Cole's Corner

Drivers prepare to brave the unknown with revamped Cup Series schedule

By Cole Cusumano

Being marketed by Fox Sports as possibly “the best season ever,” there’s good reason to buy into the hype for the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021. The brightest athletes will be making trips to three venues never used before at the premier level, in addition to one that hasn’t hosted a contest in 65 years and three current tracks receiving modifications in the form of the racing surface and exhibition events.

For non-points paying spectacles, the All-Star Race finds a new home for the second consecutive season, this time at Texas Motor Speedway, and some drivers must embrace change right out the gates with the Busch Clash at the Daytona International Speedway road course. 

First used in 2020 as a replacement for Watkins Glen International, The World Center of Racing broke out the right turns for the Cup Series without the luxury of practice or qualifying, which made for an exciting race. The track still presents a level of uncertainty for many drivers, making the Clash more important than years past for those fortunate enough to compete.

“It’s one of the few races we get to kind of have a little bit of a practice session of races to come and this one’s not points related,” Cole Custer told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Especially with the amount of road courses we’re running this year, it’s a pretty important race. You can go out there and try some things and try to figure some other things out for the other road courses.”

The 2021 schedule presents a wide variety of challenges, specifically in the form of its road course-heavy nature. Including the Clash, Cup drivers will be tasked with tackling eight winding tracks this season — three of which a majority of the field will be seeing for the first time.

Should skepticism creep in, it’s important to reflect back to the infamous last-lap battle at Watkins Glen in 2012 between Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch that’s widely regarded as one of the greatest finishes in history. Not to mention, while it may favor guys like Chase Elliott, who’s won four consecutive road course races, it also presents opportunities for smaller teams to shine — one of those organizations being Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell.

The Roush Fenway Racing affiliate took a massive step forward last year and as a result, McDowell had a career-year and placed the highest he ever has in the standings after 13 seasons. Known for notoriously having an innate ability to navigate road courses, the 36-year-old couldn’t be happier with the 2021 schedule.

“For us to have seven opportunities is huge,” McDowell told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Last year we had a few of those opportunities pulled from us with not running Watkins Glen or Sonoma (Raceway), so this year having Road America, Circuit of the Americas, Daytona road course, Watkins Glen and the Charlotte (Motor Speedway) road course, those are all great races for us and great opportunities for us to hopefully capitalize and make the best of those opportunities.”

The driver of the No. 34 has Road America circled on his calendar, as that’s where he picked up his only NASCAR National Series victory in addition to leading a collective 58 laps and securing one pole.

The Wisconsin-based track has been used in the NASCAR Xfinity Series since 2010, but unbeknownst to most, it was used in the Cup Series once in 1956, where Tim Flock outlasted four other drivers on the lead-lap for the win.

Not mentioned by McDowell, the Cup circuit will also be heading to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to compete on the road course. The Xfinity Series made its debut there last season and it was largely perceived as one of best races in 2020 across all series.

The sport’s best will also be making a stop to a former Xfinity Series favorite in Nashville Superspeedway. Although never used at the Cup level, active drivers such as Keselowski, Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick  have been able to tame the 1.333-mile track when rising through the ranks.

This will be the first time the sanctioning body returns to compete at Nashville since 2011, but it should also come as no surprise given the city’s booming sports market and the NASCAR awards banquet being moved there in 2019.

They say everything’s bigger in Texas and the same goes for the excitement buzzing throughout the field for the race at Circuit of the Americas. The 20-turn track was almost unanimously the most popular answer when surveying drivers for the track they’re most eager to tackle.

One of those athletes was Tyler Reddick, who was one of a handful of drivers that got to run laps there in December for the World Racing Series. The two-time Xfinity Series Champion is confident the venue will provide thrills for spectators and competitors alike.

He eluded to the fact that the course has vastly different sections throughout that require different mindsets and approaches.

“My favorite part about it is, yes, there’s areas where you can get in real trouble on the race track, but for the most part, it’s really wide, there’s a lot of paved surface outside of the track limits and I think that will hopefully keep some of these drivers motivated,” Reddick told NEWS FROM THE PITS.

“I’m definitely motivated to be aggressive knowing that if you make a mistake, you’ll slide off the track a little bit, gather it back up and get going again, and your day’s not going to be totally over. I think that’ll present some excitement for us.”

Finally, the track that without a doubt received the most intrigue amongst unknowns is a race at Bristol Motor Speedway on dirt. The highly anticipated event taking place on March 28th will be the first time the Cup Series slings dirt since 1970.

Surprisingly, Reddick, who’s an accomplished dirt racing specialist, is feeling all but comfortable with this event looming. The 24-year-old is mainly weary of the 3:30 p.m. start time, as he stated each contest he ran in the daytime was a challenge — mainly due to the fact the surface rubbers up like asphalt.

While relying on his dirt experience, he’s excited about the possibilities, but isn’t making wild predeterminations.

“These stock cars are so much different than anything I’ve ran in the past; they’re a heavier car, they got the power, but the suspension’s not as efficient as the stuff you see on the dirt late models,” Reddick said.

“I’ve done this transition enough times doing the Eldora (Speedway) truck race to kind of have an understanding for how lazy the car’s going to be and how much work will have to go into remembering that at the beginning of this race, but there’s really no major ties to the driving style of other forms of dirt racing.”

There’s no telling what’s possible with this reformulated Cup Series schedule, but it’s fair to say the track variety and element of uncertainty will require these premier level athletes to showcase their utmost determination and skillset to make it to Phoenix Raceway in November.

Get your first look at the revamped NASCAR Cup Series schedule on February 9 in the Busch Clash from the Daytona road course at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1. Be sure to tune in throughout the season for Bristol dirt, Circuit of the Americas, the All-Star Race at Texas, Nashville, Road America and the Indianapolis road course as well.

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