NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Part-time teams and others

With Daytona looming, ESM rounds out its NASCAR previews with a quick look at 2021’s developing, part-time, and low-budget teams.

Beard Motorsports

2021 Beard Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Noah Gragson 62 Darren Shaw Beard Oil

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
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ty Dillon 96 Dave Winston 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
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ryan Ellis 32 TBD TBD

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.

Kaulig Racing

2021 Kaulig Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kaz Grala/A.J. Allmendinger 16 Matt Swiderski 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
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
B.J. McLeod 78 Frank Kerr 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.”

MBM Motorsports

2021 MBM Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Garrett Smithley/Chad Finchum 13 Mark Hillman Trophy Tractor
Timmy Hill 66 Clinton Cram VSI Racing

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.

Rick Ware Racing

2021 Rick Ware Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Derrike Cope/J.J. Yeley/James Davison 15 Pat Tryson Jacob Companies
Cody Ware 51 Mike Hillman Nurtec
Josh Bilicki 52 Peter Sopenzo Wisconsin Lighting Lab/Insurance King/Junction Fuels
James Davison/Joey Gase/J.J. Yeley 53 Billy Plourde Page Construction

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.

Spire Motorsports

2021 Spire Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Corey LaJoie 7 Ryan Sparks Schluter Systems/Youtheory
Jamie McMurray/Justin Haley/TBD 77 Kevin Bellicourt 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.

StarCom Racing

2021 StarCom Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Quin Houff 00 George Church 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.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon win Duels at Daytona

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.

Duel One

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.

Duel Two

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.

Open Cars

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

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Noah Gragson to make Cup debut at Daytona (Report)

Gragson, 22, is coming off a strong showing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He will take over the vehicle vacated by Brendan Gaughan.

Per Chris Knight of Catchfence.com, rising NASCAR prospect Noah Gragson will make his Cup Series debut at the 2021 Daytona 500 in February. He is set to pilot the No. 62 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports.

Gragson, 22, is coming off a strong in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick. He won two races, including the Xfinity opener at Daytona, and eared top-ten finishes in 25 of 33 events. This offseason, Gragson announced that he would return to the No. 9 car on a full-time basis for the 2021 Xfinity season, which begins on February 13, the day before the Daytona 500.

Gragson has earned a reputation for aggressive driving but has been viewed as a rising star amongst NASCAR’s lower-tier series. His ledger also includes a pair of victories on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series circuit, both in vehicles owned by two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch. Gragson came home in the runner-up spot in the 2018 Truck Series standings, behind only Brett Moffitt.

Beard Motorsports, headed by former part-time Xfinity driver Mark Beard, had run a part-time NASCAR schedule throughout the course of the past decade. Their No. 62 car has appeared in every Cup Series race held at Daytona and Talladega (both two-plus mile superspeedways) since 2017, driven by NASCAR veteran Brendan Gaughan in each of those appearances. Gaughan kept the car competitive, running at the finish in 11 of 17 starts. His best finish was a seventh-place posting in last season’s opener at Daytona. Winner of ten races at the Xfinity and Truck levels, Gaughan announced his retirement after the 2020 season.

The No. 62 car will likely have to race its way into the race through one of the 150-mile qualifying races held prior to the main event.

The 2021 Daytona 500 is currently scheduled to be held on February 14.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags