Yahoo Sports' 2021 NASCAR playoff predictions

Nick Bromberg
·14-min read

Who’s going to win the 2021 Cup Series championship?

According to the oddsmakers at BetMGM, Kevin Harvick is the favorite. He’s got the best odds of anyone for the Cup Series title and is one of seven drivers with odds better than +1000 ($10 for every $1 you bet).

It seems a safe assumption that the Cup Series champion will come from those seven drivers. Is it a safe assumption to guess the playoff field too?

We got 13 of the 16 playoff drivers correct in our prediction column from a year ago. The three drivers we got wrong were Erik Jones, Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson. Larson, as you know, only ran four races in 2020.

The three drivers that got into the playoffs who we underestimated were Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer. Who’s going to be a part of that group this year? Let’s take a look at the Cup Series field.

(Championship odds listed below are from BetMGM)

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - NOVEMBER 01: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota, Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Ground Toyota, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on November 01, 2020 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Will one of these drivers pictured win the Cup Series title? (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Need a miracle to make the playoffs

Anyone else not named on this list

Anyone driving for Rick Ware, StarCom Racing, MBM, Live Fast or any other team that isn’t mentioned below has just as good of a shot at making the playoffs as you do.

Ryan Preece (+50000)

Preece is the victim of a lack of a charter in 2021. After a lackluster 2020 season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Preece has been relegated to what looks like a part-time role with the team after it now only has one guaranteed entry into every Cup Series race.

Preece will have cars faster than backmarkers and should be capable of plenty of mid-pack runs throughout the season. But he’s mainly on this list to remind you that he’s been relegated to part-time status despite driving for a team that attempts to contend every week.

Daniel Suarez (+100000)

Suarez moves from his part-time schedule at Gaunt Brothers Racing to a full-time ride with Trackhouse Racing. The new team has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing and a charter, so Suarez doesn’t have to sweat qualifying for any races.

He’s probably not going to be a playoff threat, however. RCR isn’t the fastest team on the block and RCR-affiliated teams have struggled more often than not recently. Could Trackhouse and Suarez have some good runs? Sure. Are they going to finish any higher than 20th in the standings? Probably not.

Michael McDowell (+100000)

McDowell is back for another run in the 20s. In his four previous seasons with Front Row Motorsports McDowell has finished 26th, 26th, 27th and 23rd in the standings. Why will 2021 be any different?

Anthony Alfredo (not listed)

The rookie teammate to McDowell will probably finish closer to 30th than 20th in the standings. That’s not a knock against him; he’s just in his first Cup Series season and driving for a team that consistently runs outside the top 20.

Corey LaJoie (+100000)

LaJoie moves to Spire Motorsports from Go Fas Racing. Will that result in an uptick in performance? We’ll see. Spire’s consistently fielded some of the slowest cars on the grid. But now it’s expanded to two cars for 2021 in anticipation of NASCAR’s new car in 2022. Could the expansion also lead to increased speed?

Maybe, but maybe not

Ryan Newman stands on pit road before NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race qualifying at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Ryan Newman had just two top 10s in 2020. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Ryan Newman (+25000)

If you’ve learned anything about Ryan Newman’s Cup career it’s to never count him out. But 2020 was Newman’s worst season since 2008 — a year where he won the Daytona 500 and then went on to have an average finish outside the top 20.

Newman bounced back to a ninth-place finish in the standings in 2009, but we’re now 12 years beyond that and Newman hasn’t finished in the top 10 in the standings since his famous second-place run in 2014.

Erik Jones (+20000)

We predicted that Jones would finish 9th in the standings in 2020. Whoops. He ended up missing the playoffs despite having some strong runs and found himself as the odd man out at Joe Gibbs Racing. He moves over to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2021 and, well, his cars are probably going to be a lot slower than they were at JGR.

Jones should have a few good runs and RPM has consistently produced fast cars at Daytona and Talladega. A win at either of those tracks seems like the most probable way Jones would make it into the playoffs.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (+25000)

Stenhouse, 33, is entering his ninth full-time season in the Cup Series. The two-time Xfinity Series champion has made the playoffs once and that came in the only season (2017) where he got both of his career victories.

Things have slowly slid from there for Stenhouse. He was 18th in 2018, 23rd in 2019 and 24th a year ago. Will JTG-Daugherty’s move to one full-time team mean an increase in performance for Stenhouse?

Ross Chastain (+5000)

Chastain takes over a No. 42 car that was extremely slow with Matt Kenseth behind the wheel. Kenseth was the guy tabbed as Kyle Larson’s replacement following Larson’s firing for a racial slur and ended up with just two top-10 finishes and as 21.4 average finish in 32 races.

Beating Kenseth’s performance in the No. 42 seems like a more realistic goal for Chastain than making the playoffs.

Has a playoff shot

Chris Buescher (+30000)

We’re still bullish on Buescher, a driver who is still only 28 and has never been in a top-tier Cup Series ride. Last year was a step back for Roush Fenway Racing, but Buescher has the chance to establish himself as the team’s top driver and contend for a playoff spot through decent finishes and sheer consistency. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like how Ryan Newman has made the playoffs in recent years.

Austin Dillon (+10000)

Dillon has made the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and has won races in three of the past four. We think he has the best chance of anyone in this group to get into the playoffs with a win.

He’s in this group, however, because he’s had a combined 27 top-10 finishes over the past four seasons. That’s as many as Kevin Harvick had in 2020. It’s hard to bank on a guy winning a race every year despite a lack of top-tier finishes. But Dillon keeps getting it done.

Tyler Reddick runs during a NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying session Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Tyler Reddick could make the playoffs in 2021. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Tyler Reddick (+8000)

Reddick was 19th in the standings a year ago and ended up with just one fewer top five and as many top 10s as Dillon had over the course of the season.

What does he have in store for a second season? Reddick is one of the more exciting drivers in the Cup Series and could become a fan favorite with a little more speed in his car.

Chase Briscoe (+10000)

Time for a hot take. Briscoe’s production in the No. 14 car in 2021 isn’t going to be that much of a drop-off from Clint Bowyer’s production in 2020. Bowyer had two top fives and 12 top 10s in 2020 and finished 12th in the standings. While Briscoe may not make the playoffs as a rookie, he’s more than capable of 10 top-10 finishes and a few really good runs.

Cole Custer (+6600)

Custer got into the playoffs a year ago with a surprise win at Kentucky. Other than that, his year was very meh. If he can turn a lot of the top-15 finishes he had at the end of the year into top 10s in 2021 he’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot again.

The playoff field

16. Christopher Bell (+5000)

Bell had seven top 10s and was 20th in the points while driving for the now-defunct Leavine Family Racing in 2020. He should jump up a handful of spots in 2021 now that he’s at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Bell will be one of the favorites for the first Bristol dirt race in March and should show enough speed elsewhere to get into the playoffs via points.

Bubba Wallace runs during a NASCAR Daytona 500 qualifying session Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Bubba Wallace has a great chance to make the playoffs. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

15. Bubba Wallace (+5000)

Wallace should make the playoffs for the first time now that he’s in the best ride of his career. 23XI Racing should be closer to Furniture Row Racing than Leavine Family Racing on the JGR satellite team spectrum and it’s not out of the question that Wallace could get the first win of his career.

14. Aric Almirola (+3500)

Almirola has finished 14th and 15th in the standings after he was a career-high fifth in 2018. That 2018 season included the only win Almirola has scored in his three seasons at Stewart-Haas.

The 36-year-old has established himself as a solid Cup Series driver on a good team. But it’s hard to see how Almirola has room to grow to more than that at this point in his career.

13. Matt DiBenedetto (+5000)

DiBenedetto made the playoffs for the first time in his career in his first season with the Wood Brothers and went on to finish 13th in the standings. A repeat of that sounds about right in 2021.

DiBenedetto had his contract renewed by the team for another season and should again be a contender in the back half of the playoffs. Moving into the top eight will likely require a win.

12. Kurt Busch (+3500)

The first half of Busch’s 2020 was dominated by single-digit finishes. Busch had 11 top 10s in the first 18 races of the season. And while he won at Las Vegas in the playoffs, he had just eight top 10s in the second half.

Is that a sign of things to come in 2021? Busch should once again easily qualify for the playoffs and has an underrated crew chief in Matt McCall. But Busch’s ceiling is the third round of the playoffs.

11. William Byron (+3500)

Byron got the first win of his career at Daytona in September but his 2020 wasn’t as good overall as his 2019. He fell from 11th to 14th in the standings and his average finish of 16.2 was 1.3 spots worse than it was in 2019.

While that type of decline is too subtle to call a sophomore slump, it won’t be a surprise to see Byron make the third round of the playoffs in 2021.

Kyle Larson in his garage during a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Kyle Larson is back in the Cup Series. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

10. Kyle Larson (+1100)

Let’s rewind to a year ago. If someone told you then that Larson would be driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, you would not be surprised. But the way that it happened was sure surprising.

Larson dominated the dirt sprint ranks in his Cup Series time off after saying the N-word in April. It’s a bit foolish to expect that domination to happen at the Cup Series. At least in 2021. Larson is still only 28 and has the potential to be a Cup Series champ in the near future. But this year may be one of transition and acclimation.

9. Alex Bowman (+3500)

All Bowman has done is get better in each of his three seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s gone from 16th to 12th to 6th in the standings and has won races in each of the past two seasons. He’s also upped his number of top 10s in each successive year.

Fifteen top 10s isn’t enough to be a serious title contender, however. Bowman needs to score at least 20 and win multiple races in 2021 to achieve that status. Given his line of improvement since 2018, it won’t be a surprise if he does.

8. Ryan Blaney (+1400)

Does Blaney make the leap to serious title contender in 2021? And if he does, what does that leap look like? Blaney has finished anywhere from 7th to 10th in the standings in each of the past four seasons and has won exactly one race in each of those years.

To make that leap, Blaney needs multiple victories.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (+800)

You can look at these top seven drivers and make a convincing argument for any order among the seven. It may be just as easy to argue that Truex wins the title as it is to argue that he finishes seventh.

It speaks to Truex’s recent success that a season with a win and 23 top 10s was considered a “bad” season for him. It was his first year with fewer than four victories since 2015.

DAYTONA, FL - FEBRUARY 11: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Team Penske Discount Tire Ford Mustang,  gets repaired in the pits during the second Bluegreen Vacations Duel at Daytona on February 11, 2021 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski had one of the best seasons of his career in 2020. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

6. Brad Keselowski (+800)

Keselowski’s 2020 had a lot of resemblance to his title-winning 2012 season. Just take a look.

2012: 5 wins, 13 top 5s, 23 top 10s, 10.1 average finish

2020: 4 wins, 13 top 5s, 24 top 10s, 10.1 average finish

Had Keselowski moved up one spot and beaten Chase Elliott at Phoenix the two seasons would have been almost exactly alike. At least we now know what the blueprint is for title contention for Keselowski.

5. Joey Logano (+800)

Want to feel old? A win by Logano in 2021 will mean he’s won a race in each of the last 10 seasons. He doesn’t turn 31 until May.

Logano has finished in the top eight in the standings in seven of the last eight seasons. And it’ll be a shocker if it doesn’t become eight in nine. He’s going to win a second Cup Series title and it’s just a matter of when.

4. Chase Elliott (+700)

It’s fitting that Elliott’s first championship came in the best statistical season of his career. He set career highs in wins, top fives, top 10s and had an average finish of 11.7.

And the crazy thing is there’s still plenty of room for Elliott to improve. Just look at the stats of other elite Cup Series drivers over the past five seasons. Back-to-back titles won’t be a shock at all.

3. Kevin Harvick (+550)

It feels like the only way to follow up a nine-win season is to win the title. Unless you go for a 10-win season that also includes a championship. It’s absurd how good Harvick was in 2020 and he should be penciled into the final four until he shows any signs of a decline. It’s a virtual guarantee that Harvick will finish in the top 10 of the standings for the 12th consecutive year.

2. Kyle Busch (+700)

Busch has a new crew chief after a one-win season in 2019. His first Cup Series title came in Adam Stevens’ first season as Busch’s crew chief in 2015. Busch won three races in 2010, his first full season with crew chief Dave Rogers. In 2008, Busch won eight races in his first season at JGR with crew chief Steve Addington.

We think there’s a trend there.

1. Denny Hamlin (+800)

Is Hamlin destined to be the best Cup Series driver ever without a title or will he win one before he retires? We’ve been predicting that Hamlin will win a Cup Series title for a while now, so why stop now. Seriously, we will stop after 2021.

Anyway, we’re betting on Hamlin to get his first championship even as he transitions into being both a Cup Series driver and co-owner.

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