Through the Field: Embrace Your Inner Kid
It’s a great time to be a Hendrick Motorsports fan.
Three of the four cars for the team have won this year, the fourth team won the championship last year and their entries swept the top four finishing positions this past weekend at Dover, Delaware, with Alex Bowman winning his second race of the season.
As a fan of Bowman, a driver who has won just one race each in the last two seasons, 2021 has become my driver of choice’s first multi-win season since 2015 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his final three Cup Series races.
That gave me the opportunity to reflect a bit on what’s changed since then. Obviously, things have changed for a lot of us in any six-year span, but in that time, I’ve gone full speed ahead from being a 16-year-old kid waiting to get his life started to a 22 year old diving into the first few months of what life is after finishing school and earning a degree.
It helped me realize just how important it is to embrace the little kid in all of us. Of course, I thought I was doing that six years ago, celebrating much in the same way, dating back to watching my first race at 8 years old in 2006, because true responsibilities were, fortunately, few and far between for me, and I could afford to devote my entire Sunday, week in and week out, to the race.
Of course, responsibility beckons now as a young professional; but in my one week home in-between a business trip to North Carolina and a trip to the Carolina further south for my wedding, I was fortunate enough to devote an ear to listen to the final laps of the race and enjoy another victory for my current favorite driver.
Fantasy sports as a whole is honestly an outlet that helps us all embrace youthful exuberance, even with bragging rights and occasionally money on the line. And as for the racing, I can only hope to give another gift to that kid still a part of me when Earnhardt Jr. races his yearly Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway a few months down the road. Whether it’s by celebrating a victory or experiencing the same thrill of fast cars that that kid saw for the first time 13 years ago.
As happy as it makes me to see it, no one, least of all myself, believed Bowman would be the second driver to win multiple races in 2021. And as this wild season is now nearly halfway to the playoffs, rather than picking a “buy” or “sell” candidate, I’ll focus on some NASCAR drivers in a crucial spot of the season who are worth keeping an eye on.
Drivers to Watch Moving Forward
Chase Elliott: The defending champion and lone Hendrick Motorsports car to not win this season could be entering his best stretch of the season starting this coming weekend at Texas’ Circuit of the Americas. While it’s the first time the series is going there, Chase Elliott has dominated the road course races on the Cup circuit, and with five of them on the schedule between now and the playoffs, the No. 9 team will need to win at least one race, regardless of the track configuration, to cement themselves as title contenders again.
Bubba Wallace: 23XI Racing is in its debut season, meaning that things won’t be easy. But Bubba Wallace has yet to finish in the top-10 this season. While that is partially due to some bad luck the No. 23 has had during good runs, eventually, you need to push past that and earn quality finishes to have a shot at even being a stone’s throw from the playoffs.
The first-year team comparable to 23XI, the Richard Childress Racing-affiliated Trackhouse No. 99, driven by Daniel Suarez, may be a spot behind Wallace in the points standings, but it has a top-five finish and two top-10s. Keep in mind that Richard Childress Racing is certainly a lower-quality race team than Joe Gibbs Racing, and things start to get worrisome.
Denny Hamlin & Kyle Larson: These two drivers have led 40.7 percent of all laps completed in 2021, but have just one victory between them. Both are absolutely absurd statistics that you would assume are aberrations, but after this many races, you can’t help but scratch your head at how bad the No. 11 and 5 cars have been at earning those checkered flags they appear to deserve. While I will not argue against them as fantasy picks for even a second, if you’re relying on wins to earn your fantasy successes, it’s worth a second thought.
Matt DiBenedetto: The No. 21 car has had another pretty decent year. DiBenedetto has two top-fives, three top-10s and is one spot below the playoff cutoff a year after making it into the playoffs. But as silly season rumors continue to swirl, each passing day of inconsistency and a lack of victories for an extremely strong, Team Penske-backed car makes it more likely that DiBenedetto will be an odd man out when all of 2022’s Cup rides are claimed. That uncertainty has been around him for basically his entire Cup career, but it hasn’t got him the results he needs, and they may never be coming.