The 2021 NASCAR season is not even yet two months old and has already left an indelible mark on the sport’s history. As the season takes a breath with its first off-weekend, here are some superlatives from what we’ve seen so far.
Biggest surprise: Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win
Why: The season started off with a bang, seeing the veteran Front Row Motorsports driver pick up his first career win — in nearly 350 starts — in NASCAR’s biggest race. He immediately upheaved the playoff picture, laying the groundwork for a topsy-turvy opening few months of the ’21 campaign. He’s continued to race well, too, currently sitting 12th in points (ahead of both Busch brothers, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Alex Bowman).
Best crew chief: Cliff Daniels, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Why: I strongly considered slotting in Hendrick Motorsports’ VP, Competition Chad Knaus here, as his role as de facto Crew Chief Executive Officer (C.C.E.O. for short) overseeing all four HMS squads has clearly paid dividends, but let’s focus in a little further and point to Daniels’ work atop the No. 5 pit box. In his driver’s return to the seat after nearly a year away from the sport, Daniels has helped position Larson to do what he does best: Win. This appears to be a rock-solid partnership and his experience working with seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson the past few years will likely benefit Larson tremendously.
Best team: Hendrick Motorsports
Why: HMS is tied with Joe Gibbs Racing for 16 team top-10s and two wins apiece, but so far it seems like all the teams are at least a hair off from where Hendrick’s Chevy fleet is currently at, performance-wise. All four teams have looked capable of winning so far, and there were a few occasions that could have ended in victory has things gone slightly different. Oh, and this is all with a defending champ in Chase Elliott that has yet to get hot — but it’s coming.
Best driver: Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Why: Remember last year when Kevin Harvick started the season at a blistering pace, averaging a finish of 4.71 through the first seven races? Well, for those counting at home: Hamlin’s average finish so far is … 4.71. Hamlin is unquestionably the driver to beat in the sport at the moment (even if he hasn’t won yet) and it’s not out of the question that he tops Harvick’s nine-win season of dominance from a year ago. And he’s doing it all while starting up a new team as a side hustle with the greatest basketball player in history. No pressure.
Best rivalry: Noah Gragson vs. the Xfinity Series garage
Why: Perhaps inspired by his boss being the son of the most intimidating driver in NASCAR history, Gragson is fully leaning into his role as the Dale Earnhardt Sr.-type of the insanely entertaining Xfinity Series — and that’s a good thing. He’s ruffling almost everyone’s feathers and sitting back, sipping tea watching the chaotic debates unfold on Twitter. He’s likely not done scrapping this year, and soon the wins will start dropping, too. And he’ll let the trophies do his talking for him then.
Best race: Bristol Dirt Race
Why: You could probably make a case for just about every race so far, things have been that wild. Bristol seems like the winner here, however, as the amount of effort that went into that race — the first of its kind in half a century — after multiple days of heavy rain to still put on a heck of a show that was fun for everyone involved deserves recognition. We’re already looking forward to next year’s running, and it gives competitors just enough time to get the dirt stains out of their fire suits.
Best tweet: This entry from Denny Hamlin
Why: Honestly, Denny’s main competition here was with himself, though rival Joey Logano had a strong late entry for consideration. Hamlin has really stepped up his Twitter game this year, amidst maintaining his status as a world-class driver. Respect.
Biggest story line: Seven winners in seven races
Why: McDowell wins the 500. Dirt aces Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson struggle on Bristol’s dirt, but win their first races at the Daytona Road Course and Las Vegas, respectively. William Byron breaks through for Hendrick first. Martin Truex Jr. wins at Phoenix, a first for him. Ryan Blaney wins on his first 1.5-miler. Nothing that we’ve seen in 2021 so far has been routine, and something tells us we’re just getting warmed up for what could be a thrill ride of a summer.