Driver Shuffles Will Provide a New Look to 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season
- Kyle Larson gets a second chance as a new addition to Hendrick Motorsports roster.
- Bubba Wallace has his best shot at Cup Series success with the new glamor team.
- Kyle Busch sees a crew chief change after the disappointing defense of his Cup title.
Inevitably, the end of a NASCAR season brings change, and 2020 is no exception. When NASCAR Cup Series teams race at Daytona International Speedway next February, fans will be forced to acquaint themselves with new drivers in different rides, with different crew chiefs and different liveries.
The 2021 season will mark the debut of new teams, just as 2020 marks the end of the road for the established teams of Germain Racing and Leavine Family Racing. In the late-season shuffle, drivers have found new homes, and seats are filled—with the exception of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, which rookie John Hunter Nemechek vacated unexpectedly after season’s end.
Kyle Larson Earns Second Chance in Resurrected No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet
With the departure of seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson at the end of the 2020 season, Hendrick Motorsports had a seat to fill. Team owner Rick Hendrick made two moves to accomplish the task. First, he announced that Alex Bowman will move from the No. 88 to the No. 48 Chevrolet that Johnson drove to all his titles.
Hendrick then hired Kyle Larson to drive the No. 5 Camaro, which will replace the No. 88—most closely associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing in April and suspended from NASCAR indefinitely for using a racial slur during a virtual racing event during the hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Larson has earned reinstatement after completing NASCAR’s sensitivity training and going out of his way independently to learn from his mistake.
During his suspension, Larson also engineered arguably the most successful season in dirt-track racing history, winning 42 of the 84 events he entered in a wide array of different cars, from midgets to winged and non-winged sprint cars to Silver Crown cars and even a dirt late model. When he returns to the asphalt in a full-bodied stock car next year, he’ll have his best chance to produce a breakout season on the pavement.
Bubba Wallace Gets His Shot with a New Glamor Team in Cup Racing
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan and 15-year NASCAR Cup Series veteran Denny Hamlin have been golf buddies for years. Now they’re also business partners. Though Hamlin will continue to drive the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, he and Jordan announced the launch of 23XI Racing, which will debut in 2021 with Bubba Wallace as the driver.
Wallace leaves Richard Petty Motorsports, which has hired Erik Jones as his replacement. Jones was forced out of his Joe Gibbs Racing ride at season’s end, to be succeeded in the No. 20 Toyota by Christopher Bell, who moves to the flagship Toyota team from now-defunct Leavine Family Racing.
Wallace, the only Black driver in the Cup Series, gained recognition during the 2020 season for his outspoken stances on social justice. He played a pivotal role in urging NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its racing venues, a move the sanctioning body made in mid-season.
Mike Wheeler, former crew chief of Hamlin’s at JGR, will fill the same role for Wallace at 23XI (so named for Jordan’s basketball jersey number and Hamlin’s car number, and pronounced “Twenty-three Eleven”). The team will purchase its chassis, bodies, and engines from Gibbs.
Personnel Shake-Up Means New Crew Chief for Two-Time Champ Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch won the 2015 and 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championships with Adam Stevens calling the shots from his pit box. But after a disappointing 2020 season, in which Busch failed to advance beyond the Round of 12 in the Cup Playoff, Stevens leaves his crew chief role on the No. 18 Toyota.
Replacing Stevens is Ben Beshore, promoted from the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Beshore, however, isn’t an unknown quantity to Busch, having served as an engineer on the No. 18 Camry before taking the role as an Xfinity crew chief.
Stevens, on the other hand, will move to the No. 20 Toyota to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief in Bell’s debut season with JGR. The other two Cup driver/crew chief pairings at Gibbs will remain intact, with Aussie James Small remaining with Martin Truex Jr. and Chris Gabehart continuing with Denny Hamlin, who won seven times in 2020 and finished fourth in the final standings.
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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]