NASCAR Cup Series unveils revamped 2021 schedule

Road courses ruled the day as NASCAR’s top circuit unveiled its 2021 slate, one that featured new locales and old sites getting a makeover.

The 36-race tally and 500-mile opener at Daytona notwithstanding, the NASCAR Cup Series’ 2021 schedule bears little resemblance to its predecessor.

NASCAR unveiled next year’s slate on Wednesday, featuring three courses making their Cup Series debut and a pair of renowned auto racing landmarks undergoing a special makeover. The five new races are the most added to a Cup Series schedule since 1969.

“(This is a) hugely exciting day for NASCAR, really everyone involved in the industry,” NASCAR Executive Vice President & Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said after the release. “We said back early in 2019 that we wanted to evolve the schedule. 2020 was going to be a year where we could make some moves within the portfolio of races we had. Really, (in) 2021 and beyond you’re going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR.”

NASCAR has sought to create new innovations in racing as they enter this new decade. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed some changes, but the sport was nonetheless the first major North American sport to return to full-time competition in the midst of the ongoing health crisis. In addition to this new schedule, further innovations await, including a new racecar template, known as the “Next Gen” car, that will debut during the 2022 season.

When it comes to the schedule, O’Donnell hinted that the changes may have only just begun. 

“The primary goal for us was to continue to evolve the schedule, to continue to build it, to continue to listen to the fans,” he said. “2021, we believe, is a really bold step in that direction, but we’re not done.  There’s 2022 and beyond where we’ll continue to look at making changes that we believe are in the best interest of the sport in key markets and key iconic racetracks as well.  We’re going to continue the journey.”

The following tracks/formats will be making their debut next season…

Bristol Dirt (March 28)

Many NASCAR drivers have gotten their start on local dirt tracks. Next spring, NASCAR will cover the iconic asphalt at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first dirt track race at the Cup Series level since a visit to the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in 1970. Previously, the lower-tier Truck Series would make an annual dirt visit to Eldora Speedway, with current Cup competitors Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, and Christopher Bell each earning a win in the Eldora Dirt Derby. This year’s race was called off due to the pandemic.

Circuit of the Americas (May 23)

This 3.426-mile road course in Austin, Texas has previously hosted numerous forms of auto racing, including Formula One and IndyCar. Having hosted the former’s United States Grand Prix event since 2012, COTA is the first American venue to be specifically built for F1 racing.

Nashville Superspeedway (June 20)

Originally opening in 2001, financial woes caused Nashville to close ten years later. However, the track will reopen by hosting the 2021 Father’s Day event, its first NASCAR-sanctioned event since its shutdown. Though the Cup Series descends upon the track for the first time, previous winners at the 1.333-mile oval through Xfinity and Truck endeavors include Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano. The Nashville date takes one of two race from Dover International Speedway.

Road America (July 4)

Perhaps nothing could define Independence Day better than a NASCAR race at a track called Road America, located in Plymouth, Wisconsin. This 4.048-mile road course has hosted the Xfinity Series since 2010, its most recent win going to Team Penske’s Austin Cindric in August.

Indianapolis Road Course (August 15)

The Cup Series will make a change to its annual visit to the Brickyard, eschewing the 2.5-mile rectangular oval for the 2.44-mile road course. Earlier this season, the Xfinity Series made the change early, going with a 62-lap event won by Chase Briscoe.

Other changes and notes relate to more familiar locales…

  • As is tradition, the season will open with the running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway (February 14). However, the exhibition race known as the Busch Clash, traditionally held a week before the main event, will now be run on Daytona’s road course, which hosted its first Cup Series race in August (won by Chase Elliott).

 

  • After Daytona, the series will remain in the Sunshine State, with the second race shifting to Homestead-Miami Speedway (February 21). Homestead previously hosted the season final for nearly two decades (2002-19) before being moved up to March, though the Dixie Vodka 400 was run in June due to the pause.

 

  • Incumbent tracks Chicagoland and Kentucky were left off the schedule. Chicagoland had hosted races since 2001, while Kentucky was the most recent venue to join the Cup Series schedule in 2011.

  • Darlington Raceway has been scheduled to host multiple events for the first time since 2004. Commonly known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, Darlington hosted three events this season, the first two being rescheduled races and the first to be run in the return from the pause. The first race will come on May 15, while the Southern 500 retains its status as the opener to the Cup Series Playoffs (September 5).

 

  • Atlanta Motor Speedway likewise returns to two-date status, its two races scheduled to be run on March 21 and July 11. AMS had not hosted two events in a single season since 2010.

  • Texas Motor Speedway will host its first NASCAR All-Star Race on June 13. The All-Star exhibition shifted to Bristol this season after over three decades at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Texas did lose one of its points races, but retained its playoff date (October 17). The All-Star will also serve as the season finale for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage before transitioning to the networks of NBC.

 

  • Save for flipping Kansas and Texas’ spots in the Round of 8, no changes were made to the NASCAR Playoff schedule. The season will end at Phoenix Raceway for the second straight season (November 7).

 

  • The Cup Series will have two weeks between New Hampshire (July 18) and Watkins Glen (August 8) to account for the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season continues on Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Kaz Grala lived the dream in first Cup Series start

Taking over for Austin Dillon, Kaz Grala enjoyed an incredible weekend in substitute duties at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

This weekend, stock car driver Kaz Grala took over one of NASCAR’s most iconic rides, competed against his childhood hero, brought the vehicle home in one piece, finished in the top ten (seventh, to be precise), and even led some laps at one of the sport’s most hallowed grounds.

How was your weekend?

Grala, 21, is used to setting landmarks in the realm of racing, especially at Daytona International Speedway. At 18, Grala became the youngest NASCAR winner in the history of the track when he won the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (now Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series) opener.

That win allowed him to begin the youngest participant in a NASCAR postseason session en route to a seventh-place finish in the final standings. Grala is also the youngest driver to compete in the Daytona-based International Motor Sports Association. Currently, he works as a part-time driver on the second-tier Xfinity Series for Richard Childress Racing, primarily running their road course endeavors. His No. 21 Chevrolet came home fourth in last week’s Xfinity race at Road America, moving up one spot from a visit last season.

Thus, Grala was an ideal choice to fill in for RCR’s Cup ride: the No. 3 Chevrolet for the Go Bowling 235 on Sunday afternoon. Originally scheduled for Watkins Glen International in Schuyler County, the race was the first NASCAR Cup Series race held at Daytona’s 3.6-mile road course.

Best known for hosting 17 years of Dale Earnhardt’s finest NASCAR endeavors, the vehicle is currently piloted by Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson. The 30-year-old Dillon has been forced to temporarily vacate the car after self-reporting a positive test for COVID-19. Dillon will be allowed to resume racing once he receives two negative tests. He’s locked into the NASCAR playoffs thanks to a win at Texas Motor Speedway last month.

In the meantime, it was Grala that took over the ride at Daytona. He is the first driver other than Earnhardt or Dillon to drive the No. 3 since Ricky Rudd in 1983.

The numeral has significant meaning to Grala beyond Earnhardt. He has worn the numeral in several forms of racing as a tribute to his father Darius, who is primarily known as an endurance racer. The elder Grala has run the 24 Hours of Daytona three times.

“It’s certainly been overwhelming,” Kaz Grala said in a postrace Zoom call. “I took my time on the grid and on the pace laps to really soak it in and understand the gravity of that moment. It’s unbelievable to be racing in the Cup Series under any circumstances but to do it in the No. 3 car was just incredible.”

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought my Cup debut would come in it, but I’m so grateful to Richard and everybody at Richard Childress Racing for believing in me and trusting me behind the wheel of one of their Cup cars because that’s their main business right there, so it was an honor to know that they trust me behind the wheel.”

Because of the late driver change, the No. 3 had to start at the back of the field for the start of the 65-lap event. Thanks to NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula, Dillon was originally slated to start 10th before the adjustment was made.

Grala wasn’t expecting miracles in his first Cup Series start. No driver, after all, has ever won in their Cup debut and some of the greatest have struggled mightily in their freshman races. For Grala, merely completing all 65 laps would’ve been enough of a win. Thus, he wasn’t expecting to make it back to the top ten after he was sent to the rear of the field.

Had the No. 3 remained in the fifth row, Grala would’ve started directly in front of his idol and favorite driver Jimmie Johnson. Grala was an avid viewer of NASCAR during Johnson’s heyday, when he captured an unprecedented five consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles. Johnson is set to retire from full-time racing at the end of the 2020 season.

“I’ve always looked up to him. I thought coming into this year I’d never get a chance to race against him before he retired,” Grala said. “Already going into this race, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world just to know that he’d be on the track at the same time as me, and of course because of Austin’s run last weekend in Michigan the car was scored as starting P10, even though we had to drop to the back, so we did the pace laps in 10th and I think Jimmie was 11th or 12th or something. My moment was in the pace laps looking in the mirror and seeing that 48, thinking that was the coolest thing ever.”

Once the green flag flew, Grala mostly bided his time toward the back of the field. No driver had run laps in a stock car prior to Sunday’s endeavor, but he kept the No. 3 as clean as he could. Working on a different pit strategy, pitting toward the end of the two 15-lap stages to open the race, Grala was staying out of trouble and moving up the field.

He admitted that a 31-minute delay for lightning was instrumental to his success. Drivers had trouble dealing with heat and exhaustion on a hot, humid, Daytona afternoon. One driver, JJ Yeley, had to vacate his ride, leaving Bayley Currey to finish things off.

Only adding to Grala’s woes was the fact that the car wasn’t prepared for him, leaving him more uncomfortable than normal in Dillon’s seat.

“I hate to admit how much the lightning delay probably did help me kind of reset, refresh,” he said. “These Cup cars are hot, they’re physical. Road courses are physical in general, and these races are long.  It’s the real deal out there for sure, and you’re racing guys that are really, really good. From a mental and physical standpoint, you are really extending yourself as much as possible.”

Once things got back underway, he was racing at the outskirts of the top ten. His endeavors assisted by the drivers ahead of him pitting, Grala wound up navigating the inevitable: at lap 50, Grala was scored at the race leader.

The No. 3 Chevrolet wound leading three laps before it visited pit road for its final stop of the day. Grala credited crew chief Justin Alexander, Dillon’s regular crew chief, for creating a strategy that allowed him to pace the field, if only for a short while.

“That was pretty cool to get to lead some laps in my first Cup race. I wouldn’t have thought that would be the case, but it definitely was a lot of fun,” Grala said of his time upfront. “Justin Alexander called an excellent strategy. I thought we made the right moves. There were a few other guys with us on that strategy. We weren’t the only one, but I definitely think it was the way to go. It helped me out, and for me personally, I like to be on attack, and being a rookie in the series, there was no doubt guys were pushing me around on restarts a little. To put ourselves in position for most of the day to try to be on as good or better tires than the guys around us was a really good thing and helped me from getting shoved around too much.”

After an accident involving Kyle Busch with about five laps to go, Grala restarted ninth against some experienced drivers with fresher tires. In the midst of the shuffling over the final stages, the No. 3 Chevrolet actually moved on his position from both the start and lap one, creating his final posting of seventh. He was unable to beat Johnson but was nonetheless all smiles at the end of the day.

“To find out we actually finished three spots even better than we ran on the pace lap, that was pretty cool,” Grala said. “Still didn’t beat Jimmie! I wish. That would have been really cool, but I could see him. That’s great enough.”

Grala made it clear that his situation with the No. 3 is meant to be temporary. He wished Dillon well and happily revealed that the 2018 Daytona 500 winner was experiencing only mild symptoms and that Dillon’s wife Whitney and son Ace were healthy. AJ Allmendinger is, in fact, RCR’s standard backup driver, but he was barred from competing in the Cup race because of his participation in Saturday’s Xfinity event. Thus, it’s unknown if Grala will be back for a doubleheader at Dover International Speedway that starts on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Nonetheless, Grala is excited to see what the future holds. First on his list is hopefully securing a full-time ride that will allow him to compete for an Xfinity title.

“It was an amazing experience getting to run this weekend, but we certainly all hope that Austin is back in the car and competing again next weekend,” he said. ”

 It would be a huge advantage for me to be able to run full-time.  I would love to be able to run and chase an Xfinity Series championship with them, and certainly, the ultimate goal is to make it to racing on Sundays every weekend.”

“Hopefully, you’ll see me back here on a Sunday someday in the future.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Chase Elliott takes home Cup Series’ first visit to Daytona road course

NASCAR descended upon Daytona to make new left and right turns on Sunday, but the top result was all-too-familiar.

Daytona International Speedway took on a new look on Sunday afternoon, as the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series ran around its 3.6-mile road course for the first time. The final result, however, didn’t require a makeover.

Chase Elliott of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won his third consecutive NASCAR road course event, leading 34 of 65 laps of the Go Bowling 235 on a sweltering, humid late afternoon at Daytona. The race was moved from its original locale at Watkins Glen International in New York State’s Schuyler County due to quarantine requirements.

Elliott’s win is his second for the 2020 season and his fourth on a road course for his career. He has won the last two races at Watkins Glen and also took home last year’s race at the Charlotte Roval in the fall.

“I’ve just had really good cars I think more than anything,” Elliott said of his road course success in a postrace Zoom call. “I’m not sure I did anything very special today but had a really fast NAPA Camaro, which makes everybody’s job a little easier from my end driving it, from (crew chief Alan Gustafson’s) end calling the race, and then from his end on adjusting, too.  Really fortunate from that standpoint.”

Elliott started the race in seventh based on NASCAR’s new starting lineup formula, which factors in speed and performance from the prior race and also position in the standings. The No. 9 team is locked into the upcoming NASCAR playoffs thanks to their prior win at Charlotte in May. 

He would take the lead for the first time when several leaders pitted, giving him the win in the first of two 15-lap stages. Elliott got the lead back after Denny Hamlin took the second. It was also Elliott leading when the race paused for a lightning delay that lasted just over 31 minutes.

“I think that lightning delay was pretty crucial for a lot of guys to get a breather,” Elliott said. “I was hot for sure, I think everyone was. I mean, it was a hot day. Mid-afternoon in Daytona is not cool and probably never will be.”

When the race resumed on lap 38 of 65, Elliott built an eight-second lead over Kurt Busch before making his final stop with 17 to go. He got around Hamlin and again began to build an insurmountable lead after those in front of him pitted, but it was one that was erased when Kyle Busch’s wreck brought out the only caution flag for an on-track incident. Late cautions previously cost Elliott wins at another Charlotte race as well as Bristol.

This time, though, Elliott wasn’t letting history out of his sights.

Elliott held one last challenge over the final four laps to earn the first Cup win on the Daytona road course. It wrapped up a weekend that saw each of NASCAR’s national series run at the track, with Austin Cindric and Sheldon Creed respectively winning at the Xfinity and Truck Series levels.

“Obviously Watkins Glen has been good to us, but I was just really happy that we replaced a road course with a road course and didn’t just pile something else on the schedule to check a box,” Elliott said of the new course. “I think there was a lot of effort into getting this road course done and completed in time, so appreciate Daytona and everybody that works in the facilities here to be able to turn it that fast, and did a really nice job with it.”

Hamlin finished in the runner-up spot in front of Martin Truex Jr. The latter recovered from a speeding penalty on pit road to finish with a bronze medal for his fifth consecutive third-place finish. Elliott’s teammate Jimmie Johnson finished fourth while Chris Buescher used a late surge on the last restart to come home fifth.

Three races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, with two of those races on the docket next weekend. This season’s final doubleheader will take place at Dover International Speedway, with Delaware hosting a pair of 311-mile races, both labeled the Drydene 311. The first will be run on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Race Notes

  • It was a rough day for the defending Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who left the track at lap 48 after losing a brake rotor. At the time of his crash, Busch was six laps down. He wound up finishing 37th. Busch currently is up 100 points up on Johnson, the first driver outside of the playoff picture.

 

  • Austin Dillon, locked into the playoffs thanks to his win at Texas earlier this summer, missed the race due to a self-reported positive test for COVID-19. He was replaced in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet by part-time Xfinity Series Kaz Grala. The 21-year-old wound up leading three laps and finished seventh in his Cup Series debut.

 

  • JJ Yeley began the race in the No. 27 Rick Ware Racing Ford but was replaced by Bayley Currey due to heat exhaustion. Currey brought the car home 34th.

 

  • With a 10th-place finish, Michael McDowell set a new career-best in top ten postings with his third of the year.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags