Christmas may have been two months ago, but its competition arrives every February as the NASCAR Cup Series begins with the Super Bowl of stock car racing — the Daytona 500.
The greatest day in all of sports is upon us and it is one of the most anticipated Daytona 500’s in recent memory. Even Fox Sports has gone out of their way to promote the next nine months as the “Best Season Ever.”
With a handful of familiar drivers in new places and a plethora of new tracks added to the schedule, let’s see why the hype is building up for the Cup Series.
New tracks/track layouts
First off, the Cup Series only ran two road courses in 2020 due to the schedule changes from the COVID-19 pandemic. Cup only ran on the Daytona road course and the Charlotte Roval in the latter stages of last year. With the demand by fans and drivers alike for more road courses, NASCAR responded and liberally added new courses to the 2021 schedule.
The left and right turns will begin with the second race of the season at the Daytona road course, which replaces Auto Club Speedway. NASCAR will head to the site of F1’s United States Grand Prix in late May at Circuit of the Americas. The summer months will see the debuts for Cup at Road America and the Indianapolis Road Course + the return to Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway.
A new layout will appear at the first Bristol race on March 28th as Cup cars will race on dirt for the first time since 1970.
The Cup Series will also debut at Nashville Superspeedway to begin NBC Sports’ half of the season on June 20. The race will see the use of the low-downforce aero package that will also be used at the two Darlington Raceway events this season.
Same faces, but new places
Silly season was a wild one and the biggest move of the offseason was the formation of 23XI Racing, co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. Bubba Wallace moves from Richard Petty Motorsports to the single-car team in his fourth year in the Cup Series.
After using a racial slur during NASCAR’s pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kyle Larson returns to the stock-car scene. He paid his dues and will return to the Cup Series in solid equipment at Hendrick Motorsports, joining a young core of drivers that includes reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Replacing Larson in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Chevy is Ross Chastain. Chastain is a watermelon-smashing fan favorite and had one of the best winless seasons in NASCAR history with 15 top-fives and 27 top-10s in 33 Xfinity Series races last year.
Erik Jones was removed from his Joe Gibbs Racing ride and replaced by Christopher Bell after Leavine Family Racing left NASCAR following the 2020 season. Bell will look to show his true talents that he flashed in the Xfinity Series in the No. 20 Toyota, while Jones will seek to remain in relevancy with the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.
Along with 23XI, two other teams will make their Cup debuts with Trackhouse Racing and Live Fast Motorsports. Former driver Justin Marks gets his startup team going with a co-owner in “Mr. Worldwide” himself, PITBULL. Daniel Suarez will helm the No. 99 Chevy as he looks to find success after a tough 2020. Meanwhile, BJ McLeod will run as a driver and owner in 2021. Live Fast is also co-owned by Matt Tifft.
Chase Briscoe will make his rookie campaign in 2021 in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford that was driven by the now-retired Clint Bowyer, who moves into the Fox booth to call races. Briscoe won nine races in the 2020 Xfinity Series season and made it to the Championship 4.
Anthony Alfredo, otherwise known as “Fast Pasta” will battle it out with Briscoe for Rookie of the Year honors after a solid showing in his part-time schedule in Xfinity last year. He scored two top-fives and nine top-10s in 19 races. He will be behind the wheel of the No. 38 Ford for Front Row Motorsports.
After Go Fas Racing ended its tenure in NASCAR, Corey LaJoie shifted to Spire Motorsports and will pilot the No. 7 Chevy for the 2021 season.
What to watch for during the Daytona 500
Barring weather, Sunday should provide one of the best Daytona 500’s in recent memory. If the two Duels were any indication, fans are in for a real treat as drivers seemed to have a lot of control of their cars even with big pushes in the draft. The “Big One” is inevitable, but we might actually see more than half of the field cross the finish line on lap 200.
Denny Hamlin is looking to become the first driver ever to win three-straight Daytona 500’s and only the third driver to win four Harley J. Earl Trophies (Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough). Hamlin didn’t show his cards in the Duel, but one can only assume he’ll be fast when it matters. He will roll off 25th on Sunday.
If he can’t win it himself, maybe his driver at 23XI can take the checkers as Wallace showed a ton of speed in the Duels. Even when he was shuffled out of line multiple times, Wallace still worked his way back to the front and finished second to Austin Dillon in Duel No. 2. If he can stay out of trouble, Wallace will be a legitimate threat to pull off the unthinkable.
Suarez also showed a lot of speed with the debuting Trackhouse and looks to be a guy that will try to stay out front for the 500. He had an impressive showing in the Duel and proved that the car was great on its own with a top-10 time in qualifying. Suarez will start the Daytona 500 from the 15th position.
Then, there’s Kyle Busch, who’s seeking a redemption season after only one win in 2020. Superspeedways have been an Achilles’ Heel for Busch throughout his career as both Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway are two of his worst tracks in terms of average finish. However, Busch has momentum after winning the Busch Clash in dramatic fashion. If he’s to have a turn around after a bad season, then there wouldn’t be a better time to begin that than by snapping the superspeedway woes with a win Sunday.
Penske is a staple race team and they have found success on superspeedways recently, just not the Daytona 500. Only Ryan Newman (2008) and Joey Logano (2015) have brought Roger Penske a Harley J. Earl Trophy during his time as an owner, but the window is there to get Penske his third. Ryan Blaney has been a great superspeedway racer in the Cup Series. He’s won two of the last three races at Talladega and was a runner-up in a photo finish during last year’s Daytona 500. Brad Keselowski has six wins in total at superspeedways, but none have been at “The Great American Race.” Keselowski has DNF’d in three of the last four Daytona 500’s and hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since 2014. Matter of fact, he only has two top-five finishes in 11 starts for the prestigious race.
Maybe even Cup debutant Austin Cindric can shock the NASCAR world. He showed off his superspeedway skills Saturday as he won the Xfinity Series season opener. Cindric will have an uphill battle though as he rolls off 39th.
Most people would leave this Ford driver out, but Aric Almirola has to be the man to watch on Sunday. He dominated the field in his Duel No. 1 win and is hungry for that Daytona 500 trophy that slipped by him in 2018 after being spun from the lead on the final lap by Austin Dillon. He has the speed and the determination. Look out for that No. 10 car.
No matter what you are looking for on Sunday or who you want to win, the Daytona 500 is going to be one to remember and it will catalyze the start of what should be an epic Cup Series season.
Pit stall assignments:
Goodyear tire notes: https://www.jayski.com/2021/02/08/goodyear-tire-notes-daytona/