5 NASCAR Drivers on the 2021 Playoffs Cutline – Who Will Make It?

By Nick Sterling in NASCAR
| July 8, 2021 9:59 am PDT

Just seven races remain in the 2021 Cup Series regular season. We’ve seen 11 drivers win their way into the playoffs so far this season, and the picture is starting to form as far as who will make the 2021 NASCAR Championship 4.

That leaves five spots open in the 16-driver playoff field.

Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Austin Dillon all have a sizable gap over the playoff cutline. That leaves Tyler Reddick and Kurt Busch to fill the final two spots, but there are a few guys within striking range.

Let’s look at the guys right on the cutline and determine who will get the final two spots for the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs.

Tyler Reddick

Tyler Reddick stayed just outside the playoff cutline for the majority of the 2020 season. He ultimately fell short with a 19th place points finish. It really wasn’t a bad result when you consider he was a rookie.

So far in 2021, Reddick has done a nice job in continuing to elevate his performance. However, the season didn’t start out that way. He finished outside the top 20 in five of his first six races. He did, however, have a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in that stretch. Redick sat a disappointing 28th in the standings after six races.

In his following nine races, he showed more promise. Reddick finished in the top 10 in seven of those nine races. He improved from 28th to 13th in the standings.

Despite three straight finishes outside the top 10 since, Reddick has managed to stay in 13th, 48 points above the playoff cutline.

Obviously, Reddick hasn’t won at any of the remaining tracks in the regular season, but he has some good results. He finished third at Road America in the Xfinity Series in 2019. He also had a 10th place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in last year’s Cup Series race.

I think the biggest thing for Reddick is going to be how consistent he can run on-the-road courses.

Three of the seven races left in the regular season are on road courses. Reddick did finish ninth after qualifying on the pole at Circuit of the Americas earlier this season. He does have four top-five finishes in nine road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

While he’s in a good position +48 above the playoff cutline, anything can happen. One bad race could put him just a few points above or below the cutline. Look for Reddick to keep up his consistency.

Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch has been a consistent playoff driver over the last eight seasons. He has won at least one race in every season since 2014.

While the wins locked him into the playoffs, he still ran consistent enough to make it without a win. He actually did that last season, with his lone win coming in the playoffs.

Coming into his third year with Chip Ganassi Racing, I expected Busch to continue his consistent eighth to 10th place runs with some top-five finishes mixed in. Well, it hasn’t exactly gone like that.

Busch actually had a nice start to the season with two top 10 finishes in his first three races.

Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. Busch uncharacteristically struggled with 12 straight finishes outside the top 10. He led just one lap in that stretch and had a best finish of 13th.

After the 15th race of the season at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Busch sat 19th in the points, 83 points below the cutline. In four races since Busch has climbed back into the playoff picture.

He finished top 10 in three consecutive races while also picking up a playoff point after winning a stage at Nashville Superspeedway.

His strong runs, combined with Chris Buescher’s struggles, elevated Busch to 14th in points. Busch remained 14th despite a 20th place finish in his most recent race at Pocono Raceway. He sits just three points above the cutline.

Among all the guys on the cutline, Busch is by far the most accomplished. In fact, he’s the only one with more than two career wins. It seems like every year since 2017, Busch has pulled off an unlikely victory. He doesn’t dominate races, but he puts himself in the right place at the right time.

Busch is excellent at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway. He could pull off a surprise victory at either track.

His recent hot streak puts him in a pretty good spot. If he can keep up the consistency, he’ll be in great shape.

Chris Buescher

Chris Buescher joined Roush-Fenway Racing in 2020 after three seasons with JTG Daugherty Racing. While Buescher scored a career-high eight top 10 finishes in 2020, he finished 21st in the standings after finishing 20th in 2019.

Personally, I’ve always believed Buescher is one of the more underrated drivers. He just always seemed to have solid top 10 runs in bad equipment. This season, Buescher has taken the next step towards becoming a playoff contender.

He started the season with two top 15 finishes in his first five races. In the third race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Buescher won the first stage and led 57 laps before dropping back late.

Buescher picked up his best finish of the season with a seventh-place run at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Two more top 15 finishes put Buescher 14th in the points.

Buescher went on a nice run of three top 10 finishes in five races following two disappointing finishes.

His consistency through 15 races had him in a good spot, 55 points above the cutline. Unfortunately, he struggled big time in his last four races.

His four straight finishes outside the top 15 have erased his 55-point cushion. His struggles, combined with Kurt Busch’s top 10 finishes, have Buescher three points below the cutline.

Honestly, I’m a little worried about Buescher.

Outside of the Homestead race, I mentioned earlier; he hasn’t shown the ability to run up in the top five, like Busch or Tyler Reddick. With his recent struggles, he can no longer get away with 10-15 place runs.

One thing I will say about Buescher is he is an underrated road course racer. He finished fifth last season at the Daytona Road Course.

Buescher’s best hope may be to win the season finale at Daytona International Speedway. He has three top-five finishes in 11 races at the track.

Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez has been one of the biggest surprises this season. He signed with Trackhouse Racing Team for the 2021 season.

The team is brand new to NASCAR, so the expectations were fairly low. Combine that with the fact that Suarez couldn’t make the playoffs with Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, and you have probably a 25th place team at best. Suarez’s drive this season has impressed a lot of people.

The team got off to a decent start with three top 20 finishes in the first six races of the season. Suarez had a breakout performance at the Bristol Dirt Race. He finished fourth after leading 58 laps. He sat 20th in the standings following that race.

Suarez finished outside the top 15 in four of his next five races. The struggles dropped him to 23rd, 67 points below the cutline. In his last seven races, Suarez has put himself back into the playoff picture.

He finished inside the top 15 in five of his last six races, including a pair of top 10 finishes.

Event Finish
Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 15th
Pocono Organics CBD 325 13th
Ally 400 7th
NASCAR All-Star Open 22nd
Toyota Save Mart 350 12th
Coca-Cola 600 15th

The great stretch has moved Suarez up to 18th in points, 48 points below the cutline.

My big worry with Suarez is similar to what I mentioned with Chris Buescher. The team is capable of consistent 10-15 place runs, but they haven’t shown the speed to run in the top five. Obviously, they did that in the Bristol Dirt Race, but there are no more dirt races this season.

Personally, I think his best chance of getting to the playoffs is running upfront at the road courses. I don’t necessarily think he has to win one of them, but a top-five run in at least two of them could go a long way.

Honestly, this team has already exceeded expectations. They may not make the playoffs this season, but they’ve impressed a lot of people, including myself.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has just one playoff appearance in eight seasons. He made the playoffs in 2017 after winning two races.

He didn’t do much in the playoffs, finishing just 13th. Following two straight seasons of finishing 23rd and 24th in the standings, Stenhouse has his team within striking distance of finishing top 16.

Stenhouse actually got off to a pretty good start this season. He finished between 12th and 18th in his first six races. Stenhouse finished a season-best second the following week at the Bristol Dirt Race. Stenhouse has a lot of dirt racing background, so it was good to see him capitalize on the opportunity.

A 15th place finish at Martinsville Speedway the next week put Stenhouse 13th in the point standings.

Unfortunately, a string of bad finishes dropped Stenhouse below the cutline. He finished 17th or worse in his next six races, including two finishes outside the top 30. The poor showings dropped him to 19th in points.

He has righted the ship just a bit with three top 15 finishes in his last five races, including a sixth-place run at Nashville Superspeedway. However, two finishes outside the top 30 in that span are holding the team back.

At this point, I think we all know Stenhouse’s best chance to make the playoffs is by winning the season finale at Daytona International Speedway.

Stenhouse is an excellent superspeedway racer. He won a race at Daytona, as well as Talladega Superspeedway in 2017.

The other remaining tracks in the regular season don’t represent his strengths. Stenhouse has yet to finish inside the top 10 in 21 career starts on road courses.

Stenhouse is one of the most aggressive drivers in the field. If he’s in a position to win one of the next seven races, he’s going to have to be aggressive as ever.

Predicting Who Makes the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs

If there isn’t a new winner outside the top 16, I think Tyler Reddick and Kurt Busch get the final spots and make the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs.

They are the only two drivers I see on the cutline that are capable of competing for wins. The others have their moments, but it’s usually nothing more than a seventh-place finish.

Now, a win could change everything. We didn’t talk about Ross Chastain, but he looked much better of late. He finished top 10 in three of his last six races, with two on-road courses.

Clearly, the sportsbooks have some belief in him. His odds (+2000 at the top NASCAR betting apps) to finish top three in the standings are better than playoff drivers Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell, and Reddick.

As disappointing as Aric Almirola has been, I still believe he could steal a win late in the regular season. He has two finishes of sixth or better this season. It just depends if Stewart-Haas Racing can improve their cars. His +6000 to finish top three in the standings are on par with Daniel Suarez, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Chris Buescher.

Finally, the biggest wildcard is the season-finale at Daytona. I’d be on the lookout for Stenhouse, Bubba Wallace, and Matt DiBenedetto. All have shown speed on superspeedway tracks.

I don’t know what it is, but something tells me we’ll see one more surprise winner. Maybe it’s the unknown of three road course races, but I just have a hunch.

We’ll see how the final seven races of the regular season play out!

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