Roger Diez: Could NASCAR have too many for playoff?

Roger Diez

Roger Diez

Things returned to normal for the NASCAR Cup series last Sunday at Phoenix, as Martin Truex Jr. scored the first win by a past champion in what has been a topsy-turvy season so far.
Truex is the fifth Cup driver in five races to qualify for the playoffs with a victory. I say qualify, not lock in, because if things continue with a different winner every week, we could have the 16-car playoff field set by June. Since the current playoff format has been in effect, there have been no more than 13 winners in any given year, leaving the rest of the field to be set on points. But maybe this year we will see a winner or winners bumped out?
I expect to see wins this season from all the usual suspects – Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott. Other probable winners include Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, and Ryan Blaney. And we’ll very likely see a few more surprise winners, particularly at Talladega and the road courses.
This weekend the series makes the first of two 2021 visits to Atlanta, with the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Hamlin and Truex Jr. starting on the front row. Penske Racing drivers Logano and Keselowski will start in row two with the Hendrick Racing duo of Elliott and Kyle Larson in the third row.
Only five active drivers have won at the 1.5 mile oval, with Harvick and Kurt Busch scoring three wins apiece. Keselowski and Kyle Busch have each won twice with Hamlin scoring a single victory.
The last four seasons Harvick and Keselowski have swapped wins at the track’s single race. Harvick was the 2018 and 2020 winner and Keselowski took the checker in 2017 and 2019.
All three of NASCAR’s top series are in action this weekend, with the Camping World Trucks racing Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and the Xfinity series at 2 p.m., both airing on FS1. The Cup race will air on FOX on Sunday beginning at noon.
Although Jimmie Johnson has retired from full-time NASCAR competition, he still has a busy season ahead. Saturday he will participate in the IMSA 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race, his second of three races in that series. The Sebring race will air on NBCSN beginning at 3 p.m.
Johnson will also compete in the 14 IndyCar road and street races for Chip Ganassi Racing, beginning at Barber Motorsports Park on April 18. Even though he’ll run fewer than half the races on the NASCAR Cup schedule, it’s a steep learning curve for the seven-time champion.
The Formula 1 pre-season test is complete, and now the teams will take the data gathered and apply the lessons to the first race of the season coming up next weekend in Bahrain.
Seven-time championship winning Mercedes crew have some work to do, as testing didn’t go as well or as smoothly as anticipated. According to all the experts, Red Bull was the top-rated team throughout testing, and lead driver Max Verstappen was very pleased to have a more stable platform than last year’s twitchy machine. Despite its troubles, Mercedes was rated second with a resurgent McLaren third.
Daniel Ricciardo, new to the team this year, is looking forward to more podium appearances and maybe a win or two. The remaining order: Alpine, (formerly Renault), Ferrari, Alpha Tauri, Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point), Alfa Romeo, Williams, and Haas.
But when the lights go out for the start of the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix next Sunday, we will see whether testing results apply to actual race conditions.


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