The offseason is almost wrapped up. The longest season in sports is about to begin with the NASCAR Cup Series set to kick off their 2021 campaign on Valentines Day for the annual Daytona 500. With that said, there’s an abundance of storylines entering the new year. It was hard this year to narrow this list down to five, but here are the top five storylines that I think are the biggest things to hog the attention for the 2021 season.
Changing Of The Guard? Is This Chase Elliott’s Sport Now?
Jimmie Johnson is now retired. So is Clint Bowyer. They follow recent notable drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, etc as big named drivers to walk away from the sport in recent years. That has also caused a shift in the series and a changing of the guard per say.
Chase Elliott’s win and championship last November at Phoenix and Johnson’s final race which sparked the two having a nice moment on track after, is the image that comes to mind for this changing of the guard. I mean, think about it, Johnson takes his 83 wins and seven championships with him to usher out the old and Elliott’s earns his first title and usher in the new era.
From Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt to Jeff Gordon to Jimmie Johnson/Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Chase Elliott?
Elliott, is now a champion and a three time defending Most Popular Driver of the Year award recipient. This is his NASCAR now. The shadows of the past are gone. Can he take this new era of NASCAR to bigger depths again?
In this new era of NASCAR is one that’s promoting more parity. With Johnson now gone from the sport on a full time basis, Kyle Busch (2015, 2019) is the only driver left with more than one championship to his credit. Kurt Busch (2004), Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014), Truex Jr. (2017), Logano (2018) and Elliott (2020) each have one. That’s it. That’s the list. Combined, that’s eight championships in the Cup Series driver lineup in 2021. Johnson, had seven all by himself.
You’d also notice that a recent theme in the playoff format that we’ve had six different champions in the seven year era. No longer does the driver with the most wins take home the title. Just twice in the seven year playoff era format has the driver with the most wins actually won the title in the same season. Kevin Harvick won nine times in 2020 and 13 times over the last two years and hasn’t taken home any championship hardware to show for it. Denny Hamlin also has won 13 races, two of which being the last two Daytona 500’s, in the same span and he also is 0-for-2 in championships won since the start of the 2019 season.
Also, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are getting more and more company for the Championship 4 spots now too. Prior to 2020, it was basically a shoe in to include this trio and a fourth into the final round. Last year, neither made it. It was just the second time ever that Harvick and Busch each failed to make the Championship 4 as Harvick’s only other year that he didn’t was in 2015 and Busch’s 2014. Truex missed the Championship 4 for the first time 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. Can he go back-to-back?
The numbers are against him. There’s the parity factor and also the factor of Johnson being the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since then, no one has repeated as a champion. Can Chase Elliott do so in 2021? Before Johnson, Jeff Gordon was the last to do so in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? That’s why it’s going to be a tall task ahead of Elliott this year.
Plus, you have Harvick who as I said above has 13 wins in two years. Logano, has two Championship 4 appearances in three years. Hamlin has two straight and also 13 victories since 2019. Ryan Blaney showed flashes of speed in 2020. Alex Bowman looked strong and is carrying a ton of momentum. Brad Keselowski is shining again.
The past years of Busch, Harvick and Truex being a Sharpie to the Championship 4 are gone. Elliott also has a tall task to win a second straight title. It’s why NASCAR is more wide open than ever before with a changing of the guard occurring.
New Schedule – New Emphasis on Road Racing
This isn’t your granddads NASCAR anymore. You wanted change. You’ve got it. NASCAR has heard you. The long stagnant schedule is getting a face lift. Fewer 1.5 mile tracks. Fewer dates on tracks that have two dates but shouldn’t. More short tracks. More road courses. More races in the southeast, unfortunately also less in the Midwest. New dates.
They listened. I applaud them for spicing things up. It was a long time coming. They’re wanting to make NASCAR must see in person again.
Bristol has a dirt race. Indianapolis is shifting to the road course. COTA, Road America and the Daytona road course come onboard to give us seven road courses in 2021. Four years ago we only had two.
Homestead moves up to a week behind the Daytona double. The west coast swing takes place after the Florida trio of events. Atlanta and Darlington get two stops again. This is what NASCAR needed for a long time.
These dates will certainly see higher attendance with better ratings. 2021 is a new era before we get a new car.
We’ve added the choose cone rule, weeknight races, doubleheaders. We’ve experimented with number placement. This isn’t the old NASCAR anymore either.
With that said, the regular season is going to be a big wildcard. We have six road courses in the regular season now, three of which are brand new tracks, or layouts for that matter, at that. Furthermore, two of the final four races of the regular season are on road courses. Then, factor in three superspeedway’s and a Bristol dirt race and you get 10 of the 26 regular season races being ultimate wildcards.
With the abundance of road courses though, you no longer can coast through them. You need to take them seriously now and ensure that you’re as good turning right in NASCAR as your are at going left.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – MAY 18: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Advent Health Chevrolet, celebrates winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
This is going to be a big thing to watch, especially early in the season. Kyle Larson returns to NASCAR after a lengthy indefinite suspension for a racial slur used in a video game race last Easter. He lost his support, his backing. He lost funding, sponsors and finally his team. The hottest free agent in the sport was no more. Would this be the dagger for his NASCAR career?
Well, Larson went on a different path. One to show that he’s not a racist and try to do everything that he could possibly do to show us that he’s not. He did classes and training and put himself out there for new endeavors to learn about the African American community.
He also did so while tearing up the dirt tracks around the country as well and showing his true talent behind the wheel of a race car was just too good to pass over. While finding support to put their company colors and logo on a NASCAR would be a hard sell still, his reputation was coming back around. That was enough to lead Rick Hendrick to take a chance on him for 2021.
Without any financial backing, Hendrick decided to hire Larson to drive one of his race cars. Larson, will return to NASCAR in 2021 and pilot the No. 5 Chevrolet with HMS. It’s a championship caliber ride for him and one that he should excel in.
Larson, will be talked about a lot in 2021. It will be interesting to see how he’s received again on a larger stage back in the limelight.
Michael Jordan Leads The New Faces In New Places
Think about this, the two-time defending Daytona 500 champion is showing up to Daytona 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 also are aiming to be competitive. That’s a huge get for NASCAR and the biggest new face to walk the garage in 2021. It’s polarizing to see Jordan/Hamlin together as well as the lone African American driver in the series driving for them.
Trackhouse Racing Team will also be a new team in NASCAR with Daniel Suarez driving their No. 99 Chevrolet. They have RCR ties. Matt Tifft has bought into a new team with BJ McLeod. 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?
JGR In A Transition Year? HMS Is Among Those Ushering In A New Era
Is the pressure on at Joe Gibbs Racing? After taking home 19 wins in 36 points paying races including having three drivers in the Championship 4 for the 2019 season, their production greatly dipped in 2020. Now, with how things are trending and shaping up in the NASCAR Cup Series for 2021, is this a make or break year for them?
Denny Hamlin has won 13 times over the last two seasons. No one has won more as he and Kevin Harvick are tops in that category. He’s won the last two Daytona 500’s. He’s made it to the Championship 4 in both years. He’s just not won a championship. Now, he has a new team on the grid with a partnership with Michael Jordan. While he wants to retire with JGR, when does that come?
Hamlin, while having no titles, has turned into the leader of JGR.
The other three may have some pressure on them.
I think Christopher Bell has the less pressure of the group though. This is just his second year in Cup and his first with the team. Bell, had a tougher season than he expected in 2020 though with Leavine Family Racing. See, he came up through the dirt ranks dominating the USAC trail. Most of those races are 30-50 laps in length. Then Bell ran a few years in Trucks and a few more in Xfinity after. Those races range between 150-300 miles.
Last year he graduated to Cup where most races are 400-500 miles. Plus, the cars aren’t fitting to his driving style as well. The Cup cars have more downforce and less horsepower. He’s used to less downforce and more horsepower in the other rides that he’s driven. The looser race cars that he typically likes, which in turn leads to faster laps, isn’t happening in Cup due to the package.
So, combine all of that and you get a disappointing season in his first at the helm.
Now, he’s in the No. 20 Toyota that struggled recently too. Erik Jones had just two wins in this ride in three years and never made it past the opening round of the playoffs. It cost him his ride with Bell coming in and replacing him.
But, can Bell get up to speed in 2021 and prove he’s part of JGR’s future?
Then you have Kyle Busch. The two-time series champion extended his season winning streak to 16 straight years with at least one victory in 2020. Can he make it 17 and be one shy of Richard Petty’s 18 straight seasons with a win in 2021? That sounds nice and all, but it took him 34 races last year to finally get his win to extend this streak another year. He’s also had just two wins over his last 58 races run.
It’s no secret, Busch and his No. 18 Toyota team struggled with the lack of practice that was given last year. He had two top three finishes in the four races before the pandemic and five in the 32 races after. It forced a crew chief change for him as he no longer has Adam Stevens on top of his pit box anymore. But, 28 of the 36 races won’t have any practice this season either. Can he bounce back this season?
Busch, did end the year much better though in 2020. 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 also. He’s only won twice in his last 43 starts as well. Busch has two wins in his last 58. Hamlin, has 13 wins over the last 66.
See why these two need to pick it up again? Truex has been rumored to be out of this ride soon. How much validity is that? I’m not sure but I do know it seems like his contract is up after this season and JGR another driver in Harrison Burton who will likely be looking for a Cup ride for 2022.
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 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. But, do they risk having a hot start but fading later too?
What I mean by that is that it actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Just 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. 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 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.
What’s that say?
I mean Busch has had the opposite effect though. He won four times in the first 14 races in 2019, none over the next 21 but won the season finale at Homestead for his second championship. In 2015, he won four of his first nine starts after his injury, none over the next 15 races, then was triumphant in the finale again in Homestead for his first title. He may need to start off hot while the other have time to figure it out.