Top NASCAR Storylines for 2021
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter
Last week, we looked back on 2020 and gave the top storylines of the past year.
Now it’s time to look ahead. What will be the top storylines in 2021?
Here are a few predictions:
The new team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan will generate incredible interest thanks to Jordan’s involvement, as well as that of driver Bubba Wallace, who still seeks his first career victory. Not only will people want to know when they will win, but if this team performs remotely respectable, it will become a major player, as it seeks to expand to at least multiple cars in 2022.
Could this team, with the ability to attract sponsorship through Jordan’s involvement, be the top choice of free agents looking for a big payday?
Jordan: "I go with my gut feeling. When the time is right, you know it. When this was presented to me, I felt good about it. When Bubba was involved in the whole conversation, I felt good about it. My biggest conversation to Denny was I don’t want to get in there just go around and around and around and finish 18th, 19th, 20th, 30th – I want to win. I want to be put in the position for the best chance for us to win. That’s my competitive nature. That’s always been who I am."
Will Larson be able to run well despite not having been in a Cup car since March? And how much will not having practice for most events impact that? Will any major company sponsor him, and what will the fan reception be like? Those are all big questions as Larson tries to come back following his suspension for the casual use of a racial slur used in what he thought was a private online racing chat that instead was streamed through various driver channels.
Larson: "When I made my mistake, there were a lot of thoughts and emotions. I didn’t know where my life was going to end up and what I was going to be doing as a race car driver because I am a race car driver, so that’s what I need to do to supply for my family. I definitely didn’t think that I would get another opportunity in NASCAR, so I’m very thankful that Rick (Hendrick), as a friend, reached out first and then we were able to build an even deeper relationship and now turning into this. I’m very, very, very thankful for this opportunity and I’m definitely going to make the most of it and hopefully make everybody proud."
NASCAR already has altered its schedule with the second race of the season now at the Daytona road course and the third race at Homestead, instead of the second race at Homestead and the third race at Auto Club (California) Speedway. The Daytona 500 will run with limited fans, as will the second race of the year. When will NASCAR have full crowds and increased sponsor activation? Will NASCAR have any requirements for participants to be vaccinated by a certain date? Those will be storylines.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps: "We're going to make sure that we're making decisions that are in the best interest of the sport in order to keep those that are coming to race safe, but also the competitors, sponsors and media partners – we have to make sure they're safe as well."
2022 Silly Season
Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon are among the drivers whose deals are expected to be up after the 2021 season. Will they all remain in their rides? DiBenedetto already knows he won’t, as Austin Cindric takes over the No. 21 Cup car in 2022. Hamlin and Truex are both 40 years old and both are enjoying enough success that they might want to continue racing. Busch (42) has indicated that this could be his last full-time Cup season and it also could be the final year for Newman (43).
Keselowski: "One of the things that really stands out that's changed the landscape is the threshold or the bar, so to speak, you have to pass as a driver to be eligible for the Cup Series. It's been lowered significantly since I've been a part of the sport. That's starting to bring a wave of kind of paid drivers, so to speak, drivers that pay for their ride. That really does a lot of damage to the contract market when there's drivers out there that are willing to pay for your ride, let alone you getting paid. They're willing to pay to take your ride. That really changes the marketplace pretty dramatically."
Busch, coming off one of his worst seasons, has a new crew chief in Ben Beshore, who has never been a crew chief at the Cup level. The two-time Cup champion failed to make it out of the second playoff round last year and has won only two Cup races in his last 56 starts. His former crew chief, Adam Stevens, will crew chief Christopher Bell.
Busch: "We wouldn’t have Beshore come on board if we didn’t think that he was going to be able to be the man for the job. I’m looking forward to it. He’s got the credentials. I’ve worked with him before ... It’s going to be different not having Adam, having a different crew chief on the box and being able to be the team leader. It’s all a new start, so we’ve got to start off well."
NASCAR has five new tracks on the 2021 schedule: Bristol will get covered with dirt for a Cup oval on dirt. The 1.333-mile Nashville Superspeedway, dormant since 2011, is back and running and will play host to its first Cup race. NASCAR has also added road courses at the Circuit of the Americas, Road America and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2021 schedule also now has two races instead of one at Darlington and Atlanta, as well as the Daytona road course. Tracks that lost dates: Chicagoland, Kentucky, Indianapolis oval, Charlotte (All-Star goes to Texas), California (because of COVID-19, race going to Daytona road course), Michigan (now one race), Dover (now one race), Bristol concrete (now one race).
NASCAR Executive VP Steve O’Donnell: "The primary goal for us was to continue to evolve the schedule, to continue to build it, to continue to listen to the fans. 2021, we believe, is a really bold step in that direction, but we're not done. There's 2022 and beyond where we'll continue to look at making changes that we believe are in the best interest of the sport in key markets and key iconic racetracks as well. We're going to continue the journey."
Next Gen car
The Next Gen car will debut in 2022 at Daytona, and the testing and development will continue throughout 2021. NASCAR has yet to have more than two cars at a test and the manufacturers have yet to unveil their 2022 body styles. How the cars look will be huge. How they handle when around each other is pivotal to the racing product. And whether the suppliers for the parts and pieces – teams will primarily buy everything from vendors – can meet the deadlines will be critical.
Phelps: "We were confident that we were going to introduce it in 2021. Then it became very clear that we couldn't. It really has to do with are we going to have the parts and pieces in order to make this car, to build it at scale in order to have enough cars to race. ... Our guys are excited about it. I think we all are excited about it. We've seen some renderings. It's a cool‑looking car that I think will have some great characteristics that will make the racing even better than we've seen this year."
The most heralded young female driver with a famous motorsports name enters her rookie season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. The 19-year-old has a lot to learn and still needs to prove herself on the bigger tracks, something which potentially is being stalled by the lack of practice. She will have a lot of people watching her hoping for immediate success, and her challenge will be on learning and progressing on her timeline, not anyone else’s.
Deegan: "Going to the Truck Series, there are about 20 really good trucks and drivers, so it makes it a lot tougher, a lot more competitive once you start getting to that front pack. It’s very intense and there is a lot of different racing styles and that’s something that I’m really glad I got to do a truck race this year before I go into it next year to be able to have expectations of what to see, so I know, ‘Hey, I’m good at this, but I can work on this.’ So I know what to prepare for."
Drivers With New Rides
Wallace (from Richard Petty Motorsports to 23XI Racing) and Larson (Ganassi to Hendrick) aren’t the only drivers in new rides this year. Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing to RPM), Christopher Bell (Leavine Family Racing to JGR), Ross Chastain (Ganassi newcomer), Chase Briscoe (Stewart-Haas Racing rookie), Daniel Suarez (Gaunt Brothers to Trackhouse) and Corey LaJoie (Go Fas to Spire) are among the other drivers with new rides this year.
Jones: "It’s been pretty busy and a lot of communication with the team. For me, it’s really encouraging. I think there’s a lot of things that we’re going to be able to accomplish next year that are probably going to surprised people. I think the equipment is there and very capable."
NASCAR’s DE&I Efforts
NASCAR, its drivers and its teams, for the most part, said all the right things when it came to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in 2020. The banning of the Confederate flag was a start. But in 2021, it will be time for some more action to follow those words. The world is watching.
Phelps: "We believe we are a sport about action. We are going to continue to be. It's an important journey for us to be on. I'm excited about what the future holds."