21 questions for the 2021 NASCAR season
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season begins Tuesday (sort of) with the Busch Clash (7 p.m. ET, FS1).
To get you ready, here are 21 questions – and an attempt at 21 answers – for 2021:
1. Why is this exhibition Busch Clash race on the road course?
NASCAR thought this would add some intrigue to the preseason event. Plus, it seemed like a good way to avoid wrecking a bunch of cars, considering that when this decision was made, the Busch Clash was going to be with the current car, and the Next Gen car would debut at the Daytona 500. Of course, the Next Gen is now postponed to 2022.
2. Why is Speedweeks now a Speedweek?
NASCAR opted to condense the schedule into six consecutive days of racing rather than have it be seven days over a 10-day stretch, thinking that the Clash and qualifying could draw more people. It also avoided a conflict with this year’s Super Bowl. The changes pushed the Busch Clash to Tuesday, Daytona 500 pole qualifying to Wednesday and the ARCA race to Saturday.
3. Why so many road courses in 2021?
NASCAR originally planned to increase the number of road courses to six, and it became seven when the Daytona road course was added in place of California. NASCAR said its fans want more road courses, and it answered that request. The Next Gen car also is designed to handle better on road courses, which hopefully will allow for drivers to hustle the car and give NASCAR the option of adding some street courses. The new road courses for 2021 are Circuit of the Americas, Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, joining Sonoma and Watkins Glen (which didn’t have races last season because of the pandemic) and the Charlotte and Daytona road courses.
4. Alex Bowman is in the 48 now. Is that a big deal?
Bowman pretty much has the same team and the same cars — with a new paint job, a new fire suit and a new sponsor. It’s a big deal in the sense that the 48 has sponsorship, and Bowman is being entrusted to perform well enough that the Ally sponsorship continues well past its current contract through 2022. For Bowman, having stepped into the No. 88 car as the replacement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., he should at least not be intimidated about inheriting the number of seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
5. What about all that driver movement this year?
6. Are there any new rules to watch?
NASCAR had been penalizing a crew member standing behind the pit wall if the crew member, when reaching to grab a tire, fell over the wall and put a hand on pit road. Now the rulebook states that a crew member assisting from the equipment side of pit road "may not substantially or purposely contact the pit road surface."
NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Scott Miller commented on the new rule: "What that means is if a guy is reaching over the wall to grab a tire, slips and puts his hand down on pit road, that is no harm, no foul. If the team dreams up a way to have a guy hanging over the wall and is out there doing something that we feel is unsafe or not in the spirit of the competition, then we will call a penalty for that."
7. Are there any NASCAR "points of emphasis" to be aware of?
NASCAR will be checking wheel wells with a template it has used in past years but stopped using when it went to its current Hawk-Eye laser and camera system three years ago.
Said NASCAR Cup Series Director Jay Fabian: "That is one of the areas of the race car that I felt like we needed to be a little more buttoned up on. We’re certainly introducing a few more analog tools to make sure that is the shape it is supposed to be to make sure everybody is the same and we have a level playing field."
When asked about the change, Joey Logano's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said: "We’ve got the templates now, and all of our cars have been adjusted to it, but we’ve seen bigger changes in the past. I wouldn’t call this big for us, and it’s all the same for everyone now. I think it’s just there are ways — and it’s our job to try to find ways — to manipulate the system, and that’s what everyone had been doing, and they just wanted to rein it in a little bit, and this template will bring that back in."
8. Is NASCAR testing for COVID-19?
NASCAR is not testing for COVID-19 because team rosters are fluid and change. NASCAR instead treats events as if there are COVID-19-positive people in the garage and takes protocols seriously, NASCAR Vice President of Racing Operations John Bobo said.
"We have added rapid testing in toward the end of last year, and we used it quite a bit," he said. "We anticipate we will continue to use it aggressively as needed when situations arise and with contact tracing and dealing with known exposures."
9. Just how old is Derrike Cope, and why is he doing the Daytona 500?
Cope, the 1990 winner of the Daytona 500, is 62 years old and will be the second-oldest driver ever to start the race. He runs StarCom Racing, and the team owners and his family worked a deal for him to drive for Rick Ware Racing in a car prepared by StarCom. Cope hasn’t raced a Cup event since 2018 and not at Daytona since 2004 (his last drafting superspeedway Cup start was Talladega in 2006).
"I understand the air as good as anyone," he said. "If I do make it to the end and 20 to go and I can get myself in a position to have some air and be in a position to race hard, they’ll know I’m there."
Cope indicated he is willing to mix it up.
"The one thing I have always done is I’m not afraid of anything," Cope said. "I’m not afraid of mixing it up. I’m not afraid of pushing and shoving. And I’m not afraid of wrecking. So the bottom line is if they want to play, we’ll play.
"I’ve got one shot at this thing. When it’s all said and done, I can walk away, get to the airplane and say, ‘You know what? I had a lot of fun today. Sorry you guys got wrecked.’"
10. Why is Jamie McMurray coming out of retirement for this race?
During the pandemic, McMurray started getting the urge to race again, even though he had not raced since the 2019 Daytona 500. The FOX analyst was doing an appearance for a sponsor last year, and the sponsor jokingly floated the idea of McMurray doing one more Daytona 500.
The 2010 winner of the race told AdventHealth that he would be interested, and he will be driving the Spire Motorsports No. 77 prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing.
"I’m super pumped to have another shot, being in a great car, a great engine with a team that is going to be capable of going down there and winning," McMurray said.
11. How many races will have practice and qualifying?
Eight Cup races will have practice and qualifying. Three will be marquee events: the Daytona 500, the Charlotte 600 on Memorial Day weekend and the championship at Phoenix. The other five will be new tracks for Cup: Bristol dirt (yes, they have covered the Bristol track with dirt), Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway, Road America and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
12. Joe Gibbs Racing recently extended Denny Hamlin’s contract. What about Martin Truex Jr.?
Truex, who turns 41 during the 2021 season, indicated Friday that he likely will race into at least age 42. When asked if he has had talks with JGR and how they were progressing, he responded: "We have had talks, and things have moved forward."
13. Has Kevin Harvick gotten over winning nine races last year and being knocked out of championship contention in the semifinal round?
Yes, he has, and his Stewart-Haas Racing crew members better have as well, according to Harvick.
"They know that I’ll get pretty frustrated if they want to sit and dwell on what happened last year when we’re already into just over a week away from the Daytona 500," Harvick said. "They better have moved on. If they haven’t, they don’t talk to me about it."
14. Is Kyle Busch ever going to do the Indianapolis 500?
Probably, but it won’t be in 2021.
"To me, it wouldn't make sense ... until everything's kind of all back to normal and you get the whole big hoopla of what that event's really all about," Busch said. "I really enjoyed seeing my brother do it, and obviously he had success, and [when] Fernando Alonso [did it] last year, it just kind of seemed like, you know, the Indy 500 ran, but it was kind of a lost Indy 500, if you will.
"So we'll wait until things get back to normal."
15. Why does Rick Ware have four charters and an IndyCar team?
Just like a house that is being sold with multiple interested buyers, it comes down to price paid and the ability to get financing. Ware has been able to do it, and he hopes that the new car in 2022 will create parity among the competition. And if someone is desperate to buy a charter, he could recoup some of his investment.
But why not have one or two teams and try to run stronger?
"Just because you spend more money [per car] doesn't mean that you're going to move up two or three or four spots," he said. "We have teams that were spending $14 million and $15 million for the season, $10 million more than we were.
"They finished two, three, four spots ahead of us in points."
Ware said that having multiple cars and competing in multiple series allows him to give sponsors diverse opportunities with one organization.
Ware’s No. 51 team must finish better than three other charter teams this year, or NASCAR could (but isn’t required to) revoke the charter and sell it to another organization.
16. Was Chase Elliott as bad as he thinks he was in the Rolex 24?
No. The car was designed to handle best in the day because the final nine hours were in daylight. So when he was driving it from dusk to darkness, it wasn’t set up to handle well.
17. Will Ryan Blaney be one of the drivers to beat at the Bristol dirt race?
While Ryan’s father, Dave, and his uncle, Dale, made their names in sprint cars on dirt, Ryan Blaney has very little experience on dirt.
"Everyone expects me to do good because of my last name and it’s dirt, [saying], ‘You must run great on dirt,’" Blaney said. "Maybe I have some genetic thing that’s supposed me run OK on dirt."
18. Whom should I watch for in the Xfinity Series this year?
AJ Allmendinger. The former Cup driver is doing his first full season of Xfinity as he drives for Kaulig Racing. Last year, he had two wins and eight top-10s in 11 Xfinity Series starts – and that includes a race at Daytona in which he had a shot to win before tangling with teammate Ross Chastain.
Speaking of former Cup drivers, Daniel Hemric is running a full season at Joe Gibbs Racing in what he hopes will rejuvenate his career.
Plus, Noah Gragson pledges he will continue with a checkers-or-wreckers attitude.
19. Whom should I watch for in the Camping World Truck Series this year?
Sheldon Creed won five races on his way to the title. Can he do it again, and if so, which Xfinity team would hire him for 2022? Also, there will be plenty of eyes on rookie Hailie Deegan, daughter of Moto X and action sports star Brian Deegan, with the key being whether she can post solid results on the 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks.
20. Looking ahead, what is the Next Gen car development and testing plan?
The development of the car is primarily done. NASCAR will have its car on track March 16-17 at Richmond, and the manufactures will each have a car on track in late March (likely March 29-31) at Martinsville. That Martinsville test will be for manufacturers to get data with a car decked out with numerous sensors (wheel force transducers) and not a test in the sense of a driver trying to get maximum speed.
Teams won’t be getting their first chassis and bodies from the suppliers until mid-June (the chassis will come from Technique). Unveiling plans of the bodies for each manufacturer should be announced in late spring.
21. Looking way ahead, are electric race cars coming to NASCAR?
Yes. The Next Gen car is designed to be able to accommodate hybrid and electric engines. Considering that Chevrolet announced it would be selling only electric vehicles by 2035, you can count on NASCAR looking that way.
"Electric is an important part of our company as we look toward the future and what the propulsion systems will be, and that is something we need to think about as a sport," Ford Motorsports Global Director Mark Rushbrook said. "Internal combustion engine versus hybrid versus electric and what the right time is not only for hybrid but for electric.
"It is something we should be talking about and thinking about and planning. We won’t be racing full electric anytime soon in the Daytona 500, but at some point, we think it is good for the sport to consider the option of when it does make sense to bring that in."