Why 2021 will be one of NASCAR’s most important seasons yet

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA - JUNE 10: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Cardell Caninetry Ford, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on June 10, 2020 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR surpassed expectations and managed to have a successful 2020 season. From hard racing, big wrecks, and even a new track, NASCAR seemed to take a step back in the right direction towards gaining new fans and getting old ones to return.

As big as 2020 was for the sport, 2021 will be even more important. Several new tracks and configurations will hit the circuit, and some of the biggest faces are changing places. Here’s why the 2021 season will be one of the most important ones in NASCAR History:

Big names are changing places

This year’s “silly season” saw a lot of changes, including the retirement of three of the faces of the sport: Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, and Matt Kenseth. Johnson will run IndyCar races in 2021, and will experiment with other types of racing. However, it’s possible Johnson could appear in the Cup Series again on a part-time basis. Bowyer will transition to the FOX booth for Cup Series races, with future part-time racing opportunities not completely out of the question. Kenseth likely won’t run any more NASCAR races.

With three faces of the sport leaving full-time competition, it leaves big shoes to fill. Johnson and Bowyer are two huge fan favorites, while Kenseth remains well liked throughout the sport. On the track, the three have combined for well over 100 wins and eight Cup Series Championships (Johnson x7, Kenseth, x1). Not seeing those three faces on the track anymore could hurt ratings, so it’s important to have a good 2021 season to the keep fans of the three retiring drivers.

Additionally, many active drivers are changing teams for the 2021 season. Christopher Bell will take over the No. 20 machine at Joe Gibbs Racing, while Erik Jones will pilot the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports. Bubba Wallace will drive the No. 23 for the newly formed 23XI Racing, while Ross Chastain will take over for Kenseth as driver of the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

At Hendrick Motorsports, Alex Bowman will take over the No. 48 from Johnson, with the No. 88 being changed over to No. 5 with Kyle Larson at the wheel. Additionally, Chase Briscoe will drive the No. 14 at Stewart-Haas Racing, taking over for Bowyer.

With so many drivers changing teams, it’ll add a fun aspect to the 2021 season that could help continue to boost ratings.

New tracks

The NASCAR Cup Series will run at three completely new tracks in the 2021 season and at two tracks with new configurations.

New to the Cup Series will be the Nashville Superspeedway, Road America, and Circuit of the Americas (COTA). Nashville held Truck Series and Xfinity Series races through 2011, while Road America hosts an annual Xfinity Series race. 2021 will be the first time any NASCAR sanctioned series races at COTA.

The two tracks with new configurations will be Bristol Motor Speedway and Indianapolis. Bristol will run a dirt configuration in the spring, while Indianapolis shifts to the road course. The Xfinity Series ran the Indianapolis Road Course in 2020 in conjunction with the IndyCar weekend.

Having new tracks and configurations give those races more anticipation and higher ratings. The 2021 Cup Series features seven road courses, a track type that thrives under the current Gen-6 car.

There’s a lot to look forward to in the 2021 NASCAR season. That being said, it’s important for NASCAR to have a great season with entertaining racing to help boost ratings and gain back lost fans. If 2021 doesn’t live up to expectations, more fans could leave and NASCAR’s downfall could continue.