Pete Pistone takes a look at his five top developments to watch for the 2021 NASCAR season.
The new organization formed by Denny Hamlin and basketball superstar Michael Jordan has already generated a great deal of attention without turning one competitive lap. Signing Bubba Wallace to drive for the team has added to that exposure and there will be a lot of eyeballs on the No. 23 Toyota when it debuts at Daytona next February. The story will have two layers to follow both of equal importance. Wallace’s performance will be front and center as the veteran driver gets an opportunity to compete at NASCAR’s highest level in what should be the most competitive equipment of his career. But Jordan’s involvement will also be a barometer to monitor as a possible means of attracting more awareness for the sport, additional sponsorship and potentially other high-profile and/or minority ownership.
New Crew Chief for Kyle Busch
Joe Gibbs Racing will have a decidedly different look in 2021 with its No. 18 team piloted by Kyle Busch but with new crew chief Ben Beshore calling the shots. After scoring just a single victory last season in his follow-up to winning the 2019 championship, Busch will be without long-time crew chief Adam Stevens. The two had been paired together since 2015 and scored 28 victories together as well as winning two Cup titles. The shakeup elevates Beshore to the prominent role of Busch’s crew chief after he worked with Harrison Burton in the Xfinity Series last season. How well the duo works together and whether or not Busch can return to his more prominent winning ways will be immediate questions when the new season begins.
Kyle Larson Returns to NASCAR
Hendrick Motorsports filled its open seat vacated by Jimmie Johnson’s retirement with Kyle Larson, who was suspended from NASCAR early last year following his use of a racial slur on a live stream broadcast. Larson completed the necessary steps to be reinstated by NASCAR and upon doing so, team owner Rick Hendrick tabbed him to drive what will be the No. 5 Chevrolet next season. Larson has a chance to further redeem himself in many people’s eyes in his return to NASCAR. However, the expectation will also be to perform better than he did in his tenure at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he won six times in 223 career Cup starts.
The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule features a number of bold and dynamic changes that have considerably shaken up the slate. After years of being handcuffed to agreements keeping several tracks on the calendar and not allowing the sanctioning body to make changes, NASCAR was finally in position to make some significant moves. New venues like Nashville Superspeedway, Road America and the Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas were added. The annual trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway migrates from the 2.5-mile oval track to the road course, that first hosted the Xfinity Series last season. In all six road races dot the calendar not including the Busch Clash that will open 2021 on the Daytona road course. Toss in a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway in March and next year’s Cup Series schedule is unlike anything the sport has ever seen.
Truck Series Competition
John Hunter Nemechek will join Kyle Busch Motorsports. Brett Moffit, Ryan Truex and Carson Hocevar are with Niece Motorsports. Reigning champion Sheldon Creed returns to the potent GMS Racing team along with Zane Smith. Hailie Deegan moves to a full-time ride with DGR Crosley. Those are just a few of the roster stories that are adding up to be what should be another stellar Camping World Truck Series season. Toss in a couple of new wrinkles to the schedule as well like dirt races at Bristol and legendary Knoxville Raceway, a first-ever visit to COTA as well as a return to Watkins Glen and 2021 has the recipe for an intriguing year.