With the Southern 500 now in the rear-view mirror, the NASCAR Playoffs are officially in full swing! There’s a different layer of excitement when it comes to the final 10 races of every NASCAR season; that is when the championship truly is on the line. Sixteen drivers are chasing a title and looking to live forever in the annals of NASCAR history. However, every year I can’t help but think “What are the non-playoff drivers chasing?” This article talks about 5 non-playoff storylines you should have your eye on.
1. Can Matt DiBenedetto get the 100th win for Wood Brothers Racing?
Let’s be honest, both team and driver need a win. The man affectionately known as Matty D is beloved by fans as an underdog. After Levine Family Racing announced it was replacing DiBenedetto with Christopher Bell in 2020 the narrative that Matt DiBenedetto is fighting for his Cup career became water cooler talk for NASCAR fans everywhere. He instantly became known for his raw and authentic post-race interviews and press conferences. The bad news for Matty D is that the idea of his Cup career being on the line has become a constant theme. Going to the iconic Wood Brothers was supposed to be the big break he was looking for. He was supposed to win. He hasn’t. He’s come up short time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t gone terribly. However, 2021 has been a year of slight regression. He missed the playoffs and his average finish has slipped from 14.8 in 2020 to 17.1 this season. Thanks to the alliance to Team Penske the 21 car is a possibility to win every week, but after three 2nd place finishes in 2020 and none this season time is running out. Harrison Burton takes over in 2022 but getting that milestone win could get DiBenedetto a call from one of the more prestigious cup car options before everything is finalized and most importantly prove he belongs. Keep your eye on the 21 the rest of this season.
2. Darrell’s Battle For 17th
After finishing 2nd in Coke Zero Sugar 400 thanks to Chris Buescher’s failed post-race inspection Darrell Wallace was asked what would make this year a success for him? Wallace quickly replied “17th in points.” Make no mistake about it. It means a ton for Wallace or any other non-playoff driver to finish 17th. While his critics are quick to call this season a catastrophic failure that simply isn’t true. I’m sure Wallace and company are understandably disappointed, especially with his lofty goal of winning 3 races set to come up short barring an incredible unforeseen run. His goal now has to be just getting that elusive first win. It would be one of the most historic moments in NASCAR history. When you place realistic expectations on Wallace and 23XI Racing this season has been a success. Sure, the top-10 finishes may not entirely bear that out when you compare it to his 2020 numbers with Richard Petty Motorsports but if you dig a little deeper and look at the season in total he’s already matched his number of top-5 finishes from a year ago and there’s still 9 races remaining. He has had far more speed and has had some tough luck. Look no further than this year’s Daytona 500. He was by far the quickest car on the track. His average finish has ticked up from 21.2 in 2020 to 19.2 this season. He has 16 lead-lap finishes so far, only 18 in all of 2020. 23XI Racing is outperforming every other “new team”. If he finishes 17th in points with an entirely brand new team that’s all anyone can realistically ask for.
(Photo Source : Twitter.com/Daniel_SuarezG)
3. Trackhouse Gaining Traction?
Daniel Suarez, in my opinion, has always been a guy that has gotten the short end of the stick. I know it’s a results-driven business but Suarez was never given anything close to a grace period despite being the 2016 Xfinity Series champion. After two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing and just one at Stewart-Haas racing, he was left out in NASCAR’s proverbial wilderness and took a full-time ride with the extremely limited Gaunt Brothers Racing. He’s now driving for the first-year Trackhouse Racing and he’s quietly proven that he deserves a top-20 ride. His average finish is 20.7. He has 1 top-5 and 3 top-10s. When you consider the fact that they’re a brand-new team that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Consider this, before Aric Almirola’s win at New Hampshire, Suarez was undeniably out-performing everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing, sans Kevin Harvick. With Trackhouse Racing acquiring Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR assets and Ross Chastain coming over to drive a second car for Trackhouse and riding a lot of momentum himself, the future appears very bright. Let’s see if Suarez can finish strong.
4. Can Chase Briscoe and Cole Custer Find Something to Build On? Any way you slice it this has been an abysmal season for Stewart-Haas Racing. It has been underwhelming for Chase Briscoe and a downright titanic struggle for Cole Custer. Briscoe did have a coming-out party of sorts with his performance at the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard. However, even that was foiled with the late-race penalty and dust-up with Denny Hamlin. Briscoe only has 3 top10s on the season with an average finish of 19.9. He is going to be the Rookie of the year, but can he find some other tangible positives to build on for 2022? Cole Custer’s situation is much more disappointing. He currently sits 28th in the points standings with an average finish of 21.6. His win last year at Kentucky seems like a distant memory. Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart recently commented on the organizations struggles so far this season saying “It has not been a year that we’re used to, it’s not a year that we’re proud of or happy about, but we still have time to get it turned around, and I can promise you until they drop the checkered flag at Phoenix, we will do everything in our power to give all four drivers the best opportunity we can to get them in victory lane and salvage this season.” we shall see if they’re able to turn things around. We know the organization won’t tolerate being mediocre for long.
(Photo Source : Twitter.com/TALLADEGA) 5. Trophy Hunters Naysayers will say that only playoff drivers will win. Well, none of us have a crystal ball and unlike every other sport, no one is sent packing during the playoffs. It is possible that a non-playoff driver plays a spoiler. There’s still one undeniable wild-card on the schedule in Talladega. You’re lying to yourself if you think that non-playoff drivers don’t have the goal to win every week. Look no further than Ross Chastain. He was in contention much of the night during the Southern 500 and finished 3rd. His day is coming. Erik Jones of Richard Petty Motorsports said from the very beginning of the season that his goal was for the team to finish top-20 in points and get a win. Both of those goals are still attainable. Keep your eyes on the 43 at Bristol and Talladega. Ryan Newman is in perhaps his final full-time cup season and hasn’t found victor lane since 2017. You can bet his goal is one more trophy if the curtain does fall on his full-time career at the end of the season. You can also bank on the fact that the entire Roush-Fenway team would love to find a way to win and build momentum for Brad Keselowski and company next season. Without question, the playoff drivers are going to get all the praise and glory for the remainder of the season and they have earned that. With that being said, I’ve never liked the idea or narrative and everyone else on the track no longer matters. That simply isn’t true. Every single team still has 9 races and goals to achieve and you can bet they’re going to give everything they have to do just that. You may say those teams and drivers won’t be important again until 2022 but, the first step to a better 2022 is doing all they can to finish 2021 strong. Pay attention to these teams that aren’t in the playoffs. I promise you, there’s more on the line than you may think. It’s not insanity, it's Loganity!