The NASCAR Regular-Season Stretch Run: What To Watch

The NASCAR Regular-Season Stretch Run: What To Watch

As the NASCAR regular season stretch-run approaches, here’s what to watch for…

The NASCAR Regular-Season Stretch Run: What To Watch

1. Watkins Glen: After a year away from the facility, NASCAR makes its long-awaited return to The Glen — and no driver will be happier to see it than Chase Elliott. The reigning Cup champion is the only winner at the New York track since Martin Truex Jr. won in 2017 and has a pair of road-course wins to his credit already this season. After a slower than usual start to the year, it’s not impossible that he positions himself as the title favorite once again coming out of this four-race stretch. If anyone is able to topple Elliott, these races offer strong chances for a wild-card winner to really shake things before the postseason field locks in. Several winless drivers around or below the cutline have looked sporty at times at the several road courses we’ve been to. If we’ve learned anything from this season, it’s to expect the unexpected, and it would be a surprise if we don’t see at least one new winner in this stretch.

2. Indianapolis: You want to talk about wild cards? How about tossing in a new layout right before the playoffs start at one of the most historic race tracks in the world that almost none of the drivers have raced at before? While it will feel different to not see a Brickyard race run on the traditional layout, it’s inarguable that the intensity and excitement levels for this race will be ramped up to a 10. Kevin Harvick has been the man to beat here lately, but will that translate to the road course? The Cup Series so rarely has two road-course races in back-to-back weeks, so we could see a lot of the same faces running well in each — and potentially who could look to clinch a Round of 8 spot in a couple of months at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. One driver to watch could be Chase Briscoe, despite an underwhelming rookie season so far. Stewart-Haas Racing found its footing to close out the last race before the break and Briscoe, a strong road racer, won the Xfinity Series race on this layout last summer.

3. Michigan: Speaking of SHR, everything on paper points to this being Harvick’s race to lose. Everything our eyes have shown us this year, however, is that if he doesn’t win this race it’s hard to see the nine-time 2020 winner visiting Victory Lane this season. The team has, self-admittedly, struggled this year, but if there’s any driver who can put together a late postseason push, it’s Harvick. If one of Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers didn’t win one of the first two races back, look for the group to potentially reassert its dominance here. Kyle Larson once won three straight Michigan races in his Ganassi days and Chase Elliott rattled off a trio of runner-ups to start his career there. Worth noting: The last time a current Joe Gibbs Racing driver won at Michigan was Kyle Busch in 2011. Team Penske‘s Joey Logano himself has three wins there since leaving Gibbs before the 2013 season.

4. Daytona: And it all comes down to Daytona. The track is the great equalizer and its placement as the regular-season finale is just perfect. There will likely be 15-plus winless drivers in the top 30 in points looking to punch their ticket to the postseason with a last-ditch win under the lights at Daytona, and it’s going to be a must-see night of stock-car racing. We already saw one miracle happen at the World Center of Racing in this year’s 500 and it sure feels like something similar could happen again in this one. Don’t forget, Denny Hamlin — who has been the unquestioned best driver at the track in recent years — could still be looking for his first win of 2021 by then. William Byron clinched his berth with a Daytona win last summer, teeing up the drama for the playoffs — who might be this year’s spoiler?

5. As you can tell by now, these four races are crucial. The playoff field could look considerably different a month from now, and it should set the bar high for the excitement we’re bound to see in this year’s playoffs. Could we also see a driver with a statement to make — i.e. Matt DiBenedetto or Brad Keselowski — pick up a win and jolt his season in the final races in his current ride? Could we see another team emerge as the top dog after Hendrick ruled the bulk of the regular season? Could we see a shift in power with the break allowing for extra R&D time and different teams finding speed? Will more Silly Season news drop in the coming weeks? There’s just so much going on, and it’s a good thing we had this break to give the garage a chance to catch its collective breath, because we’re in for a thrill of a ride down the stretch.

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