NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: First 22 Races of 2021 Cup Season

2021 NASCAR Season… What happened?

Denny Hamlin leads the Cup Series points standings through the first 22 races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, narrowly ahead of Kyle Larson.

William Byron, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano round out the top five in points with four races left in the regular season.

How did it happen?

Michael McDowell was victorious at the Daytona 500 following a last-lap crash between leaders Logano and Brad Keselowski. It was one of the biggest upsets in the race’s history, just the third victory for Front Row Motorsports and the first of McDowell’s career.

Staying in Daytona on the road course the following week, Christopher Bell nabbed his first career win in just his second start with Joe Gibbs Racing. The surprise winners continued in Florida at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Byron scored his second career victory.

Larson won his first race for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the next week. Then, it was Martin Truex Jr. victorious at Phoenix Raceway in the all-important race at the championship track.

Larson appeared poised to win again at Atlanta Motor Speedway before Ryan Blaney used a late pass to score his first win of the year. At the highly-anticipated Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, Logano surprisingly won despite having little dirt experience.

Truex was the first repeat winner of the season in race eight at Martinsville Speedway. Alex Bowman scored his first victory of 2021 the next week at Richmond Raceway after a great late restart, leading the final 10 laps.

Keselowski won at Talladega Superspeedway, tying Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with six wins at the famed racetrack. Kyle Busch extended his win streak to 17 consecutive seasons after his victory at Kansas Speedway — another race where Larson was dominant but lost it late. Truex then got his third win of the year at Darlington Raceway, meaning all three of his victories came at playoff tracks.

Hendrick Motorsports took over for the next month or so, winning six straight points-paying races. The party started at Dover International Speedway, where HMS finished first through fourth — Bowman winning ahead of Larson, Chase Elliott and Byron. Elliott won the next race at Circuit of the Americas in the rain-shortened event. Larson was next, winning the Coca-Cola 600 for Hendrick’s record-breaking 269th win as an organization.

It didn’t stop there, as Larson won at Sonoma Raceway, the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway and then Nashville Superspeedway. He nearly won another at Pocono Raceway before cutting a tire entering the final corner, handing the win to Bowman.

Kyle Busch broke up the Hendrick parade at the second Pocono race, winning on fuel mileage despite a broken shifter. HMS quickly returned to victory lane when Elliott triumphed at Road America on the Fourth of July.

The 20th race of 2021 saw the first new winner since race 13 (Elliott at COTA), as Kurt Busch outdueled his brother in the final race at the old Atlanta layout and surface.

Aric Almirola, having the worst season in his Stewart-Haas Racing career, stole a playoff spot in the final race before the Olympics break at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He did it on pure speed, though the race was called eight laps early due to darkness.

Who stood out?

Larson has been the series’ best driver through 22 races. At this point, it’s almost remarkable that he doesn’t have more than four wins. Races at Kansas, Atlanta, COTA and Pocono all could’ve been wins. Bristol dirt and Talladega ended before he got a chance to compete. Still, he’s second in points and currently riding a streak of 10 top-10 finishes in the last 12 races. From Darlington through Pocono 2, he rattled off eight straight top 10s, seven top twos and three wins. The only race outside the top two during that stretch was ninth when he crashed at Pocono 1 while leading in turn 3.

Kyle Busch has shown the most consistent speed to compete with Larson and the Hendrick brigade. Over the past 12 races, he’s been outside the top 11 just twice — 27th at Dover (mechanical issue) and 37th at New Hampshire (crashed in the rain). In that span, he has eight top fives, four top twos, two wins and led laps in 11 races. Busch was the only driver to consistently compete with HMS during their dominant run. He’s run well at 750-HP tracks — third at Darlington and Road America — and 550-HP tracks — wins at Kansas and Pocono. This season has all the ingredients for a potential third title.

Inconsistency aside, Truex has shown he can win at the most important tracks. The highs have been high for Truex, with wins at playoff ovals in Phoenix, Martinsville and Darlington. But the lows have been just as low, with five finishes outside the top 20 and four outside the top 25. The wins will keep No. 19 fans optimistic for the postseason, though Truex’s current 12.7 average finish would be his worst since 2016. The good news is, in this playoff format, you don’t need to be great from start to finish to win a championship. In fact, the best driver and team has rarely won the title under the current format. There is hope that this team could peak at the right time here down the stretch.

Who fell flat?

Hamlin’s stretch to begin the season was incredibly strong, but he never finished the job and hasn’t had the same speed since. The year began with eight top fives in nine races and a worst finish of 11th. In 13 races since then, he has three top fives and seven top 10s. Hamlin still narrowly holds the points lead, but he’s clearly a notch below the Hendrick group and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. A few wins got away late — notably at Martinsville and Richmond — so the hope would be that Hamlin has good 750-HP speed is are well-positioned for a playoff run at such tracks. I’m definitely not counting him out, but being winless this late in the season counts as a disappointment for a driver like Hamlin, even if he’s leading the points.

After winning nine races in 2020, Harvick has yet to come close to winning one through 22 races. Everything said about Hamlin can be said for Harvick, just to a lesser degree. Harvick has similarly been disappointing, and he doesn’t even have the near-misses like Hamlin. Before leading 66 laps at New Hampshire, Harvick led just 39 laps in 21 races. He hasn’t been in position to win nearly enough despite having 15 top 10s in 22 races. Almirola’s win can give SHR some momentum and hope for the rest of this season, even if it might be time to start moving focus toward the NextGen car.

What did the first 22 races prove?

Contenders come and go and timing is everything as we enter the stretch run. Hendrick looked unbeatable for almost two months. Now, they’ve looked a tick off for two straight races and questions can be asked. Joe Gibbs Racing has been quick all year and Kyle Busch has proved that they can run with HMS at any track outside the road courses. And the Fords had only won at superspeedways, a dirt race and a late pass at Atlanta before placing five cars in the top six at New Hampshire. Any of the three manufacturers can point to times during the season and think they are the title favorites. Realistically, someone from a powerhouse organization — HMS, JGR, SHR or Penske — will win the title. Who that is, exactly, is still a major debate. Getting hot at the right time will be crucial, as Elliott showed in 2020.

The updated schedule this season has been a welcome change. It’s been the same for so long — and it’s been great to have new twists like Road America, Bristol Dirt and COTA. I don’t think we need this many new tracks every year, but it is nice to have them mixed in at random times during the sometimes mundane regular season. The only gripe I have is that these new tracks are basically the only ones with qualifying (outside the crown jewels). Next year should be back to normal with qualifying and practice, so that’s what I’m already looking forward to in 2022, even if the schedule doesn’t change as much.

There are growing pains for new teams, and that should be expected with the new owners entering next year. 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing have shown flashes of speed while remaining largely inconsistent. Bubba Wallace was in the mix to win the Daytona 500 before a pit road problem, then struggled for a while until scoring five top 15s in the last eight races. Daniel Suarez’s year has had higher highs but also lower lows, leading 58 laps at Bristol but finishing worse than 30th five times. 

This is another topic to keep an eye on in 2022 with multiple new teams entering the sport. Trackhouse and Kaulig Racing will both have two full-time cars. 23XI could add a second team while Roush Fenway Racing is adding a new owner in Keselowski. GMS Racing is hoping to run Cup racing, too with other new owners on the horizon. Next season could be even more chaotic with all this new blood.

Paint scheme of the season (so far)

This is honestly the toughest section for me. As a huge paint scheme fanatic, I always love writing this section each week. Looking back at some of the designs this season brought back a lot of great sights. In the end, I was able to narrow it down to three choices: Bowman’s Ally Neon Lights car from Nashville, Keselowski’s Freightliner car from New Hampshire and Byron’s Axalta rainbow car.

The winner of those three? Bowman. Look at this beauty:

Better than last year?

Last year, the first 22 races saw 10 different winners. Hamlin and Harvick won 11 of the 22 races, including three of four entering race 23. There were some really strong races, notably at Bristol (Elliott-Logano late wreck for the lead), Darlington (Elliott-Busch late wreck for second) and Talladega (Blaney wins on chaotic dash to the line). The story of the first 22 races in 2020, though, was the pandemic. COVID-19 forced a two-month layoff, causing frequent doubleheaders and weeknight races when NASCAR returned. It was hectic, but really fun after the tough times everyone went through.

This year, there have been 13 winners through 22 races. While it looked like Larson might never lose at times, he has “only” four wins — less than Harvick (6) and Hamlin (5) at this point last year. The unexpectedness of Hendrick taking over for a stretch of race, combined with the wild winners in McDowell and Almirola have made this season great. The usual suspects are still getting their wins (sans Hamlin and Harvick) but the underdogs are showing up too. I’ll give 2021 the slight edge thus far, but it’ll need an exciting conclusion to finish better than 2020.

Playoff picture

The playoff field appeared to be locked in before Almirola’s stunning victory at New Hampshire. Now, potentially two or more drivers outside the top 16 in points will crash the playoff party.

Hamlin — winless and still not locked in — leads Larson in the overall standings by 13 points. Larson (32 earned playoff points), Truex (19), Bowman (15), Kyle Busch (14), Elliott (11), Blaney (9), Byron (8), Logano (8), Kurt Busch (8), Keselowski (7), Bell (5), McDowell (5) and Almirola (5) are all essentially locked in with wins (the final three could be bumped if there are more surprise winners).

The final two playoff spots currently belong to Harvick (+82 on the bubble) and Tyler Reddick (+5). Austin Dillon (-5) is the first driver out, as his season was noticeably hurt following Almirola’s win. 

Chris Buescher (-121), Matt DiBenedetto (-143), Ross Chastain (-144) and Bubba Wallace (-170) are the next closest drivers to the points bubble, though it’ll likely take a win for them to qualify.

Here’s a look at the full standings with just four regular season races left.

What’s next?

The two-week break for the Tokyo Olympics is finally over, as NASCAR gears up for the final 14 races of the season.  The Cup Series returns on Sunday (Aug. 8) and will run for 14 straight weeks to close the year. After not running at Watkins Glen in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, racing returns to New York with the Go Bowling at the Glen this Sunday (Aug. 8) at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

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Brian

Here’s a perfectly awesome PR storm for NASCAR to have to chew on:

There is the possibility of 16 different winners this season.

My best case scenario would be for there to be those 16 winners but not have one be Hamlin or Harvick, even though since he dives a Ford would like to have him get a win, Hamlin is also past in the season points by Larson or any of those in the top 3 or 4. This would punt him out of the playoffs since the season points leader is guaranteed a spot regardless of number of winners.

Would love to see this happen since I personally do not care for the current playoff structure.

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