Before the 2021 NASCAR season even began, this column pointed out the possibility of a proliferation of newcomers on the national level based on the then-newly released Daytona International Speedway entry lists plus some of the already-announced driver lineups for the coming weeks.
But I don’t know if anyone expected this.
This weekend, all three national series visit Circuit of the Americas, and three months in, one of the hallmarks of 2021 from a statistical standpoint is not just all the first-time winners, but also the first-timers in a series at all. And those numbers are only going to grow by weekend’s end.
Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race will see Kyle Tilley strap in for his first Cup start, already guaranteed a spot by virtue of team Live Fast Motorsports’ charter for its No. 78.
Over on the Xfinity Series side, Spencer Pumpelly is not locked in but seems likely to make the show in his No. 6 for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller.
And the Camping World Truck Series, while unlikely, could see as many as seven different debuts this weekend. There will also be eight DNQs, so the likelihood of all seven making the field is suspect, but chances are Jack Wood is set in GMS Racing’s No. 24 based on the team’s owner’s points position, while the others may need to count on their speed in qualifying to make the field.
With Tilley in particular, Cup will have its 12th debut of the season, a number that seemed downright unreachable at the beginning of the season, even though four were trying to make their first start in the Daytona 500. Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo were givens due to their teams’ charters. Austin Cindric seemed a likely scenario eventually with Team Penske’s power under its hood. Noah Gragson might not have made the season opener when all was said and done, but still — three was a great start given 2020’s paltry four all season (Brennan Poole, Christopher Bell, James Davison and Kaz Grala). Nature seemed to be healing.
The boost has been owed in large part to some of the different tracks — and configurations — the series has visited. In March, four drivers alone debuted at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt track, Stewart Friesen, Shane Golobic, Chris Windom and Mike Marlar making their first series appearances. Tilley and Scott Heckert are road course aces reaping the benefits of Live Fast’s usual driver/co-owner BJ McLeod being willing to step aside for the good of the team if a specialist is available.
Then there are Harrison Burton, Josh Berry and Matt Mills, drivers who’ve been cutting their teeth in Xfinity and were probably solid candidates for Cup eventually if the opportunity presented itself. In Berry’s case, said opportunity was Justin Haley‘s Dover International Speedway absence due to COVID-19 protocols, but a start is a start.
Even not counting Tilley’s start this weekend, we’ve already seen more Cup debuts in 2021 than the previous three years; 2019 and 2018 both saw 10 all season. Once Tilley makes his first start, Cup will be one off 2017’s mark of 13, which is currently the largest sum since 2004, when 16 took to the track for the first time.
That’s something else, isn’t it? The halfway point of the season is approaching but is still a few weeks off, and yet Cup is on pace to obliterate newcomer numbers of the past two decades. And all this is happening despite oftentimes incomplete fields (40 start this weekend, but most of the time the number hovers more around 37 or 38) and a marked lack of part-time organizations compared to, say, 2004.
It’s happening elsewhere, too. Xfinity is already four off 2020’s mark of 13, three if Pumpelly starts Saturday (though don’t expect 2019’s staggering 24 to be topped). And the Truck Series has already blown past 2020’s mark of eight, something that was somewhat expected at least by the end of the season but not so much this early on. Nine have taken the green flag for the first time in a truck so far this year, with Wood a likely 10th and a few more possible this weekend. 2019’s 31 is a little far off, but besting 2020 is a step in the right direction.
All of this is to say that if you need an example of NASCAR becoming a bit more like its pre-COVID-19 pandemic self, look no further than these stats. Car and truck counts in the Xfinity and Truck series are up compared to last year, and so is the amount of drivers willing to contest the races, some for the first time.
It’s a sign that in some cases, money’s there where it might not have been in 2020. Others are able to capitalize on the new tracks NASCAR is visiting. And still more benefit from new teams joining the fray across all three series (when they’re not going with a wily veteran to help them get off the ground, of course).
That’s good for everyone. NASCAR fields last year were often stale, the same competitors contesting the races each week. You have to have your stars, your mainstays, sure. But think of the rush you get at a local track when a newcomer about whom you know little comes in and challenges for the win. It’s a story, a break from the status quo. It provides an extra bump of excitement that might not have been garnered by seeing the same two stalwarts battle it out for the checkered flag for the third week in a row.
Cool thing is, some of these drivers aren’t just also-rans. Ty Gibbs won in his Xfinity debut at Daytona’s road course. Hell, Cindric’s an expert road course guy making his first Cup road start at COTA this weekend. Call him a dark horse.
Could the streak of newcomers taper off before long? Totally. But given the three series’ visits to some tracks they’ve never visited in the coming months, not to mention a road course-heavy stretch for Xfinity in particular, don’t bet on it.
Who knows? Maybe the up-and-comer or the journeyman you never thought would rise above a certain level might get their chance soon. Seems like that kind of year.