The NASCAR Xfinity Series kick starts their 2021 season this Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN) at the Daytona International Speedway. The World Center of Speed will yet again be the site of the annual season opener for the drivers and teams to get their season underway.
This year, the Xfinity Series should see some fantastic racing. This is one of the deepest years this series has ever been. With that said, it leads to some great storylines. Here’s my top five.
Put Up Or Shut Up Time For Some Drivers
This year, you have Myatt Snider who’s going to be 26 and taking over the full time ride at RCR again. 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 this 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 when announced as the driver at SHR. “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.
Expect Aggressive Driving And Some Hurt Feelings
Last year, a lot of the Cup drivers were skeptical of going down and racing in the Xfinity Series. Some were boisterous about how much lack of respect that these kids have and why they didn’t want to take a risk by going to race against them. They were dive bombing each other a lot and just racing way too aggressive for their liking. That racing in the series led to several spats between drivers that at one point saw Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton trading punches in the Kentucky Speedway garage area after a race.
Well, I expect this year to be no different, if not more aggressive. By virtue of not many Cup rides being available to move up into, the Xfinity and even 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 as the point for that made above. 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.
6 of the top 8 of the 2020 final standings return. Out of the 33 races run a year ago, the returners account for 21 race wins.
You have last year’s champion in Austin Cindric back with Team Penske. So is Championship 4 finalists Justin Allgaier and Justin Haley. You also have 10 of the 12 in last year’s playoffs not only back but 9 of which are back with their same teams – Noah Gragson, Michael Annett, Brandon Jones, Harrison Burton, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Brown are each back with their respective teams as well. Riley Herbst is back too but he switches from JGR to Stewart-Haas Racing in replacing Chase Briscoe.
Then you have to factor in Daniel Hemric coming back to the series on a full time basis in replacing Herbst and that’s 11 championship threats right there. But, you then have to account for Jeb Burton replacing Ross Chastain at Kaulig Racing as well as the organization bringing out a third car on a full time basis for AJ Allmendinger on top of Richard Childress Racing returning full time with Myatt Snider as their driver and you get a wild fight for the postseason. That’s 14 drivers for 12 spots.
I’m not even accounting for someone like Jeremy Clements who’s also back or even Brett Moffitt who moves up on a full time basis with Our Motorsports. He’s declaring Truck Series points but still, he’s a factor. Austin Hill will run for Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Toyota. Sam Mayer and Josh Berry will split the No. 8 Chevrolet for JRM too.
Combined, that’s 18 cars capable of winning. The field is a strong one that’s for sure.
What about the part time rides for JGR and JRM? They’ll have a talented array of drivers too.
The series, like the Cup Series, gets a facelift for their 2021 calendar. Yes, Daytona kicks the season off as normal, but they also stay in Florida instead of going west. The newly added road course race on the same track will take place a week later. Then, they’ll go south to Homestead to close out the month.
After that, it’s out west but they’ll see a wide variety of new tracks.
They’re back at Martinsville again, Darlington is in the spring, Atlanta gets a second date, COTA and Nashville are new additions too.
Still, they’ll also have seven of their 33 races on road courses too which greatly benefits drivers like Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger. They won 75-percent (3-for-4) on road courses last year. Now, we have three additional road course events which could greatly propel them towards championship seasons.
Dash 4 Cash Is Back
NASCAR Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash schedule
- April 9: Martinsville Speedway
- April 24: Talladega Superspeedway
- May 8: Darlington Raceway
- May 15: Dover International Speedway
Only one track — Talladega — carries over from last season’s Dash 4 Cash schedule. The schedule and venues for both bonus programs (Trucks included) were shuffled last season because of the COVID-19 outbreak, with Dash 4 Cash pushed to June and The Trip moved to August. The 2021 season will mark the 13th year for the Dash 4 Cash program overall.