NASCAR Cup Series 2021 Title Favorites
- New champion Chase Elliott carries considerable momentum into next season.
- Don’t expect another lackluster campaign from two-time champ Kyle Busch.
- Kevin Harvick fizzled during the 2020 Playoff, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
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Chase Elliott won the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series in emphatic fashion, but perennial contenders Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were surprising no-shows, both failing to qualify for the Championship 4 season finale at Phoenix Raceway. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake not to expect all three of those drivers to contend for the title in 2021.
The upcoming season will be the last for the current Gen-6 race car, as NASCAR’s top series transitions to the Next-Gen car in 2022. In the upcoming season, NASCAR also will draw on some of the lessons learned from a season interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, as the majority of 2021 Cup events will be one-day shows without practice or qualifying.
Chase Elliott Carries Considerable Momentum into 2021 Cup Season
In 2020, Chase Elliott cleared the most important hurdle of his career. After the NASCAR Cup Series returned from a 10-week hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, Elliott won a career-best five races and took home the series championship trophy.
Elliott won at Martinsville in his last opportunity to qualify for the Championship 4 race at Phoenix. A week later, he dominated at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert to win his first title in NASCAR’s foremost division. Elliott got the win at Phoenix despite starting at the rear of the field after his car failed pre-race inspection twice.
It should surprise no one that Elliott brings an unprecedented level of confidence into the upcoming season, which begins with the Feb. 14 Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports found speed in its cars during the 10-race Playoff, and that should carry over into next year—not just for Elliott, but also for young-and-hungry teammates Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Kyle Busch Hopes Crew Chief Change Will Get Him Out of the Doldrums
Playing second fiddle didn’t suit Kyle Busch at all. In 2020, he suffered through a season of mediocrity while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin stole the headlines with seven victories in the NASCAR Cup Series. As reigning series champion, Busch managed one victory in 36 races.
As a result, crew chief Adam Stevens is no longer calling the shots from Busch’s pit box. Thanks to an offseason personnel shakeup at Joe Gibbs Racing, Ben Beshore will serve as Busch’s crew chief next year, as Stevens moves to the No. 20 Toyota of Christopher Bell.
Beshore and Busch aren’t strangers. Before Beshore embarked on a two-year stint as a crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, he served as race engineer for Busch’s No. 18 Camry. Beshore also subbed for Stevens as crew chief on Busch’s car for three races in 2017, while Stevens was serving a four-race suspension after a wheel fell off Busch’s car at Dover.
No matter who is on his pit box, don’t expect Busch to have two lackluster seasons in a row. Now that Jimmie Johnson has retired, Busch is the only driver in the Cup Series with more than one championship (2015 and 2019). After 2021, he may have a third.
After Playoff Bust, Kevin Harvick Will Return to Form Next Season
Inexplicably, after posting nine victories in the first 30 NASCAR Cup Series races of 2021, Kevin Harvick suffered through a disastrous Round of 8 in the series Playoff. The lasting image of his failed run was Harvick’s No. 4 Ford sliding into the wall short of the finish line at Martinsville after he knocked Kyle Busch’s Toyota out of the way in a futile attempt to gain the point he needed to advance to the Championship 4.
When the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets and Team Penske Fords found speed as the Playoff progressed, Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers failed to keep pace. As a result, the regular-season champion was out of the running for the title race for only the second time since NASCAR introduced the elimination format in 2014.
A bad three-race run, however, doesn’t mean Harvick won’t be back as a top contender in 2021. Though Harvick turns 45 in December, he has lost none of the edgy determination that has carried him through a 20-year career.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]