What to Watch: Looking ahead to NASCAR regular-season stretch run

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2021 NASCAR Cup Series regular-season stretch run
Watkins Glen | Indianapolis | Michigan | Daytona

Everything you need to know for the four NASCAR Cup Series races in August — the final four chances to punch a postseason ticket before the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs begin Sept. 5.

Go Bowling at The Glen

Where: Watkins Glen International, a 2.45-mile road course located in Watkins Glen, New York


Date: Sunday, Aug. 8, 3 p.m. ET
TV/Radio: NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Race Distance: 90 laps, 220.5 miles
Stages: Stage 1 – 20 laps | Stage 2 – 20 laps (ends at Lap 40) | Final Stage – 50 laps (scheduled to end at Lap 90)
Defending winner: Chase Elliott
Most wins among active drivers:
Elliott (2), Kyle Busch (2)
Best average finish:
Erik Jones (6.3)

Verizon 200 at the Brickyard

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a 2.439-mile infield road course located in Speedway, Indiana


Date: Sunday, Aug. 15, 1 p.m. ET
TV/Radio: NBC/NBC Sports App, PRN/IMS Radio Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Race Distance: 82 laps, 200 miles
Stages: Stage 1 -15 laps | Stage 2 – 20 laps (ends at Lap 35) | Final Stage – 47 laps (scheduled to end at Lap 82)
Defending winner: Kevin Harvick (oval layout)
Most wins among active drivers:
New layout
Best average finish:
First race on new layout
*There will be practice Saturday and qualifying Sunday morning.

FireKeepers Casino 400

Where: Michigan International Speedway, a 2-mile oval located in Brooklyn, Michigan


Sunday, Aug. 22, 3 p.m. ET
TV/Radio: NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Race Distance: 200 laps, 400 miles
Stages: Stage 1 – 60 laps | Stage 2 – 60 laps (ends at Lap 120) | Final Stage – 80 laps (scheduled to end at Lap 200)
Defending winner: Kevin Harvick
Most wins:
Harvick (5)
Best average finish:
Chase Elliott (7.7)

Coke Zero Sugar 400

Where: Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile superspeedway located in Daytona Beach, Florida


Date: Saturday, Aug. 28, 7 p.m. ET
TV/Radio: NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Race Distance: 160 laps, 400 miles
Stages: Stage 1 – 50 laps | Stage 2 – 50 laps (ends at Lap 100) | Final Stage – 60 laps (scheduled to end at Lap 160)
Defending winner: William Byron
Most wins:
Denny Hamlin (3)
Best average finish:
Austin Dillon (14.8)

Five to watch

Here are five big story lines we’ll be following: one for each race and one overarching story line.

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.

Staples from the break

Our biggest pieces during the off weeks. Get caught up quickly right here.

Busch Almirola
Busch Almirola

Power Rankings: Potential free agents for 2022 Cup rides | Scope the ranks
Off-week reflections: Highlights from 2021 season — so far | Read more
• Fantasy:
Who you should use and where for the final four races | Read more
• Debate:
Who will win first, Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick? | Read more
• Handing out the hardware:
Cup superlatives at the break | Read more
• Playoff Watch:
How the postseason picture looks | Read more
• Bubble Watch:
Which remaining tracks stand out for cutline drivers | Read more

Get in on the action

Think you know NASCAR? Put your mettle to the test with gaming, fantasy.

Betting odds for 2021 Cup Series championship | See the odds
Case for betting Martin Truex Jr. to win the title | Read more
NASCAR, Penn National Gaming expand strategic alliance | Read more
One-stop shop for NASCAR betting information | Check it out
Take a shot at winning cash prizes with the free-to-play Jackpot Races app | Hit the jackpot
Full guide to 2021 NASCAR Fantasy Live game | Get the FAQ

Silly Season in full swing

2021 July20 Keselowski Main
2021 July20 Keselowski Main

The 2022 Cup garage is starting to take shape. Keep up with the latest happenings here.

Key players: See the movers and shakers of free agency | See more
Return to The King?:
Erik Jones hopeful on RPM return | Read more
Winners get hired:
Steve Letarte on Matt DiBenedetto’s situation | Watch the video
New owner in town:
Brad Keselowski headed to Roush Fenway in driver-owner role | Read more
Taking their time:
Roush, Keselowski set for full transition but not soon | Read more
• In limbo:
What’s next for Ryan Newman in ’22? | Read more
• Track that:
Keep tabs on the 2022 Silly Season driver chart | Read more

Catch the pack

Read up on all the headlines from the week leading up to Sunday’s race.

• No. 3 for No. 22: Loganos reveal third child on the way | Read more
• Penalty:
Nos. 9, 48 in Cup get L1-level penalties after New Hampshire | Read more
• The race is on:
How Kyle Larson caught Denny Hamlin in points battle | Read more
• Position to win: Pit-crew development leaves lasting mark with athletes | Read more
• New vets:
Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney must increase leadership roles a Penske | Read more
• Xfinity Series Playoff Watch:
Analyzing the projected field | Read more
• Camping World Truck Series Playoff Watch:
How it looks before regular-season finale | Read more

@nascarcasm’s corner

2021 June Gymnasts Intro
2021 June Gymnasts Intro

Pros & Cons: A two-week break in the season | Read more
Cup Series Silly Season Trivia Quiz | Take the quiz
Are NASCAR drivers gymnasts? | Read more
Olympic pictograms interpreted for NASCAR | See them
GIF Council: How drivers are spending their vacation | See the GIFs
• All-NASCAR Olympic team | See the team
Old tweets: How drivers are (probably) spending time off | See the tweets