OPINION: It's make or break time

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OPINION: It's make or break time

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: It's make or break time

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NASCAR’s long hot summer is here, and for some, it’s going to be anything but relaxing.

With the most convoluted All-Star Race now in the rearview mirror, Cup Series teams are back to big picture business this week. There are 10 races left in the regular season, which means 10 chances left for drivers to earn a spot in the postseason. The Fox Sports portion of the schedule is complete, and NBC Sports takes over beginning this weekend and through the finale in early November.

Business is picking up, boys and girls.

Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports have the hot hand, and all four drivers are locked into the playoffs. Team Penske has their trio set for another run at a championship, while Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports are just happy to be here but hoping they can capture some postseason magic.

It might not be the ‘best season ever’ as Fox has proclaimed it, but it has been a unique and interesting first half of the regular season. Larson is living up the potential many believed he had when coming onto the NASCAR scene years ago, and the strength of the Hendrick organization has the rest of the series scratching their heads.

“It feels like running second to the Hendrick cars right now is an accomplishment,” Brad Keselowski said Sunday night. “They are just stupid fast. I had (Larson) off Turn 4, but they just have so much speed. He just motored right back by me, like damn!”

Keselowski went on to say, “even with this package, you can’t draft those Hendrick cars. They are so fast. We have work to do.”

An obvious statement that applies to everyone not driving a Hendrick car. Either you’re trying to figure out what they have or still working through your own struggles.

Take the two drivers who dominated 2020 but have yet to find victory lane. Kevin Harvick is on an island by himself as the three other Stewart-Haas Racing cars not only struggle for consistency, but in all honestly, overall relevance. Denny Hamlin continues to lead the point standings, but the goose egg in the win column is becoming more and more glaring. In the first eight races, Hamlin’s average finish was 4.5. In the last eight, it’s dipped to 10.8.

But there are 10 races left for Hamlin, Harvick, and others to make something happen. The playoff grid going into Nashville breaks down like this:

*Kyle Larson: 3 wins, 26 playoff points

*Martin Truex Jr.: 3 wins, 18 playoff points

*Alex Bowman: 2 wins, 10 playoff points

*Joey Logano: 1 win, 8 playoff points

*Ryan Blaney: 1 win, 8 playoff points

*Kyle Busch: 1 win, 7 playoff points

*Chase Elliott: 1 win, 6 playoff points

*William Byron: 1 win, 6 playoff points

*Brad Keselowski: 1 win, 6 playoff points

*Christopher Bell: 1 win, 5 playoff points

*Michael McDowell: 1 win, 5 playoff points

*Denny Hamlin: +333 points

*Kevin Harvick: +152 points

*Austin Dillon: +105 points

*Tyler Reddick: +67 points

*Chris Buescher: +60 points

——–

Matt DiBenedetto -60 points

Kurt Busch -63 points

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 82 points

Ross Chastain -84 points

Bubba Wallace -93 points

Daniel Suarez -98 points

The surprise here is Kurt Busch. It has been documented that the No. 1 team is struggling, and frankly, Busch is in trouble when it comes to the postseason. Busch earned 41 points at Sonoma Raceway, which was only the second time this season he’s gained over 40 in a single race. If Busch can keep pocketing points like that, and if some of his rivals encounter trouble, he might be able to point his way into the playoffs. But given the hot or cold nature of his season, it’s more realistic that he’ll need to win.

Kurt Busch (No. 1 Chevrolet) is on the outside of the playoff bubble and likely in a must-win scenario, while Alex Bowman (No. 48 Chevrolet) is locked in already. Harrelson/Motorsport Images

As for everyone else below the cutline, just win. The inconsistency has put them in this position, and there are no signs that it will change. Plus, it’s going to be a tall task to erase those large point deficits.

Never say never, but don’t be surprised if there is little or no change to the playoff grid when the regular season is over. The rest of the regular season is:

*Nashville

*Pocono I

*Pocono II

*Road America

*Atlanta

*New Hampshire

*Watkins Glen

*Indianapolis road course

*Michigan

*Daytona

A new venue kicks off the 10-race homestretch this weekend. It is the first time in 37 years a Cup Series race is being held in the Nashville area. Three road course races are also ahead, two at new tracks. Road America and Indianapolis have seen Xfinity Series competition, but now it’s time for the big boys.

There should not be a whole lot of surprises ahead. Some would have bet that the road course could produce surprise winners, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Maybe Christopher Bell falls into that category, but Bell might have made the playoffs without that Daytona win. Chase Elliott (COTA) was no surprise, and given that Kyle Larson is winning everything, Sonoma is just another win on what is becoming a long list.

Expect more of the same coming up. Elliott will be in contention at the road courses, as will Larson, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano. The same drivers who are upfront on ovals are also good at turning left and right.

Like last year, the hope is that Daytona is the wildcard. It is the reason it was made the playoff cut race in the first place. Don’t expect that to happen if things continue the way they are. If the points spread stays the way it is for those below the cutline, stealing a playoff spot on points, even if there is chaos at Daytona, isn’t going to happen. The best-case scenario for those looking for some dramatics would be a driver below the cutline winning at Daytona and knocking someone out of a playoff spot.

There is a lot of racing left to do and with the two-week Olympic break next month, plenty of time for teams to ponder their position. Welcome to NASCAR summertime, when you really dig your heels in, because it’s make or break time.

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