Commentary

WRITER’S ROUNDTABLE: Predicting the 2021 Champions

The Writer’s Roundtable is the weekly column to where our writers discuss one of the trending topics right now in the sport.

After a season full of competition, everything comes down to this – the crowning of the three NASCAR Champions in the Cup Series, Xfinity Series, and Camping World Truck Series at Phoenix Raceway.

Though before the drivers take to the track, our writers shared who they believe will be this year’s champion.

NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Mitchell Breuer: Part of me really wants to go with Ben Rhodes just because he has seemed good at avoiding the chaos in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season, but I got to go with John Hunter Nemechek. Nemechek has been the best all year, and I think he will continue to be at Phoenix.

Ashley McCubbin: Not trying to copy Mitchell here, because that makes it boring, but the easy route here, and most obvious has to be John Hunter Nemechek for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship. He’s been a factor to win almost every race this season, and a constant fixture in the top-five. The only time that hasn’t resulted in a finish there is simple – wreck or mechanical issue. Actually, there were times where we saw him get damage and still fight back for a top-10 result.

Nemechek made the conscious decision to move down a series because he wanted to “win,” hence the hashtag #here4wins. Although there’s been no victories since Pocono in June, he has been fast through the playoffs, and five victories & 12 top-five’s should lead him to victory.

So whose going to be the toughest one against him? I am going to give Zane Smith a nod. He finished second in his first appearance at Phoenix Raceway, and GMS Racing has proven to be as equal to Kyle Busch Motorsports this season. While the driver of the No. 21 hasn’t always shown that due to a lack of consistency, it seems when the deck is stacked against him, he rises to the occasion and fights strong.

Cole Cusumano: We’re seen plenty of mayhem in the Truck Series — specifically each of the opening rounds of the playoffs. I think it will be another eventful night and a battle for survival. John Hunter Nemechek is the easy pick and two runner-up finishes at Phoenix in the NCWTS is a great case to pick him for the win, in addition to the tremendous season he’s had.

I think one of the underdogs gets it done and I’m going with Zane Smith. Although he hasn’t been consistent, the speed has been there all season. He finished runner-up and led 48 laps in his only NCWTS race at Phoenix, but people tend to forget he also has a Xfinity Series start there, in which he placed top-five. I think he has a great handle on Phoenix and he rides the high from Martinsville into Avondale to hand GMS Racing their second consecutive championship.

NASCAR XFINITY SERIES

Mitchell Breuer: Austin Cindric. I think the experience from winning it all a year ago will benefit him greatly and carry to him a very similar performance and win on Saturday.

Cole Cusumano: The Xfinity Series Championship is a tough one to predict. I was dead set on picking Austin Cindric for the win and championship, but what Noah Gragson put on display in Martinsville has me second guessing myself. I’m still rolling with Cindric as the dominant car all day and the most likely winner, but if there is a late-race restart with Gragson anywhere near the front row, I think he flips the aggression switch to win his first NXS title.

Ashley McCubbin: When it comes to the Xfinity Series, I feel that pick is the hardest to make of the three divisions – and simply because of the competition has been the closest there across the board. Nobody has seemed to be able to grab the horns, and lead the charge which has led to this diversity.

That said, Daniel Hemric is someone that I have to eliminate off the options. The inability to close the deal with a victory does not bode well as with how close everybody has been, a win is going to be what it takes. He runs at front and takes advantage of the speed in the JGR cars, but the last piece missing is what will count him out.

The experience argument from both of you bodes well for Austin Cindric, as well as the clutch performance for Noah Gragson. They’ve also both ran well at Phoenix previously. I also like Noah’s do everything that it takes, including spending nights with the guys in the shop consistently.

However, I am going to give the nod to A.J. Allmendinger. He has seemingly rose to the occasion countless times over the season, proving he can get the job done. Five wins this year backs that up, too. Sure, we did not see the performance at Martinsville but that was about doing what he had to do to transfer and staying out of trouble.

I also think he has the right attitude around him in the fun / family atmosphere that Kaulig Racing brings him. He said he would not do it without that, and the special bond now with Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice has to be the extra motivation to do well. He also has the experience, having been in the sport for a long time.

If I am proven wrong, then damn, I hope it is Noah that does so because we know we’re going to have a big party if he caps it off.

NASCAR CUP SERIES

Mitchell Breuer: Denny Hamlin. I don’t think Hamlin gets enough credit for how good he has been, and despite not having the wins, has been the closest competition to Kyle Larson. He is mad, he is motivated, and I feel like he has to prove himself to rid himself of a public image of being a “hack” driver that has never won a championship.

Ashley McCubbin: I do have one question about Hamlin, though. We’ve seen Hamlin in this position before, and get in the midst of the head games that come with it. It’s even been questioned if whether he plays it too much and allows the likes of Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson to psych him out in past years. Whether this incident at Martinsville could be used as motivation, could it also be enough of a distraction with the drama / comments that have followed?

Mitchell Breuer: That is a good point, and honestly, I think that there is one of two ways that it plays out. Either he is going to be motivated by Martinsville, and the whole season really, and go out and show that he can win a championship. Or, and I mean no offense to Hamlin here, he will have another championship slip through his fingers yet again. The reason I am confident in Hamlin’s abilities here is that it really does feel like a turning point for him, he has gotten here too many times to not get the job done at least once and, if there were ever a year to do it, it feels like now is the time.

Cole Cusumano: I think Kyle Larson wins the Cup Series Championship with ease — that is if he can control his pit road woes. Speeding has been a theme the entire season for Larson and his latest start at Martinsville didn’t show any promise of getting those issues ironed out after getting penalized twice.

Larson had one of the fastest cars at Phoenix this Spring and this is still reflected by his seventh-place outing. In addition to starting the race from the rear, Larson was caught speeding four times in that race and completed a total of 145 green-flag passes. People will likely get lost in Martin Truex Jr’s win in the Spring, Denny Hamlin’s spat with Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott’s title defense, but no one should forget the historic and record shattering season executed by Larson.

Ashley McCubbin: Although it’s been a season dominated by Kyle Larson‘s victories and Denny Hamlin‘s wit, I have to say neither will be the winner come this weekend. Larson even admitted struggling with this package, and there’s the speeding penalty situation as brought up by Cole. When it comes to Hamlin, his inability to focus on himself and instead try and use whit as a mechanism will once again be his downfall.

Through the playoffs, consistency has been the name of the game for the No. 9 of Chase Elliott. They have easily found their way through each round, even with a battle against Harvick that could have been costly at the Roval. Their resilience to fight back from that is strength here. There’s also the focus, in him saying, “I’m only focused on what makes us go fast.” Keeping things as they usually are, and knowing what we’ve seen by 9 team in the past, here we are. His average finish this year has been on par with last season, and alas, that led to a championship.

However, the biggest piece of the puzzle? Phoenix Raceway. Elliott has been strong at the Arizona track through the years with three straight top-seven finishes, with four top-five’s and seven top-10’s in 11 races, combined with 246 laps led in 2021. There’s also last year’s performance in pacing 153 laps to victory, despite having to start at the back due to inspection woes. It is why he is my pick for the championship.

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