Why we’re seeing the surprise winners over the 1st 3 races of the 2021 Cup season and maybe why they shouldn’t be as shocking as once thought

Michael McDowell. Christopher Bell. William Byron. McDowell was 0-for-357 entering his win. Bell, was 0-for-38. Byron, was 1-for-110 heading into Sunday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. All three are now Cup winners this year out of the gates and all have playoff spots by virtue of that.

While Byron isn’t necessary a shock win on that type of impact level, it still is perplexing in the sense that most thought Sunday’s race at Homestead would be the place that this all came back full circle. I mean, Daytona is Daytona. A superspeedway and ROVAL could create chaos and mayhem in which we saw. But Homestead?

Well, after breaking it down, this season isn’t all that unlikely as it seems. McDowell isn’t necessarily a fluke winner at Daytona. He’s been a threat on superspeedway’s for a while. Then, in the case for Bell and Byron, most were expecting big things out of them in 2021.

Bell, finally joins Joe Gibbs Racing and basically inherits Kyle Busch’s team. Adam Stevens and the entire pit crew, even the hauler came to the 20 car side. That’s Bell’s car. He was a silent contender this year.

Same for Byron.

He closed 2020 with four top 10’s over the final six weeks. He now inherits a new crew chief in Rudy Fugle. These two clicked in the Truck Series and appear to be picking up where they left off. Byron, went 0-for-97 to start his Cup career but is 2-for-14 since.

“I think honestly the work and the effort goes back a long ways,” said Byron. “Getting Rudy on board and just having a guy like that to work with. We really think the same way, and it helps us in a lot of ways to progress through races and communicate well and work through the off-season.

“I’d say it’s a lot to do with off-season prep, and as soon as we got into the race the track was super slick to start. We had to start pretty far back but made our way up and just had to keep adjusting on the car and kind of finding those little bits.”

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 28, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

This could be the momentum that he needs to get his career jump started in the way Chase Elliott’s was following his early victories a few years back. Fugle, is his third crew chief four seasons and it appears this could be one that is here to stay. 

“I mean, obviously you have to back it up with results, so I think for me, I wanted to make sure we had results, but I think the results come when you have people like that to work with. You think on the same page, and somebody who puts that kind of effort in,” Byron continued about Fugle.

“He puts a lot of effort in, but he’s obviously very intelligent. I feel like for me, it goes back to the Truck days and what we did there and the feelings that I had in those race cars and the things that I wanted to have in my Cup car and the feelings there. He’s really leaned heavily on Alan Gustafson and all the crew chiefs at HMS to get up to speed and we have the best resources out there, so it’s all about making the most of them.

“I feel like for us we just communicate throughout the race. He knows how to push my buttons and get me motivated and get the answers out of me that he needs to make the car better.

“It’s all about people in this sport. I’ve heard like Kevin say that and multiple people say that. You’ve got to have the people — I think that with Rudy, we had a lot of success on mile-and-a-halfs. He knows what I want in a race car.

Fugle says that while this win can be considered somewhat of a shock, it doesn’t mean that come this Fall that they can’t be a championship caliber team then either. 

I mean, first of all, with the weird winners we’ve had so far, and I don’t think we’re weird but it kind of is a little bit weird, you have to be careful that you’re not going to get too many one wins, so you want to keep attacking for that reason,” said the first year crew chief in Cup. “Two is we want to learn how to be a winning race team. In the playoffs to win a championship you have to win a lot of races, so we have to learn how to do that now and get used to that to be able to contend for a championship.

“We’re not a championship team yet, but over the next 20-some weeks we’re going to become one, so that’s what we’re going to do.”

Fugle says that the circumstances of him being in Cup with Byron now is perfect timing. The Cup car is more similar to the Truck Series right now anyways. So, a lot of what he and Byron had together in Trucks translates over. 

“What helped us about the previous relationship was the fact that we’ve worked together before and I knew him, I knew how to push his buttons, I knew how to motivate him, and that helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet, so I think that’s the biggest thing,” he said. 

“The 550 stuff is pretty similar to the trucks. We fight a lot of the same things. You’re trying to balance speed versus handling and drag versus downforce. It’s a lot of the same stuff, which is fun. And then I think most importantly, I think the car needs the same thing that a truck needs to do at a mile-and-a-half. Yeah, that part is fun, getting into this season and fighting the same type of little things in the war rooms, trying to decide on do you need straightaway speed or corner speed that week.”

Fugle also credits Chad Knaus for getting Byron to where he’s at today as he said without much knowledge of Cup cars prior to this year, it wouldn’t have been a good combo for he and Byron to team up prior to now. Knaus, helped mold Byron which made it easier for he and Fugle to hit the ground running. 

“Chad (Knaus) prepped William (Byron) to get to this point,” said Fugle. “I could not have done that three years ago. I couldn’t have prepped to learn how to work on Cup cars and prepped William, and then he built a great team. Not one other person has been changed out on this race team. I came in, and this was an amazing race team. We’ve got all the right pieces, and like I said, William said, they’re young and they’re ready and we should be here for a while. We should be able to go and do the right things, so super exciting.”

Byron agreed. 

“I think Chad brought me from running 20th in the Cup Series to making the playoffs two years in a row, and I think that was huge,” Byron said. “Gave me a chance to really learn under the fire and kind of put myself in some situations that I could learn from some veteran drivers. I had a couple run-ins with Kyle at one time, Brad. None of that stuff would have happened if I wasn’t up there and fast. That’s a lot of credit to Chad and the preparation.

“I think what Chad did well was the preparation side. I mean, the team that he’s put around me with young guys is kind of here to stay, and I credit that to him for finding the right people.

He found a lot of good people that want to come to work every day, want to do a good job, so I credit that to him, but with Rudy and I, yeah, I don’t really compare it to anything. I think it’s just that we have that — we mesh, and it is what it is.”

Then, factor in the rules haven’t changed much over the past few seasons either.

“I think the rules have been the same for a while, and everybody has had all off-season to kind of work on our stuff and understand where they were last year and a lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better,” said Martin Truex Jr. “Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front that we don’t normally see, but I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”

Credit: HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 28, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

See, McDowell says that he’s not done anything differently this year in comparison to last. He’s with an underfunded team in comparison to those listed above and here he sits fourth in points after three races on the heels of three top 10 results on three different types of race tracks.

“I think that it’s been kind of a steady progress,” McDowell said. “Homestead last year for us was a big step forward. We ran in the top 15 most of the night. I think we ended up finishing 15th. But we felt like we were pretty close to being in that top-10 speed. When you get to 15th those next few spots are pretty hard, but we felt like we were pretty close on it.

“I didn’t do anything different tonight as far as me. I didn’t come with a different approach of how I was going to drive it. I just did what I normally did do, and we were fast. Really thankful we had a strong car.

“I think that we are realistic about where we finished the year and where we wanted to be, and we thought that we were in that 15th to 20th range pretty consistent last year.

“To make a big jump like we did, I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete, like, unbelievable shock, but it’s pretty close to it. We have definitely out-performed where we thought we’d be, especially on the mile-and-a-half. These places, especially these slick places are really tough for the smaller teams. I think that at the same time we had a good run here last year and something to build on, so we came back and made some improvements, and yeah, we kind of shocked ourselves.”

Also, with a new car coming out in 2022, maybe most teams decided to forego some big money upgrades for this year and chose to refine what they previously had since the cars and setups wouldn’t change much between this year and last. After all, the 2021 package is similar to 2020 and 2020 was similar to 2019.

“You know, the rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Truex. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up.”

McDowell agreed.

“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” he said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the racetrack without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better. But what an incredible run for our Front Row team. It’s so exciting to be a part of this organization. We’re really doing it, and it’s fun to be a part of it right now, and I’m so thankful that I get to drive it.”

Neither driver though expect it to continue that much longer. Eventually, the bigger teams will catch up.

“I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done, and I feel like for us in particular on the 19 we’ve been really strong all year,” Truex continued.

“It definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” McDowell said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”

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