Four Sleepers for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4
In NASCAR, the favorite doesn’t always win the championship. Just last season, Chase Elliott entered the playoffs in sixth place, 37 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. Elliott got hot at the right time, winning three of the final five races to win the championship.
In 2018, Joey Logano entered the playoffs 36 points behind Harvick, but he too went on an unlikely run to a championship.
It’s always fun to speculate which longshots or dark horses can make a championship run. Let’s look at four NASCAR Cup Series sleepers for the 2021 Championship 4.
Brad Keselowski (+1100)
The 2012 Cup Series champion has made the Championship 4 in 2017 and 2020. Despite his championship pedigree, the top NASCAR betting sites only list him at +1100.
Last season was Brad Keselowski’s best since winning said championship. He finished second in the standings while tying a career-best 10.1 average finish.
Keselowski typically flies under the radar but his strong 2020 season put him right back up there with the favorites.
Keselowski got off to a really good start in 2021. He scored three top-five finishes in his first five races, and sat second in the point standings. However, Keselowski failed to record a top 10 over the next four races, dropping him from second to ninth in the standings.
Following the rough stretch, Keselowski picked up his first win of the season at Talladega Superspeedway.
Keselowski led only the final lap in his sixth career victory at the track. He backed that up by leading a season-high 72 laps en route to a third-place finish at Kansas Speedway.
Since that third-place finish, it’s been a struggle for Keselowski. He went six consecutive races without a top 10 finish. He did finish 10th and third in the two most recent races this season at Pocono Raceway, so we’ll see if he can build off that.
For the season, Keselowski has one win, one stage win, and seven playoff points. He sits 10th in the playoff standings, 12 points behind fourth-place Kyle Busch.
The rest of the regular season consists of some good tracks for Keselowski. He has a pair of wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He dominated the New Hampshire race last season, leading 184 of 301 laps.
There are also three road course races remaining in the regular season. Keselowski is an underrated road course racer, despite never winning one. Still, I think he has a good chance to string together some solid finishes and build some momentum for the playoffs.
Once the playoff starts, Keselowski should have no problem in the round of 16.
He has a pair of wins at Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway. He won at each track in 2020. The round of 12 consists of Talladega and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He has three wins at Las Vegas and finished runner up there earlier this season.
In the round of 8, Keselowski has two really good tracks in Kansas and Martinsville Speedway. The other track, Texas Motor Speedway, hasn’t been great for Keselowski but he did finish second there in this year’s All-Star Race.
Honestly, I’m wondering if off-track rumors have to do with Keselowski’s first-half struggles. It’s essentially a done deal that he’ll leave Team Penske after this season to join Roush Fenway Racing.
Alex Bowman (+1300)
Last season, Alex Bowman made it to the round of 8 for the first time in his career. He failed to qualify for the Championship 4, but he impressed a lot of people with his performance.
I think between Bowman and teammate William Byron, fans expected one of them to become a championship contender in 2021.
So far, Bowman is the one racking up wins.
Bowman’s season didn’t get off to the best of starts. He finished outside the top 10 in five of his first eight races. He did however have a third-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in that stretch. Bowman sat 17th in the standings after eight races.
He picked up his first win of the season the following week at Richmond Raceway. Bowman took the lead from a dominant Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to steal the victory. It went a bit downhill from there with three straight finishes outside the top 15.
The next seven weeks started an impressive stretch for Bowman. He kicked if off with his second win of the season at Dover International Speedway. Bowman led the final 97 laps after taking the lead from a dominant Kyle Larson on pit road. Bowman finished inside the top 10 in five of his next six races.
That stretch included his third win of the season at Pocono Raceway.
Anthony Ballantoni wraps up all three NASCAR top-level series races at Pocono Raceway, where Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch won Cup Series Doubleheader races.— NBC Sports EDGE (@NBCSportsEdge) June 28, 2021
Read here: https://t.co/86ov8joLDY pic.twitter.com/GVxY3mzdEf
Bowman won in dramatic fashion when Larson blew a tire while leading the race in the final corner. His strong performance moved him up to 11th in points.
All those wins are really helping Bowman’s playoff points. He has three wins and 15 playoff points. In the playoff standings, he sits fifth, just four points behind Kyle Busch.
Bowman does have Atlanta coming up but the rest of the regular season doesn’t stack up too well for him. However, we’ve seen Bowman step up when it matters most.
The round of 16 could be tough for him with Bristol Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Saying that, I think his playoff points should be enough to carry him.
The round of 12 stacks up much better for him with races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Charlotte Roval. Bowman finished top five at Las Vegas last season, and has never finished outside the top 10 at the Charlotte Roval.
Last season, Bowman finished sixth or better in all three races during the round of 8. Picking up three wins already is impressive but the biggest thing for Bowman is to run more consistently.
There’s a reason he’s just 11th in the regular season standings. Drivers who finish in the top 10 after the regular season get playoff points, so that could go a long way towards making a championship run.
Kevin Harvick (+1300)
Considering Kevin Harvick’s success over the last seven years, it’d be crazy to look at him as one of the 2021 Cup Series Championship 4 sleepers, but that’s exactly what he is in 2021.
Following a nine-win season in 2020, many people expected Harvick to be right back up there in championship contention. The 2021 season hasn’t gone according to plan.
Harvick began the season with three straight finishes of sixth or better. His strong start put him second in the point standings. His season went a bit downhill from there.
In the next six races, he finished outside the top 10 three times, dropping from second to eighth in the standings. In that stretch, Harvick had a 10th place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
While that’s a solid finish for most drivers, it’s disappointing because Harvick has owned Atlanta over the last five years. He led over 100 laps in seven of his previous nine races there before this season.
He rattled off four straight finishes of sixth or better, including a season-best second place run at Kansas Speedway. Despite the strong run, he didn’t go anywhere in the standings.
Now Harvick isn’t having a bad season. I mean, he leads the Cup Series with 14 top 10 finishes. The problem is he isn’t competing for wins. He has zero wins, zero stage wins, and just two playoff points. For reference, Harvick entered the playoffs last season with 57 playoff points.
For the final seven races of the regular season, Harvick is going to have to score some playoff points. Whether that’s gambling to win a stage or putting himself in position to win a race, he’ll have to go for it.
We talked about him at Atlanta, which has a second race coming up. Harvick also has Michigan International Speedway to look forward to. He won both races at the track last season after leading a combined 182 of 317 laps.
He won at Darlington Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway in the round of 16 last season. With the lack of playoff points, he’ll need strong runs like that just to advance. The round of 12 could be tough with Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Roval.
If he can somehow make it through, the round of 8 presents some good tracks. Harvick has three wins at both Kansas and Texas Motor Speedway. He may need to win again at one of those tracks because his consistency won’t be enough with his lack of playoff points.
Harvick can’t rely on his consistency once the playoffs start. He needs to start winning stages or races to pick up playoff points. If not, it’ll be a disappointing end to an already disappointing season.
William Byron (+1400)
In his fourth season in the Cup Series, William Byron is having a breakout season.
Byron kicked off the season with a pair of finishes outside the top 25. He sat a lowly 29th in the standings following the races. After that, Byron went on a historic run.
He picked up his second career victory in the third race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Byron led 102 of 267 laps en route to the victory. Following the race, Byron rattled off 10 consecutive top 10 finishes, giving him 11 straight overall.
During the stretch, he had five top-five finishes, including a second at Talladega Superspeedway. The streak moved him all the way up to second in the points.
In his last six races, Byron has three top-five finishes. He was in position to win the most recent race of the season at Pocono Raceway. Byron led the race with three laps to go before running out of fuel and finishing 12th.
Through 19 races, here’s what Byron has racked up.
- 1 win
- 2 stage wins
- 15 playoff points
He trails Kyle Busch in the playoff points by just four points.
Right now, the biggest thing that sets Byron aside from other top contenders is his ability to fight for wins. He does have the win at Homestead but I wouldn’t say he had a race-winning car in any other race. The good news is I think that’s starting to change.
You could certainly argue Byron had the best car at Pocono before fuel strategy got in the way. The week before at Nashville Superspeedway, Byron was fastest in practice and qualified fourth.
Unfortunately, he had to start the race in the rear. He ended up finishing third but I just wonder if things would’ve gone differently had he not spent the majority of the race driving through the field.
The rest of the regular season is going to tell about where Byron’s team is. He hasn’t done much on the non-road course tracks left, so I want to see if he can improve on those tracks.
Byron has also never finished top five on a road course. He had a great performance at Sonoma Raceway earlier this season before a late crash ruined his day.
I think he’ll accrue enough playoff points to be okay for the round of 16, but he can’t have a terrible finish like last season. A 38th place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway knocked him out of the playoffs last season.
He has back-to-back finishes of sixth or better at both Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Roval, so I’m not concerned with the round of 12.
Byron had success on all three tracks in the round of 8, but he might need some more playoff points to feel comfortable.
Personally, I think this is great value for Byron. He has the 10th best odds, below every other driver on this list. If Byron had another win or two, we’d be talking about him as a top-five driver in terms of odds.
Betting on the 2021 Championship 4
Since NASCAR implemented stages and playoff points in 2017, it’s been a mixed bag of championship winners.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch won the championship after winning the regular season in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Then, you’ve got Joey Logano and Chase Elliott who got hot late.
Out of these 2021 Championship 4 sleepers, William Byron is by far my favorite pick.
I think the oddsmakers are severely undervaluing him. He drives for the best team in Hendrick Motorsports. Their cars are so fast right now and it’s only a matter of time before Byron starts winning more races.
The next seven races will tell a lot about which of these drivers actually have a chance to make a championship run.
There is a lot to think about when betting on the 2021 Championship 4 for the NASCAR Cup Series. Be sure to check out the links below for a little extra insight.