By Cole Cusumano
Tidings of a Merry Offseason and Happy Christmas were ushered prematurely by Chase Elliott in October, but the holiday season is officially upon us and with that comes the spirit of giving. It’s also a time of self reflection and analysis from the man in the red suit with the white beard to determine one’s worthiness of receiving gifts
With a brand new car for the NASCAR Cup Series and a fresh slate for the developmental series on the way, there are many things on respective wish lists across the sport this time of year. The days in December are dwindling down, meaning Santa is checking his list twice to see which drivers and teams have been naughty or nice looking ahead to 2022.
Kyle Larson – Competition
To put it simply, Larson and the No. 5 team compiled one of the most dominant seasons in NASCAR’s modern era. His 2,581 laps led were the most in a single-season under the current 36-race format on top of his series-best 10 wins (11 with the All-Star Race) and the Cup Series Championship. Not to mention, he also had six runner-up finishes included in his 26 top-10s.
Although hardly the case, there were many points in the season where competing looked effortless for Larson. If there’s one thing that could be on his holiday wish list, maybe it’s steeper competition during his title defense for 2022. Like the rest of the field, he’ll have to adapt to a brand new car, which should present a whole new set of challenges.
Consensus: Nice – Larson completed one of the most successful comeback stories in motorsports history, but even more importantly, it appears he’s a more self aware and humble person. The reigning champion makes a return to the nice list this season; but after cleaning house in the wins department, there’s not much left for him to receive in 2021.
John Hunter Nemechek – Redemption
Early in the season, it felt as if Nemechek had a seemingly imminent path to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship on cruise control. Earning five wins with a pair of runner-up finishes, there really wasn’t anyone better than the No. 4 team.
It wasn’t until the playoffs rolled around things got tough on the 24-year-old. In the Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway, Nemechek got dumped in retaliation by Austin Wayne Self and narrowly made it into the Championship 4. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver was unable to avoid disaster, after he cut a tire in the opening laps of the series finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Ultimately, Nemechek ended up being a product of misfortune to close out the season. It’s a shame, because he put together an extremely successful 2021 campaign by leading the series in wins and top-10s, but got caught up in situations largely out of his control.
Nemechek relinquished his spot in NASCAR’s premier series in an attempt to seek redemption and earn more wins. Ending the season likely half fulfilled, the driver of the No. 4 should be looking to complete unfinished business in 2022.
Consensus: Nice – Nemechek did everything right this year, but ended up on the wrong end of unfortunate circumstances and unwarranted retaliation. Even after all that, he kept a calm demeanor. For this, there will be lots of gifts under his tree.
Denny Hamlin – Respect / Cup Championship
Hamlin has put together an impressive body of work throughout his Cup career, but there is one thing eluding him that he’d love to add to his large trophy collection: the Bill France Cup. The driver of the No. 11 has narrowly missed out on a Championship on numerous occasions and continues to make a strong case as the best competitor without a title since Mark Martin.
The 41-year-old entered his 16th full-time season off one of the most dominant performances of his career with seven victories and back-to-back Championship 4 appearances. Hamlin’s 2021 campaign didn’t come close to capturing the excellence of the one prior, but it was one of the most consistent and best nonetheless.
In addition to a Cup title, you’d have to imagine Hamlin is seeking some respect from younger drivers in 2022 and beyond. Things got heated between him and Alex Bowman at Martinsville, when he was in line for his third win of the season before the Hendrick Motorsports driver dumped him on the final lap.
This led to a profanity-filled post-race interview, after this was the second time a win had been stolen from him in 2021. A few months prior, Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Chase Briscoe, cost him a victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course after last-lap contact. The two drivers had another few run-ins during the playoffs as well.
Consensus: Naughty – Hamlin let his emotions get the best of him by calling one of his competitors a “hack” and using profanity on live television. Santa will be sure to check his list twice, as the driver of the No. 11 usually ends up in the nice column.
Daniel Hemric – Back-to-Back Titles / Trophies
During Championship Weekend at Phoenix, news broke that Hemric would be joining Kaulig Racing full-time in 2022. Clearly, the 30-year-old got the team memo, because trophy hunting season began early and on the biggest stage possible.
After 207 winless starts between all three national series, Hemric not only won his first NASCAR-sanctioned race, he became the Xfinity Series Champion. Initially slated for a fresh start with Kaulig, he enters as a leader with a title defense in store for his 2022 campaign.
Could the floodgates finally be open for Hemric after 10 runner-up finishes and a championship as he heads to a team with a winning pedigree? Only time will tell, but the series finale at Phoenix is looking like a perfect segway in his transition to a new team.
Consensus: Nice – Hemric has had to endure more heartbreak than any driver in recent memory across all three series. He was also tested early in 2021 when Noah Gragson backed into his car on pit road, but he kept his composure and had the last laugh in the end. There should be many more trophies in his future.
Kevin Harvick – Respect / A Win
Unable to replicate his series-best nine-win performance from the year prior, tensions were running high for Harvick in 2021. Unrealistic expectations led to a weekly pressure cooker for the No. 4 team and Stewart-Haas Racing, as trips to victory lane were essentially non-existent.
Frustration boiled to a head for Harvick at Bristol Motor Speedway after a run-in with Elliott prevented him from a convincing victory. Instead, he had to settle for second-best, as the Hendrick Motorsports driver slowed his pace in order to hand his teammate the win. This led to an explosive post-race tirade by the 2014 Champion demanding respect from younger competitors.
Instead of putting the situation in his rear view mirror, Harvick pushed this issue at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course unsuccessfully and was met with a demise to his title hopes after an intimidation initiated blunder on his part.
After a winless 2021 campaign with still 24 top-10s to show for a competitive season, Harvick would love to find his way back in the win column next season in hopes of achieving a 60-victory milestone in the Cup Series.
Consensus: Naughty – Harvick understandably lost control of his emotions after Elliott cost him a win in Thunder Valley. Upon choosing further retaliation at the Roval, he was met with an early metaphorical lump of coal after wrecking and missing out on the next round of the playoffs. While he did his time, it’s going to be tough for the driver of the No. 4 to escape the naughty list in 2021.
Wood Brothers Racing – 100th Win
The Wood brothers have one of the most storied careers in NASCAR. The iconic No. 21 last found victory lane with Ryan Blaney at Pocono Raceway in 2017 and since then they’ve been chasing win No. 100 for the organization.
Following Blaney’s tenure, the Wood brothers confided in Paul Menard and Matt DiBenedetto to take them to the promised lands once again. The latter of the two drivers came within reach on a pair of occasions, finishing runner-up at Bristol and Daytona International Speedway in the No. 21.
Looking ahead to 2022, the No. 21 team will look to add to its legacy in more way than one with Harrison Burton behind the wheel. Not only will the 21-year-old be attempting to achieve the milestone victory for the Wood brothers, he’ll look to add to his family’s winning heritage at the Cup level – something which hasn’t been accomplished since his father Jeff in 2008.
Consensus: Nice – The Wood Brothers team has had many close-call losses and done their best to achieve success once again. They’ve been a mainstay on Santa’s nice list, but it will be difficult to achieve their milestone victory with a rookie driver in 2022.
Ben Rhodes – Bud Light
To most everyone’s surprise, Rhodes pulled off the upset and won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship over guys like Nemechek and Zane Smith. The beginning of the season served as a precursor for what was to come, as the 24-year-old won the opening two races of 2021.
While those were the only wins he had to show for last season, he silently put together one of the most consistent seasons of any driver, finishing top-10 in all but six races without a single DNF. Through the ups and few downs, Rhodes never let the success get to his head and maintained his trademark, upbeat demeanor.
Following the victory lane celebrations at Phoenix, the motorsports world fell in love with Rhodes after a well-earned buzz led to one of the most entertaining championship press conferences in the sport’s history with help from Bud Light.
Consensus: Nice – Rhodes put together an incredibly successful 2021 campaign without sacrificing his smile and jolly attitude. He will be happy to unwrap a 30-pack of “his friend Bud” on December 25th.
Ty Gibbs – Peanut Butter Crackers
Gibbs already received everything a kid could ask for in 2021. He blazed his trail to the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year with four wins, including one in his debut at the Daytona road course at 18 years old. He also became the ARCA Menards Series Champion with 10 victories through 20 starts.
There can’t be much else on Gibbs’ wishlist, but he’ll surely be gifted with his favorite snack on Christmas morning – peanut butter crackers.
Consensus: Nice – Gibbs did (mostly) everything right in 2021. He had a few run-ins with up-and-coming drivers in the developmental series, so Santa will be keeping an eye on him in 2022; but rest assured, there will be lots of peanut butter crackers in his stockings on Christmas morning.
Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas from News from the Pits.