It wasn’t easy and it took plenty of adjustments, but last year NASCAR managed to maneuver its way through the coronavirus pandemic and complete its full 36-race schedule. When it was over, the sport’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott, was the champion.
Now, NASCAR hopes to ride that wave of success and momentum into this season, which began over the weekend with the Daytona 500.
“As extraordinary as 2020 was for all of us, 2021, we’ve got real excitement as we head into this season, probably more excitement and more wind at our back than we’ve had in decades,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps told media Friday. “That’s gratifying, feels good. We need to make sure that as a sport we continue to pour gas on the growth of the sport. It’s important.”
There are plenty of new places and new faces.
A television promo is calling this NASCAR’s “Best Season Ever.”
After years of listening to fans clamor to shake up the schedule, NASCAR finally did. It removed Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Chicagoland and Kentucky and took one race date from Michigan, Dover and Texas, although the latter will host the All-Star Race instead of Charlotte.
Four road courses — Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; Daytona; and Indianapolis — joined the three already on the schedule (Sonoma, California; Watkins Glen, New York; Charlotte Roval). Nashville Superspeedway was also added. And, Bristol will be transformed into a dirt track for its spring race.
In recent years, as talk of adding more road courses to the schedule increased, there was some speculation that Pocono Raceway in Long Pond might hold one of its races on its infield road course.
“Our road course is a really great design, the curbing is good,” Pocono president Ben May said. “Where we lack a little bit is the runoff and things like that. People say, ‘You can do the triangle one race and the road course the next.’ But there’s too much movement with our campers, our walls and SAFER barriers. I think it would be awesome, I think it would be fun. But we’re not up to that Daytona road course standard. Not far, but not Cup-race ready.”
Instead, Pocono again will host a doubleheader weekend June 26-27 that features Cup races both days along with a NASCAR Truck Series race June 26, a NASCAR Xfinity Series race June 27 and an ARCA Series race June 25. Last year’s doubleheader at Pocono was the first in the history of NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972).
“We’re proud and happy to keep our doubleheader,” May said. “We’re thrilled about the concept. We love it. It’s a lot of racing each day and a lot of good action. Being the only one on the NASCAR Cup Series calendar is special, it makes us an important marquee event.”
All that was missing last year were fans because of the pandemic. May said Pocono officials hope to sit down with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration in the near future to discuss having fans at this year’s doubleheader.
“People want to get back to live events,” May said. “As long as it’s safe to do so, we’ll be happy to host them.
“Whatever number of fans we’re able to have in attendance, they’ll see a good show.”
As for some of the new faces in the sport, basketball legend Michael Jordan and driver Denny Hamlin partnered to create 23XI Racing with Bubba Wallace, the lone Black driver in the series, behind the wheel. Also, singer Pitbull is co-owner of Team Trackhouse with driver Daniel Suarez.
Among the driver changes, Alex Bowman goes from the No. 88 Chevrolet to the No. 48 Chevy vacated by seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who ended his Cup career last season. Rookie Chase Briscoe takes over in the No. 14 Ford after Clint Bowyer retired and headed to the broadcast booth. Ross Chastain moves into No. 42 Chevrolet.
Christopher Bell will drive the No. 20 Toyota, driven last year by Erik Jones, who moves to the No. 43 Chevrolet previously occupied by Wallace. Look for Bell to get his first career Cup win this season and for Jones to put the famed Richard Petty Motorsports car back in Victory Lane, possibly at Pocono where Jones has five top-five finishes in eight career starts at the track.
Kyle Larson is back. He lost his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing and several sponsors after he used a racial slur during an iRacing event. NASCAR suspended him, but he was reinstated after completing rehabilitation and diversity training. His second chance comes with Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet.
So which 16 drivers will qualify for the playoffs over the season’s final 10 races? In alphabetical order: Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace.
The Final Four for Phoenix: Harvick, Kyle Busch, Blaney, Bowman. Your 2021 champion: Blaney.
During more than 30 years at The Times-Tribune, Scott has covered everything from high schools to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. His current beats include motor sports, local colleges, high school cross country and high school baseball. He also is a copy editor and page designer. His articles have won awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association, Eastern Motorsports Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Pro Chapter and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Keystone Press. He also has been honored by the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League and the Minor League Football Alliance. In 2016, he was presented the Media Service Award by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame. A Long Island, New York, native, Scott graduated from the University of Scranton in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He lives in Peckville with his wife, Andrea, and daughters, Bridget and Emily. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100, x5109; or @swalshTT on Twitter