A comprehensive 2021 NASCAR preview begins at the end of a long off season.
As long as 2020 may have felt, the NASCAR Cup Series offseason has felt even longer. That being said, Daytona is quickly approaching. So, it’s time to take a look at what we could see in 2021. We start with storylines to watch, the drivers who could make headlines, and what may be ahead in 2022 and beyond.
Suarez with new opportunity at Trackhouse
In Daniel Suarez’s fifth year of Cup Series racing, he’s moving on to his fourth team. Last year, Suarez had to settle for a ride with Gaunt Brothers Racing in the No. 96. Now he has an intriguing opportunity in 2021, as he has lined up a ride with a new team in Trackhouse Racing. The team has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and should be able to run near the front relatively consistently. Suarez could be a sleeper to pick up a win at a superspeedway or road course.
Hamlin vs. Harvick revival
For the majority of the 2020 season, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin were trading off wins and dueling for the top spot in the standings. The pair combined for 16 wins, but neither won the championship, with Harvick not even making the championship race. Both drivers seemed to thrive with a lack of practice and qualifying, and with full race weekends still few and far between in 2021, the rivalry could very well continue into this year.
Chastain finally gets big opportunity
It’s been a long journey for Ross Chastain, but he has finally landed a competitive Cup Series ride. Chastain will take over the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 car following the release of Kyle Larson and the retirement of Matt Kenseth, and if his success in limited action with Roush-Fenway Racing and Spire Motorsports last year is any indication, Chastain could put himself in playoff contention right away.
Bowman moving to the legendary No. 48
The retirement of a legend such as Jimmie Johnson had pretty immediate effects, even within the team at Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman, previously the driver of the team’s No. 88 car, will take over Johnson’s car for 2021. This is a big deal, not only because of the car swap, but also because of the sponsorship that comes with it. The team struggled to find consistent sponsors for Bowman’s car, but he’ll now be backed by Ally full-time. That’s one less thing to worry about for a driver looking to take the next step towards a championship.
Busch, Truex looking for a bounce back
Just as Harvick and Hamlin dueled for much of 2020, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the two most consistent drivers during the 2019 season, with Busch eventually winning the championship. Neither driver followed that season up with an impressive 2020 season, as each driver won just one race, and neither made the championship race. Both drivers grew in consistency towards the end of the season, but neither seemed to be themselves. They’ll hope to prove that one bad year doesn’t mean the beginning of a downfall.
Larson returns to NASCAR with Hendrick
The COVID break wasn’t all that great for Kyle Larson. He was temporarily banned from NASCAR following his use of a racial slur on an iRacing broadcast, and lost the majority of his sponsorship. However, Larson did what was necessary to get himself reinstated into the sport, and quickly latched on with Hendrick Motorsports in the reincarnated No. 5 car. Following an incredibly successful year on dirt, it will be interesting to see how quickly Larson can get back into the stock car groove.
NASCAR shaking up the schedule
One positive that came out of the COVID pandemic was the adjustments that NASCAR made to the schedule. Gone are the dozens of races at cookie cutter tracks, and replacing them are a variety of different races. The series will return to the Daytona Road Course and Indianapolis Road Course in 2021 after trying them out in 2020, but the changes didn’t stop there. Nashville Superspeedway returns to the schedule after a nearly two-decade hiatus, the series will visit Circuit of the Americas for the first time, and one Bristol race will be run on dirt. The schedule is beginning to shift to create a more versatile and interesting season.
Wallace, Hamlin, Jordan teaming up at 23XI
Following three full-time seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports, it was time for Bubba Wallace to make his move and truly be competitive. Wallace put together an impressive 2020 season, with a few top-ten runs and putting himself in contention in multiple superspeedway races. Along with Denny Hamlin, and NBA legend Michael Jordan, Wallace made an offseason splash by announcing the inception of 23XI Racing. Wallace will pilot the car in its debut season, and it appears as if they will be pretty competitive from the get-go.
Bell moves on to Joe Gibbs Racing
The writing was on the wall for Christopher Bell. With Leavine Family Racing ceasing operations at the end of the 2020 season, Joe Gibbs Racing had a decision to make; move Bell into the 20 car, or risk losing him for good. Gibbs elected to bring Bell in full-time, replacing Erik Jones. Following a year in which Bell took LFR to its best final standings position in the team’s history, there’s a good chance we’ll see the 20 return to the playoffs.
Final year of transition before the Next Gen
This season will be the end of another era in NASCAR. In 2022, NASCAR will move on to the Next Gen car, as tests have already been underway for months. With complaints about the current racing package continuing to abound, particularly at the intermediate tracks, it will be interesting to see if there is any change in the racing product with just one year until the whole car will look different.
Most Impressive: Tyler Reddick
Following a solid rookie season in which he nearly snuck into the playoffs (and nearly won the regular season finale at Daytona), Tyler Reddick may be primed for a breakout in 2021. Reddick’s obvious talent, combined with a recent improvement from Richard Childress Racing, could very well put the youngster in the playoffs this year.
Most Disappointing: William Byron
Many thought that Byron would make a deep playoff run last year, but that didn’t quite materialize in his third season with Hendrick Motorsports. The driver of the No. 24 did finally secure his first career win, albeit in a wreck-filled Daytona race, but wasn’t able to translate that performance into any consistency. Byron’s victory doesn’t give all that much indication towards his 2021 success, and with the increasing competition in the Cup series, a step back is very possible.
Most Successful Transition: Bubba Wallace
Among drivers switching teams this year, Wallace will definitely be one to watch as he starts his venture with 23XI Racing. Owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, the team figures to be immediately competitive, and it will give Wallace the opportunity to truly showcase his skill. After showing significant improvement in 2020 with Richard Petty Motorsports, it’s time for Wallace to take his car to victory lane.
Most Potential to Become A Championship Contender: Alex Bowman
In 2020, Bowman overcame a horrific summer stretch to advance to the Round of 8 and nearly sneak his way into the Championship 4. That being said, his one win came very early in the campaign, and he struggled to find consistency throughout much of the season. After putting up a win in each of the previous two years, 2021 could be Bowman’s big chance to establish himself as a true championship contender in the legendary 48 car.
Most to Prove: Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch was the favorite to win the championship going into last season, and after he won it all in 2019, that notion was difficult to argue. After a disappointing 2020 season in which Busch won just one race and was eliminated in the Round of 12, 2021 could say a lot about his future. Was 2020 just a blip on the radar of a driver still in his prime? Or was it the beginning of the end for the two-time champion?
End of Season Predictions
It wouldn’t be a NASCAR preview without looking ahead to next year’s silly season. There are plenty of drivers’ futures that could be up in the air after the 2021 season, and the racing landscape could look much different in 2022. Here are some possible, though, in some cases, unlikely, headlines for the next offseason.
Newman calls it a career
As one of the longest tenured drivers in the Cup Series, 2020 was a rough year for Ryan Newman. His season started with a horrific crash in the Daytona 500, and ended with arguably the worst year-long performance of his career. Though his 2021 season should show slight improvement, I think Newman hangs up the race suit at the end of the year and gracefully fades into retirement.
CGR opens third car for Reddick
As one of the most exciting young drivers in the sport, Tyler Reddick will be in an interesting position at the end of 2021. Though he is returning to Richard Childress Racing for his second year with the team at the Cup Series level, RCR isn’t quite a top-tier team yet. Reddick should have plenty of suitors for his talent at the end of the year, and it would make sense for a team like Chip Ganassi Racing to add a young talent, especially with Kurt Busch’s career winding down.
DiBenedetto to Roush-Fenway
It has already been announced that DiBenedetto will be replaced in the No. 21 by Austin Cindric in 2022, but there are also rumblings that Matty D already has a ride lined up once his 2021 season concludes. One that makes a lot of sense is the No. 6 car, currently driven by Ryan Newman. As stated above, Newman’s retirement is likely impending, and the team will likely prefer a proven driver such as DiBenedetto, which would also keep him in the Ford camp.
23XI expands to two cars, brings in Kaz Grala
Grala only made one cup series start in 2020, but he made an impression after finishing ninth in an impromptu start at the Daytona Road Course. He is racing part-time with Kaulig Racing this season, and could very well be in line for a full-time ride next year. Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan may want to expand their operation for 2022, and Grala should be a top candidate to take over the ride.