With a drastic shakeup to the race schedule, several new intriguing teams entering the fold and a palpable buzz mounting before the most eagerly anticipated NASCAR season in recent memory, in some ways the field has never felt more open.
Still, the cream will always rise to the top, and come November, we’re sure to see some of the familiar heavyweights of the sport staking claim to the 2021 championship.
Will Hendrick Motorsports, fresh off its first title since 2016, go back-to-back with its loaded roster of young stars? Can Joe Gibbs Racing right the ship and take advantage of a crew-chief transition and a driver addition to spread more wins across the board? How will Team Penske move the chains forward after finding loads of success in 2020 amidst a full crew-chief shuffle? Is Kevin Harvick enough to carry Stewart-Haas Racing, or will we see his trio of teammates take things to the next level?
NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and RJ Kraft debate which Cup organization is the overall team to beat this season.
DeCOLA: I fully expect all of the aforementioned teams to have strong campaigns — and it’s not out of the question that each driver on all four of them winds up with a win in 2021 — but to me, it’s clear: Team Penske will reign supreme this year.
Admittedly, I thought the organization was due to take a step back last season after moving all three of its crew chiefs around to new drivers. Surely, there would be speed bumps as Brad Keselowski worked with his first new crew chief since 2010, Joey Logano was split up from the signal-caller he won the title with in 2018 and Ryan Blaney was no longer with his crew chief from across multiple series, teams and all of his 10 previous Cup and Xfinity Series wins since 2013.
Well, how’d they do?
|Driver||Year||Crew Chief||Top 5s||Top 10s||Wins||Laps led||Avg. Fin.||Points finish|
Turns out, that Roger Penske guy knows what he’s doing when it comes to motorsports management, as all three teams pretty much held the line or improved in some way.
Consider that the pandemic necessitated all but no practice or qualifying — read: the time when a new driver/crew chief pairing can get used to each other — for the vast majority of the season, and it’s all the more impressive the Ford-backed outlet was so successful in 2020.
The only team with a pair of drivers in last year’s Championship 4, Team Penske is primed to only build upon the strong foundation laid down last year, and it’s not impossible it could see all three of its drivers vying for the title at Phoenix Raceway come season’s end.
MORE: Biggest 2021 dark horse?
KRAFT: That Team Penske trio is quite formidable, and while I gave some thought toward the Hendrick Motorsports stable — since, after all, they do house the current Cup champion — I have my eye on the Joe Gibbs Racing camp.
The Gibbs garage had nine wins last year among three drivers (only Erik Jones went winless) — one more than the Penske stable of three drivers — and yet that feels like a down year for JGR, perhaps because it won a whopping 19 races the year before. Since 2015, JGR has averaged roughly 12 wins a season.
Denny Hamlin accounted for seven of the nine wins as his pairing with crew chief Chris Gabehart continues to flourish beautifully, and Hamlin is coming off two Championship 4 appearances in as many seasons. While Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined for just two wins in 2020, it’s hard to see the former champions combining for that small total of victories again. Truex will be in Year 2 with crew chief James Small, and the summer strides the pair made should pay early dividends in 2021. Given Truex’s road-racing acumen and seven of those events on the schedule, he’ll have ample opportunity for victories on top of his slew of “home tracks.” Busch, a two-time champion, has just two wins in his last 37 Cup races, and I just don’t see that cold spell continuing. It might take a little bit of 2021 for him to click with new crew chief Ben Beshore, but I expect him to have a multi-win, title-contending season.
Christopher Bell — the new man in the stable — should be a factor for wins as well in his second Cup Series season. Adam Stevens, Busch’s former crew chief, will be atop the box, and I am quite bullish on that pairing. The expected growth of his sophomore season and simply having better starting position on a more consistent basis (he started 15 races 26th or worse in 2020) should help him gain more stage points and put him in more advantageous positions.
A year after having three of the four Championship 4 spots filled with its drivers, Gibbs only had one there in 2020. Don’t expect a repeat of that. This is an organization that boasts three title contenders and a sleeper who is capable of a multi-win year. I expect Gibbs to once again be the class of the garage in 2021.