1. The “Road” Ahead
For the second half of the 2021 regular season, the Cup Series regulars face an eclectic mix of tracks, including a doubleheader at Pocono Raceway (the only two-fer of this year), a brand new circuit in Nashville, and, count ’em, five road courses. Of the quintet, three road courses are new to the top echelon of NASCAR: Road America, the Indianapolis Road Course and of course this weekend’s race at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin. Alongside all the shiny new venues, we have two old favorite road courses in Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway — both of which return to the schedule after their respective races were nixed during the pandemic. All told, turning left and right accounts for a tick under 40% of the pre-playoff schedule, and that’s significant.
For the surprisingly winless road course master Chase Elliott, it’s an especially nice stretch, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him vacuum up multiple checkered flags when the Series splits from ovals. Let’s not forget, either, that for the second year in a row, we’ll close out the regular season on the unpredictable high banks of Daytona International Speedway, giving those who haven’t qualified yet one final chance at making the postseason. Finally, we’ll also have a scheduled two-week break for the rescheduled Olympic Games in Tokyo just to add to the mix. So there’s lots of play for in the next few months, starting this weekend at COTA. Bring on the right turns.
We’re halfway to the playoffs with 13 races in the books, and it seems like a good moment to glance back at what we’ve seen so far in 2021. Starting at the top, Hendrick Motorsports looks like the team to beat from an overall perspective. Witness the 1-2-3-4 finish on Sunday for proof here. Kyle Larson has returned to driving fast and turning left without skipping a beat, even if he’s struggling to finish off races he should be winning.
But on the important playoff tracks (Martinsville, Phoenix), Joe Gibbs Racing, and Martin Truex Jr. in particular, look strong, and Team Penske is not far behind either — it’s shaping up nicely, folks, for a battle royale once again.
I doubt you would find a NASCAR fan with a modicum of knowledge alive who would have predicted a big fat goose egg in the wins column for the 2020 Champion Elliott and the two drivers who combined for 16 wins last season in Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin at this stage of the season. I keep saying expect that to change (and I believe it will), but the sand is running through the hourglass, that’s for sure.
Finally, we’ve suffered with the weather, but that’s not exactly new for NASCAR. Remember the Texas race last year that went off on Thursday in the end? Can’t wait to see what the second half of the regular season brings.
3. Reddick Rising
After starting out the season at Daytona in dismal fashion (27th in the 500 and 38th on the Road Course) accruing just eleven markers, Tyler Reddick has put together a fine run of form, including five top-10 efforts in the last seven races. After the sixth race of the season, Reddick sat a whopping 64 points beneath the playoff cutoff line. But following his eighth-place run at the Monster Mile, he’s in the playoffs by 17 points. Admittedly, it’s the kind of lead that can evaporate quickly, but it’s a huge swing from where he was and his momentum is certainly trending the right way – upward.
— Tyler Reddick (@TylerReddick) May 16, 2021
“I’d say the biggest difference is just staying in the race, not necessarily mentally, but still allowing ourselves to have a shot and rebound,” Reddick said of his meteoric rise up the standings prior to Dover. “We, unfortunately, didn’t get off to a good start, so we were starting back in 30th or worse at some of these races and it wasn’t really allowing us a chance to score stage points. It was a grind at a lot of these races just to get to 15th.”
Well, grind he has, and if the back-to-back Xfinity champion continues in the same vein, perhaps that first ever Cup victory might be in his near future.
4. Legendary Lewis
In the last few years, I’ve written a fair bit about Lewis Hamilton and just how great he is. Since I last wrote, he picked up his 100th pole position and won his third race of the four completed thus far. It’s easy to just pick a superlative or two to describe his form and then move on, but the fact is we’re watching a true motor racing great.
Hamilton’s meticulous dedication to his craft, his unerring ability to wrest a tenth out of the car and metronomic ability to turn a good starting position into an excellent result shouldn’t be overlooked as simply down to superior equipment. If it was that easy, Valtteri Bottas would have a bunch more victories. As with Jimmie Johnson during his spell of five straight Cup titles, the fashionable thing to do is in some way downplay the achievements, to qualify or justify them with facts and data that lessen the overall impact. Simply put, that’s specious nonsense. Hamilton is a genuine and undoubted all-time great and maybe, just maybe, the greatest ever.
5. Shot of the Season
And finally, a shout out to Romain Grosjean on his first pole, leading his first laps and bringing home a podium finish (second) in just his third ever IndyCar race. The 10-year F1 veteran has become so much more well known thanks to his fiery wreck at Bahrain last season but perhaps even more so thanks to his episode on the simply brilliant Netflix F1 show, Drive to Survive. And this iconic photo from Sunday’s podium brings it even more to life.
I’ve seen many photos from yesterday’s #IndyCar #GMRGrandPrix—-> This IS the money shot by @indystar photog @GraceHollars. @RGrosjean of @DaleCoyneRacing holding his 2nd place finish trophy. Grojean was involved in a 2020 #Formula1 fiery crash. pic.twitter.com/aSRoMHnfSi
— Clark Wade (@ClarkWade34) May 16, 2021
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never even watched a lap before, Drive to Survive is a show I confidently predict you’ll enjoy, and even more so if you’re a big fan of any form of motorsports. Worth noting too that a number of my non-racing friends have contacted me to say how much they loved the show, and in some cases, that they have even started watching F1 as a result.