A Year Of Change. After a Year of Change.
There’s a lot to look forward to this season. Putting the Daytona 500 to one side for a moment, we’ve got the Bristol Dirt race, a trip to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, a jaunt around Road America, a new oval in Nashville Superspeedway, a doubleheader race weekend at Pocono and a return for a perennial series favorite Sonoma Raceway, which missed a date in 2020 thanks to the pandemic.
We’ve got world famous new owners in Michael Jordan and Mr. Worldwide himself, Pitbull; new teams in 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Live Fast Motorsports; not to mention a real sense of optimism headed into the Great American Race.
Continuing a trend from 2020, only eight races will have practice and qualifying: the four new tracks (Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway, Road America, Indianapolis Road Course), the Bristol Dirt race, the Coke 600, the Daytona 500 and the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. This lack of on-track time at the other 28 points-paying races should continue to mix things up even if drivers like Kyle Busch might beg to differ.
Something worth watching in 2021 will be what happens next to the second half of the NASCAR broadcast calendar with the news that NBC Sports Network will be taken off-air at the by the end of the year. In the short term, we’ll see races on the USA Network, available in theory to more households, but the mid- to longer-term will be fascinating to watch how this all plays out.
Finally, after a solid on-track career, it sure is going to be fun to see Clint Bowyer in the FOX broadcast booth alongside Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy. I can’t help but wonder if when it’s all said and done, Bowyer’s second career in NASCAR is more successful than his first. Either way, he’ll be great television.
The Daytona 500
This Sunday’s 63rd running of the Great American Race warms my cold British heart like little else. There is a majesty and a magnitude to the Daytona 500; a mesmeric beauty to the two hundred mile-an-hour, 500-mile dance on Daytona’s high banks, seemingly always just inches from disaster.
At least eight former winners could take the green flag — a span that, remarkably, covers a full three decades: Derrike Cope (1990), Kevin Harvick (2007) Ryan Newman (2008), Jamie McMurray (2010), Joey Logano (2015), Denny Hamlin (2016, 2019, 2020), Kurt Busch (2017) and Austin Dillon (2018).
Back-to-back champion Hamlin will look to add a new record to the race’s illustrious history by becoming the first driver to win three times in a row. Richard Petty (in 1975), Cale Yarborough (1985) and Sterling Marlin (1996) have all tried and failed the same feat Hamlin will attempt this Sunday afternoon.
The truth is hope springs eternal for every driver at the drop of the green flag on Sunday afternoon. Yes, it’s more likely than an established expert in this form of racing takes the checkers, but we just don’t know, and that in part is what makes this race so compelling. Whoever it is in victory lane this Sunday, history awaits.
Silly Season Starting Early
Silly season looks to be getting underway early this year with a number of big name drivers having unconfirmed plans for 2022 at this stage. Among those looking for rides next year are the 2004 champion Kurt Busch, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, who re-upped for just this season with Team Penske, and 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr.
One name who took himself off the market early was Hamlin, who re-upped with both Joe Gibbs Racing and long-time sponsor FedEx in a deal that could take the veteran driver of the no. 11 Toyota through a 20th season at the Cup level. With the economics of the sport shifting, drivers searching for new opportunities will likely not find themselves in as strong a financial position as they might have five or 10 years ago. For some, at least, there will be some tough decisions to make as this all plays out.
The Champ Repeats
On paper, it’s hard not to argue the revamped NASCAR schedule synchs perfectly with the skillset of 2020 champion Chase Elliott. The Dawsonville Ga. native has displayed some impressive prowess on the circuits where we turn left as well as right, having won the last two Cup races at both Watkins Glen and the Charlotte Roval.
The 25-year-old Hendrick Motorsports wheelman will begin his sixth full Cup Series slate looking to become the first driver since now-former teammate Jimmie Johnson won five in a row between 2006 and 2010. Race number two on the Daytona Road Course looks like a good early win possibility given his domination there last season, but it’s the spell just before the playoffs with four road courses in eight races that might elicit a solid haul of valuable playoff points for Elliott. The back-to-back-to-back most popular driver, a title he’ll win each year until the day he retires, also left several ovals wins on the table last season, so if it all breaks right for the champ, Elliott could start the playoffs with a huge cushion in points. However it all shakes out in the standings, Elliott is my tip for the title in 2021.
Since this is my first column of the year, it’s prediction time. I’ve made my selection for champion (above), and my final four at Phoenix in November will be Elliott, Logano, Hamlin and Kyle Busch. I’m thinking Elliott wins the most races overall but the wins will be a little more spread around this season.
I’m backing Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace and DiBenedetto (finally) to pick up those all-important first ever Cup Series victories, and I’ve got a funny feeling that Chase Briscoe might get it done as well. Since I’m on the topic of predictions, the field for IndyCar Rookie of the Year isn’t too shabby: three-time straight Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin, seven-time NASCAR champion Johnson and 10-year Formula One veteran Romain Grosjean.
And since newly knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton signed a new contract with Mercedes, a record eighth Formula One world title awaits, but perhaps with some more competition this year than in previous go-rounds.
I can’t wait for it all to get started. Bring on the Great American Race.