The playing field appears to have been leveled.
Perhaps it’s the final year of the current car, the early schedule diversity or just a statistical anomaly, but this isn’t entirely how most would have predicted the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season to begin.
It began with Michael McDowell’s upset Daytona 500 victory, but the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team has backed it up with three top-10s and a Cup Series best 5.0 average finish to start the year.
Yeah, definitely not a fluke.
Christopher Bell claimed his first Cup Series victory the following week at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course. Bell was expected to contend in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing but not this early and certainly not on the road course.
The future has arrived.
Then there’s William Byron, who entered this weekend without a single top-5 finish in 10 Cup Series starts on 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, with a best finish at Homestead of ninth in 2019.
There’s no way he was going to win after starting 31st, right?
So much for that narrative.
Meanwhile, the championship standings are led by (winless for now) Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who combined for 16 victories last season, so not everything has been turned upside down.
But much has.
Chris Buescher led 57 laps on Sunday and won the opening stage before finishing 19th, which is still good enough to place him inside the top-15 of the championship standings when paired with his 11th place finish last week at the Daytona Road Course.
McDowell is fourth in the standings and (charterless) Ryan Preece is 12th through three races, while Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, Aric Almirola and Matt DiBenedetto are all outside of the early provisional playoff grid.
“To be running down Kevin Harvick with five laps to go for a top five, that’s stinking awesome for us to even be in that sentence,” McDowell said after the race.
It won’t stay this way, of course, but there is certainly a lot more room for unpredictability in 2021 than in a long time.
The first three races took place on a superspeedway, road course and intermediate track, respectively. The first race on dirt in over 50 years will take place later this month at Bristol Motor Speedway. There are five other road courses and two superspeedways remaining in the regular season as well.
The NA18D rules package was good for two surprise winners last year in Cole Custer (Kentucky) and Austin Dillon (Texas) too.
In the final year before the Next-Gen car makes its debut, there is little need for secrets and proprietary information. There is a parts freeze across the industry and satellite teams are receiving better equipment at a better value than ever before.
“The rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while,” said Martin Truex Jr. “Everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week. So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up. We’ll see if it continues.”
McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports has a technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.
“I agree with Martin that (the parts freeze) definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” McDowell said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”
To his point, the elite drivers and teams will rise to the top, because they always do, but it’s far from a fait accompli that two or three teams will dominate like last year.
It remains to be seen if this is going to be The Best Season Ever™, but NASCAR is certainly off to its most parity filled start in quite a while.
HOMESTEAD IS NASCAR’S INTERMEDIATE ELITE
Homestead-Miami Speedway remains the best intermediate track in NASCAR and it’s not even close.
There will come a day when the sanctioning body maximizes the ROI on the $178 million Phoenix Raceway redevelopment project, and when it does, the championship race needs to return home to South Beach.
Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Homestead was an example of intermediate racing at its finest.
There were multiple lanes of high speed, door-to-door competition and tire management. The layout, which is reminiscent of old Atlanta Motor Speedway before the dogleg was added for grandstand and luxury suite sightlines, should have been the model that every intermediate track followed in the 90s and early 2000s.
Homestead even delivered the goods for the first half of the Cup Series race on Sunday, despite the low horsepower, high downforce rules package, which produced something similar to Saturday until ambient temperatures dropped with the setting sun.
At that point, teams were largely single file against the wall, albeit with Tyler Reddick charging through the field.
It sure would have been interesting to see if the Richard Childress Racing could have overcome William Byron’s clean air.
Proponents of the NA18D rules package have posited the race as a redemption arc for the low horsepower, high downforce formula but Reddick says the race was largely a byproduct of Homestead.
“Vegas, the (fresly) repaved tracks, I think they’ll look a lot different than what we saw tonight because you don’t move around as much and you don’t have the tire falloff,” Reddick.
That uniqueness is just another reason to advocate its return as the championship race.
Another reason is that it’s the only intermediate track on the schedule that has just one date now that Chicagoland and Kentucky have been removed. When it was the season finale, there was no previous event to pull notes from. It’s the only 1.5-mile intermediate without a dogleg.
It’s in the backdrop of lively Miami.
It’s a championship caliber racetrack with a unique layout and in a high-profile market. If nothing else, here’s to hoping the track survives until the finale can indeed come home.
STATE OF PLAY
While much has been made of the increased importance on road course racing this season, the playoffs will still largely be decided by intermediate tracks this fall.
Three of the final six races will be held on 1.5s with the decisive penultimate round taking place at Texas and Kansas before ending at Martinsville.
So, it’s not too early to look at where everyone’s intermediate package stands, even if there’s no other track quite like Homestead.
Hendrick Motorsports placed three drivers in the top-10 with Byron winning, Kyle Larson fourth, Alex Bowman ninth and Chase Elliott in 14th.
Even though Elliott won the championship last season, his autumn heroics came on short tracks and the Roval. Overall, Hendrick was inconsistent on intermediates, so having all four cars run inside the top-10 for large parts of the race is reason for optimism.
Ford also showed periods of exceptional pace on Sunday with Buescher surprising the field with a first stage victory, with Kevin Harvick in the mix for much of the race, and Michael McDowell running top-10 throughout the race.
Ryan Newman finished seventh to score his first top-10 on a non-superspeedway since 2019.
That’s three teams in Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Front Row Motorsports.
The Team Penske cars driven by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano traded the lead early, but faded in the second half, especially once the ambient temperatures dropped.
Then there’s the Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing.
It was a struggle beyond Martin Truex Jr, who led 37 laps and finished third. A frustrated Kyle Busch spent much of the race mired around 15th and struggling to make speed on the outside. His car came alive once the sun started to set.
Denny Hamlin was forced to relinquish the pole due to unapproved adjustments made before the race, and couldn’t break into the top-20 for much of the first half, with concerns that his car simply wasn’t under power.
Christopher Bell won last week on the Daytona Road Course and languished to a 20th place finish at Homestead. Bubba Wallace finished 22nd in the 23XI entry.
So that’s the state of play for Toyota compared to Chevrolet and Ford.
“I don’t know, we hit it pretty good I thought balance-wise today and made good adjustments and still weren’t quite fast enough to win,” Truex said. “I’d say maybe we need to be better.
“I didn’t really race around our teammates very much, and typically we’re all around each other. Probably got a little bit of work to do, but we’ll get to work on that tomorrow and hear how everybody else fared. It’s tough, there’s not a whole lot you can do right now, so it’s all about getting set up right, and tonight we got it pretty close.”
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