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5 key storylines for 2021 Cup season

From familiar faces and redemption runs to Michael Jordan's brand new racing team, NASCAR on NBC takes a look at the top storylines going into the 2021 season.

A new season presents new opportunities, and much of what will be new in the 2021 NASCAR Cup season will be among the major storylines entering the season.

Among those key storylines are:

Kyle Larson returns to Cup with Hendrick Motorsports

The top free agent of 2020, Larson lost his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing in April after uttering a racial slur on a live mic during an iRacing event. He spent time over the next several months undergoing sensitivity training and also “listening and learning” about race.

Larson also dominated on dirt tracks last year. His feature win during last month’s Carolina Midget Showdown was his 46th and final victory of 2020 across four different types of cars.
Hendrick Motorsports signed Larson to a multi-year deal in late October. He’ll drive the No. 5 for the team.

This gives Hendrick Motorsports a lineup of Larson (28 years old), Alex Bowman (27), reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott (25) and William Byron (23).
“I do like our lineup for next year,” team owner Rick Hendrick said after Elliott’s championship in November. “I like all of the drivers and crew chiefs. ... Larson, we know what he can do. He and (crew chief Cliff Daniels) will be a good combination.”

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form 23XI Racing, sign Bubba Wallace

One of the world’s most recognizable athletes will become a part of the sport in 2021.

Michael Jordan is a longtime NASCAR fan. His father took the family to races at Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte and Talladega. Now, Jordan owns a Cup team with Denny Hamlin and will have Bubba Wallace as the driver of the No. 23 car. The team is aligned with Toyota and will be a single-car operation this season, but has plans to grow.

The combination of Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace makes this NASCAR’s newest superteam in terms of name recognition. The key will be to perform on the track. Just as any new team faces challenges, this organization will have such moments, but the alliance with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing should help alleviate some first-year woes.

As Wallace said in December, his motto for this season is “no more excuses.”

Kyle Busch seeks to bounce back

After winning twice in the last 58 races and not advancing to the Championship 4 for the first time since 2014, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens were separated by Joe Gibbs Racing after the season. Thus ends a partnership that won two championships and 28 races from 2015-20.

Busch will work with crew chief Ben Beshore, a former engineer on the No. 18 team. Stevens becomes the crew chief for the No. 20 team with Christopher Bell at JGR. The question is if the crew chief change can return Busch to his winning ways in Cup. Busch’s one Cup win in 2020 was his fewest in a season since 2014.

The increase in the number of road course races in 2021

With the Daytona road course recently added to the 2021 Cup schedule, the series is set to have seven events on road courses.

Six of 26 regular season races (23%) are scheduled to be run on road courses. There were three road course events on the original Cup schedule for last season.

The increase could be a good thing for Chase Elliott, who looks to be the first Cup champion to repeat since the last of Jimmie Johnson’s five titles in a row in 2010. Elliott has won the past four road course races. Jeff Gordon has the record with six consecutive wins on road courses.

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin domination

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin combined to win 16 of 36 Cup races last year. Going back to 2019, the two have combined to win 26 of 72 Cup races. Those victories include two Daytona 500s (both by Hamlin), two Brickyard 400s (both by Harvick), two Bristol night races (one each by Harvick and Hamlin) and a Southern 500 (by Harvick this past season). Can the domination continue?