By Cole Cusumano
Heading into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Larson owns the stat sheets after compiling the most top-10s (18), most laps led (1,566) and most wins (5), making him the favorite for the championship. With proven speed each week and the ability to win pretty much anywhere, who does he feel will provide the most challenging path to glory?
“I think everybody has had their moments of being really strong this year,” Larson told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I think the three others of my teammates are going to be really tough, but I think I look at obviously Denny (Hamlin), Martin (Truex Jr.) and Kyle Busch as probably being the three others besides our team that stand out.”
Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing have dominated this season, combining for a total of 17 wins. The only driver who hasn’t found victory lane in 2021 has been Hamlin, but he placed second in the regular-season standings and maintains a series-best average finish of 9.1.
With all eight drivers accounting for half the playoff spots, anyone can make a run at the title. While wins are great, they aren’t everything. Kevin Harvick learned this the hard way in 2020 after emerging victorious nine times and failing to make the Championship 4.
As in every sport, it’s all about executing in the postseason. This format favors consistency, but awards winning with an automatic berth in the upcoming round. With three victories coming in opportunistic fashion, Alex Bowman could surprise people, as could William Byron, who finished fourth in the regular-season standings — like Chase Elliott did last year.
“I feel like there’s always one or two guys that you don’t notice that much during the regular season — maybe not even much in the first round — that really start hitting their stride after that,” Larson said. “There’s probably, definitely a few wild cards out there, but you won’t really know who they are until we get a few races in.
This isn’t an egregious claim for Larson to make, given how the 2020 season concluded. Reigning Champion, Elliott, had only two victories before the playoffs began. He went on to win three more races, including the series-finale at Phoenix Raceway.
There’s no telling what to expect in the playoffs — what we do know is that the driver of the No. 5 is the definitive favorite going in. It all begins at Darlington Raceway in Southern 500, but will it end with the Larson hoisting the Bill France Cup in Arizona?