A number of surprises were sprinkled across NASCAR throughout the 2021 season — Michael McDowell’s season-opening win in the Daytona 500, Christopher Bell scoring a win in the second race of the season, a run of 10 different winners in the first 11 races, Kaulig Racing scoring its first Cup win, Kevin Harvick going winless for the first time since 2009 and Bubba Wallace’s first win — just to name a few.
Which one of those was the biggest or was there another happening that shocked us all? NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Sean Montgomery make their case for the biggest surprise of the season.
KRAFT: We had a lot of surprises in 2021, but to me, the biggest one was then-18-year-old Ty Gibbs winning in his first national series start on the Daytona International Speedway Road Course — the sixth driver to win in his first Xfinity Series start. The young phenom had turned some heads in the ARCA Menards Series platform and its ensuing companion series in recent years. For me, the shock isn’t that he won in 2021, but that he won right away and kept on winning in Xfinity races while serving notice he was a driver to be reckoned with when he was entered in that series. With a young driver, you look for steady growth over the season, but Gibbs dropped the hammer down from the get-go and never really let up.
Gibbs won four of his 18 starts in the Xfinity ranks in 2021 with three of those, as well as seven top-five finishes, coming in his first nine starts. He cooled off in the fall before notching his final season win at Kansas Speedway on the same weekend he locked down the ARCA Menards Series title. The talent certainly is there, but success in ARCA and what was known as the K&N Pro Series ranks doesn’t always translate to the national series level, but in this case, it did right away. He was the most consistent threat to win an Xfinity race in the Gibbs stable all year among drivers to make double-digit starts, won more races than full-time drivers (Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton) and this was the organization that fielded a car for the eventual champion in Hemric.
Honorable mention for me goes to two young Cup organizations scoring wins in 2021. Kaulig Racing nabbed a victory in just its seventh Cup start as an organization and a part-time one at that. Yes, the team had AJ Allmendinger behind the wheel for the road courses, but to see an organization that ran just nine Cup events in 2021 score one of the wins was surprising. 23XI Racing won in its first race with Bubba Wallace scoring a landmark victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Wallace earning his first win on a superspeedway was not the surprising part given his past strong runs on that track type, but a win in Year 1 for the Michael Jordan-Denny Hamlin-owned organization was remarkable.
MONTGOMERY: In 2020, Kevin Harvick won a series-high nine races, was arguably the top driver in the sport and poised to make a push for his second NASCAR Cup Series championship. Who would have bet just one year later the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing veteran would make zero trips to Victory Lane in 36 chances? It has to be the biggest surprise of the season, considering Harvick’s last winless campaign came in 2009. The 2021 season saw his 11-year streak of at least one victory come to a screeching halt. Though he managed to make the playoffs on points — due to a relatively similar performance in top 10s with 24, just three below last season’s total — he only seemed like a true contender in a handful of races.
However, Stewart-Haas’ on-track struggles weren’t unique to Harvick. The organization managed to win just one race this season after Aric Almirola pulled off an incredible performance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. But, as true champions do, Harvick began to round into form late in the playoffs and finished the final four races of the season as high as third and no worse than 12th. This consistency landed him fifth in the final season standings, the first among non-Championship 4 contenders. Expect the No. 4 camp to carry this momentum and enter the 2022 season ready to bounce back for another championship run.
Honorable mention for me goes to the vastly improved road-course performances by drivers throughout the Cup Series. The 2020 champion, Chase Elliott, entered this season with four consecutive wins at road courses and was easily the class of the field. A newly revamped schedule with seven trips to road circuits seemed positioned perfectly for the No. 9 driver to make a serious push for back-to-back championships, perhaps as the runaway favorite. But other drivers rose to the occasion. Elliott only won two of the seven left-and-right turn races this season, with 2021 champion Kyle Larson leading the charts with three. Christopher Bell and AJ Allmendinger also added their names to the list of winners at the track type. If Elliott is favored at every road course moving forward, that is still fair. But the gap to the field behind him is closer than ever.