By Cole Cusumano
Anytime there’s a period without racing it’s torturous, but for the NASCAR Cup Series there’s a particular breed of agony attached to the first break of 2021. Each passing week, the competitive edge and product on display was propelling at a fast-paced upward trajectory. The drama and trends of uncertainty dispersed throughout the variation of venues put weight behind the preseason claims of the potential “best season ever.”
Coming off one of the most entertaining weekends in the sport’s history, the hope is this scheduled break doesn’t dampen the momentum collected through seven weeks.
Seven different winners in as many races isn’t unheard of; in fact, it occurred most recently in 2014. What is intriguing is the divisive array of victors ranging from underdogs, youth and champions that’s made it difficult to decipher a clear-cut favorite.
It would be safest to say Kyle Larson is the driver teams are chasing after a victory, leading the most laps thus far and being in contention for the win in about every race. But his string of success was thwarted at Bristol Motor Speedway’s dirt experiment — an event many cited as the “great equalizer.”
In analyzing the top performers of 2021 at the break, this very well could be the case in terms of consistency and drivers who finished inside the top-six in the Food City Dirt Race.
Although seen by many as “slumping,” due to the sheer fact that at this point last season he had two wins, it’s hard to find another driver who’s been more successful in 2021 than Denny Hamlin. The driver of the No. 11 has only finished outside of the top-10 in one race in 2021 – an 11th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway where he started from the rear.
Hamlin towers over all full-time drivers in average finishing position through seven races with 4.7. On top of that, he’s placed third or fourth in the last four events. Plain and simple, this is as dominant as it gets without physically winning. Luckily for the No. 11 team, coming out the break the premier series is heading to three tracks where they excel at — Martinsville Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway, where he won in the Fall of last year.
Things were not going as planned to start the season for Ryan Blaney. After failing to place above 15th in the opening three races, many were puzzled by the No. 12 team’s slow start compared to last year. Sitting 24th in the standings heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Team Penske driver was in dire need of a good day and got just that with a top-five finish.
It turns out that was all Blaney needed to catch fire. Since then, he hasn’t finished outside of the top-10, dazzled in a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway and spring-boarded to seventh in the standings. The 27-year-old now owns an average result of sixth over the last four races and you get the sense there’s no putting out this flame.
In a race where you’d expect a mangled Mustang like Blaney’s to be relegated to a sub-par placing, he ended up eighth in the car pictured. Looking ahead, he placed runner-up in both Martinsville events last season and hasn’t finished outside the top-five in two years at the .526-mile track. He’s also a two-time winner at Talladega, most recently in the Spring of 2020.
Expectations for William Byron were sky-high entering his fourth full-time campaign at the Cup level. After finally securing a win on the biggest stage possible in the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, it felt as if the floodgates were opened. While he failed to make it past the Round of 16, the No. 24 team ended 2020 on a high note finishing top-10 in half the playoff races.
The World Center of Racing wasn’t as kind to the 23-year-old this year, as he failed to finish above 26th the opening two weeks. Byron then rebounded masterfully at Homestead by putting on a clinic in the later stages of the race and winning his second career race. Since then he’s silently been one of the most consistent frontrunners in the Cup Series aside from Hamlin.
Following his victory, he amassed three consecutive eighth-place finishes and closed out the final race before the break in sixth, for an average placing of 7.5 over the last four events (6.2 over the last five with a win).
This success can largely be attributed to Byron’s new crew chief, Rudy Fugle, who he handpicked as Chad Knaus’ successor. It’s also no coincidence that once his former championship winning leader took the role of Competition Director at Hendrick Motorsports the entire organization has been elevated to the next level and been considered the class of the field.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Chances are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wasn’t on anyone’s radar until his runner-up at Bristol dirt, but the reality is he’s been a model for consistency in 2021. Following a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona, he’s progressively gotten better with a 13th, 11th and then back-to-back 12th-placings before hitting his peak in the Food City Dirt Race.
Failing to finish lower than 18th thus far is the best of all full-time drivers, as no one else has a better “worst-place” result.
The two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion has an average finish of 9.3 over the last four races and he may be due for his most competitive season yet. JTG-Daugherty Racing has taken a massive step forward in 2021 as a whole and Stenhouse currently sits 14th in the standings looking as poised as he ever has to emerge as the driver he was touted as when he was promoted to Cup.
One of the most intriguing headlines going into this season was the inception of Trackhouse Racing with Justin Marks and Pitbull as co-owners, and Daniel Saurez in the driver’s seat. No one knew what to expect from this brand new team with a Richard Childress Racing alliance, but we’ve seen enough to claim this as the feel-good story of 2021.
While the results may be misleading, Suarez has been highly impressive. As has been the case throughout his entire career, the driver of the No. 99 is making the most of this opportunity and showcasing his ability to remain competitive in whatever he’s given.
Now with his fourth different team and third manufacturer in four years, Suarez has made his presence known seemingly every week. The 29-year-old has led laps in all but two races this season and closed out this stint before the break with his first top-five since 2019. Even more impressively, this finish was better than or equal to drivers like Kevin Harvick (fourth in Daytona), Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto in 2021.
Lastly, this wasn’t a finish Suarez lucked into. He led 58 laps — the most he’s ever been out front in a single-race through 150 starts. Not to mention, the 74 circuits paced this season are his most since 2019.
Sitting 20th in the standings, Suarez has some work to do, but the progress and commitment by Trackhouse Racing through seven events is nothing to be overlooked.
The question now is that, much like the racing on display through seven races, can these drivers sustain the pace and consistency they’ve compiled as well? Others not mentioned here but worth keeping an eye on are championship frontrunners like Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott as the Cup Series heads to tracks they’ve seen success at.
Get your first look at the recharged athletes coming out the the first break of the season at Martinsville Speedway for some short track night racing on April 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1.