Through 11 races of the Cup Series, there have been 10 different NASCAR drivers that have reached Victory Lane. Only Martin Truex Jr. has won more than one race so far, creating considerable questions about how the playoffs will shake out. 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch does not know which 16 drivers will ultimately reach the next stage, but he does know that the early-season trend is wild.
Busch made the comments while meeting with media members ahead of the Goodyear 400. He explained that he doesn’t have a “magic button” that provides the exact reason why so many different drivers are winning races in 2021. He does, however, see a combination of factors contributing to why the season is playing out in such a manner.
“A lot of things add up. The competition, the competition right now,” Busch told media members. “The parity that everybody has, whether it’s a manufacturer, whether it’s the teams against another team, whether it’s the same manufacturer.”
Busch added that the pit sequences and the decisions to stay out or go and get new tires play a considerable role. These situations lead to “50-50 calls” about whether the drivers will be able to get back to the front of the pack in time to pursue a win.
The schedule plays a large role in the number of different winners
Three drivers accounted for the most wins during the 2020 season — Kevin Harvick (nine), Denny Hamlin (seven), and Chase Elliott (five). Brad Keselowski added three more of his own. However, the schedule was very different due to COVID-19.
When NASCAR returned to action on May 17, it brought an altered schedule. There were several changes to the orders of the tracks, as well as the number of days between each race. NASCAR implemented a schedule that kept the teams within a day’s drive of their home garages in order to limit the time at hotels or other communities. Additionally, there were multiple doubleheaders on the schedule, including trips to Darlington, Charlotte, Pocono, and Michigan.
The 2021 season, on the other hand, is more akin to previous years. The drivers have traveled thousands of miles while visiting Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, Daytona, Homestead-Miami, and Kansas among others. Busch explained that this variety in tracks is having an impact on how each week plays out.
“The variety of tracks that we have been on so far have been a large variety,” Busch added. “Now we get into these summer months where we see some of the Michigans, Poconos, and the faster tracks. The aero will come back to be more important, and then we will get into the road course season and see what we see for trends there.
“Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell — I mean, he was lights out at the Daytona Road Course. There’s certain guys that — and I hope that we are one of them — where they’re able to capitalize on one of the road courses.”
2022 could bring about another new streak of winners
As someone that has tested out the Next Gen car, Busch is well aware of the major differences between it and the sixth-gen version that he and his peers have driven for eight years. There is a situation where some drivers could adapt to the new setup quicker than their peers, especially with the handling differences between the traditional ovals and the road courses.
“The Next Gen car has quite a bit of difference to it,” Busch explained. “With independent rear suspension, sequential gearbox, much bigger brakes. The car, when I drove it at the Roval, was much more agile with its acceleration, deceleration, and primarily, its maneuverability to switch back left and right. The car was an impressive, easy two seconds quicker on the Roval circuit.”
While Busch was much faster on the Charlotte Roval, he noticed that the car did not handle as well during his time on the oval. He said that there were some issues with the aerodynamics and the independent rear suspensions. These differences in handling will force drivers to adapt on the fly and figure out the best setups each week. Those that do so quickly will have an early advantage.
If the veterans like Hamlin, Busch, and Harvick figure out the Next Gen car earlier than their peers, they could kick off a return to the seasons where only a handful of drivers reach Victory Lane. The remainder will have to reach the playoffs through points.
For now, however, they have a different task to keep their focus. The drivers have to finish off the remaining 25 races in the schedule and try to secure a spot in the championship race at Phoenix. The next step will be the Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway. The race will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET and will air on FS1.