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Kyle Larson joins Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet. (Photo: Getty Images)

Five to Watch: Drivers in New Places


Pete Pistone takes a look at five NASCAR Cup Series drivers looking to succeed with a new team for the 2021 season.

Kyle Larson/Hendrick Motorsports
Larson is back in the NASCAR world after his suspension for saying a racial slur during an online race early last year. He joins the reigning Cup Series championship organization at Hendrick Motorsports, which will resurrect the No. 5 and team Larson with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who worked with Jimmie Johnson the last two seasons. Larson has much to prove personally and professionally but is grateful for the chance to do so with Rick Hendrick’s team. It will be interesting to see how quickly Larson acclimates himself to his new team and the current NASCAR world of COVID-19 restrictions, which means no practice or qualifying for the bulk of the year. He has six career Cup wins with a high-water mark coming in 2017 when he was victorious four times.

See Also: Five to Watch at Short Tracks

Christopher Bell/Joe Gibbs Racing
The highly touted Bell moves inside Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 20 Toyota. Toyota has been grooming Bell for years and after moving through the NASCAR ladder and spending last season with affiliate team Leavine Family Racing, he now has the opportunity to shine in top-notch equipment. Bell drove for JGR in the Xfinity Series before being promoted to the Cup Series ahead of the 2020 season. He won 16 races, including 15 combined as a full-time driver in 2018 and 2019. Now he returns "in house" replacing Erik Jones in the JGR Cup lineup.

"It’s an organization I’m very comfortable with and have had a lot of success with," said Bell as he embarks on his sophomore Cup campaign.

Bubba Wallace/23XI Racing
The new team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin has garnered attention since it was announced late last year. Wallace is on board as the driver of the No. 23 and the organization has already announced its founding partners – DoorDash, McDonald’s, Columbia Sportswear, Dr Pepper and Root Insurance. The team has a partnership with Toyota Racing Development and an affilation with Joe Gibbs Racing. Expectations are understandably high but Hamlin and company are approaching the debut season with optimism and realistic expectations for Wallace, who begins his fourth full-time Cup Series season.

"I would like to compete for a playoffs spot, I think historically you need to be very consistent," Hamlin said. "You need to be somewhere in the 14-15 average finish to compete. You need to challenge for race wins, I think that that part probably will come."

See Also: 23XI Team Preview | Five to Watch: Next for Superspeedway Win

Ross Chastain/Chip Ganassi Racing
It took a little longer than originally anticipated but Chastain is now a full-time member of CGR. The two were to work together in an Xfinity Series effort two seasons ago, until unforeseen sponsorship issues derailed the plans. Now Chastain gets a Cup Series opportunity in the team’s No. 42 Chevy that Matt Kenseth took over early in 2020 after Kyle Larson’s suspension. While teammate Kurt Busch won a race and made the playoffs in the CGR No. 1 entry, the other car was not as competitive. Chastain is hoping to remedy that this season.

"I can’t thank Chip enough for this opportunity," Chastain said. "The faith he and the organization showed me back in 2018 was a real turning point in my career, and I am extremely happy for the chance to join the team again. Racing in the Cup Series with a serious contender has always been my goal, and I’m looking forward to joining what is a very strong team. I know I have my work cut out for me, but I’m ready to get to work and help bring more success to the organization."

Erik Jones/Richard Petty Motorsports
Jones getting bumped from JGR sent the 24-year-old to Richard Petty Motorsports to pilot the iconic No. 43 Chevrolet. Jones takes the spot vacated by Bubba Wallace and becomes the 13th different driver in the No. 43 since Richard Petty retired after the 1992 season. The 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion, Jones won twice during his JGR Cup career with his most recent victory coming in the 2019 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. JGR decided to bring Bell into the fold forcing Jones to find a new home with the storied Petty organization, which is coming off a 22nd-place finish in the standings. The team continues its relationship with Richard Childress Racing and Jones is optimistic about increasing performance.

"They took a huge step last year and I think they’re just continuing to grow that relationship with (Childress), and that’s continuing to make them stronger," Jones said.