Bell’s late pass of Joey Logano allowed him to capture his first NASCAR Cup Series victory, a week after Michael McDowell earned his.
Joe Gibbs hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2007. Yet, his teams are still finding ways to win on Sunday.
Less than 24 hours after his grandson Ty earned a win in his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Gibbs’ unit at the premier Cup level also featured a first-time victor. Christopher Bell earned his first Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway’s road course in just his second career start in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Bell would pass Joey Logano with less than two laps remaining to secure the win.
“This is the happiest moment I’ve had in a very long time. 2020 was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career,” Bell said. “To be able to come back in 21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Bell has been part of Gibbs’ developmental endeavors for several seasons, previously winning 16 races over three years in his Xfinity program. The 26-year-old also won the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in a Toyota Tundra owned by his current teammate Kyle Busch. His rookie season at the Cup level was a struggle, driving the No. 95 Toyota for the Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing. Bell struggled in lesser equipment but showed some speed in last season’s maiden voyage on Daytona’s road course.
Early in the race, Bell took an early risk, staying on the track during a caution for debris on the track toward the end of the first 16-lap stage while a majority of the rest of the field pitted. The No. 20 failed to earn stage points with a 12th-place finish, but there was no denying its speed. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, also the winner of the past four road course events, dominated the early portions of the race, but Bell’s Toyota was matching his times. Elliott and Bell were running in the top two spots after each pitted at lap 57 of 70 when a caution came out for rain.
Both Bell and Elliott visited pit road, but Elliott fell out of contention after two separate incidents with Corey LaJoie and later Bell’s teammate Denny Hamlin, relegating him to a 21st-place finish. Bell won the race off pit road and restarted 12th, quickly making his way through the field on fresher tires. He made it up to sixth after the Elliott-LaJoie get-together and another incident involving Tyler Reddick brought out cautions.
Going back green, Bell worked his way through on-track chaos and some of the sport’s most renowned names to earn his way to the front. His pass of Logano left behind Hamlin, as well as prior champions Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick.
“The last lap was pretty surreal,” Bell recalled. “All race long I kind of felt like I was trying to do my best job and not screwing up, hit my marks, not overdriving the corners. Whenever I got by the 22 coming to the white flag, I knew I was faster than him. I ran him down from a while back. All I had to do was get a couple of good corners and get away.”
With his win, each of the first two events of the Cup Series season has featured a first-time winner, following Michael McDowell’s win at the Daytona 500 (run on the traditional oval) last weekend. This is the third time a season has opened with consecutive first-time winners, with such a feat also occurring in 1949 and 1950.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
McDowell got into trouble on the first lap of the race, missing the first turn and losing his steering. However, the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford recovered to finish 8th, earning consecutive top-ten finishes for the first time in his 14-year career.
AJ Allmendinger ran his first Cup Series race in November 2018, finishing 7th in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Allmendinger earned his lone career Cup victory at another road course, Watkins Glen, in 2014 and has won four more on the Xfinity circuit. He is currently racing full-time for Kaulig in the Xfinity Series.
Reddick was one of four cars not to finish, a list that also included Josh Bilicki (brakes), Ross Chastain (crash), and Quin Houff (engine).
Hamlin takes over the Cup Series points lead, pacing Logano by 12 points.
Austin Cindric had an epiphany in the wee hours of Monday morning on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500…
“Fire is hot”.
That’s what Cindric, driving the No. 33 Team Penske Ford, posted on Twitter after the race ended in a fiery finale, a multi-car wreck that also totaled the cars of his teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The on-track damage ended the race early, as the caution was flown for safety reasons, allowing Michael McDowell to earn his high-publicized first career victory.
According to Cindric, his postrace tweet was not meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as it was the first time he had been involved in a firey accident (set off by excess fuel remaining in the cars). Armed with his health and a slight sense of humor, he was able to smile about it days later, but overall called his introduction to fire “unnerving”.
“I wasn’t trying to be a smart-alek, but it is amazing. Holy cow. The amount of heat that comes off that,” Cindric said. “There was a big fire. That was the first time I had been in a fire. I didn’t know if I was on fire or not. That was a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was a big impact. I’m fine.”
It’s a shame that Cindric’s Speedweeks, the opening festivities of the NASCAR season, will be best remembered for the chaos on the last lap. In making his Cup debut, Cindric ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led two laps after finishing the first 65-lap stage in fifth-place. It’s the first of several starts Cindric, one of the modern stars of the NASCAR Xfinity Series (the AAA-baseball equivalent of NASCAR), will make in anticipation of his full-time debut on the premier circuit. The 22-year-old will race for the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing next season, taking over the No. 21 Ford now occupied by Matt DiBenedetto.
Cindric was officially credited finished 15th in the main event. Prior to the wreck, a miscommunication on pit road pushed him toward the back of the lead-lap field. He previously overcame pit road disaster, in this case a speeding penalty, in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels to qualify for the 500. The No. 33 finished 16th but gained some assistance when Ryan Preece finished ahead of Ty Dillon to secure the “open” spots available.
Cindric was pleased with the way his Cup endeavors went overall. He earned some positive feedback from Penske teammate Logano, with whom Cindric united as a draft partner for a good portion of the evening. Logano’s No. 22 Ford was leading on the final lap before McDowell’s victorious move and chaos erupted to close things out. Working with teammates was a fresh experience for Cindric, who operates as a one-driver show in Penske’s Xfinity program, where he represents the same numerals as Logano. Cindric won last season’s Xfinity Series championship, Penske’s first since Keselowski also won in the 22 back in 2010.
“I definitely wanted (Logano’s) feedback as far as things to do better and things we could work on moving forward,” he said. “He is really positive and really strong at that discipline of racing. It is great to have guys to lean on. I haven’t had teammates in a few years so to have guys to bounce ideas off of but also in an application where we can work together and make ourselves stronger as an organization is a great tool to have.”
“I’m a competitor so I’m frustrated by the missed opportunities,” Cindric continued. “But for me, it’s a first step of establishing myself amongst those drivers. Obviously, speedway racing is a much different discipline than a lot of the other race tracks we go to. I definitely know I have a lot more to learn and I am excited for the next opportunity to drive the 33 car, wherever that track may be, and try to keep building that momentum moving forward.”
Cup Series regulations allow for a handful of starts at the top level without sacrificing Rookie of the Year status. Cindric is expected to pilot the part-time No. 33 again at some point this season, but his next entry has yet to be determined. He hinted that he probably won’t return to the summer Daytona race in August or visit the other superspeedway at Talladega, as Cindric would like to get a taste of the different kinds of tracks the circuit has to offer.
“I want to get the experience and I think the intent on the team as well is to get me experience at intermediate, short tracks, and road courses,” he said. “As much as we can get done in the short schedule we have planned. That’s why I haven’t said any race tracks because I don’t want to commit to anything knowing that some of it is out of our control. That’s the intent.”
On the Xfinity front, Cindric began the defense of his 2020 title on a strong note, winning the season-opening Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona. NASCAR’s national series now returns to the Daytona road course, where Cindric led 21 of 52 laps en route to victory the Xfinity circuit’s maiden voyage on the track. Cindric will start in the front row for the return trip on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FS1) next to Brett Moffitt.
A daring last lap pass allowed Michael McDowell to secure his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th career start.
Michael McDowell hadn’t won in any of his first 357 NASCAR Cup Series starts. He was more than likely willing to wait a few extra hours brought up by rain.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, McDowell’s pass of Joey Logano on the 200th and final lap of the Daytona 500 allowed him to earn his first career Cup Series victory. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford led only the final lap but now goes down in history as a winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. It’s the first time mid-budget FRM has visited victory lane since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono in the same No. 34 car in August 2016. The victory also allowed McDowell to clinch the Cup Series playoff spot that comes with the win.
“Don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about…keep fighting hard. That’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, it’s the moral of everyday life. It’s the moral of our raceteam. You just never know what’s possible,” McDowell said about his upset victory. “I always knew if you just kept grinding , everything will line up…I’m just thankful to everyone who made it possible.”
McDowell, 36, has been racing at the Cup level since 2008, thrown into one of Michael Waltrip Racing’s original Toyotas after strong years of open-wheel racing. Years of struggling to gain traction followed, forcing him to take on several odd jobs and low-budget rides. A culmination of bad luck and poor equipment has led McDowell to take over the dubious record of most last-place finishes in Cup Series history (34).
But throughout the tough process, McDowell kept a strong sense of faith that never wavered. Even when he was languishing in “start-and-park” rides, taking over microbudget cars built solely to earn a last-place purse, he was confident that the elusive victory was eventually coming. Now, he takes home a title in one of auto racing’s most renowned events.
“Even when I was start and parking, I knew Id’ be able to have a shot at it…I never lost hope in that,” McDowell said. “I really think every weekend, this is the week it’s going to happen. I know that sounds crazy.”
The prowess of McDowell and FRM at superspeedway races was well documented. FRM’s first Cup victory came at Talladega in 2013, when David Gilliland pushed David Ragan to the triumph on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499. McDowell himself was a staple in the top percentiles of many superspeedway events at both Daytona and Talladega, previously earning a top-five in the Great American Race back in 2019. This time, however, he was ready to close the deal.
Drivers played things mostly conservatively after the 2021 edition of “The Big One” took out several contenders on lap 15. That incident took out 16 contenders on its own, including McDowell’s FRM teammates Ragan and Anthony Alfredo. Ragan was temporarily ending his retirement to drive the No. 36 Ford while Alfredo was making his Cup Series debut in the No. 38. Other notable names involved in the accident included top qualifiers Alex Bowman and William Byron, as well their fellow 2020 playoff drivers Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, and Kurt Busch. The incident started when contact from Christopher Bell sent Almirola spinning, triggering the big wreck. A red flag period of over five hours ensued when lightning storms visited the area.
Despite some close calls from there on out, drivers mostly kept to themselves in single-file racing for a majority of the final segments, working together in manufacturer-based alliances. McDowell lurked with his fellow Fords for a majority of the race and earned bonus points with a seventh-place finish after the second stage. The Ford group took the lead after final pit stops around lap 170, with Joey Logano taking the lead from Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seeking an unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 victory.
Even as the laps dwindled away, drivers kept the single-file pace, a situation prolonged by the fact that only 15 cars were scored on the lead lap. But when Logano took the white flag, McDowell teamed up with Brad Keselowski to hunt down Logano for the win. The two made it up there, but, after disconnecting, Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski made contact, triggering a fiery wreck that also engulfed the cars of Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric. and Bubba Wallace. The caution came out with McDowell barely ahead of the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Harvick avoided the carnage of his fellow Fords to finish fourth, while Hamlin rounded out the top five.
“I don’t know Michael very well at all, but he certainly has stuck around over the years and battled hard throughout the course of his career…I respect it,” Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion said of McDowell’s win. “I’m happy for him. Hope he enjoys it.”
The NASCAR Cup Series will remain in Daytona for another week, as proceedings now move to the circuit’s road course next Sunday for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 254 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). This race will be the first of a record seven road course events on the 2021 docket. Elliott has won each of the last four races on such tracks and nearly won the exhibition Busch Clash all-star race held on the course on Tuesday night but lost out to Kyle Busch after late contact with Blaney.
McDowell earning his first career victory in his 358th career start. Only Michael Waltrip (463) endured a longer winless streak to opening his career, ironically winning the Daytona 500 two decades prior.
Despite missing out on history, Hamlin let his Daytona dominance be felt with wins in each of the first two stages and leading 98 of 200 laps.
In his official debut for 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led a lap before a late vibration in his tires forced him to pit road, creating a 16th-place finish
Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?
2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.
The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.
Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.
So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.
2020 in Review
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.
But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.
“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”
Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).
Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 7th full season Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019) 2020 finish: 34th Best standings finish: 6th (2019)
By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.
“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”
There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020) 2020 finish: 2020 Champion Best standings finish: 2020 Champion
It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.
“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”
“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”
Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.
Experience: 4th season Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020) 2020 finish: 14th Best standings finish: 11th (2019)
Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.
“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020) 2020 finish: 6th Best standings finish: 6th (2020)
To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.
Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.
“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.
“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”
Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.
Championships won and championships missed unite at JGR, whose drivers experienced a roller-coaster 2020 season.
2021 Joe Gibbs Racing Driver Chart
Martin Truex Jr.
Bass Pro Shops/Auto-Owners Insurance/DeWalt
Legendary NFL head coach Joe Gibbs opted for another championship venture during his days coaching football in Washington. As he closed in on his third and final Super Bowl title, Gibbs was starting his own NASCAR squad, starting things off with future champion Dale Jarrett. After Jarrett and another trophy-hoister in the making, Bobby Labonte, piloted the original No. 18 car to 10 wins over its first seven seasons, Gibbs expanded to a two-car operation, welcoming in the hot-headed but talented Tony Stewart to the No. 20. In the first year of the Labonte-Stewart tandem, the former finished second behind Jarrett, then driving for Robert Yates Racing, before winning a title of his own in 2000. Stewart would take home the championship two years, the first of two such celebrations in Gibbs’ No. 20 (the other coming in 2005).
The original Nos. 18 and 20 cars are now respectively piloted by Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell. Busch has brought home two further Cup Series championships (2015, 2019).
A third car, the No. 11, arrived in 2004 as a part-time unit before Denny Hamlin earned full-time duties just over a year later by closing out the 2005 campaign with five top 20 finishes in the final seven races. The gambit immediately paid off with a third-place finish in the final standings, the best by any Cup rookie in the modern era (since 1972). Hamlin has since gone on to win 44 races in Gibbs’ equipment, including three Daytona 500s (including the most recent two), and, with the exception of an injury-marred 2013, has finished no worse than 12th in the final standings.
Gibbs would often field a fourth car for research and development before that unit eventually became the No. 19 Toyota, originally driven by Carl Edwards in 2015-16. Edwards retired weeks before the 2017 Daytona 500, first leaving the Camry to Daniel Suarez for two seasons before championship driver Martin Truex Jr. came over after the shutdown of Furniture Row Racing.
2020 in Review
The closest Gibbs ever came to an undefeated season was the 1991-92 NFL campaign, winning his first 11 games en route to Super Bowl XXVI. Hamlin tried hard to duplicate the feat after the coronavirus-induced pause, winning seven races and running at the front of the standings with Kevin Harvick all season. Following a 28th-place finish at Indianapolis in July, Hamlin finished outside of the Top 20 in just one of the final 20 races. He advanced to the final four at Phoenix for the second straight season but came home fourth in the standings despite a run in the top five.
Despite Hamlin’s success, the biggest story at Gibbs was by far the Kyle Busch saga. The No. 18’s title defense did not as planned, as a topsy-turvy season often denied him victories through factors beyond his control. Busch eventually was able to score a win at Texas in the 34th weekend of the season.
Truex was relatively quiet in his second year in the No. 19 car after picking up seven wins and a runner-up posting the year prior. He earned a single, yet dominant, victory at the summer race at Martinsville and his 23 top tens led all Gibbs drivers (third in NASCAR overall). Despite a summer stretch where he earned a streak of nine top fives in ten races, Truex missed out on the championship quartet after a tough race at the penultimate event back at Martinsville.
Bell, the 2017 Camping World Truck Series champion, got his Cup feet wet in the No. 95 at now-defunct Leavine Family Racing, which shut down after last season despite a technical alliance with Gibbs. Erik Jones piloted the No. 20 car in each of the past three seasons, finishing no better than 15th and winning two races.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 16th full season Career Cup Victories: 57 (last: Texas, fall 2020) 2020 finish: 8th Best standings finish: 2015, 2019
There’s nothing wrong with going down in the same sentences as the legendary Mark Martin, whom Hamlin passed on the all-time wins list last season. But those comparisons are going to grow in a pejorative light if Hamlin continues to miss out on a title, unfair as they may be. Based on his on-track output, Hamlin may be closer to a title than ever before. Since Chris Gabehart took over as crew chief in 2019, Hamlin has won 13 races.
“Chris (has done) a great job of getting the most out of me each and every week,” Hamlin said prior to descending upon Daytona. “When he came in, a lot of it was me working on the driving aspect and giving him the free reign to go and do whatever he needed to do with the race car and us trusting each other. I think that whatever has happened, it’s clicked and it’s worked well, and we’ve gotten a lot of success from that.”
Undeterred by another close finish, Hamlin has kept busy this offseason. In addition to starring in a widely-aired Domino’s commercial, Hamlin has been busy running 23XI Racing alongside NBA legend Michael Jordan and competitor Bubba Wallace. Hamlin has been instrumental in the team’s formation but has assured fans of his No. 11 that his day-to-day involvement with 23XI (which will hold a technical alliance with JGR) is on hold for the time being. Hamlin solidified his commitment to the No. 11 with a newly granted extension.
“I’m really looking forward to going to the race track and then concentrating on one thing and that’s being a race car driver and getting the most out of it,” Hamlin said. “For myself, I felt like February 1 was the date and where I’m kind of done on the day to day for 23X1 and I just think that now my focus is really on the No. 11 FedEx team and how we can win a lot of races and win a championship. That’s where ultimately is going to be the best thing for me, in the long run, to continue to be successful.”
Experience: 17th full season Career Cup Victories: 2020 finish: 4th Best standings finish: 2nd (2010)
By all accounts, there are many teams in NASCAR that would make ridiculous sacrifices to earn Busch’s 2020 ledger (1 win, 14 top fives, 20 top tens). But Busch knows that there’s far more expected of him. Following Jimmie Johnson’s retirement, Busch is the only active multiple-champion on the Cup level.
To kickstart 2021, the No. 18’s personnel underwent a bit of a reboot. A good bunch of Busch’s crew shifted over to the No. 20 inherited by Bell, including pit boss Adam Stevens, who helped Busch win each of his Cup Series titles. Busch’s Camry will carry the familiar, colorful insignias of M&M’s and Mars, Incorporated’s confectionaries, but he feels it’s a complete shift. He compared the shift to his original Gibbs arrival in 2008, when he moved into the No. 18 after his first three Cup seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Busch would go on to earn his first eight wins in a Gibbs vehicle that season.
“I kind of feel like I got fired from the 18 car and moved over to the 20 guys,” Busch said. “There’s this whole thing mentally in my head that I kind of got fired and rehired. Maybe that’ll hold true with how it looked in 2007 to 2008 from Hendrick to Gibbs. And I went off and won eight races. It’s a new challenge, it’s a whole group, but looking forward to it.”
Engineer Ben Beshore will take over as Busch’s crew chief, having overseen four Busch wins at the Xfinity level in 2019. Beshore matched the output in a full season with Harrison Burton. The collaboration got off to a good start this week, as Busch took advantage of a battle for the lead gone awry between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to win the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on Tuesday night.
“We’ve had a lot of success together. We kind of know the language we’re both speaking,” Beshore said after the Clash victory. “To be able to start the year with some momentum, some positive momentum, get a win right off the bat here, it’s awesome. Especially with a lot of new team members on the car, just getting everybody tied together, pulling in the same direction. I think it’s huge.”
Martin Truex Jr.
Experience: 16th full season Career Cup Victories: 27 (last: Martinsville summer, 2020) 2020 finish: 7th Best standings finish: 2017 Champion
Truex was another driver with a very consistent season that went somewhat by the wayside because we’ve grown accustomed to much bigger things. Going into last year, Truex had won 19 races over the prior three campaigns, winning the 2017 title and finishing in the runner-up slot in the other two seasons. Last season was Truex’s first without crew chief Cole Pearn since 2014. The Mayetta, NJ native had won all but two of his 26 Cup Series races with Pearn in town. Eventually, Truex found a rapport with new boss James Small, leading to their summer endeavors.
JGR brass obviously feels the collaboration is working. Truex and Small will work a second season together and Truex, 40, was recently signed to an extension that will keep him in the No. 19 Toyota.
“We’re always fired up and we are working hard to be better at things,” Truex said what was and what’s to come at JGR. “Last year did not go the way that we wanted. We had a lot of close calls and had some races we probably should have won, and things didn’t go the way we needed to, or we screwed them up. That always makes you angry and makes you want to go back and redo it or retry it. I think we are better prepared this year for sure as a unit.”
Experience: 2nd season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 20th Best standings finish: 20th (2020)
Bell, the 2020 Camping World Truck Series champion, didn’t live up to his massive potential in his first season, probably due to underfunded equipment over at LFR. He did, however, put up some strong efforts in his debut. His 20th-place posting was the best by any LFR driver and he tied Matt DiBenedetto’s team record with seven top tens. Bell’s best finish was a third-place showing at Texas behind Busch. He now returns to Gibbs after placing their Xfinity program in the top five in 2018 and 2019 with Stevens as his crew chief. The pair got off to a strong start at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on Thursday, as Bell earned a runner-up result in a photo-finish with Aric Almirola.
Despite his familiarity and prior success in a Gibbs vehicle, Bell feels like there’s some pressure to perform in his return to the organization.
“I’m in a difficult position, no doubt about it,” Bell said. Whenever you drive for Joe Gibbs Racing or any top organization, I think that the expectations are to be a championship contender. Coach provides all of the resources needed to have four championship-caliber teams and that is what the goal is. Anything short of that is not good enough.”
JGR is an organization where each of its four drivers is more than capable of making the postseason, and they should be well expected to do so in 2021. The biggest question mark will probably be Bell, if only because he has yet to consistently prove himself at the Cup level yet. Either way, there’s no reason to believe that this team shouldn’t be contending for a championship.
With Daytona looming, ESM rounds out its NASCAR previews with a quick look at 2021’s developing, part-time, and low-budget teams.
2021 Beard Motorsports Driver Chart
Time will tell what the future holds for Beard Motorsports, whose patriarch, Mark Beard, passed away earlier this month. The team was running superspeedway races annually since 2015 with Brendan Gaughan and has respectable showings, including top tens at both Daytona oval races last season. Gragson, an Xfinity contender, attempted to reach the Daytona 500 but was caught in a late wreck during Thursday night’s Duels.
Gaunt Brothers Racing
2021 Gaunt Brothers Racing
Black Rifle Coffee/Bass Pro Shops
For the second straight year, chaos during the Duels will keep GBR’s No. 96 Toyota out of the Daytona 500. Dillon, a free agent after Germain Racing’s departure from the sport, finished sixth but missed out on a Daytona spot on a technicality of sorts. Plans for the rest of the season are unclear, but the team will likely attempt to run road courses and superspeedways. Dillon is signed on to race again next week at the Daytona road course.
Go Fas Racing
2021 Go Fas Racing Driver Chart
Go Fas has scaled back their proceedings after running full-time in each of the past four Cup seasons with Matt DiBenedetto and Corey LaJoie. Formal plans have yet to be announced, but rumors have circulated that the team will attempt a part-time slate with Xfinity Series veteran Ellis.
2021 Kaulig Racing Driver Chart
Kaz Grala/A.J. Allmendinger
Fraternal Order of Eagles
Matt Kaulig’s racing endeavor has taken the Xfinity Series by storm, as his cars have won seven races over the past two seasons. Two drivers, Haley and Ross Chastain, went to the Xfinity Series playoff last year while former Cup racer Allmendinger won twice in 11 attempts. Allmendinger played that success into a full-time Xfinity ride this year, and it’s likely Kaulig will field him in the Cup ride for road course races, starting with Daytona’s next weekend.
Grala will pilot the car for the traditional oval race at Daytona, gaining entry with a 14th-place finish in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels. It’s possible he could run the other superspeedway events as well, though Xfinity regular Justin Haley has been a possibility as well. Haley won three races and finished third in Kaulig’s No. 11 Chevrolet last Xfinity season. The Cup ride appears to be in good hands with Grala, who came home seventh in his first career Cup start at the Daytona road course last season, subbing for an ill Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
“They’re planning on running a handful of Cup races this year, not just this one race like they did last year,” Grala said. “I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road. This is the first small step towards a big picture. I know (racing at Daytona) a victory for everybody at the team.”
Live Fast Motorsports
2021 Live Fast Motorsports Driver Chart
NASCAR Heat 5/Keen Partk
Live Fast is a new, joint endeavor between McLeod and Matt Tifft, the former being an ex-Xfinity contender before his first Cup year ended due to medical issues. The team has a technical partnership with Stewart-Haas Racing and acquired a charter from Go Fas’ scaled-down program.
McLeod ran 15 Cup events last season, all but two with his own team that primarily competes in Xfinity endeavors.
“If we ran 28th, 25th on speed before race scenarios play out, I would be extremely excited with that for our first year because I know a lot of people are like, ‘Hey, everybody wants to win.’ I want to win,” McLeod said of team expectations this year. “I mean, I’ve won at everything I ever did before I came to NASCAR, but the level of competition wins do come in 30th place. Wins do come in 33rd. Wins do come in 25th.”
“Trust me, I’ve done it myself driving, owning, all of it and it’s unreal what you have to put yourself through to get a 33rd-place finish in the Cup Series. It’s extremely difficult and I feel like that part of it is not the biggest concern as being prepared for the NEXT Gen car and having a shot to have everything in place and ready to just learn the new car.”
2021 MBM Motorsports Driver Chart
Garrett Smithley/Chad Finchum
During the coronavirus-induced pause, Hill took over the sports world by more-or-less “winning” the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series held in lieu of actual races in the spring. Hill’s efforts were commemorated with a celebration in victory lane when the series rebooted in Texas. The exposure allowed Hill to get funding to run a full Cup Series season in reality. His best finish was a 19th at Bristol in the spring. Hill will return to the No. 66 this year but compete for Xfinity Series points.
The No. 13 was previously numbered 49, but the team took over the current numeral after longtime holders Germain Racing shut down. Smithley attempted to race it into the Daytona 500, but was caught up in a late wreck during the Bluegreen Vacation Duels that led to elimination.
Ware’s low-budget empire carries on in 2021 with some relatively familiar faces. Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 winner, will take over the No. 15 for the opening race before giving away to returnees like Davison, Yeley, and Smithley. The. 15 was purchased from defunct Premium Motorsports and was driven by Rookie of the Year contender Brennan Poole last season. Poole’s ninth-place posting at Talladega last fall was the team’s other top ten finish apart from part-time collaborative venture with David Ragan and Front Row.
2021 Spire Motorsports Driver Chart
Jamie McMurray/Justin Haley/TBD
AdventHealth/General Formulations/Mutoh America/Royal Sovereign
Spire has had a rough go at it at the Cup Series level, but they have some big plans for progress in 2021. The team purchased assets from defunct Leavine Family Racing, allowing them to open a second full-time car. That new car, the No. 7, will be driven by LaJoie, formerly of Go Fas Racing and the son of two-time Busch (now Xfinity) Series Randy.
Meanwhile, the team will continue to operate the No. 77 with a variety of drivers, starting with 2010 Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray at the same event, duplicating a process from 2018. Haley, who won a rain-shortened event for Spire at Daytona in July 2019, will also return to the car on a part-time basis for the third straight season. He was responsible for the 77’s best finish last year (11th at Talladega in the fall). Haley is also competing for an Xfinity championship full-time with Kaulig Racing.
In addition to these new developments, Spire has welcomed former crew chief Steve Letarte. The NBC Sports NASCAR analyst was a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports for 12 seasons, working with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Spire also played a major in the development of The Crew, an upcoming Netflix comedy series starring Kevin James (The King of Queens) and centering on the daily happenings of a NASCAR squad.
2021 StarCom Racing Driver Chart
Mane ‘n Tail
Low-budget StarCom ran its No. 00 full-time, but saw a dip in performance with the rookie Houff replacing veteran Landon Cassill. Houff’s best finish was a 13th at Talladega, the team’s lone run inside the top 20.
As one North Carolina basketball legend prepares to make his NASCAR ownership debut, another is trying to string consistency together.
2021 JTG Daugherty Driver Chart
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Kroger/NOS Energy Drink
A University of North Carolina basketball legend, a mid-1980s NBA Draft pick, and a star from a 1996 hoops comedy is looking to succeed in NASCAR.
We are, of course, talking about Brad Daugherty, a five-time All-Star with the Whoopi Goldberg film Eddie on his filmography.
Daugherty, the top pick of the 1986 NBA Draft, has been involved in NASCAR since his basketball retirement. Among his first racing endeavors was ownership in the early days of the NASCAR Craftsman (now Camping World) Truck Series. Future star Kevin Harvick was among his drivers, as was the late Kenny Irwin Jr. (who won two races during the 1997 campaign). Daugherty has united with Tad Geschickter and his wife Jodi to form JTG Daugherty racing in 2009, separating from a partnership that originally included Wood Brothers Racing. The team’s lone win to date came in 2014, when A.J. Allmendinger went to victory lane at Watkins Glen.
2020 in Review
The mid-budget squad had a bit of a roller-coaster season. Stenhouse, a two-time Xfinity Series champion, took over the No. 47 Chevrolet from Chris Buescher (ironically occupying Stenhouse’s old ride at Roush Fenway Racing) and got things off to a good start by winning the pole at the Daytona 500 (the team’s first pole since Allmendinger won two in 2015). He led 24 laps of the Great American Race (only Brad Keselowski and winner Denny Hamlin led more), but he fell back to a 20th-place finish. While Stenhouse struggled to maintain consistency, he did recover to finish third in the ensuing race at Las Vegas, two more at Charlotte and Talladega. The latter race saw Stenhouse miss out on a win (and the playoff spot that came with it) by .007 seconds to Ryan Blaney. In either case, Stenhouse’s trio of top five finishes was the best from a JTG Daugherty car since Marcos Ambrose earned four in the team’s debut year.
Things weren’t as bright in the No. 37 stall belonging to Ryan Preece. Taking over a car that Buescher drove into a top 20 standings finish in 2019, Preece endured a brutal summer. Despite starting on the pole in two races at Darlington and Pocono (via 20th-place finishes when the lineup was determined by inverting the top 20), Preece failed to capitalize. July was particularly tough, as Preece finished last in three consecutive races before enduring a particularly scary wreck at Kansas. The Connecticut native did manage to end things on a somewhat brighter note, recording top 20 finishes in eight of the ten playoff races (his best being a 9th at Bristol).
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 3rd full season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 29th Best standings finish: 26th (2019)
Preece is in a precarious position in 2021, as his No. 37 doesn’t own a charter and has sponsorship for 24 of 36 races. He is thus considered an “Open” car, one that could well miss races entirely if he isn’t careful. So far, he’s responded to the pressure well. Preece was the fastest car amongst Open competitors during Wednesday single-car qualifying session and he later finished a career-best fifth in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race.
“You show up every single week trying to get the most out of your equipment. So that doesn’t change anything about what I’m doing. Our approach for Daytona is the same as it has been every year, except I think we’ll be a little more aggressive than we have been in years past when it comes to stages,” Preece said of his 2021 outlook. “We’re going to continue week after week and hopefully everything is there, we’re having a solid season and everything comes together.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Experience: 9th full season Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Daytona, summer 2017) 2020 finish: 24th Best standings finish: 13th (2017)
We’ve seen Stenhouse steal playoff slots before through superspeedway racing. Wins at both Talladega and Daytona during the 2017 season…thus far the only wins of his Cup career…allowed him to start the 2017 playoffs in the No. 8 seed. He has had chances to get back to victory lane, but fate has been no friend to him.
But Stenhouse saw progress throughout his first year in the No. 47 and was particularly pleased that the team was almost entirely held together from last season to this one.
“We all believe in each other. I feel like this is a really good group of guys that are working on our race cars,” Stenhouse said. “We all believe that we under-performed, as far as the finishes go and the year-end points results. But there were a lot of highs, I feel like, with the speed of our cars when we showed up at the race track.”
“On my side, I need to clean up my pit road mistakes because I feel like I can count on a full hand that I felt like I gave up some really good opportunities to run well inside the top-10 at some of these race tracks from having a pit road penalty. So, for us, I like that we have the same group.”
For Preece, the key will be competing in as many races as he can, to treat this season as if it’s an elevator pitch for new sponsors and potentially new teams as well. Stenhouse could well steal a playoff spot in one of the superspeedway events, but getting the No. 47 into the top ten on a consistent basis would be an admirable landmark to reach.
Veteran endeavors and rookie debuts will lead the way from Front Row Motorsports’ 2021 NASCAR proceedings.
2021 Front Row Motorsports Driver Chart
Love’s Travel Stops
David Ragan (part-time)
Anthony Alfredo (R)
DUDE Wipes/MDS Trucking
Despite relatively conservative settings, Front Row has been one of the Cup Series’ modern staples, regularly fielding cars since 2009 after first arriving five years earlier. The late John Andretti was the first full-time driver of the car, with names like David Gilliland, Josh Wise, and Brett Moffitt all assuming the titles in years since. Renowned part-time names include Terry Labonte, Jeff Green, and Joe Nemechek.
Front Row earned the ultimate triumph in the spring of 2013, when Gilliland pushed David Ragan to a victory at Talladega, allowing FRM to sweep the top two sports. Three years later, the team made a brief appearance in the NASCAR playoffs, earning a spot when Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono.
2020 in Review
2020 was a breakout year of sorts for FRM, as the team earned a personal-best seven top ten finishes between Michael McDowell and Rookie of the Year contender John Hunter Nemechek, their best being the former’s seventh-place posting at Indianapolis. Nemechek had respectable efforts but he left at the end of the year to take over one of Kyle Busch’s Tundras in the Camping World Truck Series.
“Last year, we feel like we made a pretty big gain just from overall competitiveness and speed in our race cars,” said McDowell, whose 23rd-place finish in the standings was FRM’s best posting since Buescher reached the playoffs. “I feel like we have the potential to be more competitive this year than we even were last year, but you just never know until you get to the racetrack.”
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 13th full season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 23rd Best standings finish: 23rd (2020)
It’s a shame that McDowell’s season was mostly remembered for his get-together with Bubba Wallace at the All-Star Open event at Bristol in July. Having worked with low-budget teams for most of his career, McDowell put up the best numbers of his Cup Series career, earning a career-best four top-ten finishes, each of them coming away from superspeedways. Prior to that, McDowell had one such result, coming at Homestead in the 2016 finale. This season will be his fourth in the No. 34 Ford.
“It’s a lot of fun because on those good days where you sneak out a top 10 or a top five you really feel like you’ve accomplished something,” McDowell said of competing with a mid-budget team. “Then you obviously have those ups-and-downs, on those days where you run twenty-something you can kind of brush it off and get ready for the next week. But just seeing the steady progression for us is what I think is the motivator. Last year, you always have high expectations, but when you actually go out there and perform we started to feel like, ‘Hey, we can do this. We can run 15th every week and we can beat two or three of these big teams and do it on a weekly basis.’ So that was a lot of fun and very rewarding and hopefully, we can keep that going into 2021 as well.”
Even McDowell’s crash with Wallace at the Open led to some good in the end. The pair auctioned off the bumper from Wallace’s downed No. 43 for the non-denominational Motor Racing Outreach, a religious organization that provides service and worship opportunities for drivers on the NASCAR circuit. Such an endeavor raised over $20,000.
David Ragan (part-time)
Experience: 16th season Career Cup Victories: 2 (Last: Talladega, spring 2013) 2020 finish: N/A Best standings finish: 13th (2008)
Ragan will once again briefly end his retirement to run the Daytona 500, doing so last year in a collaborative effort between FRM and Rick Ware Racing. Daytona is the site of Ragan’s other Cup Series victory, which came in July 2011 in Jack Roush’s No. 6 Ford. Ragan finished fourth in last season’s 500, his first top five since subbing for an injured Kyle Busch in 2015.
Anthony Alfredo (Rookie)
Experience: 1st season (No prior Cup Series starts) Career Cup Victories: N/A 2020 finish: N/A Best standings finish: N/A
Alfredo already has a lot to prove, even before he makes his first Cup Series start. Choosing the Connecticut native to take over for Nemechek in the No. 38 was a surprising decision considering he hasn’t run a full Xfinity Series season yet. He has some short track success to his name, finishing in the runner-up slot in the CARS Late Model Tour with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.
“It’s a huge step for myself and my career and to be competing against childhood heroes of mine, guys who have been racing not only in their career but in this series since before I was born or maybe one years old. I think guys like (Ryan) Newman have been in the series since I was one or two, so there are a lot of veterans out there and I know that they have a tremendous amount of experience in general in racing, let alone just this level, so I’m looking forward to learning from them.”
“It’s going to be a challenge to compete with them on a regular basis, but that’s what probably has me most psyched about this year.”
Alfredo did show some strong potential while sharing Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity ride with Myatt Snider and Kaz Grala. He earned top tens in five of his first nine starts (including a fourth at Homestead) and closed his tenure out with a third-place showing at Texas. The No. 38 will be one of two Rookie of the Year contenders on the Cup Series level, squaring off against Chase Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Ford.
Contending at non-superspeedway events might be a tad too much to ask for from FRM’s perspective, but putting a car in the top 20 in the standings is a realistic goal.
A long, wild evening in NASCAR’s preparation for Daytona culminated in big victories for Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon.
Floridian rains created an extended halftime break at the Bluegreen Vacations Duels at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday night, pushing the proceedings into Friday morning. But the stars of the NASCAR Cup Series made sure there was an incredible show in store for those that stuck around.
Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon were the winners of the annual qualifying races held prior to the Daytona 500, allowing them prime starting position in Sunday’s main event. Almirola won a relatively calm first duel, leading 52 of 60 laps in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford before rains pushed back the start of part two by a couple of hours. When the latter portion was finally allowed to proceed, Dillon and the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet capped off a chaotic endeavor by holding off Bubba Wallace for the win in an overtime finish.
“It just gives us a lot of confidence. We know we have a fast car,” Almirola said of his victorious No. 10. “It drives really well. It handles well. It pushes. It gets pushed well. All of the things that are important to be successful at Daytona. Gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence going into the race on Sunday.”
The starting front row for the Daytona 500 is annually determined by speeds on single-car qualifying laps while the 60-lap/150-mile Duels order the rest of the field. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron respectively took home the top two positions on Wednesday night, while Almirola and Dillon would start immediately behind them by virtue of their Duel victories. However, with Bowman experiencing possible mechanical issues and Byron getting caught up in a late wreck in their individual races, they could be forced to use backup cars, which would send them to the rear of the field. Should Bowman and Byron opt to do so, Almirola and Dillon would lead the field to the green on Sunday afternoon to officially open the 2021 Cup Series season (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox).
With their victories, Almirola and Dillon each assume the title of Cup Series points leader. Drivers who finished in the top ten of each Duel are awarded points toward the official standings, with the winners getting ten each. The runner-ups received nine, and each descending position receives one fewer tally, provided the driver is competing for Cup Series points on a full-time basis.
Almirola’s victory was part of a mostly placid affair, though there was late dramatics before he crossed the start/finish line for the final time. After taking the lead on lap 13 from Christopher Bell, the No. 10 would lead the next 20 laps before he and his fellow Fords pitted at lap 34. Retaking the lead when green flag pit stops cycled the field, Almirola led the final 23 laps before taking advantage of side drafting to hold off Joey Logano for the win. As Logano was shifted back to fourth, Almirola held off Bell by 0.041 seconds to secure the victory. Ryan Newman finished third, sandwich Logano with Ryan Preece, who rounded out the top five.
Almirola has finished in the top three in each of his last three Daytona qualifying races. He’s coming off a career-best 18 top ten finishes with SHR last season, though he hasn’t earned a victory in a points race since the 2018 fall event at Talladega. Almirola’s first career victory came in a rain-shortened summer event at Daytona while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014.
Bowman started the race on the pole by virtue of being the fastest car on Wednesday night. He quickly took a conservative approach, moving to the back to avoid chaos, but a vibration forced a visit to pit road, during which the crew raised the hood on his No. 48 Chevrolet. Bowman was able to finish the race in 20th, four laps down. The crew will assess the situation to determined whether a backup car is necessary come Sunday. It will mark Bowman’s first official race in the No. 48 Chevrolet, taking over for retired seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Once the second segment got underway, Byron opted to play things more aggressively in the No. 24 Chevrolet, leading 24 of the first 32 laps. The racing was interrupted at lap 37, shortly before the pit window open, as a multi-car wreck drastically altered the playing field, a get-together that marred the days of Rookie of the Year contenders Chase Briscoe and Anthony Alfredo.
Every lead-lap car visited pit road during the ensuing caution period, with the Fords of Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick assuming the front row of the restart on lap 40 after taking fuel only on their respective stops. Dillon pushed Byron to the lead two laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. later joining the fray. Truex took the lead at lap 52, shuffling Byron to the back. As Truex battled Harvick for the potential win, Byron’s car was heavily damaged in a crash triggered by Garrett Smithley and Brad Keselowski’s get-together. That wreck also ended the days of Ross Chastain and Noah Gragson.
Truex had the lead as NASCAR commenced a two-lap overtime session, and held it going into the white flag lap. However, he was shuffled into the middle with no pushing by Dillon and Wallace, who battled for the lead over the final turns. Bolstered by a push from Harvick’s Ford, Dillon got past Wallace in the final straightaway to capture his first career Duel victory. Wallace earned a runner-up finish in his first race for Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin in the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota. Harvick finished third, Busch Clash winner Kyle Busch posted fourth, while defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott concluded the top five.
Ironically, Wallace was also the runner-up when Dillon won the 2018 Daytona 500, a victory earned when he bumped Almirola on the final lap of the race. The affair was a bit of a bittersweet affair for the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team, as the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death approaches. Earnhardt perished on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 while running third behind his protege Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Almirola and Dillon were far from the only winners on Thursday night, Several non-chartered, “Open” cars also worked their way into the 500 with strong performances in the Duels, and maybe a bit of luck to go with it. Eight Open drivers attempted to take the four available spots. These invitations to the main event could be earned through either being one of the fastest Open cars on Wednesday or being the best-finishing Open driver during each Duel.
The first Duel race featured Preece, driver of the No. 37 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet. Though Preece was more or less locked into the Sunday field with the fastest qualifying time amongst the eight Open cars, his fifth-place finish likewise topped that same group in the opening Duel. Thus, with Preece now punching his ticket through the race, the qualifying entry shifted to the second-fastest qualifier, which was Austin Cindric. This played to the detriment of Ty Dillon, Austin’s younger brother, who was passed by Preece on the final lap. Ty ran a strong, consistent race, but his failure to keep Preece behind him resulted in his elimination. Following the shutdown of his team at Germain Racing, Ty Dillon has signed on with Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota on a part-time basis. Alas, this will mark the second consecutive miss at Daytona for GBR, who saw Daniel Suarez wreck in one of last season’s Duels.
Cindric, the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion will make his Cup debut on Sunday at Daytona despite a dismal 16th-place finish. His quest to partake was seemingly derailed when he took a speeding penalty exiting pit road during green flag pit stops, putting him a lap off the pace. Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to get that lap back, Cindric did what he could to ensure qualifying results would play a role in determining who would go home. His plan worked to fruition, as he helped push Preece ahead of Ty Dillon in the race’s dying stages. Cindric is driving select races in a part-time car for Team Penske while defending his title at the Xfinity level. He will make his full-time debut next with the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing.
With Preece and Cindric advancing, Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill were each eliminated from Daytona 500 contention. The pair will nonetheless race alongside Cindric in the Xfinity Series opener on Saturday late afternoon (5 p.m. ET, FS1).
Things were more straightforward but equally dramatic in the second stanza. Kaz Grala’s Daytona dreams were seemingly dashed when he was involved in the Alfredo/Briscoe fracas. Losing a lap to repair the damage, it appeared Grala could only pray for chaos over the last 20 laps. Gragson, another Xfinity contender seeking to make his Cup debut, appeared to have the inside edge for the spot, though a surprise contender emerged in Smithley, driving the low-budget No. 13 MBM Motorsports Ford. Smithley was likewise involved in the incident that handicapped Grala but was running in the top ten shortly after.
But Smithley’s get-together with Keselowski triggered a large wreck that not only caused heavy damage to Byron’s car but eliminated Gragson with it. Gragson was representing Beard Motorsports in the No. 62 Chevrolet, a team that endured tragedy on January 31 through the death of team owner and founder Mark Beard.
With Gragson and Smithley out, Grala coasted to a 14th-place finish that secured his spot in the 500. He joins fellow transfer David Ragan, who came home 10th and was locked in through qualifying speed. Grala will partake in his second career Cup Series event, having previously subbed for an ill Austin Dillon at Daytona’s road course last season. Grala brought the No. 3 Chevrolet home in the seventh spot.
This time around, Grala will pilot the No. 16 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. The team is well known for its exploits at the Xfinity Series level and is looking to expand its reach in Cup this season. Thanks to Grala’s efforts, the team will likely be able to run further Cup Series events, including the return to the Daytona road course next weekend. The team is expected to have former Cup veteran and current Xfinity man A.J. Allmendinger take over.
“(Tonight is) big for Kaulig. They’re planning on running a handful of Cup races this year, not just this one race like they did last year,” Grala said. “Being able to get in, especially now with the format as far as which cars are able to enter each race when there isn’t qualifying, this is a huge day for us, a huge day for that organization as a whole.”
“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road. This is the first small step towards the big picture. I know it’s a victory for everybody on the team.”
For the full Daytona 500 starting lineup, click here
Multi-platinum artist Pitbull is adding NASCAR owner to a resume as long as a lap at Daytona, uniting with Justin Marks and Daniel Suarez.
2021 Trackhouse Racing Driver Chart
iFly/Pump It Up Party/CommScope/K1 Speed
Armando Christian Perez knows all about what it’s like to make a difference and build successful ventures in Florida. In Daytona Beach on Sunday, Perez, known by his stage name of Pitbull, will potentially start a new one four hours from his beloved hometown of Miami.
Pitbull has teamed up with entrepreneur and former racer Justin Marks, opening the Trackhouse Racing Team, a new endeavor that adds to his enormous resume that also includes 11 studio albums, acting credits, and countless philanthropic endeavors. Those latter-most affairs are set to continue through a STEM education program that will work hand-in-hand with Pitbull’s SLAM Academy, a charter school in Miami. Onboard for the literal ride are Ty Norris, a longtime front office man who previously worked with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Michael Waltrip Racing, and Daniel Suarez. The Monterrey, Mexico native was the first non-American born driver to earn a championship in one of NASCAR’s three major levels when he topped the Xfinity Series in 2016.
“I’m far from a celebrity…I’m a hard, hard worker. Big difference,” Pitbull said of his new opportunity. “Celebrities will sell anything. I’m not here to sell anything. I’m here to help the culture, help unify, more than anything help motivate and inspire those through my story, through Daniel’s story, Justin’s story, Ty’s story, and NASCAR’s story.”
2020 in Review
After things didn’t work out in a single season in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 (since occupied by Cole Custer), Suarez signed with low-budget squad Gaunt Brothers Racing less than a month before the Daytona 500. Things got off to a brutal start, as Suarez got into a wreck at Daytona’s qualifying duels without a charter and failed to appear in the main event. Though the early dropout set the tone for a brutal season…Suarez’s best finish in GBR’s No. 96 was a pair of 18th-place postings at Bristol and Kansas…he was one of only seven full-time drivers to have two or few DNF’s (did not finish) last season. Among the others on that list were Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski.
Meet the Driver
Experience: 5th season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 31st Best standings finish: 17th (2019)
There’s no denying Suarez has the talent to race at NASCAR’s highest levels. In addition to his Xfinity title, he has earned strong postings in the Mexico-based PEAK Series and the national Truck circuits (16 top tens in 27 attempts).
Part of his struggles may stem from an uncomfortable entrance into the premier league. When Carl Edwards abruptly retired a month before the 2017 season opened, Suarez was thrust into Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota with little preparation. He later got the boot two seasons later when champion Martin Truex Jr. was left without a ride after the closure of Furniture Row Racing. Suarez seemed to be getting the hang of his Cup ride at the time of the Truex announcement, with a runner-up finish in the latter Pocono race. Ironically, the No. 99 Chevrolet with Trackhouse, a number Marks chose to pay tribute to Edwards’ days in the identically-numbered Ford Edwards once drove for Jack Roush. Suarez also raced his way into the NASCAR All-Star Race twice with wins in the Open.
Speaking before he descended upon Daytona, Suarez was grateful for the rare stability Marks offered to him at Trackhouse. The original partnership was announced in October, three months before Pitbull joined in.
“This off-season has been probably the most productive I have had in a very, very long time…already knew since before the season was over exactly what I was going to be doing. When you are with that much time ahead, you can actually organize yourself, you can work hard, and you can put everything in perspective,” Suarez said. “For me was extremely important obviously to get together with Justin, with Ty Norris, that made this happen, and put everything, our goals, perspective, how we’re going to be able to achieve these things…Everything that Justin, Ty, Pitbull now, want to do outside the racetrack is amazing. I love all those things. At the same time competition is extremely important for me. I know I can win races. I’ve done it before. Championships as well. I want to do that in the Cup level.”
The talent is there with Suarez, and he’s finally had an offseason full of certainty and some strong resources behind it. It’s difficult for any team to get traction in their first season, but it appears that Trackhouse has the resources and experience to at least get the ball rolling. If they can consistently run in the top 20, that’d be a great jumping point for a driver looking for welcome consistency.