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.

NASCAR 2021: Who makes the Chase?

NASCAR has been in a bit of a slump lately, with declines in both attendance and TV ratings and the loss of major sponsors like Sprint and Dollar General. Since its brief moment in the sunshine in the mid 2000s, the sport has slowly receded from the consciousness of the American public, leading to fears that the sport could eventually wither away into nothingness.

Spoiler alert: The reports of NASCAR’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Despite a shrinking fanbase and the cost of fielding a competitive team, NASCAR has an abundance of the one things any sport would die to have: a promising group of fresh young talent that is about to take the circuit by storm. These drivers are hungry, talented, and poised to make noise in the sport for the next decade or so.

To highlight these fresh faces, I considered the following question: In five years (2021), who makes the Chase for the Cup? Here’s my list thus far:

  • Chase Elliot. Son of a former NASCAR champion, won the Xfinity Series championship as a rookie in 2014, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup as rookie this year, came within a couple of rough restarts of winning two or three Sprint Cup races. Oh, and he’s only 20 years old. By far the easiest pick for this list.
  • Kyle Busch. The younger Busch (he’s only 31?!) and reigning Cup champion is already one of the winningest drivers in NASCAR history. Barring injury, he’s not leaving the sport—or the Chase—anytime soon.
  • Jimmie Johnson. Six-Time has never missed a Chase since the format was adopted in 2004, and even though he’ll turn 46 in 2021, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case. (He himself has been vague on the subject of retirement when asked.) Like the New England Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs, I’ll believe Johnson’s run of excellence is over when I see it, and not a moment before.
  • Kyle Larson. The 24-year-old Larson has shown great speed in first three years in Cup, and he finally broke through to pick up his first win (and his first Chase berth) this year. He’s a no-brainer pick for the 2021 Chase, and he’ll win at least one championship before his career is over.
  • Austin Dillon. Despite his relative youth (26), exceptional credentials (he’s a former Truck and Xfinity champion) and numerical legacy (he drives the freakin’ 3 car!), Dillon tends to get overshadowed by other young drivers like Elliott and Larson. He shouldn’t be—his Newman-esque consistency in the Cup Series this year earned him his first Chase berth, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way to Victory Lane.
  • Brad Keselowski. He’s a past champion, he contends for wins week in and week out, and at 32 he’s got at least another decade to terrorize the NASCAR circuit. The only way he misses the 2021 Chase is if he gets wrecked intentionally (multiple times) by drivers who get fed up with his hard-nosed, give-no-quarter driving style.
  • Joey Logano. At 26, Logano is basically a younger version of Keselowski. He won’t just be in the 2021 Chase, he’ll probably be a member of the Final Four at Homestead (or wherever they decide to hold the final race).
  • Ryan Blaney. Blaney has been turning heads since he scored a Top 10 in his Nationwide Series debut in 2012, and he’s looked fairly strong in the Cup Series despite driving for the storied-but-small Wood Brothers organization. He just missed the Chase cutoff this year, but at 22, his best days are still in front of him.
  • William Byron. Don’t know who Byron is? Don’t worry, you will—he won the K&N Pro Series East last year, and followed it up with six wins (and counting) and a No. 1 Chase seeding in the Camping World Truck Series this year. He’s 18 years old! He’ll be running in the Xfinity series full-time next year, and my guess is that by 2021, he’ll not only qualify for the Chase for the Cup, he’ll be a legit championship contender.
  • Erik Jones. The 2015 Truck Series champion is on the same rocket-ride to the big leagues as Byron. The 20-year-old has notched three victories in the Xfinity series this year and become a strong contender for the championship, and has already signed on to join Furniture Row Racing in Cup next year. He’ll still be contending for Cups in 20 years, let alone in five.
  • Martin Truex Jr. Speaking of Furniture Row Racing… In the past four years, Truex has transformed from a mediocre, B-level MWR driver to a true championship contender with Furniture Row Racing. Although he’ll be on the back side of 40 by 2021, his recent surge makes me think he’s still got at least 6-7 good years left in him. (Plus, his brother Ryan should be in the Cup series by then, so perhaps that will be further incentive for him to keep on racing.)
  • Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is 35, has fallen just short of championships in the past, and is in a prime position with Joe Gibbs Racing to contend for more Cups in the future. He’s already on record saying he’ll probably race eight or ten more years, and I’m betting he’ll still be a legitimate contender when 2021 comes around. His injury history, however, is a cause for concern.
  • Carl Edwards. Edwards is a more-extreme version of Hamlin: He’s older (37), he’s come as close to winning a title as anyone can without actually pulling it off (losing on a tiebreaker in 2011), and his transition to JGR has been pretty successful. He’s declared that winning a championship is his singular goal, so could he walk away if he wins a title before 2021? He hasn’t gone on the record with any retirement talk, however, and as one of the fittest drivers on the circuit, his age shouldn’t play a big a role in the decision. My money says he’s in.
  • Kevin Harvick. Call this one a gut feeling. Harvick is already 40, and he already captured his elusive championship back in 2014. Would he really still have the desire to keep racing in 2021? Call me an optimist, but I think Happy will stick around: He’s got a great relationship with his crew chief and owner (not so much with his pit crew, though), and he arguably running stronger now than he was earlier in his career. Harvick hasn’t formally addressed retirement, but I see number 4 running strong for at least another 5.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This pick might be more of a stretch than Harvick! Stenhouse will certainly be around in another five years, but will he ever show enough speed to break into the NASCAR playoffs? Despite his Cup mediocrity, I’m going to say yes: He was a two-time winner of the Xfinity Series championship, so he certainly has the talent to succeed. The Roush-Fenway organization has been struggling for several years now, and other drivers (most notably Logano) have taken a long time (and sometimes a team change) to reach their potential. I’m predicting a similar slow rise for Stenhouse, although his commitment to Roush may hamper his Chase chances.
  • Alex Bowman. Ok, this pick even caught me by surprise. Bowman, however, has acquitted himself quite well filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (although some of the drivers disagreed with me in New Hampshire). He’s convinced me that given the right opportunity in the right equipment, he could make some noise and make the Chase.

To recap: My hypothetical 2021 Chase contains nine drivers that are 28 or younger, five that are 23 or younger, and three that are 20 or less! And as crazy as it sounds, my list still doesn’t capture the extent of of the oncoming talent wave. There’s no Chris Buescher, or Trevor Bayne, or Justin Allgaier, or Ty Dillon, or Cole Custer, or Daniel Suarez, or Darrell Wallace Jr., or Ryan Reed, or Ryan Truex… The list could go on for days!

One thing is for sure: When JJ, Junior, and the rest of NASCAR’s current generation call it a career, the sport will remain in good hands. The only things that could make NASCAR’s future brighter would be turtle shells and banana peels, but that’s a story for another blog post… 🙂