Did You Notice? … Crazy enough, the 2021 NASCAR season is already two months old headed to Saturday night’s (April 10) race at Martinsville Speedway. The sport’s top three series are all at least 20% through their regular season schedules; the Camping World Truck Series is a third of the way there.
It’s a large enough sample size to start judging where drivers stand. And for some, they’ve dug some serious holes already that could lead to a pink slip if they’re not careful come 2022.
The good news for those enduring rough starts is NASCAR’s forgiving playoff system. Unlike, say, the NFL, where an 0-4 start typically ends your Super Bowl dreams, all it takes in NASCAR is one win to redeem an otherwise miserable stretch and potentially salvage a job. There’s plenty of wild card tracks ahead in an unpredictable 2021 schedule, from the Circuit of the Americas down in Texas to the Nashville Superspeedway in June that could provide some welcome relief.
But for these seven drivers below, redemption won’t be easy. Careers hang in the balance already after a sluggish start that’s removed any margin for error.
2021 NASCAR DRIVERS ON THE HOT SEAT
1) Matt DiBenedetto. Matty D was already in tough shape entering 2021, a lame duck the minute reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric was named to the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford for 2022. That makes this year an audition from the start at a time when finding a better job won’t be easy; most top-tier rides are locked up through next season or have prospects like Cindric already handpicked to fill in.
The hope was that a strong start out of the gate, potentially even DiBenedetto’s first win, could put the heat on Penske to move Cindric to a fourth car in-house. Instead, it’s been the opposite, a series of bad-luck bounces making it easier for the Penske-aligned Wood Brothers to start preparing for someone else. Through seven races, Matty D doesn’t have a top-10 finish, hasn’t led a single lap and sits 24th in the standings, some 55 points out of a playoff spot.
For a driver who’s never won, that’s a tough spot to be in, especially considering DiBenedetto’s strong start to 2020 is what earned him a playoff bid. Seven races in, he was 33 points to the good and already had a runner-up finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He needed that cushion after a summer slump deflated his momentum at the Woods and left him one Jimmie Johnson wreck from losing a playoff spot at Daytona International Speedway. The ultimate NASCAR underdog of the past few years has never seemed to get back on track, watching other Cinderellas like Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell steal his thunder in 2021.
To add insult to injury? Cindric has a higher average finish (18.5 to 21.7) and two laps led in his first two Cup starts this season. Matty D needs a good run at Martinsville in the worst way, a track he has back-to-back top-10 finishes at in order to stop the bleeding.
2) Noah Gragson. Yes, he’s a NASCAR Xfinity Series driver, but Gragson ended 2020 one of the sport’s hottest prospects, an outside contender to move up and replace Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports. Despite an edgy personality that sparked rivalries (and punches), he won twice, placed fifth in the final standings and entered 2021 a top-tier championship contender.
Gragson leaned into the role of NASCAR bad boy in 2021. But if you’re going to take on that attitude, you have to produce, and the first six races have been cringeworthy. Three DNFs in six races include a heartbreaking loss late at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a race where David Starr cut a tire and crashed in front of him. Gragson’s post-race comments started a bizarre three-week stretch where he doubled down on “uneducated, ignorant” backmarkers, blew an engine and then fought with Daniel Hemric after Hemric claimed he intentionally damaged his car on pit road at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The drama masks some ugly on-track realities. Homestead is the only race Gragson has led this season. He sits 14th in points, outside playoff position behind guys with 20% of the funding in Brandon Brown and Jeremy Clements. And NASCAR’s most lovable ambassador, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is being asked on his podcast each week why he’s employing a guy self-destructing both on and off the racetrack.
Earnhardt has shown remarkable patience, but even that has its limit. Gragson needs to turn the trash talk into trophies, stat.
3) Aric Almirola. Almirola is one of the sport’s nice guys, a well-funded driver who tends to point his way into the playoffs with Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s got only two wins in 359 Cup starts but does just enough consistency-wise to maintain his role within a four-car organization set at the top with Kevin Harvick.
But this year, an inability to win could come back to haunt him. Almirola is the worst positioned of any 2020 playoff driver, sitting 28th in the standings and some 84 points out of a playoff spot through seven races. Already, he has as many DNFs (three) as the entire 2020 season combined. No top-10 finishes, no laps led and just three stage points have the No. 10 Ford team in desperation mode.
There are tracks ahead like Talladega Superspeedway this month where Almirola could throw a Hail Mary. But it’s a short list as the big, 2.5-mile superspeedways are the only places the 37-year-old has won at in his career. Without a victory, is making the postseason even possible for him at this point with seven winners in the first seven races?
Only one thing we know for sure: SHR co-owner Tony Stewart doesn’t like cashing checks for the hell of it. With the entire organization struggling, Almirola could be an easy casualty if the team shakes up the roster for 2022.
4) Chase Briscoe. Briscoe should get a bit of a pass after nine NASCAR Xfinity Series wins landed him Clint Bowyer’s former ride in the No. 14. But in a nightmare season for SHR, Briscoe’s already made every rookie mistake in the book.
There was the season-opening wreck with Quin Houff at the Daytona 500, one of several on-track scuffles. There have been disappointing runs at the Daytona International Speedway road course and the Bristol Dirt Race, Briscoe’s bread-and-butter. In between has been an inability to nail the handling of his Cup car at intermediate tracks, 1.5-milers that still make up the majority of this year’s schedule.
Briscoe still sits 46 points ahead of his main competition for NASCAR Rookie of the Year, Anthony Alfredo. But the quicksand gobbling up SHR is something to watch with Stewart at the helm. Remember, it was Kyle Larson, not Briscoe, that the three-time NASCAR champion pushed for until Hendrick won the Larson sweepstakes.
What if another top-level talent becomes available? Just ask Hemric what can happen after a disappointing 2019 Rookie of the Year season got him booted from Richard Childress Racing for Tyler Reddick.
5) Tyler Ankrum. Remember Ankrum’s shocking Kentucky Speedway victory in 2019 at age 18? That launched the relatively unknown Camping World Truck Series prospect into the playoffs at the track his former owner, David Gilliland, earned his lone NASCAR win.
Will Ankrum follow suit as a brief one-hit wonder? It’s been all downhill from there despite hooking up with one of the sport’s best Truck teams of the past several years in GMS Racing (they had three of the four Championship 4 participants last season). Five races into 2021, Ankrum sits an embarassing 28th in the standings behind drivers like Christian Eckes who have just two starts. Three wrecks have torn up equipment and left zero margin for error with 10 races left.
So many prospects have gone down this road, peaking early only to flame out in spectacular fashion. Ankrum’s future in NASCAR could be on the line if he tanks with a team that includes the reigning Truck Series champ.
6) Alex Bowman. Here’s where the list gets interesting. Bowman was third at Atlanta Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, righting the ship and lifting the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team to 16th in points. All in all, it hasn’t been a bad year, with a Daytona 500 pole on speed, three top-10 finishes and just a single DNF.
Problem is, when your teammates are Larson, reigning Cup champ Chase Elliott and William Byron, even a small dip in performance stands out. I’d argue that Bowman is actually the third-fastest HMS car this year, ahead of Elliott at times, but the reigning champ has years of immunity ahead.
Bowman’s sponsor, Ally Financial, is the type of full-season deal Hendrick could move around the organization for another driver. Twenty-eight-year-old Bowman remains the only one of this quartet with a deal that has yet to be extended beyond the 2021 season. Could needed sponsorship funding for Larson in 2022 force Hendrick’s hand in a potential funding squeeze? If I’m Bowman, I want to win at one of the intermediates coming up on the schedule this next stretch (Kansas Speedway on May 2?) and push the contract extension ASAP.
7) Kyle Busch. Frontstretch has a great column this week from Bryan Gable analyzing how much crew chief Adam Stevens meant to Busch’s career. Seven races in, the jury’s out on Ben Beshore as Busch has just seven laps led. That’s the worst total for him at this point in the year since his rookie season driving for Hendrick in 2005. (Busch also missed the first 11 races of 2015 due to injury). He’s currently 13th in points, in playoff position but with only one race led (the Bristol Dirt Race on March 29).
At the end of February, we put out a hypothetical, just-for-fun scenario asking if Busch was vulnerable at Joe Gibbs Racing. At the time, Ty Gibbs had just won his first Xfinity Series race and seems destined for a Cup career at his grandfather’s team. So who would Gibbs replace on the roster?
Two other JGR cars, driven by Christopher Bell and Martin Truex Jr., have already won. The third is driven by current point leader Denny Hamlin who recently signed an extension through 2023. Busch, for his part, is signed through the 2022 season.
It still seems crazy, right? Just a point of reference; when Hendrick signed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2007, Kyle Busch was still signed through 2008. The extra year of the contract didn’t matter.
Let’s be clear; as a full-time ARCA driver, part-time Xfinity, Ty Gibbs isn’t ready for Cup just yet. Busch could easily rip off wins in the next three races and make these an embarrassing few paragraphs. But with a new crew chief and just one win in his last 43 starts… the head-scratching continues.