Friday 5: Examining five key questions about 2021 Cup season
Less than a month from the start of the season at Daytona International Speedway and pondering a few things …
1. How many road course races will Chase Elliott win?
NASCAR’s emphasis on road courses this year puts Elliott — who has won the past four road course events — in a good position to score a number of victories.
This season will have seven road course events, beginning with the Daytona International Speedway road course on Feb. 21.
That’s one of six road course races in the regular season. The others are Circuit of the Americas (May 23), Sonoma (June 6), Road America (July 4), Watkins Glen (Aug. 8) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Aug. 15). The playoffs again features the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Oct. 10).
If Elliott continues to dominate the road courses, a question becomes who else can win those races?
Elliott has won five of the past eight races. The only other drivers to win a road course race during that time are Martin Truex Jr. (Sonoma in 2018 and ’19) and Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Roval in 2018).
In the last four road course races that Elliott won, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Truex and Blaney were the only drivers to have at least two top-five finishes. Blaney has four top-five finishes in the last six road course races.
2. Which driver who didn’t make the 2020 playoffs could make it in 2021?
Christopher Bell’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing instantly makes him the favorite to go from a driver not in the playoffs last year to one who could do so this year.
He’ll be paired with Adam Stevens, who helped Kyle Busch win two titles before they struggled to win consistently. Another key issue will be JGR. After winning 19 of 36 races in 2019, the team won nine times — seven by Denny Hamlin.
Bell’s JGR teammates, Hamlin, Busch and Martin Truex Jr., each ran in the top 15 in more than 70% of the laps they ran last year. Bell, who was at Leavine Family Racing last season, ran in the top 15 only 33% of the laps. Equipment should put him closer to the front and allow him to score enough points to make the playoffs or win a race.
3. How soon before Kyle Larson wins for Hendrick Motorsports?
It’s early but the third race of the season is at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Larson always ran well at that track.
Could he win there? You bet. Will he? That will be worth watching.
A key question is, by not competing in the last 32 Cup races of the season, how much did Larson miss?
The tire Goodyear plans to bring to Miami is the same that was run there last year. Chase Elliott finished second at Miami last year and teammate William Byron was ninth, showing that Hendrick could be positioned to do well at that track and maybe help Larson return to his winning ways quickly.
If not Miami, Larson will be among the favorites for the Bristol dirt race in March. It seems likely he could score at least one victory early in the season.
4. Which Ford driver will be one to watch this season?
Kevin Harvick has led the Ford camp lately, winning 18 of the last 100 races — the most wins of any Cup driver in that span. Brad Keselowski has 10 wins during that period; Joey Logano has eight and a championship.
The one Ford driver that proves most intriguing, though, is Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. The 27-year-old enters his second season with crew chief Todd Gordon.
Blaney ran toward the front last year, scoring 346 stage points. Harvick, who won a series-high nine races, had 290 stage points.
Blaney finished first or second in the second stage 11 times. He went on to place in the top five in six of those races but scored only one win.
Harvick, on the other hand, won five of the seven races that he finished first or second in the second stage.
Carrying those strong runs through the final stage is the next step for Blaney to have a chance to win more races.
5. Odds Kyle Busch wins four or more races this season?
Good. Very good.
Busch won only once last year, but he rebounds well. The last three times he won only one Cup race in a season, he won at least four races the following season.
After a one-win campaign in 2007 in his final season at Hendrick Motorsports, Busch won eight times for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Busch won one race in 2012 and came back to win four times in 2013.
He won once in 2014 and followed it by winning five races and the championship in 2015.
If history is an indication, this could be a big season for Busch.