NASCAR’s New Normal Lasted Just a Month

For much of this past year, we have collectively tossed around the phrase The New Normal as it pertains to life after the coronavirus pandemic.

Eventually, The New Normal just became something akin to life as we started to always know it.

For the first month of the NASCAR Cup Series season, The New Normal regarded parity and fresh faces in Victory Lane every week. It began with Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell earning their first victories in Daytona.

William Byron and Kyle Larson weren’t exactly surprises, but they had an air of the unknown about them. Byron had only won at Daytona the year before and Larson took a team that hadn’t won since 2017 in just his fourth race back after a lengthy hiatus.

The 2021 season has now begun with five different winners in five races, but just like in the real world, it appears The Old Normalis making a comeback.

Martin Truex Jr. won just once last season, so it’s not like he entirely is representative of a return to normalcy, but the Instacart 500 at Phoenix Raceway was.

Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney each took turns leading for Team Pense. Truex and Denny Hamlin had Joe Gibbs Racing represented in the top-five throughout most of the race with Hendrick Motorsports running inside the top-10 with Larson, Byron and defending champion Chase Elliott.

As if trying to tap into the parity narrative one more time, Mike Wheeler kept Bubba Wallace and the 23XI Racing team out on older tires on the penultimate restart, immediately sinking through the field and further back than where he would have started on fresh rubber.

But again, given The New Normal to start the season, it was worth a shot.

Regardless of who has won to start this season, the championship standings paint the real picture of an accurate power rankings with winless Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano occupying the first three positions.

That’s a byproduct of stage points and average finish.
It’s also surely predictive of their seasons to come.

The new normal, as brief as it lasted, was also the byproduct of NASCAR’s radically different 2021 Cup Series schedule that began with the Daytona 500 and then moved to the Daytona Road Course before two vastly different intermediate tracks in abrasive Homestead and smooth Las Vegas.

That intermediate track rules package has a lot to do with the so-called parity as well. NASCAR implemented high downforce and lower horsepower because it wanted to level the playing field between teams and drivers.

Preventing drivers from having to lift off the throttle certainly helped achieve some of that goal, according to Logano and Hamlin, but traditional race craft returned to the forefront with the higher power, lower downforce short track package.

“I think the mile-and-a-half package helps the underfunded teams out a little bit more than a short track package,” Blaney said.

That sentiment was shared by his teammate too.

“The 750 package is harder to drive,” Logano said. “I think experience probably comes out more. There’s different techniques that I think the experienced guys have learned over the years racing cars that don’t have much downforce, a lot of horsepower.

“When you come to a short track, there’s comers and goers. Knowing how to go fast on a short run versus a long run, Denny is probably one of the best at figuring that balance out. I think probably that experience behind the wheel helps, kind of knowing what you need in your race car to go as fast as possible.”

Hamlin agreed and cited the experience of veteran drivers who drove with this package everywhere prior to the implementation of NA18D, too.

“You kind of build a notebook on it,” Hamlin said. “You understand how to manipulate the car when it’s not handling perfectly. You can move your line around and change some things. That’s stuff that takes experience.

“I think experience in this sport is just so underrated simply because you see so many things. We’ve all been through tire changes, car changes, aerodynamic changes, track changes, that we’re ahead of the game, I guess you could say. Especially now that we have no practice, I mean, it lends itself even more to experience.”

With abrasive Atlanta, dirt Bristol and the short tracks at Martinsville and Richmond, experience and talent combined with elite engineering is about to overcome the new normal at least for the next month.

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