A complete roster breakdown of the 2021 New York Liberty

sabrina ionescu, New York Liberty

As the New York Liberty prepare to make their Brooklyn debut, ESM has everything you need to know about their opening day lineup.

New York City-branded basketball being played in New York City…groundbreaking concept, isn’t it?

Following two years of Westchester County exile and a pandemic-induced trip to Florida to compete in the WNBA’s Bradenton bubble, the New York Liberty return to action within city limits on Friday night against the Indiana Fever (7 p.m. ET, YES/NBA TV). With the WNBA celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Liberty likewise celebrate theirs as one of three original franchises that remain in the markets in which they began. Aligned with the Brooklyn Nets ownership group, the Liberty will now call Barclays Center their full-home after two previous decades at Madison Square Garden.

Though the Liberty have yet to capture an elusive WNBA title, they remain one of the league’s most storied franchises, with Tina Charles, Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, and Rebecca Lobo being among the legendary faces of basketball to traverse the New York hardwood. The team entered a period of rebuilding, its most recent edition in Florida coming under first-year head coach Walt Hopkins Jr.

The rebuild cratered last season to the tune of a Floridian ledger of 2-20, but New York management was enthused by the moral victories they took with them. Hopkins has established a new order focused on defense and fearless shooting, with the proceedings set to center around 2020’s top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The touted Oregon Duck was limited to only three games due to an ankle injury, but positives emerged through other rookies like Jazmine Jones and Leanna Odom.

This offseason, the Liberty made several moves that are set to add to the team’s win total. They signed 2020’s Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney from Atlanta and acquired Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and their five championship rings among them from Seattle. Such moves caused nearly half of the WNBA’s dozen general manager to label the Liberty as the most improved team heading into Friday’s tip-off events.

The preseason accolades, however, mean little, if anything, to Hopkins:

“How can we be the most improved team when we haven’t played a game?” Hopkins rhetorically asked on Thursday. “We still have a lot to prove to ourselves in terms of our capacity now to apply what we’ve been working on the last couple of weeks…“You’re going to hear me as a broken record all year talk about focusing on our day to day and our controllable. You won’t hear me too often acknowledge expectations as being something that we’re focused on here.”

Meet the 2021 New York Liberty below…

(*-Unavailable until further notice)

F Rebecca Allen*

College: Australia
Experience: 6th season
2019 Stats: 7.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG

Allen seems tailor-made to play in Walt Hopkins’ system: she’s a tenacious defender with a sense of fearless shooting, a trait well on display in her most recent campaign in New York. Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, Allen set a record by putting up 20 points in a single quarter en route to a career-best in scoring. She kept up the good work through overseas action in Spain, where she averaged a team-best 11.5 points for Valencia BC.

Hopkins will have to be a little patient for Allen to make her debut, as her extended international endeavors made her a late arrival to the prep for an American title. With the departure of close friend Amanda Zahui B, Allen is now the longest-tenured member of the Liberty, having arrived as a free agent in 2015.

G Layshia Clarendon

College: Cal-Berkeley
Experience: 9th season (2nd in New York)
2020 Stats: 11.5 PPG, 3.9 APG

One of the WNBA’s most outspoken players in off-court issues (sitting on the WNBA’s Social Justice Council), Clarendon was a rarity on last year’s Liberty roster as a player with at least a half-decade of professional experience. Their services in the Bradenton bubble went far beyond simple veteran mentorship, as they put up a career-best in scoring and played a major role in the New York offense when Sabrina Ionescu went down with an injury. It marked a strong return to the court for Clarendon, who was limited to nine games in 2019 due to an ankle injury of their own.

With several new veterans in two, Clarendon will likely serve as a spark and de facto fifth coach off the bench.

F Natasha Howard*

College: Florida State
Experience: 8th season (1st in New York)
2020 Stats: 9.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG

With the Liberty eager to clog up their porous defense (allowing over 85 points per game over the last two seasons), there was perhaps no one better to call than Howard, one of the most fearsome defenders in the Association since her 2014 entry. It cost a hefty price…the Liberty shipped off the top overall pick of April’s WNBA Draft and All-Star Kia Nurse in the three-team deal to obtain her…but Howard, a Hopkins protege during a championship trek in 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx, promises to be well worth it.

Among the accolades in Howard’s packed trophy closet are three championship rings (including one from the bubble as a member of the Seattle Storm), the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year title, and a pair of All-Defensive First Team nods. She’s been a part of three of the last four WNBA championship efforts. It might take a little longer to get back to those levels in New York, but the Liberty’s investments make it clear they want her to play a huge part in that.

G Sabrina Ionescu

College: Oregon
Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats: 18.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG

It’s a little early to crown Ionescu the face of the WNBA…after all, she only has three games under her belt, having suffered an ankle injury in only her third professional excursion. But the walking college basketball record book is back for what basically amounts to a second rookie season and is dangerously motivated.

While Ionescu’s impact on a national level can’t be fully assessed just yet, there were plenty of tantalizing glimpses of her hardwood heroics on display in her brevity. Notably, she put 33 points in just her second career contest against Dallas (squaring up against fellow Eugene standout Satou Sabally). Time will tell how long it takes for her to regain her elite form, but there’s no doubt that the journey will be watched by anyone with a passing interest in what lies ahead for a league celebrating its silver anniversary.

G Jazmine Jones

College: Louisville
Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats: 10.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG

Last season, a New York Liberty rookie, chosen at one of the bookends of the all-virtual draft made a major difference in one of the guard roles. She saw her efforts rewarded with a spot on the league’s official All-Rookie team. Unpredictably, however, the player in question was not Ionescu but Jones, the 12th and final pick of 2020’s opening round.

Jones was another player who filled Ionescu’s sneakers, taking over a point guard role she hadn’t played since her high school days at Florida A&M Developmental. She wound up leading all rookies in steals (1.4 a game) and was one of six to earn double figures in scoring. Her energy, constantly captured through the team’s social media accounts, would likely top charts if there was a number able to be attached to it.

F Betnijah Laney

College: Rutgers
Experience: 6th season (1st with New York)
2020 Stats: 17.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG

Laney knows a thing or two about making an impact through basketball in the tri-state area. She previously a hoops heroine in Piscataway, where she played under the legendary C. Vivian Stringer, setting Scarlet Knight records in the process.

“Character” has been one of the most prominent buzzwords during the training camp process. Laney more than fulfills that trait through her work in the bubble. Having survived transfers to three different WNBA squads over her first four seasons, Laney broke out as a member of the Atlanta Dream in Bradenton, more than tripling her previous career-best output in scoring. The Liberty would certainly know about her breakout: Laney’s trek toward Most Improved Player honors began when she earned her first career 30-point game in a July win against New York.

F Leaonna Odom

College: Duke
Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats: 5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG

Time will tell, but Odom could wind up becoming one of the most valuable diamonds in the rough to emerge from the bubble. The Liberty’s latest draft pick from last year’s sizable haul (15th overall) developed a notorious reputation as a strong defender, frustrating some of the league’s most notable names, including Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner.

Alas for the Liberty, they’ll have to wait a little bit to see Odom resume her defensive prowess. The team announced on Thursday that she’ll miss tonight’s opener with an Achilles injury.

F Michaela Onyenwere

College: UCLA
Experience: Rookie
2020 Stats: 19.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG

The Liberty’s 2021 draft class isn’t as plentiful as last year’s group, but talent was certainly not sacrificed in the smaller settings. Their first pick was the former Bruin Onyenwere (pronounced On-yen-way-day) with the sixth overall choice.

Onyenwere has a prime opportunity to contribute immediately to Liberty’s hopeful surge. She fulfills the team’s requirement for fearless shooting, as she departed UCLA as the fourth-leading scorer in program history and tried nearly 200 three-pointers over her final three seasons. But with Howard and Stokes’ debuts unscheduled, Onyenwere could be called upon to make a difference in the interior, as she put up over eight rebounds a game during her sophomore and junior seasons.

G/F DiDi Richards

College: Baylor
Experience: Rookie
2020 Stats: 6.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG

By every stretch of the basketball imagination, Richards shouldn’t be suiting up for her WNBA debut in Brooklyn. A freak accident in an early practice at Baylor nearly left her paralyzed and she was medically advised to realistically start thinking of career options beyond the hardwood.

However, Richards went to check off another box on the Liberty’s shopping list for character, working her way back and resuming her role as a strong defender. She brings a national championship ring from her sophomore season and three Defensive Player of the Year titles from 2020. Richards more than made up for lost time once the season began, finishing second in the nation with 189 total assists.

F Kylee Shook

College: Louisville
Experience: 2nd season
2020 Stats: 4.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG

Immediately after picking Jones (as well as COVID-sidelined second overall choice Asia Durr in 2019), the Liberty continued to treat UL as a de facto farm team by taking Shook with the first pick of the second round.

Shook deal with a late injury, but has taken on a larger role in her second season. Several of the younger players, and even some veteran newcomers, have praised Shook for helping them get used to the system. With Stokes and Howard’s debut in question and Amanda Zahui B off to Los Angeles, Shook is expected to take on a major role in the interior.

C Kiah Stokes*

College: Connecticut
Experience: 6th season
2020 Stats: 6.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG

The only leftover from the Liberty’s “baby vet” dwelling in Bradenton (Zahui and Kia Nurse being the others), Stokes’ status will fluctuate throughout the season, as she’s finishing her international duties while also preparing to partake in Turkey’s EuroBasket plans. However, it’s clear that the Liberty have high hopes for her, signing the long-tenured interior prescience to a new contract before last season ended.

Though Stokes’ should return to being a strong paint presicence with Zahui B now out west, the New York coaching staff was very enthused by her newfound liking for outside shooting. No one embraced the Liberty’s new tenet of fearless shooting like Stokes, who did not partake in any 2019 action for personal reasons. She put up 85 attempts from deep last year after trying only three in the four years prior.

G Sami Whitcomb

College: Washington
Experience: 5th season (1st in New York)
2020 Stats: 8.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG

It’s almost somewhat easy for Whitcomb to get lost in the Liberty’s stellar transaction log, but she provides accomplished veteran intangibles through both American and Australian endeavors. Whitcomb was another member of the defending champion Storm (though she did not partake in the championship round due to the birth of her first child) and came over with Howard, with whom she likewise collaborated on a 2018 triumph in the Finals.

Whitcomb is on the shortlist of WNBA stars that already know how to make a difference at Barclays Center: she sank a career-best seven field when Seattle came to visit in the building lone regular season game in 2019.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: JTG Daugherty Racing

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
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ryan Preece 37 Trent Owens Kroger
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47 Brian Pattie Kroger/NOS Energy Drink

History

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

Ryan Preece

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.”

Outlook

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.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Richard Petty Motorsports

After ending his Joe Gibbs tenure on a strong note, Erik Jones is ready to reboot his NASCAR Cup Series career in the iconic No. 43.

2021 Richard Petty Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Erik Jones 43 Jerry Baxter Armor All/RP Funding/US Air Force/McDonald’s

History

What is now known as RPM began as championship crew chief Ray Evernham’s race team in 2001. The team was originally a merger of three formerly successful teams (Evernham Motorsports, Petty Enterprises, Robert Yates Racing) that had seen their prosperous times end. Today, Richard “The King ” Petty continues to run the operation alongside New York-based millionaire Andrew Murstein. It has been a single-car team since 2016, fielding Petty’s iconic No. 43 car, which was first run by Petty in 1959. After his retirement in 1992, Petty continued to run his team in an ownership role.

Ever since Petty earned his record 200th and final Cup Series win in Daytona’s summer event in 1984 (the first NASCAR race with a sitting U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, in attendance), the No. 43 has endured some hard times, despite some talented names behind the wheel. Bubba Wallace was the most recent entrant, running the past three full seasons after prior occupants included John Andretti, former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, and Aric Almirola. The 43 last went to victory lane in 2014, when Almirola won a rain-shortened race at Daytona. RPM’s last victory in a race that went the distance was when Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999. With Wallace moving on to new endeavors with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, Jones comes over after four seasons as Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing.

2020 in Review

With Wallace behind the wheel, the 43 car finished 22nd in the final 2020 standings, its best final posting since Almirola came home 17th in 2015. His best finish was a fifth in, once again, the Daytona summer event.

As for Jones, things failed to pan out in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota after strong runs at both the Xfinity and Truck levels (winning the 2015 title at the latter level). He failed to win a race after win one in both 2018 and 2019 and his 13 top tens were his worst tally since entering full-time Cup racing in 2017. Despite his regular season struggles, Jones built momentum in the early stages of the playoffs. Over the first six postseason races, Jones earned four finishes amongst the top quartet, including a runner-up tally at Talladega. It allowed him to take 17th place in the final standings, best amongst the non-playoff drivers. He did take home the win at the Busch Clash, the season-opening exhibition at Daytona.

Meet the Driver

Erik Jones

Experience: 5th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: summer Darlington, 2019)
2020 finish: 17th
Best standings finish: 15th (2018)

Jones knows what it’s like to win on NASCAR’s national levels, having won a pair at the Cup level and 16 at the Xfinity and Truck Series. Though things didn’t work out in Gibbs equipment, Jones is confident he can take lessons from his days in the 20 into his new role at RPM.

“You just have to take in the opportunity that it was, what that team did to be successful and try to move on from that and learn from that,” Jones said this week. “A lot of it has just been trying to figure out, on my end, what I can bring to the table over at RPM to try to continue to make them better. A lot of that is just me being really in the trenches with those guys. I feel like I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the shop and we’ve already been on the simulator quite a bit, just trying to get through stuff and learn what I want in a race car.”

One adjustment for Jones will be moving from the elite shop at Gibbs to the single-car setup at RPM. He’s confident that a combination of his own talents and the strides RPM has made over the past few seasons will lead to a successful merger.

“RPM has been doing a lot over the last few years to really strengthen their organization and I think it’s showing in performance, too,” Jones noted. “The trend is going in the right direction and, obviously, we want to keep it going that way this year, keep going to a better points finish, and continue to get more and more competitive on-track. Overall, I think there’s a great opportunity.”

Outlook

Jones believes that RPM is capable of fielding a top 20 car, a title it hasn’t held since Almirola’s aforementioned 2015 efforts. But Jones might be ready to swipe a playoff spot at Daytona or Talladega. The former was the site of his first victory in 2018 and he earned top-five finishes in each visit to Alabama. With both Jones and Petty looking to reintroduce themselves to victory lane, they’re sure to be one of the most intriguing stories of opening events at the World Center of Racing. Jones will first look to defend his Clash title on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET, FS1), though this edition will be held on the track’s road course.

Geoff Magliocchettis is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Wood Brothers Racing

Matt DiBenedetto’s immediate NASCAR future is secure. But such temporary stability could set the tone for the rest of his NASCAR career.

2021 Wood Brothers Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Matt DiBenedetto 21 Greg Erwin Motorcraft/Menards/Quick Lane

History

Founded by brothers Leonard and the late Glen, Wood Brothers Racing has been a NASCAR Cup Series staple since the 1950s. Though the team has yet to secure an elusive championship, some of auto racing’s most illustrious, most accomplished names have piloted their trademark No. 21 Ford. Winners with the Woods include Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Dale Jarrett. The team has accrued 99 NASCAR Cup Series victories, the last coming with Ryan Blaney in 2017. Among that tally is five wins at the Daytona 500, with the most recent in that slot being Trevor Bayne’s upset win in the 2011 edition. Only Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports have won more. Though the team has struggled in modern times, Blaney and current driver Matt DiBenedetto have brought them back into contention. Blaney’s victory, earned at Pocono, was the first Wood win at a non-superspeedway race since 2001 (Elliott Sadler at Bristol) while DiBenedetto was the first non-Blaney driver to earn double-digit top tens finishes (11) since Michael Waltrip in 1996. The team now holds a technical alliance with Team Penske, where Blaney currently drives the No. 12 Ford.

2020 in Review

Taking over the No. 21 from a retiring Paul Menard, DiBenedetto continued his successful climb through the cutthroat world of the Cup Series after placing the No. 95 Toyota at defunct Leavine Family Racing in the top ten seven times during the 2019 campaign. The 11 top tens were a career-best for the driver affectionately referred to as “Matty D”, who posted runner-up finishes in both Las Vegas events, as well as a third at Kentucky. Though a win proved elusive once more, DiBenedetto reached the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career, allowing him to come home 13th in the final standings…yet another career-best. DiBenedetto is still seeking his first NASCAR victory, though he did the All-Star Open at Bristol over the summer to gain entry into the exhibition’s main event. He nearly earned that victory at Talladega’s fall event, but Denny Hamlin stole the trophy while DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was erased due to a controversial penalty (driving below the yellow line) relegating him to 21st.

Though his playoff showing ended rather quickly, DiBenedetto was signed to a one-year extension by the Woods, though he will vacate the ride next season to make room for Penske developmental driver and defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric.

Meet the Driver

Matt DiBenedetto

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 13th
Best standings finish: 13th (2020)

It’s not surprising that DiBenedetto has gained a strong following during his NASCAR career. Rarely granted opportunities in strong equipment..save for seven races in Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide (now Xfinity) program in 2009-10…DiBenedetto has made the most of his chances in underfunded rides. He was responsible for defunct BK Racing’s best finish (6th at Bristol in 2016) and currently owns the lone top-ten Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 has achieved at a non-superspeedway (8th at Indianapolis in 2017). During the 2019 Bristol summer race, the victorious Hamlin said he was “sorry” for passing DiBenedetto’s No. 95 with 12 laps to go.

DiBenedetto has said the the confidence built over the past few seasons has offset the uncertainty looming after 2021.

“We’re ready as a team,” DiBenedetto said in preparation for Daytona. “The first bit of last year I don’t think we were ready to win because we had a lot to learn, we had a lot to learn about each other, and then it finally clicked like I was talking about and then I felt like we were ready…The best car doesn’t always win, so I think we are ready to put ourselves in position consistently to win and I think that’s how it’s gonna come for us and I feel like this year is definitely our year.”

Adding to DiBenedetto’s confidence is his strong finish to 2020. Had the Talladega runner-up posting remained, his average finish over the last seven races would’ve been 9.1.

Outlook

The time appears to be now for DiBenedetto. It might be a crushing hit for the No. 21 that one of the Bristol events has been bestowed the unpredictability of dirt, but there’s enough momentum with his team to get things rolling on a more consistent basis. It’s great that DiBenedetto worked his way into the playoffs last year (the second time a WBR vehicle made it), but he may need to both earn that elusive victory and advance a playoff round to maintain the decent equipment he’s working with. Since the No. 21 is being turned over to Cindric next year, this season serves as a de facto 36-race elevator pitch for Matty D.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Team Penske

Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.

2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Brad Keselowski 2 Jeremy Bullins Discount Tire/AutoTrader
Ryan Blaney 12 Todd Gordon Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Joey Logano 22 Paul Wolfe Shell/Pennzoil
Austin Cindric (part-time) 33 Brian Wilson Verizon

History

Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.

2020 in Review

One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.

Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.

While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.

Meet the Drivers

Brad Keselowski

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 2nd
Best standings finish: 2012 champion

Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”

Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.

“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”

Ryan Blaney

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020)
2020 finish: 9th
Best standings finish: 7th (2019)

It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).

Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.

“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”

Joey Logano

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020)
2020 finish: 3rd
Best standings finish: 2018 Champion

It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.

Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.

“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”

Austin Cindric (part-time)

Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.

While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.

“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”

Outlook

Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Richard Childress Racing

Reenergized after the No. 3 returned to victory lane, RCR is looking to get both of its cars into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

2021 Richard Childress Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Austin Dillon 3 Justin Alexander Dow/Bass Pro Shops/American Ethanol/Symbicort
Tyler Reddick 8 Randall Burnett Caterpillar/Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen/Alsco

History

RCR is best known for running the No. 3 Chevrolet, which Childress himself ran for a majority of his own full-time driving career (1973-81). The numeral was made legendary by Dale Earnhardt, who drove it to 67 victories and six of his record seven NASCAR Cup Series titles (1986-87, 1990-91, 1993-94). It was retired after Earnhardt’s tragic passing after a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but it returned to the Cup level when Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon began his own full-time endeavors in 2014. Kevin Harvick drove the car, under No. 29 branding, for 13 seasons before departing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.

Childress opened a second full-time vehicle in 1997, with the current No. 8 Chevrolet running under previous identities of Nos. 30, 07, and 27. Notable names to pass through each respective incarnation include Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and Paul Menard.

2020 in Review

The 2019 Cup Series season had been a struggle for RCR, as the team failed to put a car in the top 20 in points for the first time in its full-time racing days, a streak dating back to 1976. Reddick, the winner of back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships, took over the No. 8 from Daniel Hemric while Dillion was reunited with crew chief Justin Alexander. The latter pair previously united for a last-lap victory at the 2018 Daytona 500, the No. 3’s first victory in the Great American Race since Earnhardt captured a long-sought-after triumph in the 1998 edition.

Their reunion paid big dividends. Dillon earned one of the best seasons of his career and ended an 88-race win drought at the O’Reilly Auto Parts at Texas in July. The win secured his spot in the postseason, which came up big when he was forced to skip August’s Daytona road course event due to a positive COVID-19 test (Kaz Grala brought the No. 3 home in seventh in his absence). He further impressed in the opening round of the playoffs, earning consecutive top-five finishes in the first two races (including a runner-up at the opener in Darlington). Dillon’s 11th-place finish of the standings tied a career-best previously set in 2017.

Reddick got off to a decent start to his career, leading the 2020 rookie class with three top fives and nine top tens. He was in contention for wins at several points during the season, including the aforementioned Texas event, where his runner-up posting created the first RCR sweep of the first couple spots since October 2011 at Talladega (Bowyer and Burton). Reddick nearly stole a playoff spot during the regular season finale at Daytona, but his involvement in a late wreck forced him to watch from the outside.

Meet the Drivers

Austin Dillon

Experience: 7th season
Career Cup Victories: 3 (last: Texas, summer 2020)
2020 finish: 11th (Round of 12)
Best standings finish: 11th (2017, 2020)

A target’s always going to be on Dillon’s back because of his status as both Earnhardt’s successor in the No. 3 and as Childress’ grandson. Dillon had proven his racing mettle at several points in the past, winning the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and the 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series championship, as well as his aforementioned Daytona triumph. That meant little to NASCAR’s hard-to-please fanbase, but it appears that the latter stages of 2020 could be the start of something bigger for Dillon and the No. 3 team.

“I hope we can keep giving them something to talk about…The confidence is building,” Dillon said after a fourth-placing finish at Richmond in September. “I feel like a lot of people know that we’re here right now. And even if I get knocked out, eventually the naysayers are going to say, ‘See, I told you so,’ so I’m not worried about all that. My confidence comes from within my group. I’m so proud of the team that I’ve got surrounded by around me.”

Dillon might be glad to see on-track qualifying return to select races this season. He was one of six drivers to sit on the pole in at least three races during the 2019 season.

Tyler Reddick

Experience: 2nd season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 19th
Best standings finish: 19th (2020)

Reddick was by far the most consistent of the 2020 Cup rookie group. His lack of victories cost him the official award, with brief playoff contender Cole Custer taking it home through his triumph at Kentucky.

“He always wants as much as he can’t he’s a champion. He’s done a great job this year found a lot of speed at different tracks,” Dillon said of his teammates rookie season prior to the playoffs. “I think he did and does has done an amazing job all year as a rookie and I think it’ll be in the playoffs for years to come. So it’s one of those things that he’s probably disappointed that but I think everybody knows that he’s got the speed and the pace to win races and get in the playoffs as a real contender for years to come.”

Outlook

Last season saw RCR vehicles take down several dubious streaks, but there’s plenty of work to be done. No RCR participant has finished in the top ten of the standings since Ryan Newman’s runner-up posting in 2014 while driving the defunct No. 31. RCR is also looking to put multiple cars in the playoffs for the first time since 2017, when Dillon and Newman finished 11th and 16th respectively. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Reddick earn his first Cup Series win and playoff berth in 2021, while Dillon can truly force the racing world to take notice if he can make it to the semifinal round of eight this fall.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Chip Ganassi Racing

CGR’s 2021 roster features a former NASCAR champion gearing up for another run, and an Xfinity standout looking to make an impact.

2021 Chip Ganassi Racing Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kurt Busch 1 Matt McCall Monster Energy
Ross Chastain 42 TBD Clover

History

Chip Ganassi Racing began competition in 1989, formed by the eponymous Ganassi and millionaire Felix Sabates. Ganassi has also formed successful ventures at the IndyCar and Grand-Am levels. He took over a controlling interest of the team in 2001, enjoying a brief period of prosperity with Sterling Marlin driving the No. 40 Dodge dubbed the “Silver Bullet” thanks to its sponsorship from Coors Light. Marlin finished third in the final 2001 Cup Series ledger and was at the top of the pack for a majority of the 2002 seasons before he was sidelined with a neck injury. After Jamie McMurray won in his second career Cup Series start while subbing for Marlin, the team won only a single race over the next 13 seasons, with Juan Pablo Montoya triumphing at Sonoma in 2007.

Ganassi vehicles have run more consistently over recent seasons. Kyle Larson won four races in the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2017, while Kurt Busch has earned a win in each of the last two seasons in the No. 1.

2020 in Review

2020 was a year of controversy and resurgence for CGR. Larson got off to a strong start (three top-tens in the first four races) but was dismissed during the coronavirus-induced pause for using a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, came out of retirement to pilot the No. 42 the rest of the way, but never found momentum save for a runner-up finish at Indianapolis in July.

Meanwhile, Busch managed to stay consistent in his second year driving Gannasi’s No. 1 Chevrolet. He hovered around the latter half of the playoff bracket with 14 top-ten finishes in the 26 regular season races and reached the postseason festivities for the eighth straight year. Busch earned a statement victory at his home track of Las Vegas, leading the final 26 laps to win the South Point 400. It earned him automatic advancement to the semifinal round that featured eight drivers contending for the championship, but an engine failure at Kansas stifled his chances at reaching the championship quartet.

Meet the Drivers

Kurt Busch

Experience: 21st season
Career Cup Victories: 32 (last: Las Vegas, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 10th (Round of 8)
Best standings finish: 2004 Champion

It’s not officially silly season without pondering Busch’s future. Set to turn 42 in August, Busch is one of three remaining full-time drivers to race during NASCAR’s days under the “Winston Cup” moniker (Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman are the others). Busch appeared to be leaning toward retirement after 2019 but signed on for two more years at the helm after coming home 13th in the final standings and stealing a win from his younger brother Kyle at Kentucky earlier that season.

In an interview with Matt Mayer of CBS Sports after his win at Las Vegas, Busch said that there was a “50/50 chance” that 2021 could be his final season.

“I’ve been at this game a long time,” Busch said at the time. “I’ve been out there 21 years and my wife is a great supporter of mine and she loves the racing but it’s been a bunch of years out on the road and out on the circuit and we’ll see what 2022 brings us when we get there.”

Busch is best known for winning the 2004 Cup Series championship, the first held under a playoff format.

Ross Chastain

Experience: 1st full-time season (79 prior Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

This will be Chastain’s first year racing full-time on the Cup Series circuit, but he’s anything but a rookie. Chastain, now driving the No. 42 vacated by Kenseth, has made 79 Cup Series starts, often in low-budget cars, though he did get some experience prior to the pause in Roush Fenway’s No. 6 Ford in relief of an injured Newman. In the meantime, Chastain has become a force to be reckoned with on NASCAR’s lower national levels, finishing in the runner-up slot on the 2019 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series circuit. He didn’t win a race on the Xfinity level last season, but he led all drivers with 27 postings in the top ten.

“He’s a great addition. Ross Chastain will fit in right away,” Busch said of Chastain’s entry after the announcement was made. “He’s had some tough situations stacked against him with different sponsors and movement. But he’s had the strength to rise above that.”

Outlook

Busch should secure a spot among the playoff contenders again, and will likely be in contention for wins at multiple points this season. As for Chastain, it’s going to be interesting to see how the No. 42 car comes out this year after struggling under Kenseth’s watch for the majority of 2020. Reaching the playoffs in his first full-time endeavor would be a realistic, attainable goal as both he and the No. 42 team as a whole seek to get back on the right track.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags