Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Driver Improvements in 2021 You Might Have Missed

Year-over-year improvement is not a given in any sport, NASCAR included. It’s expected out of some, granted, especially drivers entering their sophomore season or someone in better equipment than before. But it doesn’t always happen. Hell, sometimes performance actually suffers on a grand scale. You never know.

Certain examples of upward mobility were not only anticipated in 2021, they also occurred in spades. Take Kyle Larson for example, someone whose move to Hendrick Motorsports seemed tailor made for improvement over his still-stellar Chip Ganassi Racing career — and very much happened, with Larson winning more NASCAR Cup Series races than anyone else in 2021 and remaining in contention for the season title this weekend.

Others include the emergence of Josh Berry, who’d run Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports before but had never even managed a top five in the series, well off his blistering two-win performance that set him up for a full-time run in the Xfinity No. 8 next year. John Hunter Nemechek was unlikely to underperform in a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck vs. his previous Camping World Truck Series stints with Nemco Motorsports — and sure enough, he set career bests in virtually every category. Christopher Bell moving from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing was likely going to beget better results — and sure enough, it did. Same with Ross Chastain getting a better Cup ride in CGR.

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But as the season comes to a close this weekend at Phoenix Raceway, there are other gains — some minute, others quite substantial — that weren’t covered on a Larson-esque scale in 2021. You might’ve even missed a few of them.

Read below for a selection across the three NASCAR national series.

(Note: all stats through the penultimate Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck series races in 2021. Some drivers below are not running at Phoenix this weekend, so their stats remain intact. Most others are likely to still hold true post-Phoenix, barring outlier results Friday, Saturday and/or Saturday.)

-Less wins overall for Justin Allgaier in Xfinity (barring a Phoenix win), but the driver topped 2020 in most other categories and dipped his average finish into the top 10 yet again.

-Longtime Xfinity driver Dexter Bean, who first made a start in the series in 2006, posted a career-best average finish for the second year in a row, improving on 2020’s 27th with a 26.6 this year in five starts.

-A full-time Cup schedule — and thus a larger sample size — didn’t end up being a barrier to better overall results for Josh Bilicki, who earned career bests in nearly all categories in 2021. In addition to his first top 10, he has an average finish of 31.1, up from 33rd last year, and finished on the lead lap for the first time (seven overall).

Ryan Blaney broke out in a big way in 2021, winning more than one Cup race in a season (three entering Phoenix) for the first time and nabbing a career best in top 10s. He’s also likely to earn his best average finish in Cup ever, with his 12.1 well above the 13.7 he managed in 2019.

Alex Bowman boasts career bests in wins (four), top fives (eight) and top 10s (16) exiting Martinsville Speedway, making his move from Hendrick’s No. 88 to its No. 48 to replace Jimmie Johnson make quite a bit of sense.

-Despite a three-place drop in average finish, Brandon Brown improved in Xfinity in wins (one), top fives (three) and top 10s (nine), certainly making 2021 his most successful season yet.

-The 17.1 average finish of Chris Buescher in Cup entering Phoenix is his best yet, a few ticks above his 17.8 in 2019. He’d also never finished on the lead lap more than 20 times in a season, but thus far, he has 27 such finishes.

Jeb Burton improved on his part-time JRM Xfinity run in 2020 with an improvement of three positions in average finish at Kaulig Racing this year, not to mention his maiden series win at Talladega Superspeedway.

-With each passing year, William Byron seems more and more a worthy successor to Jeff Gordon in Hendrick’s Cup No. 24. In 2021, he’s snagged career bests in top fives (12), top 10s (20) and has an average finish of 13.5 that’s a spot and a half ahead of his 14.9 number in 2019.

Austin Cindric‘s title-winning 2020 in Xfinity was going to be tough to best, but somehow he’s done it in some respects, including more top fives (21) and a better average finish (8.4 to last year’s 8.6). Definitely ready for Cup next year.

-Weird stat incoming for Jeremy Clements: barring a top five at Phoenix, he’ll have none in 2021, but his career-high eight top 10s have helped him to an average finish of 16.3, better than any other season in his now-lengthy Xfinity career that dates back to 2003.

James Davison started five more races (20) in Cup in 2021 than in 2020, and he was able to improve on his average finish by two places (33.9 to 31.3) while also boasting five lead-lap finishes to 2020’s two.

Tate Fogleman has finished in the top 10 twice in 2021 in the Truck Series, with his Talladega win joined by a ninth-place run at Knoxville Raceway. He’d never finished in the top 10 in 26 starts entering 2021.

Colin Garrett has gotten better and better in his limited time in Xfinity each year, with 2021 being his best yet in average finish (20.6) as well as marking his first-ever lead-lap finishes in the series (three in all) in his five-race stint for Sam Hunt Racing.

-Any questions of whether or not Todd Gilliland would be able to bounce back from leaving a Kyle Busch Motorsports ride in Trucks were answered in 2021; in addition to a win with his Front Row Motorsports team, he’s earned career highlights in top fives (10), top 10s (15) and his first sub-10th average finish (9.6).

-2021 was a more volatile season for Noah Gragson, who’ll return to Xfinity in JRM’s No. 9 yet again next year. But it is important to note that he won more races — three entering Phoenix — in a single season than he’s ever boasted in NASCAR, even dating back to his ARCA Menards Series East and West days in the mid-2010s.

-Should it hold post-Phoenix, Denny Hamlin‘s average finish of 8.6 in Cup this year is his best ever. Even crazier? He’d never had a top-10 average finish until 2019, when he finished at 9.6. Last year? 9.3. If he finishes in the top 10 at Phoenix, he’ll also nab the most top 10s in a single season of his career, at 25.

Timmy Hill‘s Hill Motorsports team in the Truck Series continued to show some strength in 2021, and Hill himself earned his best-ever average finish in the series at 18.1 in 10 starts, plus a career best in top 10s (three).

-2021 has been the best year average finish-wise yet for Corey LaJoie in the Cup Series since debuting in 2014, with his 24.6 average a whole position better than 2020’s 25.6. He’s also bested 2020 in lead-lap finishes (12), a new career best.

-Smaller sample size for sure, but Ty Majeski‘s four-race average of 15.5 in the Truck Series exceeds his 18.4 in 2020, likely assisted by his move from Niece Motorsports to ThorSport Racing.

-Even removing the Daytona 500 win out of the equation, 2021 has been a banner year for Michael McDowell in Cup, with the most top 10s (five) in a single season in his career and a personal-best average finish of 20.4 pre-Phoenix.

-Live Fast Motorsports’ first season in the Cup Series included co-owner BJ McLeod in the driver’s seat for 28 of the 36 races, and McLeod himself has had a career year, with his first Cup top 10, his first lead-lap finishes (four total) and an average finish that’s currently below 30th (29.2).

Brett Moffitt‘s second season with Our Motorsports in Xfinity has seen a slight uptick in average finish (18th vs. 18.3) and top 10s (nine vs. seven) pre-Phoenix.

-He only ran two Truck races, but those two helped mark easily the best season on record for Camden Murphy, who earned a career best in average finish (16th) and earned more than one lead-lap finish for the first time.

-Though he’s still far from his peak form, Ryan Newman‘s 2021 saw more highs than his 2020 did, with two Cup top fives and five top 10s vs. 2020’s two top 10s.

-A season of unknowns coming in — would he even be able to run the full Cup schedule as an open team? — ended up resulting in a Cup best for Ryan Preece, who nabbed more top 10s (four) and, so far, a career-best in average finish in 22.9, up from 23.1 in 2019.

Tyler Reddick‘s sophomore season in Cup was one of defined gains, with his 16 top 10s entering Phoenix obliterating his count of nine in 2020, alongside an average finish of 14.9 that easily tops 2020’s 17.6.

-Ben Rhodes looks likely to exit Phoenix with the best average finish in his Truck career. He’s currently at 9.6, which would be his best since 9.9 in 2018. 2021’s also marked his first multi-win season in the series.

Austin Wayne Self’s had a quietly successful season in Trucks, with a career best in top 10s (four) and an average finish of 17.2 that’s not far off his season best (17th, 2018) and is certainly a marked improvement over 2020 (20.8 average finish, two top 10s).

-Steady improvement for Garrett Smithley, who’s earned best averages in both Cup (31.3, up from 33.5 in 2019) and Xfinity (21.5, up from 22nd last year).

Myatt Snider didn’t just win his first Xfinity race in 2021 — entering Phoenix, he’s also improved his average finish by nearly four positions from 2020 to 2021. A full-time run for Richard Childress Racing this year is likely the culprit to some degree; though he contested the full schedule last year too, only some were with RCR, while the others were via lesser equipment in RSS Racing.

-Barring major issues Sunday, David Starr is likely to grab his best average finish in his Cup career, which stands at 31st through six starts.

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-In his second season at JTG Daugherty Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has improved on the first from a consistency standpoint, with a 19.3 average finish entering Phoenix to 2020’s 22.6, plus more lead-lap finishes, improving from 16 to 19.

Bubba Wallace‘s maiden season with 23XI Racing has included his first Cup win, along with a career-best three top fives and his first sub-20th average finish (19.1) since he began running full time in the series.

-Like teammate Bilicki before him, overall gains for Cody Ware in Cup this year; in 31 starts entering Phoenix, his 31.2 average finish is his best in a season with multiple starts, his previous best a 34.5 in his four-race 2018. He also managed a personal best in lead-lap finishes in both the Cup and Xfinity series (four apiece).

Jason White‘s return to Xfinity after seven years away paid dividends, with a top 10 — his first since 2013 — and a career-best average finish of 23rd in his four starts.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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