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NASCAR Preview: 10 Tough Questions for the 2021 Season

NASCAR Preview: 10 Tough Questions for the 2021 Season

NASCAR Preview: 10 Tough Questions for the 2021 Season

Coming off an abnormal but successful season, NASCAR is gearing up for an exciting 2021 campaign. Before the campaign starts with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 14, Athlon Sports examines the 10 most controversial issues with the sport today.

1. What should NASCAR learn from Ryan Newman's crash?

Ryan Newman surviving his gruesome crash at Daytona International Speedway last February remain both unbelievable and extraordinary. Newman's car could hardly have taken a bigger blow at a worse spot — Newman's airborne machine fell in the path of Corey LaJoie's Ford and endured a head-on collision directly against the driver's window area — and yet there was Newman just two days later emerging from the hospital under his own power. Despite serious injuries, Newman missed just three races and returned to action in May after the pandemic pause.

NASCAR rightfully received and deserved enormous credit for its cutting-edge approach to car construction that ultimately saved the lives of both Newman and LaJoie. It also went to work immediately on understanding what actually happened to the car structure in Newman's unprecedented wreck and rolled out revisions to the construction of roll cages and the on-board oil tank just weeks later. There were also aerodynamic and engine power changes made to slow the cars down slightly.

But a fundamental problem remains with NASCAR's approach: It has refused to take significant steps to change the dangerous and lottery-style nature of racing at Daytona and its sister track Talladega Superspeedway, which is the direct cause of massive crashes and the scariest, most dangerous incidents in recent years. The sanctioning body's approach remained the same even after Newman's near-death experience: Build a safe car and hope nothing worse happens.

"I think the changes you see here that we've put forward, it's to ensure that once a chain of events like that are set into motion, we have all the safety mechanisms in place to mitigate the outcome, negative outcomes," said John Patalak, NASCAR senior director of safety engineering, last June.

It's easy to see things from NASCAR's perspective: No easy answer exists for the flat-out superspeedways that tend to be popular with fans. The crashes create memorable highlights that get replayed over and over again.

But it's also easy to see that it's a recipe that will eventually end in tragedy. The unexpected always happens in racing. It should be expected that fostering a racing climate like NASCAR has at Daytona and Talladega will only hasten another brush with disaster.

When that inevitably happens, we'll all see how not taking bold — and likely unpopular — steps now was the wrong choice.

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2. Does NASCAR need to crack down on teammates helping each other on-track?

Controversy erupted after fall's Martinsville Speedway race when, during the final laps of the race, Denny Hamlin faced elimination from NASCAR's playoffs as his car lost pace and he started sliding down the running order. As Erik Jones — then a teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing — closed in on Hamlin, a radio message from spotter Rick Carelli advised Jones not to pass Hamlin.

To some, it was a moment that seemed to fly in the face of NASCAR's so-called "100 percent" rule that was instituted following race-altering shenanigans by Michael Waltrip Racing in the 2013 regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway. But to NASCAR, which investigated the circumstances following the event, the actions by Jones and the JGR team were within the bounds of the rulebook.

It was the right call by NASCAR in several ways. First, the Jones/Hamlin incident was hardly comparable to what happened with MWR at Richmond. In 2013, MWR altered the entire outcome of the event by causing a late caution with an intentional spin by Clint Bowyer. Second, making a different call about Jones' actions would force NASCAR to completely reevaluate how the rulebook is enforced at drafting tracks like Daytona and Talladega. Should a driver like Jones also face scrutiny if he happens to push a teammate into the lead without attempting a pass? Just about every driver in the garage would disagree with that, and it would be more difficult to police than even the current subjectivity of the yellow-line rule.

NASCAR's rules regarding teammates seem to be holding up well. Why change what is uncomplicated and largely working?

3. What does Kyle Busch need to do to bounce back?

Kyle Busch will win again in NASCAR's Cup Series, and he'll win a lot. There's just no way that Busch, now just 35 years old and hitting the statistical prime of his driving career, is going to continue having seasons like he had last year: one win, an average finish of 13.8, and just 516 laps led. Busch's rebound will result from many factors. Most notable is the offseason change of Busch's crew chief. Adam Stevens, who joined Busch in 2015 and won two titles with the Las Vegas driver, was moved from Busch's No. 18 team to Christopher Bell's No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing. The change includes shifting several of Busch's crew members to the No. 20 and opens the door for new crew chief Ben Beshore to take a fresh look at the issues that kept Busch out of Victory Lane last season until the season's 34th race.

Change should be good for Busch; he has adapted well to change in the past when it was brought on to address substandard performance. Stevens joined the No. 18 team for the 2015 season following Busch's one-win season in 2014 with crew chief Dave Rogers. In just 25 starts that year due to his missed time from fractured legs, Busch won five races and the championship.

Busch made no secret last season that the return to racing without practice and qualifying went against the formula that has led to him to 57 wins in NASCAR's top division. But he also said the performance issues caused by the shift lessened as the season wore on.

It's a point that has merit — and one that will give Beshore a leg up on fixing what ailed Busch last season. In fact, Beshore might just be joining at the right time: The trendline of Busch's average running position improved from around 15th on the grid to 10th at season's end. For a driver who endured a disappointing season that still included 14 top-five finishes, it means that taking checkered flags once again on a regular basis isn't so far away.

4. Post-pandemic, should NASCAR continue without practice and qualifying?

One of the most fundamental adjustments last season due to the pandemic was NASCAR's return to action in May without practice and qualifying at nearly every racing event. The rationale for the radical change in operating procedure was twofold. First, it provided NASCAR a way to limit potential exposure and spread of the coronavirus by reducing the amount of time that teams could be in close proximity to one another. Second, it afforded teams facing significant upheaval to their financial model a direct and immediate way to cut costs. Organizations wound up realizing significant savings by needing to prepare and risk just one racecar per event (no backup cars were needed except for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and during two doubleheader weekends), and the cost of travel for team members was seriously reduced.

It's a plan that will remain in place for the 2021 season. With its schedule release last fall, NASCAR opted to continue without practice and qualifying for more than three-fourths of all races. Only "crown jewel" events (like the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600, and the season finale at Phoenix International Raceway) and races at new tracks (Circuit of the Americas, Nashville Superspeedway, and Road America) or new configurations (the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) will feature practice and qualifying.

However, NASCAR president Steve Phelps said last fall that he expected long-term use of race-only events to subside in 2022 — though some elements of shortened race weekends might remain.

"We need to make sure that the fan experience continues to improve," Phelps said. "When they come back, we need to give them a reason. They have great racing, but you have great racing on television, right? We need to have a great fan experience that is going to look different almost certainly than it did before."

It seems likely that NASCAR will continue to put cars on track for no more than two separate days in a race weekend — that's become the norm for teams in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series — while continuing to reduce the duration of practice sessions. Reducing on-track time allows teams to reduce mileage on engines and components, saves on tire costs, and opens more opportunities for driver-fan engagement.

From a competition perspective, it seems imperative that practice and qualifying return when the pandemic relents. Without track time to try new innovations or help rookies gain experience, the gap will widen between teams with robust engineering departments and those without.

5. Will Bristol as a dirt track race be a success?

It's Bristol in the dirt, baby. Amid the most wide-ranging schedule shakeup that NASCAR has instituted in decades was one particular surprise: For the second time in its history, Bristol Motor Speedway will temporarily cover its half-mile oval layout with dirt. And for the first time, all three NASCAR national series divisions will stage points-paying races on the Bristol dirt.

The late-March race weekend at the East Tennessee speedway is rich with unknowns. Which drivers will be unexpectedly strong? Which drivers will struggle? Will the racing product overall be interesting, or will it just be a novelty with one-year staying power?

The closest look at what Bristol will offer comes from the recent outings of the Truck Series at Eldora Speedway in Ohio. While the intense interest of the inaugural events faded, Eldora consistently put on NASCAR dirt racing events that were closely contested and entertaining despite the trucks offering underwhelming dirt track performance.

Of course, the choice to go to dirt comes at a price: The spring events at Bristol on the concrete often produced some of the better racing on the calendar and alleviated a heavy focus on intermediate and downforce tracks. For Cup teams, it often presented a new opportunity for mid-pack teams to snare a good run thanks to the increased parity that 500 laps bring. It all adds up to a lot for the dirt events at Bristol to live up to — with a significant cost to the track and the overall NASCAR schedule on the line.

NASCAR is taking a risk at Bristol. Only a full race weekend will tell us if it pays off.

5. Does NASCAR need to re-evaluate the championship format?

Over the course of 36 races, nobody was better than Kevin Harvick last season. He won nine times and held the best average finish (7.3) of any full-time driver by more than two positions — the second-largest margin in the last nine seasons. He had the most top-5 finishes (20) and top-10 finishes (27) and led the most laps (1,531). His team was penalized just twice all year for in-race infractions — the fewest among all full-time teams.

Yet when the championship was ultimately decided last season at Phoenix International Raceway, Harvick wasn't even invited to the party. He had been eliminated from postseason advancement the week before at Martinsville Speedway.

Harvick's situation generated genuine shock and surprise when he failed to advance to the Championship 4. He was the victim of a poor-handling car at Martinsville and an early-race incident the weekend before at Texas Motor Speedway in the Round of 8. The result created speculation about what NASCAR could and should do to make sure drivers and teams like Harvick's don't miss title opportunities. But NASCAR president Steve Phelps quickly put that to rest in a wide-ranging news conference prior to the Phoenix finale and described the cutoff races as something that "gave fans what they wanted, which was intense drama and really just amazing competition."

"Yes, the playoff system as designed I think worked incredibly well," Phelps said.

Phelps is absolutely correct. NASCAR has intentionally and consciously chosen a way forward for its racing series that is focused on creating drama and entertainment as part of a postseason package. The sanctioning body has decided that while long-term excellence has a place in NASCAR, the moments of sudden elimination are valuable as well. It's why the concept of playoff points was invented but not made all-powerful. And it's why the sport doesn't see Harvick's predicament as a reason to change. Many arguments to the contrary exist. But if you view the situation from NASCAR's lens, what happened to Harvick is ultimately what NASCAR wants to happen. Why would they change something that's working as planned?

7. What are the biggest challenges for NASCAR's Next Gen car?

This season was supposed to be the debut of the latest and most innovative iteration of a NASCAR Cup Series vehicle. The "Next Gen" car — designed to replace the current Gen-6 design — was to shepherd in a completely new era of NASCAR car construction, design aesthetic, and car technology. But then the pandemic changed everything and forced NASCAR to delay the massive project until 2022.

The delay was largely centered around the financial constraints that the pandemic placed on Cup teams, but it's hard to think that a 2021 rollout would have been fully achievable for the project even in a normal year. The challenge to get the Next Gen vehicles both on track and competitive is significant.

For the first time, the Next Gen vehicle will be mostly built not by individual teams but by a single constructor. The goal with the spec chassis is to reduce vehicle production cost by decreasing the value of building cars with new designs. It's a similar concept to how chassis approved for competition in IndyCar are built, with the major difference being that each manufacturer in NASCAR will provide its own body template.

The rollout is also testing several areas of technology that are new to NASCAR. The new car will feature an independent rear suspension, larger 18-inch wheels with just a single lug nut, a sequential six-speed transmission, a split exhaust, and several aerodynamic differences like a rear diffuser. One area that several of the test drivers — including Kurt Busch and Cole Custer — have noted during on-track sessions is the switch from a steering box to rack-and-pinion steering. Busch tested the car on Charlotte Motor Speedway's oval and road course configurations and noted that the steering provided an "aggressive" feel that was "a little bit on edge" on the oval sections.

That November test with Busch involved Martin Truex Jr. in a second version of the car and represented the first time two of the Next Gen vehicles drove on track near each other. It's a timeline that proves NASCAR will be seeking several more tests and opportunities this year to fine-tune the car's handling and reliability before it arrives — according to current plans — at the Daytona 500 to kick off 2022.

8. Can Chase Elliott repeat as champion?

Chase Elliott is a different driver now. That's how he sees it. And that's how his crew chief sees it. And it's a big reason why Elliott is suddenly one of the top picks to win week-in and week-out. What's changed? According to crew chief Alan Gustafson, Elliott is finally capitalizing on winning opportunities — such as his back-to-back wins to close last season in championship fashion.

"I think him being able to win in those moments has given him some confidence to know that he's certainly good enough to do it," Gustafson says. "We all know that, and you can hear it, but until you do it, you just don't know that. I think that now it's given him that reassurance."

Anyone who has watched Elliott mature as a Cup Series driver knows that he's faced plenty of near-misses in late-race situations. But Elliott has spent the last three seasons systematically dismantling that narrative.

In Elliott's favor this season as he looks to repeat is a schedule that aligns with his strengths. With five career wins on road courses, he's taken the crown as the road course king. And now he'll get to use that unique skill during seven different road course stops on the revamped Cup schedule — the most road course visits in series history. It all lines up for Elliott to make his postseason run easier should he pile up wins, playoff points, and stage points.

If Elliott does repeat, he'll be in pretty good company: Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to go back-to-back with Cup championships, and just five others (Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and Richard Petty) have done it in NASCAR's modern era. Adding "Elliott" to that list is hardly a stretch.

9. Will Kyle Larson be competitive at Hendrick Motorsports from the start?

That Kyle Larson has returned to a full-time, top-tier NASCAR Cup Series ride in 2021 is a testament to the pure talent and potential he offers. It's also the best reason to expect that his return to the series will see him ready to run up front and contend for wins despite missing the last 32 races.

Larson, 28, figured to be the most valuable free agent available for 2021 as the 2020 season opened. But it all fell apart when he was overheard using a racial epithet during a virtual racing broadcast on iRacing in April. He was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson then spent the summer racing — and usually winning — dirt track races across the country. In the meantime, he also began taking steps to build to a return to NASCAR by spending time on initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion outside of the limelight.

Those actions, plus training and holding long conversations with team owner Rick Hendrick, helped put Larson on a path to reinstatement. So now Larson is back with a multi-year contract at Hendrick Motorsports where he'll drive the team's No. 5 car. Owner Rick Hendrick is so confident in Larson's abilities that he has agreed to self-fund the car until the scarlet letter of Larson's words wears away and sponsorship emerges. Larson will work with crew chief Cliff Daniels and most of the team that handled Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 entry in 2020.

The surroundings for Larson make his return promising. Each of his three teammates at Hendrick won races last season, and Chase Elliott drove to the championship. It's clear that HMS, after a downward drip in performance as it enlisted young talent in recent years, is returning to its expected stature. For Larson, jumping in and holding on might just be enough to put his name back at the top.

10. What does the free-agent picture look like after 2021?

Where will Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, and Matt DiBenedetto race in 2022? How will a schedule suddenly full of road courses shift the priorities of teams? Who from the Xfinity Series ranks will try to make a go at a Cup ride after this season?

The possibilities are endless for what promises to be an active "Silly Season" in the NASCAR world later this year. Consider that at least two former series champions appear to be facing the end of their contracts after 2021 — the Associated Press reported that Keselowski signed a one-year deal with Team Penske for this season, and Busch has acknowledged his current contract with Chip Ganassi Racing will expire at the same time.

DiBenedetto knows right now that his ride in the No. 21 ends with the season finale. Alex Bowman, a race winner last season, is racing on a one-year extension in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88.

From the Xfinity Series, Austin Cindric has been confirmed as the new driver in the No. 21 for 2022, and he might be leading a groundswell of drivers who figure to seek full-time Cup opportunities, including names like Noah Gragson, Brandon Jones, Justin Haley, and Riley Herbst. Then there are the unknowns for drivers in strong Cup seats like Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr., who have kept contract terms hidden or obscured.

In addition, there will likely be many team owners thinking about what the new focus on road courses could mean for their teams. With so many non-oval events, more teams suddenly have a real chance to snare a postseason bid by stealing a road course win. That could easily open full-time Cup seats to drivers with road course prowess. A.J. Allmendinger, is that you knocking on the door for a Cup return at age 40?

A Silly Season, indeed.

— Written by Geoffrey Miller (@GeoffreyMiller) for Athlon Sports' 2021 Racing magazine. With 144 pages of racing content, it's the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.

(Chase Elliott photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)