2021. A NASCAR season to remember. In 2019, we thought we’d be in the era of the Next Gen Car by now, but two years and one world pandemic later, we’re just now saying goodbye to the polarizing Gen Six car. In the car’s farewell tour, no one could have predicted what a rollercoaster this year has been. From the steep banks at Daytona, to the slipping and sliding at Bristol Dirt, to the storming backstretch at COTA, to the craziness at Indianapolis, to the ups and downs of the Playoffs, and now to the Championship decider that will be held at Phoenix Raceway. On top of that, a certain driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Camaro constantly contending up front, week after week. As of Martinsville last week, Kyle Larson has an average finish of 9.3, with nine wins and the All-Star win. Larson has undoubtedly tamed what has been a beast of a NASCAR Cup Series season this year. But why was this year so unpredictable? How’d we get to this point?
After an exciting “Speed Weeks” in Daytona Beach, the Daytona 500 was started with a threat of rain, already putting everyone on edge. After a lap-fifteen wreck that took out a sizable chunk of the field, as well as a rain delay pushing the race to continue under the lights, Michael McDowell piloted his #34 Mustang to his first ever victory, on the biggest stage in all of stock car racing no less. The next week would also have a race at Daytona, though not on the oval. NASCAR’s second race of the season also happened to be their second ever visit to the road course at Daytona. After a familiar #9 Napa Camaro led much of the race, it would come down to a duel between the sophomore Christopher Bell in the #20 Camry and the 2018 champion, Joey Logano in the #22 Mustang. Bell held on, and claimed his first ever victory in his second start for his new team. Up until this point, two first time winners in the opening two races would’ve been incomprehensible.
The next week was at familiar fan favorite Homestead-Miami Speedway. After putting on a great show with many different contenders throughout the race, William Byron would pilot his #24 Camaro to his second ever career victory, having all three manufacturers, Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet, win the first three races of the season.
The next week at Las Vegas would see the start of Kyle Larson’s dominance. After a stellar performance, Larson brought the late Ricky Hendrick’s famous livery back to victory lane. Not only was this proof Larson could still drive after nearly a year away from the car, it was also a statement to the NASCAR world that the unfortunate mistake we all know he made does not define him as a driver.
The next week the Cup Series ventured to Phoenix Raceway for the first time this season, the site of the future championship race only eight months later. Larson once again put on an outstanding effort, though it wasn’t enough to stop 2017 champ Martin Truex, Jr. from claiming his first win of the season in the #19 Camry. Next week at the historic Atlanta Motor Speedway, Larson was once again in contention for a win, though Ryan Blaney in the #12 Mustang got the best of the driver of the #5 that day. The next event marked NASCAR’s debut at the dirt track configuration at Bristol Motor Speedway, marking the first NASCAR Cup event on a dirt track since 1970. Away from NASCAR, the two best dirt racers are Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, so of course one of them easily took the win, right? Unfortunately, the two dirt aces were caught up in an accident, ending both of their winning chances prematurely. After track surface and vision issues because the red Tennessee clay being used for the racing surface was extremely dry and dusty, Joey Logano claimed his only win of the season, becoming the seventh different winner in the first seven races.
The next race was held at the Martinsville Speedway, for the first pavement short track of the season. Truex once again took the checkered flag, becoming the first driver to win multiple races this year. The next week at Richmond was dominated by the #11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin, though he was passed on the final restart by the #48 Chevy of Alex Bowman. Next week was the second SuperSpeedway race of the year at Talladega, where the #2 Ford of Brad Keselowski claimed his first win of the season. The next race at Kansas was won by 2019 champion Kyle Busch in the #18 Camry. The race at the historic Darlington raceway saw Martin Truex, Jr. in victory lane once again. Many of the next races were the same few winners, with the exception of 2020 Cup Champion Chase Elliott winning at NASCAR’s first visit to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas in a rain shortened race. At the first Pocono race, Kyle Larson executed in dominating fashion, before blowing a tire on the final corner of the final lap, giving the win to his teammate, Bowman. The next race at Road America on the Fourth of July was won once again by Chase Elliott, with the next two races at Atlanta and New Hampshire being won by the #1 of Kurt Busch and the #10 or Aric Almirola respectively.
The next race was held at Watkins Glen International in Watkins Glen, New York. Chase Elliott had won the two most recent races at the venue, including his first career victory, so he was the favorite to win the race after a year long hiatus due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, due to starting at the back and having just plain bad luck, Elliott would finish second to teammate Larson.
The next race was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, though not for the traditional Brickyard 400 on the oval; this year was the Cup Series first race on the Grand Prix configuration. After what seemed to be great racing, a late caution forced a restart. Coming around to turn five, the #19 of Martin Truex, Jr. ran over the curbing, sending shards of debris everywhere and spinning. The caution, however, wasn’t displayed. A lap later, William Byron’s #24 hit the destroyed curb, causing major damage to his car and sending him into a spin. This happened to numerous other cars, creating a huge wreck, stopping the race under red flag conditions. After “repairing” the curb, the exact same situation happened, forcing a late race two-lap shootout. In turn one, the #14 of Chase Briscoe would miss the entire corner, giving him a penalty as he took the lead from corner-cutting. Before serving his penalty, Briscoe spun the #11 of Denny Hamlin, giving the lead to part-time driver A.J. Almendinger in the #16 Kaulig Racing Chevy.
Up to this point, thirteen of the sixteen Playoff spots were taken, and with two races left in the regular season those three spots were up for anyone to grab. Ryan Blaney in the #12 won the race at the two mile track of Michigan International Speedway, and it all came down to the playoff cutoff, the place where it all began: Daytona.
Due to safety concerns, NASCAR was testing a lower horsepower rules package with small changes made to the spoiler. With no practice or qualifying, none of the drivers had ever raced this package, which was bad news for people beneath the playoff cutoff. The drivers near the front easily adapted to the new package, though with growing confidence came riskier moves. Reigning champ Chase Elliott was the cause of one of these risky moves, throwing a very late block on the #21 of Matt DiBenedetto, causing a big wreck. The final restart would prove to be a fast paced one, as drivers who ran midpack most of the night were contending for the win. On the backstretch, the #99 of Daniel Suárez had a run that would’ve let him capture his first ever win, though the #1 of Kurt Busch shoved him a bit too aggressively, sending him into a spin, wrecking the whole field, and giving Ryan Blaney his second victory in a row.
The playoff Round of 16 opener at Darlington the next week saw many different front runners, with Denny Hamlin coming out on top and claiming his first win of the season, with Larson finishing second with a daring no-brake move into the final corner. The next week at Richmond would be won by Truex, after seeing lots of leaders, most of which being the playoff drivers contending to be locked into the next round. The next week at Bristol saw late race controversy between playoff contenders Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, where Harvick cut Elliott’s tire down racing hard for the lead, taking Elliott out of contention for the win. In retaliation, Elliott, now three laps down, sideswiped Harvick, and practically sat in front of him to let teammate Larson pass for the win. Post race, Harvick and Elliott would have a heated argument which almost evolved into a full blown fist fight had the not been separated by officials and media members.
After the bottom four in points were eliminated, the Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas didn’t see much racing, with Hamlin driving away to his second win on the season with Larson close behind in second place. The next race at Talladega was delayed by a day due to rain, and had a constant threat of weather throughout the event. After a late race pile up involving many cars, Bubba Wallace in the #23 car was up front, when yet another crash happened near the front, though this time it was only a single car incident. This incident was immediately followed by rain, and as the rain grew heavier, NASCAR called the race official. With this, Bubba Wallace became the second ever black driver to win a NASCAR Cup race, after Wendell Scott in 1963. The next weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course saw the usual Kyle Larson dominance. Though, as Chase Elliott was making his way through the field, Kevin Harvick intentionally shoved the #9 car of Elliott into a wall, causing lots of damage to the rear of his car. Later in the race, as Elliott caught up to Harvick and after radio communications that the #9 would get payback on Harvick, Harvick locked up his brakes and went into the turn one wall, with no help from Elliott. Larson went on to win the race, after late drama with teammate William Byron and competitor Tyler Reddick.
The Playoff Round of 8 opener at the Texas Motor Speedway saw a major pileup at only lap 31, taking out a few competitive cars. After a few more cautions and a red flag, Larson once again dominated as he did earlier in the year at the same track for the All Star Race, locking himself into the Championship Four at Phoenix. Kansas was a similar story, with Larson once again winning the race after running up front for a lot of the race. At Martinsville the next week, the Hendrick Chevrolets of Larson and Elliott were running well towards the start of the race, but later in the race the frontrunners were Alex Bowman in the #48 and Denny Hamlin in the #11. With seven laps to go, Bowman drove the corner wide and struck the left rear of Hamlin, sending him into a spin. Of course, Denny was upset that he was, in his eyes, dumped for the lead, and Bowman going on to win the race just made it that much worse. Post race, while Bowman was preparing to do his celebratory burnouts and interview with NBC, Hamlin ran into the parked #48 car, expressing his extreme displeasure with the situation. Though he was locked into the Championship Four, he went on to call Bowman a “Hack” and commented “He’s got the fastest car every week and he runs tenth.”
Up to this point, with a single Champion-deciding race left in the season, the four drivers eligible for the title are Kyle Larson in the #5 Chevrolet, Chase Elliott in the #9 Chevrolet, Denny Hamlin in the #11 Toyota and Martin Truex, Jr. in the #19 Toyota. Despite not having the wins that Larson has, the other three have been just as consistent, and at our last trip to Phoenix, Truex took home the victory. Can Martin Truex, Jr. reclaim the throne for the first time since 2017? Or can Chase Elliott go two in a row, becoming the youngest driver to ever achieve that? Will Denny Hamlin finally break through and win it all after 15 years? Or will Kyle Larson send a statement, winning the title with the most consistency and wins of anyone else? It all comes down to Sunday afternoon, the Duel in the Desert at Phoenix Raceway.
Photo Credit///Hendrick Motorsports, hendrickmotorsports.com