Things to watch heading into 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has sprung up upon us. It’s here. The three month break is now over as the annual Daytona 500 from the Daytona International Speedway is on the horizon. With that said, here are some things to watch entering the upcoming season.

Offseason Development?

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 in the process.

Ford’s won 18 times in 2020. Can they avoid that let down in 2021?

Well, that’s now tricky. Here’s why.

There’s a new car coming out in 2022. So, it makes no sense to develop much for this current car for this season. But, that’s what was supposed to happen between the last offseason with the new car initially supposed to come out in 2021. Due to COVID, they moved it back a year.

So, who tinkered with their cars and spent the amount of money that it’s going to take to be a champion in 2021 but risk falling back for 2022’s new car?

Toyota’s stayed stagnant between 2019 and 2020 and everyone else caught up. Now, do the blue ovals rest on their loreals or did they continue to develop between 2020 and 2021’s seasons.

Repeat Champ?

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 to do so as he did it in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Elliott accomplish this feat 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.

Penske Trio The Favorites?

The favorites for 2021 have to go through Team Penske, right? Nothing really changes on the car or the rules package between 2020 and 2021 and we will still have a majority of the races without practice or qualifying.

Penske, started off hot with their crew chief swap in 2020 but when the pandemic hit and forced NASCAR to adapt, it hurt Penske. See, they didn’t have the luxury of having pages upon pages of notes for the new driver and crew chief lineups to decipher through. This was all new for them to be working together.

But, as the summer went on, they got comfortable.

Joey Logano won two of the first four races of the season then had just one top five and five top 10’s in the next 13 races run during COVID. But, he also had nine top five finishes and 13 top 10’s over his final 15 races too as he marched all the way to the Championship 4.

Brad Keselowski also made the Championship 4 and had the most wins among the bunch. He ended 2020 with four consecutive top six finishes.

Ryan Blaney was much like Logano. He should have had three straight runner-up finishes to start the 2020 season off with. Then, he had six top four finishes in the first nine races during COVID too though. But, that’s when the bottom dropped out. Blaney, had one top five and only four top 10’s over the next 16 races. That saw him get bounced of the playoffs in the first round. They didn’t give up though. They had six top seven finishes over the final seven weeks of the season.

With that much momentum, they enter 2021 as the favorites.

Will Someone Join Hamlin/Harvick’s Party?

Denny Hamlin is driving better now than at any point of his career. He’s won 13 times over the last two years including the last two Daytona 500’s. Kevin Harvick also has 13 wins over the last two seasons as well. The thing is, neither have a championship to show for it. Can they get one in 2021?

In this new age of NASCAR, it doesn’t matter what you do during the regular season or how much you dominate, it’s all about positioning yourself for that 10 race postseason.

The duo won 13 of the 26 races in the regular season in 2020 but just three of the 10 in the playoffs. In fact, two of the three came in the opening round by Harvick. He was shutout of victory lane over the final seven weeks.

Furthermore, it actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Last year, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.

The hot start trend doesn’t lead to a championship as Hamlin and Harvick have been finding out.

So, who may join them for wins for the regular season this year? Penske for obvious reasons above, are the odds on favorites in my book. But, Harvick and Hamlin can be close.

The thing is, during the playoff era, five of the seven champions won five times during the season. One of them won just three times. Only twice in seven years did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself.

The blueprint is starting to become clearer, so will anyone join Harvick or Hamlin or will they continue taking victory trophies in 2021?

Driver-Crew Chief Pairings

The recent trend of new driver-crew chief combos is astounding. Just look at all the turnover in this department in recent years. If I told you a few years ago that Jimmie Johnson would race without Chad Knaus, Kyle Busch without Adam Stevens, Martin Truex Jr. without Cole Pearn, Brad Keselowski without Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano without Todd Gordon, you would have called me crazy.

But, here we are.

Team Penske swapped all three driver-crew chief combos last year. It almost backfired because of COVID but they in turn figured it out. Two of their three drivers made it to the Championship 4.

Truex was paired with James Small a year ago after Pearn retired. After a struggling 2020, Busch and Stevens were split up. Busch now has Ben Beshore on top of his pit box with Stevens going to Christopher Bell.

Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick and Chris Gabehart/Denny Hamlin have worked really well together in recent years and lead this new tandem grouping. But, the Penske trio as well as now Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson are right there too.

One can make a case to where the driver/crew chief pairings in NASCAR now are as important now than ever before. See, drivers these days aren’t as well versed in what goes into making a car than they used to be. Back in the 70s or 80s, a lot of the drivers were gearheads in a sense that they could work on their own cars too. Not that some drivers now aren’t, but most couldn’t tell you what goes into a car anymore. They just drive what they were given.

Crew chiefs have to have such a close relationship to know what their driver likes in the car because of that. The drivers can tell you what they need to help their car go faster on track and what areas of the track that they’re struggling in, but some struggle to tell their crew chiefs what changes to the car to make it do what they’re describing. “My car is loose in Turn 3 or my car is plowing in Turn 1 or 2.” That’s normal verbiage from a driver on his scanner to his crew chief during the race. But, they may not be able to tell you how to fix it to make it better.

The crew chief has to hear what the driver is assessing and know what ways to make the car better to drive. They have to be well versed and know the lingo with their driver to make the changes needed.

Without any practice for the final 32 races of 2020 and a majority of the races in 2021, you really have to be well versed with your driver to be sure you’re taking a car with you to the race track each week that has a shot to win. Then, you have to be able to communicate well over the course of the race to make changes as the day goes on.

Not many races now do you not touch the car all race. You have to make adjustments, even if they’re slight because the cars that aren’t perfect, well they’re adjusting and they can make enough adjustments that might make them better than you.

So, you’re racing the car you’re driving, the other cars on track to go along with the track and the conditions as well.

That’s why a driver-crew chief pairing is so integral in the sport to success. It’s not a fluke that the best drivers each season have the best crew chiefs for them. Why do the greats all have good sidekicks? Gordon-Evernham. Johnson-Knaus. Petty-Inman.

This is a new era for this now too.

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