With a large portion of the main 2021 NASCAR schedule now in the history books, the playoff picture is beginning to get a little clearer and by the time we reach the first week of September, we will know which 16 drivers find themselves in championship contention.
However, there are still plenty of laps to be driven before that is the case and although the usual suspects find themselves at the top of the points table, they cannot take their foot off the accelerator just yet.
One man who will be confident of reaching the first playoff round is Kyle Larson and with four race wins to his name in 2021, he is arguably the form driver right now – especially as he has recently won three in a row.
Larson’s purple patch started at the Coca-Cola 600 back in late May and would continue the following week at the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Two wins from as many races and now the question was whether a three-peat could then be achieved at the Ally 400.
An answer which was nothing less than an emphatic yes and with this hattrick of race wins being added to his earlier success at the Pennzoil 400, the 28-year-old is certainly one of the men to watch in the 2021 championship race.
Of course, he is not the only driver to keep an eye on, and with closest rival Denny Hamlin being the model of consistency at present, he is single-handedly proving that the championship is not necessarily about race wins.
Especially as Hamlin is yet to take a chequered flag this year and although that may be a point of frustration for the 40-year-old, getting your head down and just being amongst it, is something that certainly has its benefits.
This ability to always be in the pack is one that has been cultivated over many years and it is the notion of the NASCAR circus being more a marathon rather than a sprint (at least in overall championship terms), which will set the Toyota pilot in good stead.
While for those who are looking to make an early-season champion pick make sure to check the opinion of the experts, the smart money is likely to go in the direction of the man who drives the number 11 car and this would be much less than a gamble.
Both Larson and Hamlin are likely to be the two main protagonists for this year, but of course, they will not be the only two at the same time and when you are discussing championship contenders, Kevin Harvick cannot be left out of the frame either.
Harvick was the man who went all the way in 2020 and in doing so, scuppered Kyle Busch’s hopes of winning three Drivers’ championships in a row. Now though, the Ford driver will be looking for back-to-back successes himself.
Something that may be outside the realm of possibility at present, or at least an uptick of form may need to be found and with no race wins to his name for 2021, he has been unable to apply the same consistent standards as rival Denny Hamlin.
By the end of the Ally 400, Harvick was only eighth in the standings and although that in itself is good enough to progress to the first phase of this year’s playoffs, one wonders if the road will eventually stop there.
However, the picture within NASCAR can change for better or worse rather quickly and if last year’s champion were to take the chequered flag before the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona in late August, it will give his title hopes a shot in the arm.
The same could also be said for the man he pipped to glory last year and with Kyle Busch only managing one race win thus far in 2021, he will also need to find himself going up through the gears in the next couple of months.