers eliminated at end of round
- Sept. 5 – Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN
- Sept. 11 – Richmond Raceway, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
- Sept. 18 – Bristol Motor Speedway, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Elimination Race)
Round of 12 – Four drivers eliminated at end of round
- Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN
- Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway, 2 p.m. ET, NBC
- Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, 2 p.m. ET, NBC (Elimination Race)
Round of 8 – Four drivers eliminated at end of round
- Oct. 17 – Texas Motor Speedway, 2 p.m. ET, NBC
- Oct. 24 – Kansas Speedway, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN
- Oct. 31 – Martinsville Speedway, 2 p.m. ET, NBC (Elimination Race)
Championship 4 – Highest finisher among four remaining drivers wins title
- Nov. 7 – Phoenix Raceway, 3 p.m. ET, NBC
NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings
Entering Round of 16
- Kyle Larson – 2,052 points (+47 above cut line to advance)
- Ryan Blaney – 2,024 points (+19)
- Martin Truex Jr. – 2,024 points (+19)
- Kyle Busch – 2,022 points (+17)
- Chase Elliott – 2,021 points (+16)
- Alex Bowman – 2,015 points (+10)
- Denny Hamlin – 2,015 points (+10)
- William Byron – 2,014 points (+9)
- Joey Logano – 2,013 points (+8)
- Brad Keselowski – 2,008 points (+3)
- Kurt Busch – 2,008 points (+3)
- Christopher Bell – 2,005 points (+0)
- Michael McDowell – 2,005 points (-0)
- Aric Almirola – 2,005 points (-0)
- Tyler Reddick – 2,003 points (-2)
- Kevin Harvick – 2,002 points (-3)
NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearances – 2021 playoff field
- 15 – Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch
- 14 – Kyle Busch
- 10 – Brad Keselowski
- 9 – Martin Truex Jr.
- 8 – Joey Logano
- 6 – Chase Elliott
- 5 – Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola
- 4 – Alex Bowman
- 3 – William Byron
- 1 – Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell and Tyler Reddick
NASCAR Cup Series champions among 2021 playoff field
- 2020 – Chase Elliott
- 2015, 2019 – Kyle Busch
- 2018 – Joey Logano
- 2017 – Martin Truex Jr.
- 2014 – Kevin Harvick
- 2012 – Brad Keselowski (before current format)
- 2004 – Kurt Busch (before current format)
Drivers who’ve won on Playoff tracks this season
March 7 – Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Larson returned to Victory Lane in the NASCAR Cup Series, leading 103 of 267 laps on the way to his first win with Hendrick Motorsports.
March 14 – Martin Truex Jr. at Phoenix Raceway
Truex took the lead from Joey Logano off a restart with 25 laps to go and never looked back to score his first Cup win in Phoenix.
April 11 – Martin Truex Jr. at Martinsville Speedway
A costly pit road penalty for Ryan Blaney opened the door for Truex, who reeled in and passed Denny Hamlin in the closing laps before taking the win.
April 18 – Alex Bowman at Richmond Raceway
Hamlin was again denied, this time by Bowman, who took the lead from him with 10 laps to go and went on to his first win of the season.
April 25 – Brad Keselowski at Talladega Superspeedway
Keselowski passed Matt DiBenedetto for the lead on the final lap of overtime – the only lap he led in the race.
May 2 – Kyle Busch at Kansas Speedway
Celebrating his 36th birthday, Kyle Busch pulled away on the final restart to win in Kansas.
May 9 – Martin Truex Jr. at Darlington Raceway
Truex led 248 of 293 laps at Darlington, but still had to repel a late charge from Kyle Larson to win on Mother’s Day.