Across 36 races, the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series provided more than its fair share of fantastic finishes, although there was more than one dud as well. Here's a rundown of the three best and three worst races from the 2021 season.
3 Best NASCAR Races of 2021
Bass Pro Shops Night Race (Bristol)
Before Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick went at it, this race had it all. Its 23 lead changes were the most for any short track last season, and the Round of 12 cutoff race served up drama from start to finish.
Up front, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson swapped the lead early before Harvick emerged as a contender in the final stage. He and Elliott went toe-to-toe for the lead, contact cutting Elliott’s tire and putting Harvick in the driver’s seat. But NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was angry, pulled in front of the No. 4 when back on track and made it his mission to block Harvick down the stretch. It worked, allowing teammate Larson to sneak a slide job with four laps remaining.
“I just told him it was kind of a chickens*** move,” Harvick said. “We’re racing for the freaking win at Bristol, we’re three-wide in the middle and he throws a temper tantrum.” Elliott’s response? “It’s something he does all the time [cutting other drivers’ left-side tires down]. … I don’t care who he is or how long he’s been doing it, I’m going to stand up for myself and my team.”
Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (Las Vegas)
The sport’s 550-horsepower package came under increased scrutiny as the season wore on. Need proof it works? Try this March race on for size. It produced 27 lead changes, the most for any race last season outside of Daytona and Talladega. Kyle Larson eventually took charge in the final stage, earning his first of 10 wins in 2021, but not before a dozen drivers spent at least one lap out front. Restarts were fast and furious; the lead changed hands multiple times as drivers spread out three-, even four-wide coming down the tri-oval.
Xfinity 500 (Martinsville, playoffs)
NASCAR’s oldest track still delivers classics. This time around, Denny Hamlin was in position to win after a back-and-forth race that had Chase Elliott out front for a long stretch. But Alex Bowman, who had been about a fifth-place car all day, surprisingly ran Hamlin down after four caution flags in the final 70 laps bunched up the pack. As the duo battled hard for the win, Bowman made contact, sending Hamlin to the rear and throwing the Championship 4 into disarray with one final yellow. Bowman earned the first grandfather clock of his career — and Hamlin’s wrath.
“He’s just a hack,” Hamlin said. “He gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week … he sees one opportunity and he takes it.”
3 Worst NASCAR Races of 2021
Drydene 400 (Dover)
The Monster Mile has proved a monstrous disappointment in recent years. This one was so bad that winner Alex Bowman knew he won the second he beat a dominant Kyle Larson off pit road during final stops. Bowman wound up leading the final 97 laps, despite Larson being the faster car, utilizing clean air as part of the first 1-2-3-4 finish in Hendrick Motorsports history. Just an estimated 20,000 fans looked on, about 40 percent of the track’s current capacity and a far cry from the 100,000-plus who used to come watch about 15 years ago. Yawn.
South Point 400 (Las Vegas, playoffs)
On the flip side, NASCAR’s Round of 12 Playoff opener here shows what can happen when the 550 package misses the mark. The race was a series of long, green-flag runs and was controlled by Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson throughout; once either got in front, post-restart, it was impossible to gain on them as limited horsepower kept everyone running in place. The race produced just a 23.4 percent fan rating on Jeff Gluck’s “Good Race Poll,” the lowest of all 36 races in 2021.
Coca-Cola 600 (Charlotte)
Kyle Larson took off like a rocket ship from the pole here in a race that was rarely, if ever, in doubt. Sweeping all three stages, Larson led 327 of 400 laps. Just one driver failed to finish NASCAR’s longest race, once a battle of attrition that has fallen victim to advancements in modern technology. This race was one of three in the last five years where the winner has led over 75 percent of the race. Can we hope that the Next Gen chassis will fix the problem in 2022?