NASCAR Pre-Race Media: Top 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN)

Is It Too Early To Start Looking At Points?

We’re just two races into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. There’s 34 races remaining before we crown a champion. There’s also 24 races left in the regular season now too. Is it too early to start looking at points yet?

Well, after Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell snagging wins in the opening two weeks, it may not be after all. McDowell, was certainly a surprise, but Bell?

Neither had won a Cup race before and while some say Bell didn’t necessarily steal a playoff spot, how many had him winning a race as an automatic berth? Right now, there’s 14 spots available and we still have five more road courses, two superspeedway’s a dirt race among the 24 regular season races left. That’s essentially a 1/3 of the regular season as wildcard events.

“Absolutely,” Denny Hamlin said on if the midpack teams should be getting nervous about the playoffs. “I think the 34 (Michael McDowell) certainly is a surprise. He’s going to be in the Playoffs. 90% of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”

Last year, we saw just how tight the bubble was. Cole Custer and Austin Dillon took two of the spots via wins which made it difficult for drivers like Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Tyler Reddick to make it in.

This year, you’re more than likely going to see some more big teams not make it. I mean, numbers alone prove it. You have four JGR cars, four at Hendrick, four at Stewart-Haas and three at Penske. That’s 15 cars right there among those big four teams. That doesn’t even count the alliance from the Wood Brothers with Penske or 23XI Racing with Gibbs. What about the two Chip Ganassi Racing cars? That pushes that number to 19. Then throw in both cars at RCR and you get honestly 21 cars that are playoff caliber. So, with McDowell winning, it takes one spot away from them. Then, with Bell taking a win and not having to worry about a wildcard spot anymore, it essentially takes away another.

You have Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all likely to take 11 of those 14 wildcard spots. Then you have Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe all battling for three spots among nine drivers. The more drivers off this nine person list win, the more it’s going to force the bubble higher to make those 11 on the first list nervous.

“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” said Keselowski. “We’re very early in the season and it’s not turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. If you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re gonna be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”

If this season plays out like its started, watch out. That’s why Homestead is a big race this weekend for the heavy hitters to get on track.



Will We Get Another 1st Time Winner?

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season has started in historic fashion becoming just the third season in series history to with two first-time winners to win the first two races of the year; joining the series’ inaugural season 1949 and 1950. Now the 2021 season, has the opportunity to join the inaugural 1949 season as just the second season in series history to start the year with three consecutive first-time winners to win the first three races of the year. A feat that will be difficult, because this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series race, the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ETon FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), will be hosted by Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that has never had a Cup Series first-time winner. 

The inaugural NASCAR Cup Series season holds the record for the most consecutive first-winners to start the season with five.

1949 NASCAR Cup Series Consecutive First-Time Winners

 

Series

Date

Track

First-Time Winners

Season

Race No. 

Cup

Sunday, June 19, 1949

Charlotte (Old)

Jim Roper

1949

1

Cup

Sunday, July 10, 1949

Daytona B&R

Red Byron

1949

2

Cup

Sunday, August 7, 1949

Occoneechee

Bob Flock

1949

3

Cup

Sunday, September 11, 1949

Langhorne

Curtis Turner

1949

4

Cup

Sunday, September 18, 1949

Hamburg

Jack White

1949

5

 

 

Three or more consecutive first-time winners has only happened three times in the NASCAR Cup Series. The first, was the five consecutive first-time winners in 1949. The other two times it occurred was in 1950. 

 

1950 NASCAR Cup Series Consecutive First-Time Winners

 

Series

Date

Track

First-Time Winners

Season

Race No. 

Cup

Tuesday, May 30, 1950

Canfield

Bill Rexford

1950

5

Cup

Sunday, June 18, 1950

Vernon 

Bill Blair

1950

6

Cup

Sunday, June 25, 1950

Dayton

Jimmy Florian

1950

7

Cup

Monday, September 4, 1950

Darlington

Johnny Mantz

1950

13

Cup

Sunday, September 17, 1950

Langhorne

Fonty Flock

1950

14

Cup

Sunday, September 24, 1950

North Wilkesboro

Leon Sales

1950

15

 

This season, Front Row Motorsport’s driver Michael McDowell grabbed his first-career win at Daytona International Speedway in the Daytona 500. He is the eighth different driver to win their first-career race in the Daytona 500. McDowell got the win in his 358th start, the second largest amount of starts before a first Cup win behind Michael Waltrip’s 463.

Then the following week at the DAYTONA Road Course, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell led just five laps en route to his first-career NASCAR Cup Series victory in just his second season at the premier level. 

This weekend, 16 of the 38 drivers entered at Homestead-Miami Speedway are looking for their first NASCAR Cup Series career victory. Six former NASCAR Cup Series Homestead-Miami Speedway winners are entered this weekend, led by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin with three victories; followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (two wins) and Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. each with one win.

We’ve had at least one first time victor each season since 2016. The last time we went a full year without someone earning their first trip to victory lane was back in 2015. Since then, we’ve actually had two or more in three straight seasons now including five of the last six. 12 drivers have all earned their first victories in the last six years. With that said, will we get a third straight first time winner on Sunday?

1st Time Winners Lately

2021 – Michael McDowell (Daytona), Christopher Bell (Daytona)

2020 – Cole Custer (Kentucky), William Byron (Daytona)

2019 – Alex Bowman (Chicagoland), Justin Haley (Daytona)

2018 – Erik Jones (Daytona)

2017 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Talladega), Austin Dillon (Charlotte), Ryan Blaney (Pocono)

2016 – Chris Buescher (Pocono), Kyle Larson (Michigan)

Ross Chastain, Tyler Reddick, Corey LaJoie, Quin Houff, Daniel Suarez, Anthony Alfredo, Chase Briscoe, Matt DiBenedetto, Bubba Wallace, Cody Ware and Ryan Preece are each on this weeks entry list and have never won a Cup race before.

I don’t think LaJoie, Houff, Suarez, Alfredo or Ware have much of a chance.

Reddick to me has to be among the favorites to keep this going though. He’s a strong possibility to make this 3-for-3. Homestead suits him well as he came home fourth as a rookie in 2020. The RCR driver had also won the Xfinity Series races there in 2018 and again in 2019. He was fourth in 2017. In two Truck Series starts, he was third and second respectively to give him finishes of third, second, fourth, first, first and fourth respectively in six career tries.

Don’t count out Chastain either. He’s in a Ganassi car, one that Kyle Larson piloted to three top fives in his last five starts there.

DiBenedetto was 14th last June while Preece has two straight top 10 results to start off 2021.



Will Parity Still Ring King?

It all started June 30, 2019 at the Chicagoland Speedway with Alex Bowman. That’s when the 1.5-mile parity started. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick) and Homestead (Kyle Busch). That’s six straight different winners. Last year, it was Las Vegas (Joey Logano), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Harvick), Homestead (Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon), Kansas (Hamlin), Vegas (Kurt Busch), Kansas (Joey Logano), Texas (Kyle Busch) respectively. That’s nine different winners in as many races between Kentucky from June 2019 to Charlotte in May 2020. Overall, we’ve had 11 different winners on 1.5-mile tracks in the last 17 races on them including six straight with a new winner and eight of the last nine overall.


Will Kyle Larson Finally Win At Homestead?

We’ve always said, if Kyle Larson could ever get to the Championship 4 at Homestead, then just go ahead and give him the trophy. Well, the final round isn’t at Homestead anymore. Now, Larson has equal grounding as everyone else.

See, Larson has been so dominant on this 1.5-mile track in the past. He has three top five finishes in his last five starts there including leading 132 laps in a runner-up effort in 2016, 145 more in a third place run in 2017 and 45 laps in 2018. He’s never finished past third in any stage at Homestead either.

It’s just that he typically gets out of the way in the end for Championship 4 drivers.

Well, he didn’t race in last year’s non playoff race at Homestead and here he is back for the first time at the South Florida track since 2019. Since this is now just the third race of the season, I think this could be Larson’s chance at his first victory with HMS.



Will Homestead Give Us A Preview Of Who Will Be The Ones To Beat Later?

For the first time ever last year, the NASCAR Cup Series was racing in South Florida and it not be November. See, Homestead has been the site of NASCAR’s championship weekend every year since 2002. But, with the finale site now being moved to Phoenix for 2020, Homestead needed a new place on the schedule.

Last year, that new place was supposed to be March. Unfortunately, this was the second race affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The race was moved from March to June.

The thing about Homestead in the past, especially under the Championship 4 format which was adopted in 2014, most drivers just got out of the way of the title contenders. It wasn’t uncommon for all four to finish in the top five of that race. In fact, since 2014, the winner each season at Homestead ended up being the series champion.

So, would the usual suspects still shine at Homestead when a championship trophy wasn’t the reward at the end? They didn’t a year ago.

Kevin Harvick had 12 straight top 10 finishes at Homestead and six top fours in-a-row. Martin Truex Jr. had three consecutive top two finishes and led 78 laps, 20 laps and 103 laps respectively in those races. Joey Logano had five straight top six finishes while Kyle Busch had five consecutive top six finishes, three of which being in the top two.

They’d be the top favorites right?

Instead, they combined to lead 29 laps all race last year, 27 by Logano and two by Busch. Harvick and Logano finished off the lead lap, Harvick (-1) in 26th and Logano (-2) in 27th.

Truex, was only 12th. Busch, was sixth.

So, did this race run differently without drivers racing them more conservatively? I don’t necessarily think so.

To me, the top three cars in terms of speed at that point last season finished 1-2-3. Denny Hamlin won the pole and he had seven wins a year ago. Chase Elliott finished second and he won five races and the championship in 2020. Ryan Blaney was third as he earned his fifth top four result in his last six tries at that point in June of 2020. Throw in his early season speed last year, and you get Blaney with what should have been his eighth top four finishes already in 2020.

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