NASCAR 2021: Who made the Chase?

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Image from Nascar.com

As I famously said many years ago, “even a blind nut find a squirrel once in a while.” (Yes, I know it’s wrong; that’s why so many people remember me saying it.)

Back in 2016, before the blog took on its familiar music/gaming format, I wrote a few scattershot posts about sports, including a defense of Buck Showalter, a tribute to David Ortiz, and a eulogy for José Fernández. Among these random posts was an attempt to peer into the crystal ball and predict the future of NASCAR—specifically, which drivers would be part of the sport’s playoff system in 2021? At the time, NASCAR had a wave of promising young talent both on the track and on the horizon, one that had made me bullish on the future prospects of the league and its place within the American sports hierarchy. Which ones would eventually lead the sport to glory?

To be honest, at things stand right now the answer is “none of the above.” Personally, I’m no longer the avid race-watcher I used to be, (although part of this is because I refuse to pay for TV when YouTube exists), and apparently I’m not alone. The downward trend NASCAR was looking to reverse in 2016 just kept on going, with the series seeing both a 50% drop in television ratings and a significant drop in in-person attendance over the last five years. Despite its influx of promising talent, NASCAR remains a niche sport far from the minds of most Americans, a sport whose stereotypical fan is fast becoming an empty bleacher seat.

Still, I made a prediction about the 2021 Chase years ago, and I was curious to see just how well that take had aged. My Splatoon 2 map predictions were pretty bad, but perhaps my NASCAR intuition turned out a bit better? Let’s go to the tape and find out:

Predicted To Make 2021 ChaseActually Made 2021 Chase
Kyle LarsonKyle Larson
Ryan BlaneyRyan Blaney
Martin Truex Jr.Martin Truex Jr.
Kyle BuschKyle Busch
Chase ElliottChase Elliott
Alex BowmanAlex Bowman
Denny HamlinDenny Hamlin
William ByronWilliam Byron
Joey LoganoJoey Logano
Brad KeselowskiBrad Keselowski
Jimmie JohnsonKurt Busch
Carl EdwardsChristopher Bell
Austin DillonMichael McDowell
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Aric Almirola
Erik JonesTyler Reddick
Kevin HarvickKevin Harvick

…Dang, that’s a lot better than I expected. I nailed 11 of the 16 drivers, including the entire Top 10! So where did things go wrong with the other five?

  • Carl Edwards: Five years ago, I confidently declared that Edwards would be in the mix, saying he “hasn’t gone on the record with any retirement talk…and as one of the fittest drivers on the circuit, his age shouldn’t play a big a role in the decision.” Naturally, Edwards abruptly retired about five seconds after I wrote that, and was last seen sailing across the ocean. While the move may have immediately ruined my prediction, you have to respect a man who made such a tough call and seems so at peace with it all these years later.
  • Michael McDowell: On the opposite side of the spectrum, McDowell is a also-ran who got lucky and won a restrictor-plate race to notch his first Cup win after fourteen years on the circuit. Anyone who tells you they had McDowell making the Chase this year is a liar.
  • Jimmie Johnson: Johnson had been a fixture in the NASCAR playoffs since the playoffs became a thing, and I said that “I’ll believe Johnson’s run of excellence is over when I see it, and not a moment before.” That moment came in 2018, when Johnson barely made the Chase, got eliminated in the first round, and lost both longtime sponsor Lowe’s and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. He didn’t make the playoffs at all in 2019 or 2020, and seeing the writing on the wall, he stepped aside following the 2020 season. He may not be in the 2021 field, but with seven titles on his mantle, he’ll be on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore for many years to come.
  • Kurt Busch: I’m not entirely sure why I left Busch off of my prediction list. He was a year older than Edwards, and seemed to be bouncing between teams a lot, so maybe I figured he was on the downside of his career? His results, however, have been both respectable and consistent over the years, and though he’s switching teams again after this year, I’m starting to think he may still be a factor in the 2026 Chase.
  • Erik Jones: Young NFL quarterbacks are barely given any leash before their teams starting looking for the next big thing to replace them, and Jones wound up getting the same treatment from Joe Gibbs Racing. After performing well in the Xfinity series in 2016 and spending a year in the 78 car, Jones made the Chase in 2018 and 2019…and then got bounced from JGR in 2020 in favor of a driver who was a year-and-a-half older than he was. He found himself on the outside looking in driving the 43 this year, but mark my words: He’ll be back.
  • Christopher Bell: Bell was a contemporary of Byron’s in the Truck series back in 2016, and while he actually finished higher than Byron in the overall standings, Byron’s game was a lot more flashy (he had seven wins that year compared to Bell’s one), so he was the guy that caught my attention. Since that year, however, Bell’s track record is pretty impressive, with a Truck series championship and two Xfinity series top-fives, so you can kind of see why Gibbs made the move to replace Jones with Bell. I’m not sure I would have made that same move, but Bell did make the Chase this year, and we’ll see if he can keep up his momentum going forward.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: This was a risky pick from the start, as I noted at the time: “Stenhouse will certainly be around in another five years, but will he ever show enough speed to break into the NASCAR playoffs?” The answer turned out to be “no”: Not only was he a middle-of-the-pack driver for the last five years, but his propensity to winding up in crashes earned him the nickname “Wrecky Spinhouse.” (For a while, it seemed like there were five certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, and Danica Patrick all crashing out of a race.) In the end, not even Roush Racing would stand behind him, dumping him for Chris Buescher a mere month after signing Stenhouse to a new two-year contract. He’s spent the last two years getting the same old mediocre results with JTG Daugherty Racing, and whatever championship window he had is probably closed.
  • Tyler Reddick: Reddick was basically a less-impressive version of Christopher Bell in 2016 and wound up as a part-time driver the next year, so I really didn’t see him as a legitimate 2021 Chase contender. Back-to-back Xfinity championships in 2018 and 2019, however, changed the trajectory of his career, and Richard Childress Racing brought him to the big leagues the next year. Don’t be surprised to see him not only make the Chase in 2021, but contend for the Cup as well.
  • Austin Dillon: This is probably the biggest surprise for me. I figured Dillon was primed for bigger and better things after making the Chase in 2016, praising “his Newman-esque consistency” and saying that “it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way to Victory Lane.” Such trips have turned out to be few and far between for Dillon since then, and he’s mostly been treading water on the playoff border ever since (he just missed the cut this year after a crash in the final regular-season race at Daytona). His career results look awfully similar to Stenhouse’s to my eyes, so you have to wonder how long he lasts in the 3 car before either he or his grandfather Richard Childress decide it’s time for a change.
  • Aric Almirola: If you’re in the “drivers aren’t athletes” camp (for the record, I’m not), Almirola makes a pretty solid case for your argument. This dude was a nothingburger back in 2016, stuck in a second-tier (or maybe even third-tier) ride with Richard Petty Motorsports and watching his results falling as fast as NASCAR’s attendance figures. A switch to Stweart-Haas Racing after 2017, however, turned the man into a monster, and he hasn’t missed the Chase since. (Alex Bowman saw the same transition happen after jumping to Hendrick Motorsports full-time; looking back, I’m honestly surprised I chose Bowman over Kurt Busch for the last slot on my list.) You have to be a good driver to make it in the Cup series at all, but Almirola and Bowman demonstrate the painful reality that if you don’t have the money and the hardware behind you, you’re not going anywhere. As long as Almirola’s in the No. 10, he’s a threat to make this list in another five years.

So where does the sport go from here? While I won’t make any predictions for what the Chase will look like in 2026, my gut feeling is that it will look remarkably similar to the current Chase. Some of the current veterans (Harvick, Hamlin, Kurt Bush, Truex, maybe even Keselowski) will likely ride off into the sunset, but the core of the group here is primed to make noise for at least a few more years. I’m not sure what the sport’s talent pipeline looks like, however, and even if there are some exciting new faces ready to take flight, NASCAR just isn’t the draw that it used to be. (Honestly, cars in general aren’t the draw they used to be; a 2016 survey found that nearly two-thirds of Americans consider their car to be just another appliance.) Despite the sport’s willingness to tinker with its formula (the Chase itself, the implementation of race ‘stages’ back in 2017), nothing seems to be catching the peoples’ attention, and I have no idea what else they can do to recapture the magic.

There will be a Chase for the Cup in 2026. The question will be if anyone cares by then.

One thought on “NASCAR 2021: Who made the Chase?

  1. It is a sin that Matt DiBenedetto didn’t make it. I’ve always rooted for the guy and he’s never gone far, and he’s gonna be out of a ride after this year. What a darn shame.

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