GOOD & BAD: The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season

By: Ashley McCubbin

Another year of NASCAR Cup Series competition is in the books, with Kyle Larson hoisting the crown. Along the way, though, there were some highlights and low lights to consider from the action on-track all year.

Although I was unable to watch all of the races, let’s take a look back at some of the good and the bad.

THE GOOD – Changing the sight for the Busch Clash. From the drop of the green flag to the checkered, there was eye-catching action all the way around the Daytona International Speedway as drivers battled for positions. Whether throwing it hard into the first corner a little wide, or sliding through the bus stop, it seemed the field was taking chances as they tried to make something happen. The result was keeping the fans on the edge of their seats, continuing to guess as to whom would be the winner.

It was also a good chance of pace. Normally we leave Daytona with smiles after a dramatic conclusion, but heartbreak in seeing a bunch of torn-up metal due to the nature of the beast in “restrictor plate” competition. However, we got the same type of drama, without having to use the tow truck a lot. It’s got to make the owners happy as cheaper on budget, and both drives and fans smile to see things cleaner as no fan likes a junkyard.

THE GOOD – Seeing best friends battle for the win. The Busch Clash concluded with Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott getting together following contact, allowing Kyle Busch to snag the victory. Despite being friends off the track, as Elliott said, “If I’m sorry about trying to win a race, I’m in the wrong business here. I’m certainly going to give it my best shot to do that.” The definition and why people love stock car racing is seeing each competitor hang it all out there on the line, doing whatever they can to take the checkered flag.

If Elliott had not pushed the issue, then people would question his desire as a driver. If the move worked, then let the applause begin for the perfect timed bump and run. However, sometimes it doesn’t work out quite right – and that’s okay, because that’s just how racing goes; at least they are putting on a show along the way.

THE GOOD – The side-by-side racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Throughout the entire event, battles were showcased throughout the speedway. The restarts with the 550 package were as crazy as anticipated, as everyone fanned out in looking for running room at times four-wide. Just because they spread out a little with more laps did not mean you got bored, however. There were those were able to make headway moving forward and create passes, resulting in a side-by-side showcase no matter when you tuned into Fox’s coverage. Just take the late-race battle for second between Kyle Larson, Tyler Reddick, and Martin Truex Jr.

Nigel Kinrade Photography

The 550 package gets a GOOD Award as it was also successful at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Although the fields certainly strung out as the run took place, nobody could get away from each other as a result of the package and parity among the teams in the field. Whether it was 20 or 40 laps into a run, there were battles around the speedway to keep your eyes peeled and intrigued as to what would occur next. A back-and-forth thriller to end Stage 1 between Brad Keselowski and Elliott or the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. trading blows at the start of the final segment are among the highlights.

THE GOOD – Atlanta Motor Speedway breeding some great racing of it’s own with our final visit to the track’s aged pavement. The old adage of time can be great for a surface, as it transitions from being smooth to a cheese grater material. When you slide rubber across that, you can already picture the chunks coming off, making fresh tires a premium at every chance you get down pit road.

Rather than focused on who had the most speed on the short run or could set-up the perfect draft on another competitor, Atlanta brings forth a different kind of strategy for each competitor. How do you balance set-up, being fast, and saving the tires all together? Do you run the high lane or the bottom lane in the name of speed, or having something when it matters?

It’s a style of racing that is often forgotten in a time where everybody wants instant drama, but is ultimately what the sport grew up upon and brings out the best in driver ability most times. It’s why the competitors and teams constantly chant the words do not repave this track until you absolutely have to. 

Harold Hinson | Nigel Kinrade Photography

THE BAD is realizing we won’t get this experience in 2022 with the new pavement. It will be interesting to see what happens, and where the next great aged pavement success comes as other tracks begin to age.

THE GOOD – The Underdog succeeding. Nobody expected much from Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports this year, but they were caught off-guard quickly. He started off by winning the Daytona 500, followed by two more top-10 performances in the first three weeks.  Completing the year with two top-five’s and five top-10’s makes his best season since beginning in the Cup Series.

THE BAD – The second half of the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race as dust became the story headed towards the checkered, rather than the competitors. It resulted in single-file restarts, taking away from the opportunities for side-by-side battles, and a couple wrecks due to drivers unable to see. On top of that, a lack of speed in the second groove just made it more tough to watch as the field strung out single-file without the usual appeal of someone sliding the top and gaining ground to keep you tuned in.

THE GOOD – Hendrick Motorsports came out swinging this year in winning quickly and early this season, and multiple times with each of their four drivers. The organization held a candle over the field from March through October, with Kyle Larson pacing the way en route to a championship. If they can get the same handle on the new car, it could be another long year for the competition.

Harold Hinson | Nigel Kinrade Photography

THE BAD  – Chase Elliott and Alan Gustafson closing the deal. The No. 9 Chevrolet had great speed all season long, but they were only able to secure a pair of wins as they tried to defend the championship. One of their downfalls – being unable to close the deal despite having speed. It’s something that we’ve seen with them over the past two years as a whole, despite a title in their collection.

THE GOOD – Ryan Blaney’s maturity as he becomes a stronger force behind the wheel. This shined at Atlanta, as he recognized Larson fading over previous long runs, allowing him to get out to the early advantage, focused on conserving his tires. When it mattered, he laid down the best laps – and made the pass to win. Could he find himself in the thick of the championship battle in 2022?

THE BAD – Denny Hamlin’s comments after losing at Martinsville Speedway. Sometimes anger and frustration can drive you to say things that should not be said, and here is where a line is crossed.

Hamlin began his comments in stating that Alex Bowman is a “hack,” whereas here’s a guy that fought to get to this point in his career. He was almost shuffled out of the sport, driving back-half equipment, but proved his worth and got the opportunity. He has also won more races than Hamlin this year, as well, which doesn’t bode well for the other comment in he has “ran terrible,” and does not run equal to his teammates. At any point this year, we’ve seen all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top-five.

Hamlin also stated that he gave Bowman room and wanted to race him clean, which may have been the case. However, the driver of the No. 11 has developed a reputation as he has a history with Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe, and others for aggressive instances. A bunch of drivers follow the code “race how you want to be raced,” and you could say that’s what happened today. Anybody remember a similar incident with the No. 11 at Martinsville?

Ultimately, you can’t plead for aggressive at all costs and say “that’s short track racing” when you come out positively (him and Logano), but whine and say it’s totally wrong when the shoe is on the other foot. That is where the frustration begins to lie from some in the fan base.

However, there’s also GOOD in seeing driver’s express their emotions. It’s a nice change of pace to see pure honesty out of a driver, and get their raw feelings rather than a robot. It’s nice to see the aggressiveness as it keeps things entertaining. That’s why we love NASCAR, right?

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