For years, NASCAR President Steve Phelps promised changes in the season schedule, evolving the sport's national landscape in response to underwhelming competition at 1.5-mile, cookie-cutter ovals. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to accelerate those plans, leading to quirks like three events at Darlington Raceway during a 2020 season defined by survival. But as the Cup Series prepares to start the meat of its season, the 2021 O'Reilly Auto Parts 253, this sport is wasting no time showing how a much-anticipated realignment is going to be different.
It's the second race of the season... and we're on a road course.
That's right. It's the first time since 1981 NASCAR is making right turns this early, part of an expanded slate on this track type this year that includes the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course; Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. In all, seven of the 36 races will be contested on road courses, easily the most in the modern era as the Cup Series looks to diversify itself while improving competition.
Daytona's road course is the first stop, just one week after the Daytona 500 held at the same venue. But Daytona International Speedway will look mighty different this weekend with a 3.61-mile layout that only uses bits and pieces of the oval track.
Last summer's debut here was a bit of a snoozer, dominated by Chase Elliott most of the way. It's why NASCAR initially chose to leave it off the schedule, subbing in only when Auto Club Speedway couldn't hold this weekend's event due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state. But the Busch Clash two weeks ago offered hope, as well as a glimpse of why Cup is switching gears. Elliott and Ryan Blaney battled hard for the win, making contact in the final few turns before the finish line. That final-lap melee allowed Kyle Busch to squeak past and steal the win.
"[Elliott] didn't mean to wreck me," Blaney said afterward as he pointed out it cost them both. "Of course, he didn't mean to do that, but I ended up wrecked. It's kind of just what it is."
The duo, good friends off the track, have apparently talked it out since then. But what if the two are battling again down the stretch?
"Am I going to make the same move if we're in the same position two weeks from now?" Blaney added.
"Hell, yeah. I mean, why not."
Just that drama alone makes this Sunday worth watching after NASCAR stumbled out of the gates with a rain-delayed, wreck-plagued Daytona 500, producing record-low TV viewership. It's another reason road courses have become an attractive venue for a sport plagued by Mother Nature madness in recent years: these cars will run in the rain on Sunday unless there's lightning in the area.
Can Elliott tack on to his record road course streak, going five-for-five at these venues since the summer of 2019? Or will Blaney, Kyle Busch and others finally force their way to the front of the pack?
We're about to find out how a revamped 2021 schedule will reshape the top tier of drivers competing for a championship.
O'Reilly Auto Parts 253
Date: Sunday, Feb. 21
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway Road Course (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Michael McDowell
Let's give a call to McDowell, a 14-year veteran who's spent years slogging along at underfunded operations in the Cup Series. At one point, he finished just four of 64 races within a three-year span, start-and-parking cars in order to have a place in a sport.
But the deeply religious driver never stopped believing, and Sunday, the Red Sea parted in front of him. A last-lap wreck on the backstretch gave McDowell that long-awaited Cup victory on the sport's biggest stage, a Daytona 500 win in his 358th career series start.
"I come to the racetrack," McDowell said afterward. "When we load up and go, I really think every weekend, okay, this is the weekend it's going to happen.
Just believing that it's possible that it could happen, and it did."
The popular victory inside the garage was the biggest 500 upset since Trevor Bayne in the 2011 edition of this race for the Wood Brothers. McDowell's team, Front Row Motorsports, earned just their third ever Cup victory and first since a rain-shortened Pocono Raceway event in 2016.
Who's at the Back: Team Penske
Oh, what could have been for a Penske organization sitting 1-2 entering the last lap of Sunday's Daytona 500. Joey Logano was leading, Brad Keselowski on his bumper when Keselowski made a move to the inside on the backstretch. The drivers locked bumpers, then turned sideways as dreams of victory lane ended with a jarring wake-up call into the outside wall.
Penske rookie Austin Cindric was also collected, the flames smoking out a promising effort in his first career Cup start. Suddenly, old tensions between Keselowski-Logano are rising again as the former enters the final year of his contract.
"The biggest heartbreak of this whole thing is that there are 400 people at Team Penske asking where their Daytona 500 bonus is and it's up in a ball of flames up in Turn 3 right now," Logano said Friday. "That, to me, is probably the hardest part to deal with because those families put just as much into it as I do."
Two Cup Series crew chiefs paid the price for failing post-race inspection after the Daytona 500. Both Jeremy Bullins (Brad Keselowski) and Mike Wheeler (Bubba Wallace) were fined $10,000 due to lugnuts not being properly installed. That's not their only problem; both cars were totaled in that last-lap Big One on the backstretch.
Roush Fenway Racing is now the first carbon neutral team in the sport. Announced this week, the team is leading the way as part of a larger push by NASCAR as a whole to be more enviro-friendly. "Our hope with this program is to demonstrate that every business, small or large, and regardless of industry, can contribute to address global climate challenges," RFR President Steve Newmark said. "We hope to set an example and highlight that small steps by many can make a real difference."
The Daytona road course will look slightly different this weekend than even two weeks ago.Rumble strips were added in turns 9 and 10 based on driver feedback this week after dirt kept coming up onto the track surface during the Busch Clash. Drivers kept nipping the grass in this area, necessitating the need for 30-plus-foot long strips to protect the asphalt.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cup starts by Matt DiBenedetto without a victory. That's the longest drought of any full-time Cup driver after Michael McDowell's Daytona 500 upset.
Daytona 500 winners out of the last five who led only the final lap of the race.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
You have two options when it comes to setting a road course roster these days. One is to pick Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr., knowing there's limited bandwidth for the rest of your daily fantasy team. Elliott has won four straight road course events while Truex? He’s won three in the past three years, finishing runner-up to Elliott in several other instances.
If you need more bandwidth (i.e. lower salaries), try utilizing drivers like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, who won the exhibition Busch Clash here, has four career road course victories and an average finish of 9.5 at tracks like Watkins Glen. As for Hamlin, he ran second to Elliott here on the road course last summer and is underrated on this track type. He's got a Watkins Glen win on the career resume and was third there in the summer of 2019.
Christopher Bell was mighty impressive in the Daytona 500 last week, leading a career-high 32 laps in the No. 20 Toyota. Can he continue the momentum this weekend with his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, on the road course? Bell was a disappointing 21st in this race last summer but does have a Road America win to his credit in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
People don't think of Kyle Larson as a road course racer. But a top-10 start gives this new Hendrick Motorsports employee a chance to capitalize early in the 2021 season. He has three career poles at Sonoma Raceway, three career top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen in six starts plus now has Elliott as a resource.
Why not pick Michael McDowell to keep the momentum going? The Daytona 500 winner was 10th at this track last summer and is known around the sport as a road course specialist. His lone Xfinity Series win also came on this track type (Road America, 2016).
No one knows quite what to expect from AJ Allmendinger in his first Cup race since November 2018. But the former Watkins Glen winner will be playing it fast and loose with Kaulig Racing, his full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series employer. As a road course specialist, he's boom-or-bust but has plenty of upside if this one-shot deal works out.
What Vegas Thinks
Chase Elliott leads the way with 5/2 odds to win, besting Martin Truex Jr. by a mile (he’s next at 6/1). AJ Allmendinger is a bit of a surprise, boasting 8/1 odds followed by Kyle Busch (8/1) and Denny Hamlin (17/2) according to vegasinsider.com.
What I Think
I'm betting on Chase Elliott, the boring pick but a reliable one to get the job done. Five straight road course victories make it clear the reigning champ is in good position to repeat in 2021.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.