Can NASCAR go 3-for-3 on first-time winners?
For the first time since 1950, NASCAR has two first-time winners in the first two races heading into the Dixie Vodka 400. A Cinderella story in Michael McDowell paired with a rising talent meeting his potential (Christopher Bell) means fresh faces inside their playoff field already. Heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway, a third straight week in Florida, can the sport go an unprecedented three-for-three?
There are a few good candidates ready and waiting on the winless list. Tyler Reddick, running his second season for Richard Childress Racing, was fourth at this 1.5-mile speedway last June. He won two straight NASCAR Xfinity Series championships here by mastering the high line around this racetrack.
Matt DiBenedetto is now the longest-tenured full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver without a victory (214 starts). He's also off to an ugly start, finishing 33rd and 37th at the two Daytona races to sit 37th in the season standings. It's way too early to think about the playoffs but when part-time, road course ringer Scott Heckert has nearly double your point total? That's a problem. A surprise win at HMS would go a long way to keeping everyone focused on a No. 21 team that's already been told there's a driver change coming for 2022 (Austin Cindric).
Once a longshot, Bubba Wallace has the equipment to be a contender with 23XI Racing and Michael Jordan at the helm. Co-owner Denny Hamlin will be a great mentor this weekend; he's got five straight poles here and dominated this race last June.
But the biggest wild card is a driver with a different type of drought. Kyle Larson has plenty of Cup victories to his credit (six, to be exact) but zero since speaking a racial slur that destroyed his 2020 NASCAR season. His new ride at Hendrick Motorsports has the speed to get it done at a track Larson's flirted with victory lane several times.
If Larson gets over the hump, will people be willing to forgive and forget in an era where NASCAR is pushing diversity like never before? Similar to when Michael Vick returned to the NFL after animal cruelty charges, strong opinions on both sides will emerge if Larson goes from the penthouse to the playoffs this quickly.
As for NASCAR's return to oval racing? This intermediate debuts the sport's low-horsepower, high-downforce package, used to increase competition on cookie-cutter ovals. The slower speeds help tire wear although this 1.5-miler still has a tendency to chew up Goodyears and spit them out. A groove high up, right next to the outside wall means any small mistake by the driver could be disastrous.
Will a Cinderella emerge from a package designed to bring more drivers into the mix? Or does a return to cookie-cutter racing bring normalcy along with it?
Dixie Vodka 400
Date: Sunday, Feb. 28
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Homestead-Miami Speedway (Homestead, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Christopher Bell
Ending reigning NASCAR champion Chase Elliott's four-race win streak on road courses is no small feat. Winning in your second start in a new ride? That’s the cherry on top after a rough rookie season for Bell at Leavine Family Racing.
Suffice it to say the new digs at Joe Gibbs Racing have a little better equipment and resources. This former dirt racer has made the most of it already, leading a career-high 32 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 before running Joey Logano down in the closing laps last Sunday. Suddenly, Erik Jones is a distant memory as Bell won quicker than anyone else who's driven the No. 20 Toyota... a list that includes Hall of Famer Tony Stewart and former Cup champion Matt Kenseth.
Who's at the Back: Chase Briscoe
Briscoe took over the No. 14 Ford from Clint Bowyer for 2021 after trampling over the NASCAR Xfinity Series competition (nine wins). But it’s been two wrecks in two races, underwhelming performances at tracks where the freshman was expected to shine. His closest competition for top rookie honors, Anthony Alfredo, sits just three points behind him thus far despite inferior equipment and limited experience.
Ty Gibbs is still riding high after winning his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut on Daytona's road course. Gibbs talked about his surprise victory this week on the Frontstretch podcast, just the sixth driver to win his first start, while grandpa Joe wasted no time in expanding his schedule. The 18-year-old phenom will run 14 additional NXS races while running for the ARCA Menards Series championship.
A longtime NASCAR analyst is giving up the broadcast booth for the pit box this weekend. Former Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Steve Letarte will assume the role for Corey LaJoie and Spire Motorsports this weekend. He'll take charge for the first time since 2014 as full-time head wrench Ryan Sparks steps away from the team due to COVID-19 protocols.
Speaking of COVID-19 protocol, Chip Ganassi won't be at the track this weekend after violating NASCAR rules surrounding the virus. Ganassi was also fined $30,000 for bringing a "non-essential" individual into his pit box at Daytona International Speedway last weekend.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Gap between Denny Hamlin, the current points leader, and the playoff cutline after just two races.
Finishing position for Chase Elliott at the Daytona road course, his worst run on that track type since blowing an engine at Sonoma Raceway in June 2019.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick is used to racing for a championship at a track that used to be the season finale. Last year, Homestead's place on the schedule changed and so did Harvick's history of strong runs last June: 26th was the worst finish of his career at this track. I don't expect bad lightning to strike twice at an oval where the 45-year-old has earned top-10 finishes in 85 percent of his career starts (17-for-20).
Kyle Busch has won two championships here by winning the Homestead finale in 2015 and 2019. Overall, in his last six starts he's run no worse than sixth, leading 228 laps and earning a stage victory in 2019. A 24th-place starting spot gives him more upside than Denny Hamlin because of point differential bonuses.
Kyle Larson may not have won a race at Homestead yet. But no one has more stage wins (three) since the advent of the current format in 2017. Only the championship battles, at times, have kept Larson from waltzing into victory lane. No one benefits more from the recent schedule changes and a 17th-place starting spot could mean excellent position differential.
Aric Almirola could be overlooked as he's never led a lap here in 11 career starts. But a fifth-place finish at HMS last June was a career best, righting the ship of a roller-coaster season and sent him surging into the NASCAR playoffs. Can he dip into that well once again after a sloppy start to 2021?
Michael McDowell remains popular in this space after his Daytona 500 win. But no shame comes from riding the hot had; Homestead's another track where it makes sense to start the surging veteran. He's got a top-10 finish here (2016) and was a respectable 15th with Front Row Motorsports last June.
Anthony Alfredo is running just his third Cup race as McDowell's FRM teammate. However, John Hunter Nemechek scored a surprise top 20 with this car last season and Alfredo has the talent to do better: he was fourth and 11th in two career Xfinity Series starts here.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick is leading the way with 9/2 odds on vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin is next, at 5/1 odds, followed by Martin Truex Jr. (13/2), Kyle Busch (15/2) and Chase Elliott (15/2).
Kyle Larson is next up at 10/1 and is easily the best option outside the top 5.
What I Think
I think Kyle Larson opens some eyes, charging from 17th and taking his first Cup victory since 2019.