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Pistone: Five in the Spotlight in ’21

Pete Pistone takes a look at five drivers that will be under the spotlight during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Kyle Larson
Larson gets a shot for a NASCAR return behind the wheel of a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The talented driver has done all the right things to earn a second chance in the sport after his suspension and subsequent loss of a ride at Chip Ganassi Racing for the racial slur Larson uttered during an online racing event last season. He spent the balance of the 2020 racing calendar literally winning everything in sight on the dirt track scene and capturing the imagination of thousands of fans who now wait to see if he can replicate some of the same success at NASCAR’s top tier. Larson has an excellent chance to improve upon what he was able to do in his first NASCAR go around with Ganassi. Now the question is can he do it?

Denny Hamlin
Another year and the same question will be attached to Hamlin as has been the case throughout his NASCAR career – can he finally win a Cup championship? A trip to the Championship 4 a year ago came up short again of that quest. While Hamlin hasn’t downplayed the importance of winning a title, he continues to temper the discussion.

"I think that championships I get it, it’s very, very important," Hamlin said. "It’s where I’m at the sport’s highest level, most people gauge your success level or how good you are off of championships, but I also know that my competitors will probably say that I’m one of the toughest competitors and toughest guys to beat and that’s all I really care about is having the respect of them and knowing that week in and week out I can go and compete for race wins, and knowing that over the last two years, ain’t nobody won any more. I like where I’m at."

However, the harsh reality is this – Hamlin is coming down to the wire of whether he’ll finally be a Cup champ or be remembered as one of the best drivers in the sport to never win a title.

Christopher Bell
Things did not go as well for Bell and Leavine Family Racing as hoped for in 2020. The team had a closer affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing than it did the year before with Matt DiBenedetto and the uber talented Bell was coming off a stellar Xfinity Series season. It turned out Bell struggled for the majority of the campaign and by season’s end team owner Bob Leavine was forced to shut things down. Now Bell migrates in-house to JGR and takes the No. 20 ride, displacing Erik Jones. Many in the sport believe Jones did not get a fair shake and was forced to move on to the No. 43 seat at Richard Petty Motorsports. Bell inherits that perception as well as enhanced expectations he’ll be able to put up numbers much closer to the Xfinity Series days than his freshman Cup effort.

Matt DiBenedetto
The popular DiBenedetto got a one-year reprieve when the Wood Brothers announced they were bringing him back for the 2021 season. Austin Cindric will remain in the Xfinity Series next year making a handful of Cup starts before moving into the iconic No. 21 the following year. Where that leaves DiBenedetto is an unknown. He is a known commodity at this stage of his career and the garage knows what they’re going to get bringing the 29-year-old into their fold. But what will be available and whether DiBenedetto can land a competitive ride are questions that will hover around next season’s performance.

Bubba Wallace
There may not be any higher-profile organization in 2021 than the new 23XI team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. Enter Wallace, who generated a tremendous amount of awareness and exposure last season for his work battling racial and social injustice. He steps into a brand-new ride that will be fully funded, backed by Toyota and aligned with JGR. While there may be an early honeymoon phase to start the year, the novelty factor will run out pretty quick if Wallace isn’t able to at least be a mainstay in the front half of the field and becomes a back marker. The spotlight will be bright in and around everything on the No. 23 in 2021.