10 things we've learned about the 2021 Cup season heading into Easter
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
The Easter weekend remains a traditional off-weekend for NASCAR, and that offers as good a time as any to take a look at the start of the year and what we've learned so far.
But please, remember it has been just seven races. Drivers still have 19 races to make the playoffs. The season still has 29 races left on the docket.
In other words, there is still a lot to learn. But here is what we know so far:
1. Three organizations stand out
At this point in the year, it appears to be a season in which three organizations will have the spotlight. Nine of the top 10 drivers in the standings come from Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Christopher Bell), Team Penske (Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney) and Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Larson, William Byron and Chase Elliott).
Logano said Team Penske needs to improve on its program for tracks 1.5 miles and larger, where JGR and Hendrick seem to have an advantage.
"We need to continue to work at that to try to understand where we're off there," Logano said. "I wouldn't say we're way off, but we're not in contention to win yet with those races.
"We’ve just got to keep looking at it and trying to figure out where that's at."
The only driver in the top 10 not from those organizations is Kevin Harvick. He’s with Stewart-Haas Racing, and, well, SHR is the next topic.
2. Big gains and big drops
SHR is the team that has fallen the most. Last year, it had all four drivers in the playoffs, so all finished in the top 16 in the standings. Right now, Harvick is the only top-20 driver, as Cole Custer is 23rd, Chase Briscoe is 27th, and Aric Almirola is 28th.
As far as big gains, JTG Daugherty Racing has made the biggest jump. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was 24th in the standings last year and is currently running 14th.
Ryan Preece was 29th last year and sits at 18th.
3. Big hole for Almirola
Almirola is mired in the biggest slump among drivers. Last year, he finished the regular season eighth in the standings to qualify for the playoffs on points. Right now, he sits 28th and 84 points behind the cutoff. Last year, over the full season, he averaged 27.4 points per race. This year, he is averaging 12.6.
It hasn't been all his fault. But compound some bad luck as far as crashes with not having the speed he’s used to, and Almirola is fighting an uphill battle to make the playoffs for the first time since he has been at SHR.
4. McDowell not a one-race wonder
Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500, but he has been fairly sporty all season. He has only one finish outside the top 20 and sits 12th in the standings. In the six races since the Daytona 500, he has earned 137 points (22.8 points per race). Last year, he averaged 16.3 points per race.
5. Wallace – Jones watch will be fun
They are in totally different situations, but it’s just natural to compare Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones. Wallace left Richard Petty Motorsports for a Joe Gibbs Racing affiliate, 23XI Racing (co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan). Jones was dropped by JGR and chosen as Wallace’s replacement at RPM.
Jones has the benefit of being with an organization that, beyond the driver change, hasn’t had much change from last year as a single-car team with a Richard Childress Racing alliance but not the funding it would want. Wallace has the benefit of the JGR alliance and significant sponsorship but drives for an organization of people who have never worked together and are still growing as a unit.
After seven races, Wallace is 21st in the standings, 14 points ahead of Jones in 22nd.
Jones finished ninth on the Bristol dirt for his best finish of the season and his second top-10.
"A top-10 for us is a great weekend, and anything more than that is a bonus," Jones said. "For me, playoffs is still the goal. Obviously, it’s getting tougher by the weekend. ... I think it’s attainable. We’re moving up in points each week."
6. Need to win
As Jones indicated, with seven winners in seven races, there could be very few (if any) spots available in the 16-driver playoff field based on points. The playoff field is the regular-season champion and the next 15 drivers based on wins, with ties broken by points.
Those looking to get in on points might need to reach a higher level in 2021 than they did last year. After seven races, 17th in the standings (currently the first driver after the cutoff) has 168 points. Last year at this time, that position had only 158 points.
7. Playoffs could be tight
With no multiple winners, drivers haven’t started racking up the playoff points – five points for a race win, one point for a stage win – yet this year. No driver has more than eight.
That predicts a tighter gap at the start of the playoff rounds when it comes to points and outlook to advance.
8. Briscoe still top rookie
There are only two Rookie of the Year candidates, and the driver who finishes highest in points earns that honor. Briscoe has 104 points and is 27th in the standings, and though he was hoping for more, Anthony Alfredo has 58 points and is in 30th.
9. Still awaiting 'Silly Season'
The first couple of months of the year don’t do too much for "Silly Season," and there are still many questions.
Maybe the biggest free agent out there is Keselowski, and team owner Roger Penske said last week that they have started talks.
"We’ve had conversations with Brad. We’re moving in the right direction," Penske said. "There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew, for sure. It’s just a matter of us sitting down and putting it together.
"With everybody not being able to move around, you don’t do that over the phone, and you don’t do that by Zoom."
One other former champion, Kurt Busch, is also a free agent, and whether he decides to continue racing full-time remains to be seen.
One other aspect of "Silly Season" will be if any teams buy or sell charters and whether those go to new or existing teams. Trackhouse Racing is leasing a charter this year, and team co-owner Justin Marks said not owning a charter is what makes him the most nervous.
"I lose a little bit of sleep every night because we don’t own a charter," Marks said. "That is the biggest element of exposure for this company in this sport. I am working every day in trying to secure our future."
A charter grants a team a spot in every race – pivotal when trying to secure sponsorship – and guarantees a certain amount of purse money based on participation in races and the previous three-year history of the charter.
10. Charter positioning good for 51 car
If a chartered car is among the three worst charters (34th, 35th, 36th) for three consecutive years, NASCAR can rescind the charter and sell it to another car owner. That’s NASCAR's way to encourage teams to perform.
One team – Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car – was in that perilous position entering the season, having been among the three worst in 2019 and 2020. But with Cody Ware primarily driving that car, RWR has put it in a decently safe position through seven races. It sits 32nd among charter teams, 14 points ahead of 34th.
RWR does have the last two charter teams at the moment, with its No. 15 and No. 52 cars, but the key for the organization to remain in control of its charters (it also has the No. 53, which is 31st) is to make sure the 51 doesn’t fall below the cut.
Thinking Out Loud
NASCAR will spend Thursday testing rain tires at Martinsville to see if it can use them in damp conditions on short, flat tracks such as Martinsville, Richmond, New Hampshire and Phoenix.
NASCAR isn’t thinking about racing in rainy conditions. Those tracks typically dry fairly quickly, but it could cut 30-60 minutes off the time it would take to resume racing after rain.
That could be a good thing, especially at New Hampshire, which does not have lights. But hopefully, NASCAR would be judicious when using the tires. If the forecast shows rain has cleared for the rest of the day or night and there is ample time to get the race in from the point the track is dry, NASCAR shouldn’t rush to use rain tires.
Fans deserve to see the drivers at their best and in the best conditions when possible. Only if there is no other way to run the race that day should NASCAR opt for rain tires on an oval. Who wants to waste 50 laps in wet conditions in which drivers will struggle when in 30 minutes those conditions will be better?
This is a new section that we’ll run every Thursday in which I will talk about some of my favorite paint schemes for throwback weekend.
The highlight here is the Chase Elliott-Hooters scheme that recognizes the 1992 championship won by Alan Kulwicki – over Elliott’s father, Bill.
Yes, this scheme has pretty much been used for past Darlington races, but the fact that Chase Elliott is driving it makes it cool.
So a thumbs-up for this one ... and looking forward to many more.
They Said It
"I should have just moved up and got him in the dust and got rid of him. I just wanted to pass him clean. I didn't, so I didn't win." – Denny Hamlin on losing Bristol dirt to Joey Logano
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!