NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Folks, We’ve Got Some Debuts On Our Hands

There’s a lot to look forward to with the upcoming NASCAR season, and it’s not just because of all the new tracks.

OK, granted, that’s a significant part of it. NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck series drivers at Circuit of the Americas and Nashville Superspeedway? A downright silly amount of road courses across all three series? More dirt races than the previous token Truck event at Eldora Speedway (that we didn’t even get last year)? Truly blessed.

That leads in to a more overarching theme of the 2021 season: change. There’s a lot of it this year, and not just on the schedule. 23XI Racing, Live Fast Motorsports and Trackhouse Racing Team make their debuts, while Christopher Bell, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson are among a sizable crop of racers who made wholesale team changes for the new season.

A modest proposal: shout out to the new guys, too.

Not just new guys — the new new guys. The 44-car entry list for the Daytona 500 featured a whopping four different drivers who either will or could have made their Cup debuts in the season-opening race. Add one each on the Xfinity and Truck entry lists, too.

This weekend, Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo, the two Rookie of the Year contenders for the Cup Series in 2021, will drive in their first Cup races, both locked in due to having rides in chartered cars. Austin Cindric added his name to the list after making it in via speed after Thursday’s (Feb. 11) Duels, while Noah Gragson missed out in his Duel and will have to wait for another race to make his debut.

In Xfinity, Danny Bohn will attempt his Xfinity debut for Big Machine Racing Team, though his start isn’t assured since it’s the fledgling team’s first race. The Truck race, meanwhile, will see Drew Dollar in Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 51, making his series debut thanks to the truck’s strong performance in the points in 2020.

With Briscoe, Alfredo and Cindric starting the Daytona 500 Sunday, three drivers will have already raced in their first Cup races in 2021 by weekend’s end. In 2020, just four drivers made their Cup debuts all year — Bell, Brennan Poole, James Davison and Kaz Grala.

There’s much more coming post-Daytona, too. Though the Cup Series doesn’t have any other newcomers confirmed yet after the 500, at least seven — including Bohn — have declared their intentions to make their first Xfinity starts in 2021, and most have multiple scheduled starts, meaning that if, say, Kris Wright fails to qualify next weekend at the Daytona road course, chances are he’ll make a start by season’s end. That number alone is already over half the amount — 13 — that made their first Xfinity starts in 2020.

And in Trucks? Nine, Dollar included, are expected to try their hand at a series start for the first time sometime in 2021. That’s already more than the series saw during the entirety of 2020, with eight.

Look, a lot of this discourse might make it seem like the shiny new thing is all that can make a NASCAR season interesting. And that’s not the case! It’s important for the sport — any sport, really — to have familiar veterans alongside the newcomers and the not-yet-but-could-be superstars. College sports get away with a constantly changing roster, but that’s a different beast entirely.

But occasional deviation from the status quo is a necessity, too. Though plenty of fans, for instance, loved Jimmie Johnson’s championship-winning dominance in the 2000s, many more couldn’t stand the lack of parity. The faces in the field aren’t dissimilar. The same 40 drivers every week will get stale.

Prior to a little over a decade ago, knowing who was going to be at the track each week wasn’t necessarily a given. Social media has not helped — announcements of who’s driving what get out to the masses these days easier than ever before —  but the amount of teams competing each week is one of the main culprits. On the Cup side in particular, the charter system seems to have choked off many of the one-offs, the part-timers, the cars that might show up on a whim. Rising costs have done the same in many cases for the Xfinity and Truck series — yeah, they’re sending a bunch of teams home after qualifying this weekend, but the overall roster of organizations coming out even for a race or two is still a shadow of what it once was.

That’s why 2021 leaves room for optimism for those wanting a little variety, especially when it comes to newcomers shooting their shots vs. the best of the best. It’s the first weekend of the season and there’s already a sizable chunk of debuts either confirmed or planned. More are almost certainly on the way.

New tracks, new driver-team partnerships, new drivers entirely. If nothing else, 2021 is already shaping up to challenge the status quo in a lot of ways, and when it comes to the fan experience, that’s a recipe for a fresh, memorable season right off the bat.

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