Jesse

Feb 9, 2021

10 min read

Predicting some of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season

Picture by Ryse Lawrence

With the Daytona 500 coming in hotter than an asteroid eating curry, I figured it’s time to jot down how I think an incredibly unpredictable season will go. Most of these are just general predictions on events, and not specific race call-outs. This also won’t include my Chase and Championship picks, which I’ll be posting separately.

A couple of disclaimers before diving in; I’m no analytic genius here, at least, not yet. You won’t see a bunch of graphs and numbers on here, mostly because I don’t understand them and don’t have the spreadsheet chops to get through all that data quickly. I’ve also only been actively watching NASCAR again for just over a year. I had watched in the late 2000s, but had fallen off and was way younger then. So the trends and such that I expect might not reflect what someone who lives and breathes advanced stats, or even lives and breathes NASCAR might write. Nothing against anyone like that, it just doesn’t apply to me!

With that out of the way, here are a few things I think will happen in the 2021 NASCAR Cup series season:

Sure, it’d be easy or smart to pick someone like Denny Hamlin to win this year, given his dominance at Daytona seems to be the one constant that we can count on even now. But we’re not here to make the easy decisions, because those are boring. Besides, Daytona — like all restrictor plate tracks — is a crapshoot, and with new drivers in new places and brand new teams left and right, it’s hard to imagine things shaking out like they have in the past. There’s just too many variables.

Though, I could be right at the start of the white flag lap and be proven completely wrong by the checkered. That’s the fun of it! While I’m not going to go out on any limbs and say someone like Austin Cindric, attempting his first Cup start, will take home the win, I’m not ruling out someone like Daniel Suarez or really anyone if they can get to the last lap and finish line in one piece, something that’s been more difficult than not in recent years.

It’s also not out of left field to say that someone who has been around the block a few times but never won, like Brad Keslowski or Martin Truex Jr., would end up taking home the 500 — whoever ends up first at the end of the day, I just think it’ll be the first time they’ve been in that position.

2. Bubba Wallace won’t win, but will look a whole lot more competitive

Given the difficulties of starting a new team, even one with full sponsorship and Denny Hamlin’s guidance, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to expect Bubba to hit victory lane. But for the first time in his career, he should be in equipment that more accurately reflects his driving ability, and he should collect the best average results in his career. I can absolutely see him threatening at the plate tracks (so what would happen if he’s leading the 500 and Hamlin has a chance to beat him, I wonder?) as well as Martinsville, where he had success in the Truck series.

At the very least, having full sponsorship backing will be an incredible boost. After having inconsistent sponsorship at Petty, it’ll be the first time that Bubba has had proper backing since coming to Cup, and it’ll be exciting to see what he does with it. If he can be consistent in his performances, it should land him numerous top tens and should put him in position to win more than ever before.

Even if he doesn’t end up claiming his first career Cup win, this season should show a lot of people just what he’s capable of. And if 23XI Racing is as good as their backing, I could very well be reflecting on this as a take aged poorly. I would love that.

3. Alex Bowman will bring the 48 back into the winner’s circle

As a primarily Jimmie Johnson fan the entire time I’ve watched NASCAR, this one hurts a bit to write. But it’s hardly a hot take, considering Alex has won the past two years in a row and likely would have racked up more wins had the pandemic not stopped the 2020 season in the middle of him entering a hot streak. In a ride with full sponsorship and as presumably the third if not second driver in the Hendrick stable, it’s not a stretch to expect that trend to continue.

There’s no question that Jimmie wheeling his way to a win would have been a stretch last year (even though he came close before several unfortunate endings) it’s hard not to pin that on his age and an overall air of cautiousness to his driving that didn’t seem to be there in the earlier days of his career. Whether that’s due to a bad accident, just the decline of skill, or a perspective on life that comes with maturity is impossible to say. While I’m not saying Alex can’t be cautious at times, I feel he’s very much more likely to take a risk and see the benefit of it than Jimmie had been the past few seasons.

Regardless of how weird it may feel to see someone not named Johnson drive the 48 into victory lane, it would be a welcome return, for both Hendrick and Bowman.

4. Kyle Busch will continue to struggle without regular practice sessions

Going into 2020, a lot of predictions would have been thrown around that would have been utterly destroyed by the pandemic, but there were probably few people, even after the stoppage, that would have had ‘Kyle Busch will win one race, and it’ll be because of fuel mileage’ on their list of things that would happen during the season.

Sure enough, Busch left 2020 with only one win, and that one was a struggle, too. He failed to repeat as champion and never really looked anywhere close to doing so.

It’s no mystery that a lot of Busch’s struggles last year were heavily influenced by the pandemic, though there is certainly evidence of a trend beforehand, when his championship win at Homestead was his only win since week 12 of that season. With limited practices returning for 2021, it’s hard to imagine this trend changing. Making adjustments in-race and on the fly is simply not Kyle’s style, and even if it were, driving an out of shape car is more likely to push anyone into the mid-pack, where they are far more likely to get caught up in accidents that take them out of contention.

While a lot of drivers probably spent good portions of the offseason learning the ins and outs of adjusting their cars on the fly while navigating traffic, I’m not sure how much impact this will have with deeply-ingrained driving styles. But if there’s one driver that I should know better than to doubt, especially coming in with plenty of motivation to succeed, it would be Kyle Busch. Even so, I can’t imagine that any driving style changes made in the offseason will have that dramatic of an impact on performance, especially when the work to change will probably be negated with the Next Gen car.

I do think he’ll collect at least one checkered flag, if not a couple, but the idea of dominance in 2021 is gone.

5. Bristol will be a mess (literally)

When NASCAR became much more flexible in 2020, with their hands forced due to the pandemic, it became clear they were going to be more willing to try different things, from more double headers to no practice/qualifying for races. While it seemed like a temporary fix, with the Next Gen car being pushed to 2022, some wondered if this trend would continue in 2021. Even those who believed it was likely that NASCAR would keep switching things up probably didn’t see this one coming.

The Cup series racing on dirt — something that hadn’t been done since 1970 — was a surprise, and the fact that it’s at Bristol is even more so, given that Bristol is close, door to door racing turn after turn. Thankfully, this is one event that NASCAR still has practice for — otherwise, there’s no doubt that it would be a wreckfest. However, I would still expect to see wrecks — and lots of them — as drivers adjust to throwing extremely heavy stock cars around the high banks and try to maneuver passes. There is enough wrecking on a normal Bristol weekend, and I don’t think a years worth of practice would make this event any less chaotic than it’s bound to be.

6. Road courses are here to stay…

Another surprise from NASCAR was the addition of a new road course for the series — the Circuit of the Americas track in Texas, which will be run in the longer format that’s typically used for Formula 1 GPs. Having never previously run any of the top three series there, it’ll be interesting to see how drivers tackle it, and how the race itself flows. But it’s hardly the only new road course the Cup drivers will have to learn in 2021.

Also being added to the schedule are two other road courses which had seen races most recently run in the Xfinity series, but never in Cup: the Indianapolis road course, which will replace the Brickyard 400, and Road America. Since at least lower levels of races have taken place at these tracks in recent years, there’ll be some footage for drivers to study and we’ll have a better idea of how the races themselves will flow, though there will be distinct differences that will come only when the Cup cars hit the track.

Overall, this is a significant schedule shift away from where NASCAR has been as recently as 2019, with a higher percentage of races taking place on road courses. While this is a divergence from previous seasons, the roots of this are very much from 2020, where, in an effort to make up races where possible, NASCAR added the Daytona Road Course to the schedule, another track which finds itself on this year’s slate. While it would presumably be easier to schedule races this year, given that the pandemic is now almost a year old and the governing body will have had months to prepare, NASCAR still decided not only to still include road courses, but to expand their presence. Even with a new car coming next year, it’s hard to imagine that this trend is just going to stop in 2022 — and it shouldn’t. Road races allow NASCAR to get back into newer markets without having to build tracks, and arguably have a wider appeal with fans from other forms of motorsports. It’s a good way to keep things fresh and to help diversify the fanbase.

7. … But don’t expect Chase Elliot to win them all

While there’s no doubt that Chase Elliot is always a threat on road courses, even ones NASCAR has never driven on before, expecting anyone to sweep six different races in one season (when three have never been on the schedule before) is a tall order, even for the reigning champion and a man on a hot streak. There are just too many variables at play to expect him to end up first in every single race, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in contention at all of them. Still, he’s human, and surely a schedule that takes place in another season in the middle of the COVID pandemic won’t protect him from acts of God or another driver just straight ramming into him and taking him out of position to win.

He’ll have wins, no doubt — I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the winner’s circle for the Daytona and Charlotte road courses — but expecting him to keep his road race winning streak alive is a bridge too far to cross.

8. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick won’t win almost half the races again… probably

Maybe more like a third. All joking aside, two drivers winning just over 41% of the scheduled races is a pretty rare occurrence. There’s no doubt that, when the season stopped abruptly and the schedule got turned on its head, it helped to be a veteran driver with a lot of Cup experience last year. Now that everyone knows, for the most part, how the 2021 season will look, and with a lot of new variables thrown in, I would expect that curve to bend back closer to the average, and there to be more diversity in winners (or at least, the same amount of wins spread out among a few more drivers.)

Additionally, with an offseason now in the rearview, all other teams in the field have had the ability to review and revamp their own garages to optimize set ups for the coming year, including Hamlin’s own team. There’s little doubt that Kevin Harvick and Hamlin will once again be in contention this year, but expecting the same amount of dominance would be silly.

These are just a few of the things that I imagine will happen in the Cup series this year, and beyond. I am more than ready to be wrong about all of these, because if there’s anything that the past twelve months have taught me about life, it’s that it’s incredibly unpredictable. But it will be fun to watch, regardless (even with the current package.)

I’ll be making a separate post later in the week with Chase field and championship predictions, where I will also probably be completely wrong but will have fun doing it!