Three months after Chase Elliott took the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway, the NASCAR Cup Series is ready to get back underway. NASCAR’s portion of Speedweeks officially begins tonight with the Busch Clash (7 PM, FS1), an exhibition race where eligible drivers are invited to compete.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away some of the intrigue that was supposed to accompany the 2021 Cup season, there are still plenty of reasons to follow along with the action this year.
For years, fans have been begging Cup Series higher-ups to change the bland and unappealing schedule, and 2021 represents the biggest revamp to date.
The changes start with tonight’s Clash, as the drivers won’t be competing on the oval but rather Daytona’s road course configuration. Speaking of road courses, this year’s schedule features seven road course events not counting the Clash exhibition. The Cup series will be visiting three of them for the first time: Circuit of the Americas on May 23rd, Road America on July 4th, and the Indianapolis road course on August 15th. In addition, they’ll be returning to Sonoma (June 6th) and Watkins Glen (August 8th) after a year away due to the pandemic. The Daytona road course (February 21st) and the Charlotte Roval (October 10th) round out the road course slate.
Outside of road courses, the Cup Series will be racing on dirt for the first time since 1970 when they head to Bristol on March 28th, an event that will feature heat races prior to the main event. They’ll also travel to Nashville for the first time on June 20th, which coincides with the start of NBC’s coverage for the season.
The schedule revamp means that five tracks lost a date in 2021: the Cup Series will not be racing at Fontana, Chicagoland, or Kentucky this year, while Michigan and Dover each lost one of their two races. Darlington and Atlanta, meanwhile, both gained a race—Darlington is scheduled to host two races for the first time since 2004 (they were only scheduled to host one prior to the pandemic shuffling things in 2020), while Atlanta will have two events for the first time since 2010.
Same Faces, New Places
There was a considerable amount of driver turnover this offseason throughout the Cup series garage. The easiest drivers to recap are the three who will no longer race full-time in Cup: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth. Bowyer will be moving up to the Fox Sports booth with Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon while Johnson and Kenseth will explore other racing ventures outside of NASCAR.
The biggest move was likely that of Kyle Larson, who is back in the Cup series after almost a full season away. Larson, who used the n-word during an iRacing stream in April when his mic was hot, was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and dropped by many of his sponsors. While he ended up racing on dirt tracks across the country during his NASCAR suspension, it was always assumed that the 28-year-old would find his way back to the Cup series sooner rather than later. Hendrick Motorsports ended up being the team to take a chance on the young driver who had success under Ganassi. He’ll be driving the No. 5 car, which makes its first appearance since 2017 when Kasey Kahne was behind the wheel. Because the No. 5 will be used again, Hendrick’s No. 88 will be discontinued.
The driver of the No. 88 car for the past three seasons, Alex Bowman, will remain with Hendrick but simply slide over to the No. 48 car left vacant by Johnson’s retirement. With full Ally backing for all 36 races, Bowman will not need to worry about sponsorship and instead can put all his focus towards improving upon a solid 2020 campaign that saw him start and finish the season strong.
Ross Chastain will finally get his opportunity with a good Cup team as he’ll move up to the Ganassi No. 42 that was left vacant by Larson and Kenseth. Chastain put together the best season of his career in the Xfinity Series last year, posting 15 top 5s and 27 top 10s in 33 races, albeit without a win to show for his efforts. The 28-year-old appeared in the Cup series full-time in 2018 and 2019 for Premium Motorsports, but Ganassi represents Chastain’s best opportunity yet.
Following a respectable rookie season with the now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, Christopher Bell will move up to the No. 20 car of Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Erik Jones. Bell has been one of Toyota Racing Development’s biggest successes, so the pressure will be on the 26-year-old immediately to perform in top-tier equipment.
Jones, meanwhile, will find himself in the famed No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports. Another TRD success story, Jones showcased glimpses of his talent with the Gibbs cup team over four full seasons but couldn’t improve as quickly as some hoped. He made the playoffs twice on the back of two victories (’18 Daytona-2, ’19 Darlington) but bowed out in the first round each time. The No. 43 car is a clear downgrade from the Gibbs No. 20, so expectations should be adjusted. Still, Jones will need to impress in some capacity in order to find his way back to a top team.
The No. 43 ride became available once Bubba Wallace committed to moving to the brand-new No. 23 car for 23XI Racing (pronounced 23-eleven). The team is owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin and will not only run Toyotas but also be technically aligned with Gibbs. Wallace, the only black driver in the Cup series, shot into the national spotlight in 2020 to the dismay of a very vocal but small portion of NASCAR’s ever-evolving fanbase. By piloting the No. 23 (which has full sponsorship for 2021), Wallace will certainly face a lot of pressure to perform well.
Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo will both graduate from the Xfinity Series and make their full-time Cup debuts in 2021. Briscoe will handle the No. 14 Stewart-Haas car left vacant by Bowyer, while Alfredo will replace John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports entry. Briscoe put together a remarkable Xfinity season, finding victory lane nine times to go along with 16 top 5’s and 22 top 10’s, but ended up finishing fourth in the overall standings. Alfredo ran 19 races for the No. 21 Richard Childress Racing car and earned two top 5s and nine top 10s, but his sudden promotion to Cup is at least partially due to the funding that he brings.
Other movers include Corey LaJoie (Spire Motorsports No. 7 car), Daniel Suarez (Trackhouse Racing No. 99 car), and John Hunter Nemechek (returning to the Truck series full-time in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 4).
Can Gibbs dominate again?
Denny Hamlin carried Gibbs in 2020, taking the No. 11 to victory lane seven times and making the Championship 4. The other three Gibbs drivers combined for two wins. It was a far cry from 2019 when Gibbs cars won 19 of 36 events (a modern record) en route to three cars making the championship and Busch winning his second title in five years. Busch will have a new crew chief in 2021 as Ben Beshore will call the shots for the No. 18 team. Busch’s previous CC, Adam Stevens, will hop over to the No. 20 team in an attempt to steer Bell towards success. A combination of pandemic protocols and other teams catching up to Gibbs led to a frustrating 2020, but there’s reason to believe the team will bounce back this year.
Is this Hendrick’s best team in years?
Elliott brought Hendrick its first title since 2016 last year, becoming one of the youngest drivers in NASCAR history to win a Cup championship. Prior to last season, though, Hendrick had taken a back seat to some other teams in the garage throughout most of the 2010s. Hendrick’s stable showcased speed throughout 2020, and now with the talented Larson in the fold, this might be the team’s best opportunity to reclaim their spot at the top of the mountain. With every driver on the team 28 years of age or younger, Hendrick has the potential to dominate the sport for a while if everything goes according to plan.
Will 23XI impress in their first year?
Expectations for a first-year team should normally be kept low, but 23XI seemingly has the money and the resources to come out of the gate strong in 2021. Wallace is an experienced driver who has shined in good equipment before, and driving for Jordan and Hamlin’s team represents the best Cup series opportunity he might ever have. Wallace had one top 5 and five top 10s in 2020 and finished 22nd in points driving for Petty, the best mark of his still young career. 23XI should be an upgrade over Petty, so making the playoffs should be the goal for Wallace and the team in 2021.
Looking Ahead to 2022
Xfinity drivers to keep an eye on
There’s a talented young crop of drivers at second-highest level of NASCAR’s totem pole, and some of them may make their way to the Cup series after 2021. Austin Cindric returns to the No. 22 Penske entry after winning a title last season. It’s already been confirmed that Cindric will move up to Cup full-time in 2022 and replace Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing car, but the 22-year-old will run a number of races in the Cup series this year as well.
The Gibbs Xfinity team has an intriguing trio of young talent comprised of Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones, and Daniel Hemric; Burton and Jones finished 6th and 8th respectively in the Xfinity series a year ago and will look to compete for a championship this season. Noah Gragson just missed out on the Championship 4 and will be the young driver to follow at JR Motorsports in 2021. 21-year-old Riley Herbst left JGR for Stewart-Haas to fill Briscoe’s seat, and after making the playoffs he’ll try to take a big leap forward this year.
The Xfinity Series isn’t just a bunch of young guns, though; there are a number of talented veterans who will give the prospects some stiff competition. Justin Allgaier finished 2nd to Cindric last season and returns to his No. 7 JR Motorsports car; fellow teammate Michael Annett returns to the No. 1 car after placing 9th in the final 2020 standings. A.J. Allmendinger will run the full season for the No. 16 Kaulig Racing entry after winning two races a season ago. Landon Cassill will run a full season for the first time in two years as he’ll be behind the wheel of the No. 4 JD Motorsports car. And of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete in one race in the series as he has done since 2018, although he hasn’t officially announced which track he’ll race at this year.
The 2021 Cup Silly Season has the potential to get pretty silly, with a number of big-name drivers potentially hitting the market. Some NASCAR contract terms aren’t disclosed, but over 10 full-time drivers may view 2021 as a contract year. Among the names and rides that could be available:
· Kurt Busch (Ganassi No. 1)
· Brad Keselowski (Penske No. 2)
· Austin Dillon (Childress No. 3)
· Ryan Newman (Roush No. 6)
· Tyler Reddick (Childress No. 8)
· Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas No. 10)
· Chris Buescher (Roush No. 17)
· Martin Truex Jr. (Gibbs No. 19)
· Matt DiBenedetto (Wood Bros. No. 21, will be replaced by Austin Cindric)
· Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JTG No. 47)
· Alex Bowman (Hendrick No. 48)
The Next Gen car
Were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, fans would have gotten their first glimpse of the Next Gen car in 2021. Instead, the much-anticipated debut has been pushed back to 2022. Multiple drivers have tested the car over the past year and a half including Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Clint Bowyer, with all drivers giving important feedback for the development of the car. Busch recently pointed out a lot of positives in regards to the new car but offered that the venting and cooling needs to be improved prior to the car hitting the track in a full-time capacity. Per Busch and Jake Nichol of Autosport.com, “[Definitely] lots of positives all the way around, and another full year of development will make a great introductory piece for 2022.”
(Cover Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)