By: Ashley McCubbin
Every NASCAR Silly Season results in several drivers finding new rides for the upcoming campaign, with a couple others either retiring or left on the outside looking in. The 2021 version was no different, as a pair of drivers walked away from the sport.
So as we have done in past years, allow us to break down the changes for you.
Jimmie Johnson said c’est la vie on his NASCAR career after seven championships and 19 full-time seasons, ready to pursue other passions within motorsports. For starters, he will be running the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona before running the road and street courses as part of the NTT IndyCar Series for Chip Ganassi Racing.
The No. 48 will have a familiar face behind the wheel, with fellow 2020 Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman taking over the reigns. It would’ve made sense to put their new driver in this role, but Ally’s say in the matter ultimately changed the outcome. The Arizona native is coming off his best season to date having finished sixth in points with 16 top-10’s, including a victory.
So who becomes the fourth driver at HMS joining Bowman, Chase Elliott, and William Byron? Enter Kyle Larson. He began the 2020 season in NASCAR as part of CGR, though found himself without a ride after uttering a racial slur during the sport’s downtime. With both sponsors and Chevrolet dropping him, along with a suspension from the sanctioning body, Chip Ganassi was forced to let him go.
Since then, Larson has worked on forgiveness, by taking in-sensitive training classes and becoming involved in charities in the community. His hard work and an opportunity for a second chance was granted by Rick Hendrick, believing he was ready to return and his talent would produce success.
After all, while he was away from NASCAR, he accumulated over 100 dirt wins at the highest levels, and has six Cup Series victories on his resume. Since entering the sport, many have believed it was a matter of time before he found big success, though was held back by the equipment that CGR provided. Kurt Busch proved you can win at Ganassi so the argument is slightly slanted, but you cannot say the same if he does not produce this season in driving for the defending series champions.
When Kyle Larson uttered the slur, Darrell Wallace Jr. (Bubba) reached out to him to offer advice, conversation, and even agreed he should be given a second chance down the road. Wallace is getting his own of a sort, in driving for a brand new team this year owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.
While a brand new ship can be daunting, there is going to be knowledge there with Mike Wheeler to crew chief, who led Hamlin to numerous victories previously. There is also the Toyota connection, so you have to believe in a sense it’s a satellite team to Joe Gibbs Racing.
During his time with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace only scored three top-five’s and nine top-10’s in 112 races. Though arguably, RPM is no longer the powerhouse they once were with equipment lacking. Now Wallace does not have that excuse to rely back on should he falter in 2021.
RPM will be on the grid in 2021, with Erik Jones at the helm as he makes his move over to the organization. Jones’ being let go from JGR was a surprise to some, given he had solid results through the past seasons – but they did not match the success of his teammates in Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Combined with the powers at be wanting another shoe in (stay tuned), he was lone goose left out of the conversation.
Jones has proven he can run upfront and score victories, as evident by a pair of trips to victory lane. We have seen talented drivers take mid-pack teams beyond their limits to success – Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing ring a bell? Therefore, don’t be surprised to see better results than expected.
The shoe that JGR wanted, though, is Christopher Bell as he takes over the No. 20. He has been part of the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) program for awhile now, with raving reviews from all corners with his success – hence wanting him to remain apart of it.
Driving for an underfunded team last year, he was able to have a couple highlights with a pair of top-five finishes. Now with a year under his belt, combined with having gotten used to the Cup Series cars, a win and playoff berth is easily the expectation for 2021.
Speaking of that team, Leavine Family Racing pulled out of the sport following the season, with team owner Bob Leavine citing displeasure with a series of decisions made by the sanctioning body on his social media. A glance at his twitter account gives you an interesting perspective on ownership and sport that you generally don’t see, allowing you to be the judge of the situation.
Fortunately, if Leavine chooses to tune in to watch some racing, he will be entertained as Clint Bowyer has hung up the steering wheel in trade of joining the NASCAR on Fox booth. Nobody has complained about this decision yet, given the laughs and fun he has offered through his previous interviews and television appearances. Being able to easily fit in when he made previous appearances, it should be an easy transition.
His ride at Stewart-Haas Racing is not going to disappear, though, with Chase Briscoe ready to make the jump up to Cup Series competition. Frankly, he did everything last year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series except win the championship, as evident with eight trips to victory lane. Not bad for a guy that a lot of people were questioning whether he’d make it just a couple years ago while driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
He will be joined on the grid by Ross Chastain, who joins CGR in the No. 42. When Larson uttered the racial slur, it was believed Chastain would get the chance to take over the seat, citing previous connections between car owner and driver. However, that was denied when Chastain said he was not about to break his commitment to Kaulig Racing in battling for the Xfinity Championship. A year later with that deal done, and we get the very predicted turn of events.
Surprisingly, he did not reach victory lane last year despite Justin Hayley and A.J. Allmendinger being able to do so. He put up solid numbers regardless, though, with 15 top-five’s and 27 top-10’s en route to placing seventh in the standings.
By the way, Matt Kenseth was the man who got the reigns of the No. 42 last year, but will not return on his accord as he elects to return to the sidelines with retirement.
Stay tuned to Part 2 of Tracking the Changes: NASCAR Cup Series, where we address crew chief changes at Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as a couple other new teams to emerge.