I expect the 2021 NASCAR season to be one of the best that we’ve ever seen, especially in the NASCAR Xfinity as well as the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series levels. Just look at how much talent that is stacked in each right now. By virtue of not many Cup rides being available to move up into, the Xfinity and Truck Series’ had the most to gain with several drivers just staying put again for next season.
But, that also leads to higher expectations for them next year which also could lead to put up or shut up seasons. That could lead to more tempers flaring on track for both series in 2021 as a direct result of which.
See, there’s only so much room to move up to in NASCAR’s top level. NASCAR has four “big” teams that win most of their races on the Cup Series level.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports won 34 of the 36 points paying races in 2020. They took all four of the Championship 4 spots too.
In 2019, the same four teams won 33 of the 36 races run. They also took all four Championship 4 spots again. In 2018, they won 31 of the 36 races. Furniture Row Racing with a JGR alliance won four times that year which if you count them in this mix, that’s 35 of 36 races.
Chip Ganassi Racing has won three times since 2018. Richard Childress Racing has won twice over the last three years too. Spire’s upset win in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 with Justin Haley is the only other team to have won in the Cup Series since the start of the 2018 season.
Other than Martin Truex Jr’s title with FRR in 2017, you have to go all the way back to Kurt Busch’s championship with Roush Fenway Racing in 2004 as the last team not named Gibbs, Stewart-Haas, Penske, or Hendrick to win a Cup championship.
But, when looking at what space is available with them, there’s not much.
HMS has all four drivers under the age of 30 now. I don’t see any of those drivers going anywhere any time soon. Team Penske has Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney signed to longer deals with Austin Cindric moving up next season to the Wood Brothers. What does that do to Brad Keselowski and/or Matt DiBenedetto?
Penske may be set if they stay with Keselowski or DiBenedetto for the next several years because they can move Cindric over in 2023 or 2024.
SHR has promoted Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe through the ranks the last two years now and has Kevin Harvick signed for the next three years. Aric Almirola’s on a year to year contract now with them still. This means between HMS, Penske and SHR, there’s only 1-2 total seats available between now and 2024.
That leaves JGR who has Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell. Who you going to let go there?
See where the predicament lies?
Other rides on the Cup level become open, but do you risk going there and not contending and allowing someone else coming through the ranks later take one of the top ride spots when they do become available? Do you instead just stay put in NXS or Trucks and just wait for your turn? I mean after all, you do have a top ride in the lower ranks. Why not stay there and at least remain competitive?
The problem there is, if your stats decline, then you get overlooked again. If you’re not in the Cup garage, you’re not maybe getting noticed by other Cup owners.
That’s why I expect a lot of aggression next season in the two lower series with drivers trying to prove themselves.
In Xfinity, you have Myatt Snider who’s going to be 26 and taking over the full time ride at RCR. That car won the 2019 championship with Tyler Reddick on the heels of six wins, 24 top fives and 27 top 10’s. That got Reddick a promotion. Matt Tifft a year prior, didn’t reach victory lane at all and only had six top five’s and 19 top 10’s. He wasn’t around a second year. Snider, who had two top fives and six top 10’s in 2020 needs to be somewhere between those two drivers’ years in the No. 2 Chevrolet next season.
Then you have someone like Riley Herbst. He didn’t win as a rookie at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020 but did have 21 top 10’s. He’s taking over a car that Chase Briscoe had won nine times to go with 16 top fives and 22 top 10’s this past season. He also had a win, 13 top fives and 26 top 10’s in 2019 in it. Cole Custer had nine wins, 38 top fives and 69 top fives in three years in the No. 00 Ford at SHR. He was fifth, second and second in the three years in the final standings. Herbst, has the luxury of having both of those equipment all to himself as a single car team and has to win next year in that equipment or if not, he’s going to never really get a top Cup ride. If you can’t win with JGR or SHR on the NXS level, then who can you win with.
“I have to win races,” Herbst said on Thursday. “I have to be competitive. This car was the best car, week in and week out last year. That had a lot to do with Chase Briscoe. He’s in the Cup Series now, and a heck of a wheelman himself.
“But I know (crew chief) Richard Boswell and all the guys on the No. 98 team are really smart and know what they’re doing. They’re going to be bring me just-as-fast race cars as they did last year with Chase.
“It’s on me.”
Same for the guy replacing him with JGR. Daniel Hermic is 0-for-175 in his NASCAR career. He was solid in two full time seasons in NXS with RCR which earned him a promotion to Cup in 2019. Despite being the rookie of the year that season, he was let go for Reddick who won the 2019 NXS championship. That forced Hemric down to a part time role with JR Motorsports in 2020. Now, he’s full time with an organization that has produced 173 wins in NXS. If he can’t finally get over the hump and get to victory lane in 2021, when will he ever?
It’s also a similar situation for Jeb Burton with Kaulig. He’s taking over the No. 10 Chevrolet that had 15 top five finishes and 27 top 10’s with Ross Chastain last year. Burton, has six career top five finishes and six top 10’s in each of the last two years in NXS. He too has to prove to be a contender in that ride in 2021.
These guys are trying to prove they belong in top rides. What about drivers trying to get a chance to move up?
Noah Gragson is in his third year now at JRM. Not many guys get four years and still move up to a top Cup ride. Gragson went from no wins to two from 2019 to 2020. He also went from nine top fives to 17 and 22 top 10’s to 25. He led 72 laps in 2019 to 622 in 2020. He ended 2020 strong. What if his stats dip in 2021? He’s ascending and won’t be 23 until July. But, will some say he hit his ceiling if his stats do decline?
Same with Harrison Burton. After a tough season in Trucks in 2019, he got to still move up to NXS with JGR in 2020. Burton, won four times and had 27 top 10’s. He has to have a similar year in 2021. He’s going to want to move up soon as Christopher Bell and Erik Jones only spent two years in NXS before moving up to Cup rides. This is year No. 2 for Burton. Does he move up to a Cup seat in 2022? Depends on how he does in NXS. Bell and Jones both thrived in their second years.
That leaves Justin Haley. He’s trying to show everyone not to forget about him. He won three times in 2020 to go along with 10 top fives and 21 top 10’s. Haley, was third in the final standings.
But, with only a select few rides open in Cup each year now and those guys all above trying to show their worth, Haley can’t afford to have a quiet season or he may get overlooked.
Then you have the new duo at Kyle Busch Motorsports too that factor into this. They want to move up the ladder eventually. In order to do so, they need to win in Trucks.
Just look at the 4 Truck, John Hunter Nemechek’s new ride, as a prime example. Erik Jones drove it in 2015. He won three wins, had 11 top five finishes, 20 top 10’s, five poles and led 925 laps on his way to a championship. He’d graduate to the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing after.
In 2016, it was Christopher Bell’s turn. He had one win, but nine top five’s, 17 top 10’s, 197 laps led and made it to the Championship 4. That allowed him a second stint in that truck the very next year. He gave KBM their second title in three years after scoring five wins, 15 top five finishes, 21 top 10’s, five poles and 875 laps led.
What if I told you that the Truck hasn’t made the playoffs since.
In those three years, Jones and Bell combined for nine wins, 35 top fives, 58 top 10’s, 10 poles, 1,997 laps led and two championships.
In the three years since?
Two wins, 14 top five finishes, 30 top 10’s, two poles and 300 laps led.
Todd Gilliland took over the Truck after the first four races of the 2018 season due to his young age. He had no wins, four top five finishes, nine top 10’s, one pole and 208 laps led that year. He was 10th in the final standings. He returned in 2019 for one win, six top fives, 14 top 10’s, one pole and 72 laps led with also an 11th place finish in the standings. After being publicly called out by Busch to do better, his stats didn’t improve so he was replaced by Lessard for this past season. Lessard, had one win, four top five’s, seven top 10’s, no poles and 20 laps led. He also failed to make the playoffs and came home 12th in the final standings.
The 18 Truck was the same. Chandler Smith is in that ride now.
After Noah Gragson won two races, had 12 combined top five’s, 30 top 10’s, nine poles, 812 laps led and a near championship in 2018, Harrison Burton and then Christian Eckes took over the last two years. They’ve combined to have no wins, 14 top fives, 22 top 10’s, no poles and 191 laps led. Their final points finishes were 12th and eighth respectively. Each had seven top fives and 11 top 10’s and each were replaced the next year now.
Burton, did move up to Xfinity and thrived as a rookie in 2020. Eckes, will have to find a new team.
Meanwhile, Kyle Busch has won 17 times in a part time role obviously since 2015. He’s done so in just 30 starts. Greg Biffle even came back and won a race in a part time role. It was his first NASCAR start in a couple of years at that and his first Truck race in a long time. He still won.
The Trucks were proven to have what it takes to win races and compete for championships. The drivers just weren’t living up to their potential, so KBM will keep trying until they find some.
That’s why Smith and Nemechek were brought in. If they don’t win, then the theory like those in NXS come true that they can’t win in anything then. If they do win, then it puts more pressure on those in NXS because you have two guys that are going to get looks.
That’s why 2021 is going to see a lot of aggressive driving in both series. You’re going to see dive bombs in turns, crazy restarts, tempers flaring, hurt feelings, etc. There’s going to be plenty of fireworks because these drivers’ futures are at risk here. It’s time to show everyone what they’ve got.