The burnout markings are still freshly imbedded into the Phoenix Raceway asphalt after Chase Elliott won the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship on Sunday. While the season may just have ended, the full focus now is onto the 2021 campaign.
After all the uncertainty of the 2020 year, we know that at leas 2021 can run, but to what capacity will fans be allowed? That’s one of the main topics to watch this offseason as how the country develops around COVID still.
The Super Bowl looks like it will have limited attendance on Feb. 7. Will the Daytona 500 have to do so a week later in the same state? Then, it’s to the west coast swing where California has had stricter orders. How does that affect Fontana?
COVID is still very unpredictable, but 2020 showed that a season can still be had despite being in the midst of a global pandemic. The only thing affecting 2021’s season will be fan interaction. What races will have fans and to what capacity?
Also, the schedule is vastly different too. Chicagoland and Kentucky are gone. The Brickyard 400 at Indy moves back to August but on the road course instead. Nashville takes one of the Dover dates, Michigan and Texas lose races but Atlanta, Darlington, COTA and Road America are added in the replacements for the loss of Chicago, Kentucky, Michigan and Texas. Bristol’s spring date moves to a dirt race with you having five road courses, three superspeedway’s and a dirt race making up nine of the 26 races in the regular season. The 10 race postseason remains the same with the 2021 season closing in Phoenix on Nov. 7.
Here are the early top five things to watch.
5. Repeat Champion? Transition of the Guard?
Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since, no one has repeated as a champion. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Elliott do it in 2021?
Kevin Harvick will be hungry. He won nine times in 2020 and 13 times over the last two years. Denny Hamlin has also won 13 times over the last two seasons as well. The Penske trio looked fantastic at seasons end. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. each won one race in 2020 a piece, can they improve?
If Harvick, Hamlin, Busch and Truex all are back to their old ways and Penske improves further, it will be hard for Elliott to repeat.
But, did 2020 show us that we’re set for a transition?
Harvick, was the best car and did have nine wins, but he failed to make the Championship 4 for just the second time of his career. Same for Busch. This was the first time that Truex missed the Championship 4 since 2016.
Elliott, meanwhile has won 12 times in three years and went from three straight Round of 8 exits to the final round and a championship. Logano, has two Championship 4 appearances in three years. Hamlin has two straight. Ryan Blaney showed flashes of speed in 2020. Alex Bowman looked strong and is carrying a ton of momentum.
The past years of Busch, Harvick and Truex being in Sharpie into the final round leaving room for just one driver appears to maybe be over. The guard is changing.
Plus, now that Johnson retires, Busch (2015, 2019) is the only driver in the field with multiple championships at two. Kurt Busch (2004), Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Truex Jr. (2017), Logano (2018) and Elliott (2020) each have one.
AVONDALE, AZ – MARCH 10: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway on March 10, 2019 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
4. Bounce Back Year For Kyle Busch/Martin Truex Jr.? JGR May Be In Transition Soon If Not
Kyle Busch extended his season winning streak to 16. Can he make it 17 and be one shy of Richard Petty’s 18 straight seasons with a win in 2021? It’s no secret, Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team struggled with the lack of practice. He had two top three finishes in the four races before the pandemic and five in the 32 races after. It took him until the 34th race to finally win. He’s also had just two wins over his last 58 races run. Can he bounce back in 2021?
Busch, has ended the year much better. He’s scored seven top 10’s over his last 10 races run. Unfortunately, it was a little too late as he only had one stage win entering the postseason and three total playoff points. That didn’t give him a mulligan that’s he so used to having in the playoffs and he was bounced in the Round of 12.
But, with the pace coming back, can Busch bounce back for another solid campaign in 2021?
Martin Truex Jr. needs one too. He was solid for much of 2020, but he missed out on the Championship 4 and only had one win too. He’s only won twice in his last 43 starts. Busch has two wins in his last 58. Hamlin, has 13 wins over the last 66.
Credit a lot of this to Toyota’s losing steam between 2019 and 2020 too. They struggled to adapt to the lack of practice and qualifying. Well, 2021 is going to be similar to 2020 in that nature too. How much did they learn from 2020 to apply to 2021 so that doesn’t happen?
JGR is going to have to get younger again soon anyways. They lost out on Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Noah Gragson, William Byron and others due to being capped at four cars. If Busch and Truex don’t rebound, does JGR have look elsewhere sooner rather than later?
Their competition has already done so. SHR is getting younger with Cole Custer (22) and Chase Briscoe (25). HMS has already gotten younger with all four drivers now below the age of 30. Kyle Larson is the oldest at 28 years old now for HMS. Alex Bowman is 27 while Chase Elliott and William Byron are 24 and 22 respectively. Team Penske has 30 year old Joey Logano and 26 year old Ryan Blaney locked in for their future. They’ll have 22 year old Austin Cindric ready for next year.
JGR has soon to be 40 year old Denny Hamlin, 40 year old Martin Truex Jr., 35 year old Kyle Busch and 25 year old Christopher Bell. See the problem here if Truex and Busch don’t start winning more soon like they did from the first half of 2019 and prior?
That’s why 2021 is going to be big for JGR in more ways than one.
3. Will Crew Chief Swaps Occur Again? Expect Quieter Offseason
To further the point above, will Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens part? Will anyone else for that matter? We saw just how well the Team Penske swap worked for them. They put two of their three drivers in the Championship 4 after splitting up all three crew chief-driver combos this past offseason. Will anyone else follow suit?
Penske’s shock decision as well as Cole Pearn’s surprise retirement made last year’s offseason a wild one. But, I think this year’s will be tamer.
Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson should remain paired. As should Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick. I don’t see Penske changing theirs up again. Denny Hamlin and Chris Gabehart are a perfect tandem so they likely won’t be swapping on their end. Hendrick has already paired their other three drivers and I can’t see JGR splitting Martin Truex Jr. and James Small after only one year. Christopher Bell is replacing Erik Jones and has a crew chief already.
Plus, all the major rides are filled now.
I think we’ll see a quieter offseason this time around in terms of driver or crew chief movement.
2. Can Toyota/Chevrolet Catch The Ford’s
Toyota won 19 of the 36 races run in 2019 and took three of the four spots in the Championship 4. But, even with the same car back in 2020, they slipped. Toyota’s won just nine times in 2020 and put only one car in the final round this time around. It wasn’t the fact that they necessarily fell back, it was the fact that they didn’t develop further up and Chevrolet and Ford caught them.
Ford’s won 18 times in 2020. Can they avoid a let down in 2021?
There’s a new car coming out in 2022, so it makes no sense to develop much for this current car next year. But, that’s what was supposed to happen between this past offseason with the new car initially supposed to come out in 2021. Due to COVID, they moved it back a year.
Toyota’s stayed stagnant and everyone else caught up. Now, do the blue ovals rest on their loreals or do they continue to develop for 2021 and 2022?
Chevrolet did so between 2019 and and 2020 and it paid off early. They looked much faster early on. But, they since slipped and while only winning nine times in 2020, they did produce a champion. They’ve had single digit victories for three straight years now though too.
They also did make it to the Championship 4 for the first time since 2016 and put three drivers in the Round of 8. Can they continue the upward trajectory and have an even bigger year in 2021?
2021 is going to come down to who spends the most time and resources on improving this offseason. Is it financially worth it to spend money on developing this car still when it’s going to be obsolete at this time next year? Wouldn’t it be wiser to start putting all your time and money on the 2022 car so you come out of the gates hot then?
Toyota improved from 2018 to 2019 and dropped dramatically from 2019 to 2020. Ford did the opposite. What happens this offseason?
1. New Faces In New Places, Debut Of Michael Jordan’s Team
Think about this, the two-time defending Daytona 500 champion is showing up to Daytona next February as a driver still. But, he’s also a car owner as well. He’s doing so with NBA legend Michael Jordan. They teamed up with Toyota to bring Bubba Wallace in the No. 23 Toyota. They aim to be competitive. That’s a huge get for NASCAR.
Trackhouse Racing Team will also be a new team in NASCAR with Daniel Suarez driving their Chevrolet. They have RCR ties. Matt Tifft has bought into a new team. The future is bright.
Then, you have Kyle Larson joining Hendrick Motorsports in replacing Alex Bowman in the 88 but swapping the number back to the No. 5 Chevrolet. Bowman is replacing Jimmie Johnson in the 48. Chase Briscoe is replacing Clint Bowyer. Both Johnson and Bowyer are retiring.
Ross Chastain it taking over Larson’s old ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 42 Chevrolet. Christopher Bell is moving from the Leavine Family Racing team that’s shutting down their operation to replace Erik Jones at JGR in the No. 20 Toyota. Jones, is moving over to fill the seat left vacated by Bubba Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Everything else is going to remain status quo.
But, 2022 is going to be the focus on silly season next with Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and others are free agents. How much movement do we see there?
We know Austin Cindric is moving up to take DiBenedetto’s ride at the Wood Brothers in the No. 21 Ford. What else happens?