It’s hard to believe, but we’re already over halfway through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the Cup Series. 2021 has given us a little bit of everything: Cinderella stories (Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win), parity at the top (11 winners in 14 races) and a whole lot of Mother Nature raining on NASCAR’s parade (see: just about every crown jewel event. The bigger the race, the more it pours!). There’s even a little NASCAR Silly Season news breaking already, with Brad Keselowski’s reported move to Roush Fenway Racing shaking up the landscape among top-tier teams.
That news also delayed this column for a week. But better late than never! Last year, I brought back “The Bowlesy Awards,” first appearing on SI.com years ago and the new-age edition continues in 2021. This year, we’re twisting them back into thirds: midseason, end of regular season and end of the year.
So let’s take a look at who and what is memorable thus far in what FOX tries to tell us weekly is the Best Season Ever.
2021 NASCAR Midseason Awards
The David Pearson Award (Hardest Charger): Martin Truex Jr. Some may say Truex is the obvious choice with a season-best three wins in 14 races. I disagree. His 12.4 average finish thus far is actually slightly worse than it was in 2020 (11.7). He retains a weakness in pack racing at superspeedways (average finish: 28.0) and encountered bad luck on both road courses this season.
But where Truex stands out is what will win him the championship: success on the 750-horsepower package. All three victories have occurred with that setup, including at the track which hosts the Cup playoff finale: Phoenix Raceway. Second-year crew chief James Small has put his stamp on the program, cementing his leadership style in a post-Cole Pearn era that’s gained Truex his confidence back.
This team, stacked with veterans, knows how to follow the trends. In a season that’s had a green-flag feel, more often than not, Truex leads the series in some important loop data characteristics: overall Green Flag Speed and Green Flag Speed Late in a run (Kyle Larson is a distant second).
You know the other thing about Phoenix? It ran caution-free last November, not counting stage breaks. That’s food for thought as the 2017 Cup champion plots a second title run. Kevin Harvick proved the most playoff points don’t guarantee a Championship 4 appearance, but an April victory at Martinsville Speedway shows Truex could copycat Chase Elliott’s title run in a worst-case scenario.
2020 winner: Ryan Blaney
The Tim Richmond Award (Comeback Driver Of The Year): Kyle Larson. It’s easy to take Larson’s 2021 success for granted. Sure, he failed upward to Hendrick Motorsports after a racial slur that got him fired from Chip Ganassi Racing. But Larson entered this year not having driven a Cup car in almost 10 months. He had no time to gel with a new team, paired with an unproven crew chief (Cliff Daniels) who couldn’t get Jimmie Johnson over the hump and playoff bound in his farewell season.
Give some credit where it’s due: Daniels and Larson have sprinted out of the gate. 778 laps led leads the series and is over 250 laps more than Larson’s total during the entire 2019 season with Ganassi. Seven top-five finishes is one short of his 2019 total, while a victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway capped off the comeback in early March. If the 28-year-old never ran another race this year, he’d have the award on lockdown.
Larson’s one concern continues to be closing out races. Dominant performances at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Dover International Speedway fell short in the final stage. But it’s May. There’s plenty of time to fix that.
2020 winner: Denny Hamlin
The Where Did He Come From Award (pleasant surprise): Daniel Suarez. McDowell deserves strong consideration after his season-long performance. It’s close.
In the end, I give the edge to Suarez because his career looked finished after an underwhelming 2020 with Gaunt Brothers Racing. Trackhouse Racing is his fourth team in four years, a former NASCAR Xfinity Series champ bounced like a pinball one final time to salvage a dying career.
He did. 14 races in, a single-car organization whose claim to fame is part-owner Pitbull finds itself tearing at the fringes of playoff contention. Two top-10 finishes is two more than Suarez had in 2020; more importantly, the No. 99 has led 74 laps already, an unheard-of total these days for a team starting from scratch. Fourth at the Bristol Dirt Race nearly turned into an upset on par with McDowell; a top-10 finish at Dover showed this team gaining strength with the 750-horsepower package.
A poor season would have been Suarez’s last in the sport. It’s nice to see a driver with this level of talent and personality stick around.
2020 winner: Matt DiBenedetto
The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Bubba Wallace. You hate to see the Danica Patrick comparisons after Wallace’s popularity skyrocketed during the #BlackLivesMatter protests last summer. 2021 was supposed to be his big break, backed by the financial support of Michael Jordan and Toyota.
Unfortunately, 23XI Racing can point to that XI as their best-ever finish through 14 races (11th at Dover). That’s simply not enough, leaving him one of four full-time drivers without a top-10 finish. The others? Rookie Anthony Alfredo, Josh Bilicki and Quin Houff. All three combined may have less funding than Wallace’s No. 23.
The luck has been downright awful since the season-opening Daytona 500, where a tire problem derailed a likely top-five finish. As the year’s dragged on, though, you can see Wallace losing confidence and crew chief Mike Wheeler has been the source of some shaky calls. A 22.1 average finish is actually one position worse for Wallace than the underfunded ride he left behind at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Barring a miracle, a postseason bid now appears out of reach. That’s a tough pill to swallow when the rest of the Toyota full-time teams are locked into the playoffs by race 14.
2020 winner: William Byron
The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Denny Hamlin. Talk about killing them with consistency. Hamlin’s nine top-five finishes lead the series along with a scintillating 7.7 average finish. He’s led the points since the second race of the year, his high watermark an advantage of over 100 points on second place.
Right now, a 98-point edge on William Byron means Hamlin could sit out this weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, perhaps even the following weekend at Sonoma Raceway, and keep his lead. It’s incredible he hasn’t won yet, the only driver in the sport’s Big 3 teams (Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing) to have a goose egg there through 14 races. But I wouldn’t sweat Hamlin making the playoffs (remember, the point leader automatically advances, even with 16 winners). Expect the No. 11 team to be crowned the regular season champion as soon as Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course in mid-August.
2020 winner: Kevin Harvick
The Jayski Award (best Silly Season move): Rudy Fugle to William Byron’s No. 24. Turns out Chad Knaus was better served running Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams instead of serving as crew chief for one. Since his promotion, all four HMS drivers have won a race while the organization scored the first 1-2-3-4 finish in its 37-year history at Dover this month.
When Knaus moved up, that created the opening for Byron’s former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series crew chief Rudy Fugle to come on board. Chemistry reignited with his protege after a rocky start, peaking with a run of 11 top-10 finishes (including a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway) to set a record for a Cup driver age 23 or younger.
Don’t forget, Byron needed a Hail Mary/controversial win at the Daytona International Speedway regular season finale to make the playoffs in 2020. Could Byron/Fugle be the next generation of Johnson/Knaus, in which both men needed the other to be on top of their craft?
2020 winner: Penske crew chief swap
The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): Who replaces Keselowski at Penske? (If he leaves). I talked about the Keselowski-to-Roush story last week. Most likely, the presence of Austin Cindric at Penske allows for a painless transition if Keselowski leaves.
Here’s the wild card: rides like Penske’s No. 2 come open, oh, about once a decade. Joey Logano has been with the organization since 2013; Ryan Blaney joined up in 2018 and is signed to a long-term deal. It’s the type of juicy opportunity that a top-tier driver would break contract for if they felt it was the right move.
How this ride plays out determines just how crazy this Silly Season gets. If Matty D or Cindric slot into Keselowski’s ride? The number of changes will be quite limited. If there’s a surprise we’re not considering? Pre-Next Gen could be a Silly Season volcano on par with the Kyle Busch – Dale Earnhardt Jr. swap of 2007-08.
2020 winner: The 2021 schedule
The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Ty Gibbs vs. the field / Austin Cindric at Daytona’s road course. OK, so maybe it wasn’t a bump-and-run, fender-banging ride to the finish. But who can forget this teenager’s frenetic final restart that earned him a NASCAR Xfinity Series win in his debut?
2020 winner: Chase Elliott vs. Joey Logano at Bristol
The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Noah Gragson vs. Daniel Hemric at Atlanta. Gragson is one of the sport’s bad boys and Hemric has a clean-cut reputation. So for the latter to get angry enough and seek out the former after some questionable pit road contact? It’s a rivalry that might burn throughout the NXS playoffs.
I picked this clip in particular because of the excitable Truex reaction and everyone was thinking, “they fightin’!”
2020 winner: Kyle Busch vs. Alan Gustafson
The Darrell Waltrip Award (Tweet of the Year): Anything Marcus Lemonis says. A team, driver or racetrack needs support? Lemonis is leading the way. The Camping World CEO and NBC star backed nearly a dozen drivers in the Truck Series he sponsors at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Since then, he’s been dabbling in everything from giving away RVs to offering to prop up North Wilkesboro Speedway if it gets renovated. In doing so, he even showed an interest in a potential NASCAR rival … SRX.
With the money and power this guy has, it’s a can’t-miss Twitter feed each week.
— Marcus Lemonis (@marcuslemonis) May 22, 2021
(Best Race): GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. A rare winner two years in a row for a race that featured a season-high 35 lead changes in 2021. It didn’t quite match the bare-knuckle excitement of 2020 but an A versus an A+ is still one damn good race. This ‘Dega delight also proved you don’t need a Big One (although Logano’s battered No. 22 would beg to differ) in order to produce quality competition.
The winner, Keselowski, was involved in that crash, only to rebound and plan the perfect last-lap strategy. He’s the second pack racing winner in a row to lead only the final lap of the race.
2020 winner: GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway
(Biggest Upset): Michael McDowell at the Daytona 500. 0-for-357 entering the 2021 Daytona 500? That’s shades of Michael Waltrip’s 0-for-462 before getting over the hump in the 2001 Great American Race.
McDowell put himself in position to win, then watched in awe as the seas parted in front of him with a Keselowski-Logano wreck among teammates. It was sweet redemption for years spent starting-and-parking, just hoping for the right opportunity without losing confidence in himself. The fact McDowell has retained momentum, delivering a career year (five top-10 finishes in 14 races) is icing on the cake for one of the sport’s nice guys.
2020 winner: Cole Custer at Kentucky Speedway
Driver On The Hot Seat: Ryan Preece. Preece put his best foot forward early, posting back-to-back top-10s to match his total from all of last year with JTG Daugherty Racing. But the speed has faded as the year rolled on, leaving Preece in jeopardy of losing his ride midseason with a No. 37 team that has sponsorship for only 24 races.
Without a charter now, who knows if this car will even return in 2022 with so many other owners looking to nab a spot on the grid? Preece is likely auditioning for other rides and needs a solid second half to remind Xfinity and Truck series teams he can excel in the right equipment. Can Preece follow John Hunter Nemechek’s model of stepping back to move forward?
2020 winner: Clint Bowyer (wound up retiring)