Once again, it’s the start of a new season.
After a winter off, NASCAR returns to action at the world center of racing: Daytona International Speedway.
And while it’s the same old Daytona – for the most part – the season’s dawn brings a new start and new challenges for just about everyone involved.
Some people say new is always better. Others prefer to stick to tradition. There are plenty of examples of both heading into the 63rd Daytona 500.
Rookies like Chase Briscoe, Anthony Alfredo and – if he qualifies – Noah Gragson will be making their first Cup Series starts, while 62-year-old Derrike Cope could be making his last. Things will be new to all of them then, whether it’s the transition into or out of racing at the top level of stock cars.
Even aside from the challenges of the pandemic, new things are always happening. I just started a new job. New writers have written their debut columns or will be participating in their debut shows right here on this website.
It’s rarely easy to start or complete new things or embark on new journeys and adventures. But even if new isn’t always better, it should be embraced because it may result in the best things that could happen.
Drivers in new rides in 2021 will be under a lot of pressure, some certainly more than others. But let’s focus on those who are sticking around with the same teams and see whether they will be worth buying or selling in the opening weeks of 2021.
Chase Elliott: The defending champion has officially entered the ranks of the elite, and that would be true even if he hadn’t earned his first title last year. Long one of the sport’s top prospects, The No. 9 team earned wins on all different kinds of tracks last year, and Chase Elliott has shown he can perform under pressure at the highest level. I don’t know if there is such a thing as dynasty NASCAR fantasy leagues, but if there were, the 25-year-old is unquestionably the 1.01 and will stay that way for a long time to come.
Kevin Harvick: While he came up short of a shot to race for a title last season, Kevin Harvick fell victim to the playoff system despite being the best driver over the full season in 2020. The 45-year-old probably doesn’t have much time left in the seat, both by likely his own desire to become more focused on his son’s racing career and the highest level of prospects in lower series we’ve seen perhaps since Harvick started in the Cup Series himself.
Despite that, there is undoubtedly the opportunity for the No. 4 team to win another title. While I don’t think Harvick will win nine races again in 2021, he’ll be a contender from start to finish and will be among the most consistent selections to make in your lineups.
Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR): I’m extremely skeptical regarding Toyota’s top team and how they will start the season. First, the crew chief and personnel swaps that took place with multiple teams, only intensified by Kyle Busch’s recent comments in which he said he feels like he was “fired” from the No. 18 team and has most of the former No. 20 car crew members, could result in a slow start while everyone gets used to each other. Even without that, I see issues with all four of the Gibbs drivers that could hurt them.
Denny Hamlin has to be frustrated that he once again came up short of the elusive championship in 2020 and will have much more on his plate as one of the owners of new team 23XI Racing. Even long-time partner FedEx scaled back their sponsorship this season.
Kyle Busch is still talented as ever, but is he? He won one race in 2020 and even that was partially due to fuel strategy. If he believes his team is less talented, he could regress even further in 2021.
Martin Truex Jr. just hasn’t gelled with crew chief James Small like he did with Cole Pearn, who left after 2019. Even long-time spotter Clayton Hughes, who worked with Truex dating back to his early days in the No. 78, left the team this offseason. Truex seemed frustrated and angry more often than not during races last year and is also coming off a one-win season, now entering his 40s.
All of this can’t be a great environment for Christopher Bell to walk back into, even without the fact that the No. 20 car has chewed up and spit out Joey Logano and Erik Jones for not performing at a high level consistently and quickly enough. Not to mention that perhaps Matt Kenseth was forced into an early retirement from that ride since he’s come back to drive for multiple teams after leaving JGR.
I could be wrong, and the team could be as dominant as usual, but watch out for a rough start if not a bad year, at least by JGR standards.