The NASCAR Cup Series season is on a two-week break for the Olympics, providing a fitting opportunity to look back at the first 22 races and how drivers have performed. Some have disappointed after an offseason of hope while others, such as William Byron, have impressed yet again.
The youngest member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable at the age of 23, the driver of the No. 24 is currently in the midst of his fourth full-time season. He entered the year with extra attention on him due to his exciting win in the 2020 regular-season finale that got him into the playoffs. However, Byron started 2021 with two finishes outside the top 25 — 26th in the Daytona 500 and 33rd at the Daytona Road Course.
Once the Cup Series headed to Homestead-Miami Speedway, however, Byron turned a corner. He won the Dixie Vodka 400 on Feb. 28, becoming the first HMS driver to punch a ticket to the playoffs. He then rattled off 10 more top-10 finishes to keep him near the top of the points standings.
Outside of issues at road course races — 35th at Sonoma and 33rd at Road America — Byron has been the picture of consistency for HMS. He has matched his all-time career mark of 14 top-10 finishes and has set a career-high eight top-fives. Byron can easily add to his career year considering that he has 14 races remaining on the schedule.
Young Drivers Continue to Make Strides
Making a “Most Impressive Drivers” list could easily boil down to highlighting the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. However, there is no fun in that. It’s more important to discuss some of the rising stars that continue to make positive strides.
Christopher Bell tops the list more than halfway through his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota Camry spent his rookie season (2020) with Leavine Family Racing, where he posted two top-five finishes and seven top-10s. Bell then made the leap to JR in 2021 and immediately kicked off the season with a strong performance. He reached Victory Lane at the Daytona Road Course — only the second race of the year — on Feb. 21.
While Bell has struggled at some tracks, such as Pocono and Charlotte, he has made positive strides in others. Bell is fresh off three top-10 finishes, including runner-ups at Road America on July 4 and New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 18.
Tyler Reddick hasn’t quite achieved the same level of success as Bell, but the second-year Richard Childress Racing driver is still creating conversations with each outing. He currently has the final playoff spot after 11 top-10 finishes, as well as a runner-up at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Reddick also won the first Busch Pole of his career during the first-ever race at Circuit of the Americas on May 23.
While Reddick is on pace for a career year, the most impressive part of his season is the incremental progress at certain tracks. He finished seventh in the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 25 after taking 20th in the 2020 race.
Additionally, Reddick finished 11th and ninth in the doubleheader races at Pocono on June 26-27. When he took on the Tricky Triangle as a rookie, he ended both days outside the top 30. While Reddick has yet to win a race in the Cup Series, he continues to showcase steady improvement against the sport’s best drivers.
Playoff Drivers Can Still Disappoint
There are several familiar names in the playoff picture with four regular-season races remaining. Chief among them is Kevin Harvick, but he still lands on the list of disappointment.
The reason for the ranking is that he entered the 2021 season with sky-high expectations after winning nine races in 2020. The driver of the No. 4 had one of the best cars all year long, but he missed out on the championship four due to a stunning 17th-place finish at Martinsville on Nov. 1. Harvick tried to spin Kyle Busch on the final turn and get himself into the championship race, but he also spun himself and ended in a worse position.
Based on his past success, as well as the Martinsville race, there was an expectation that Harvick would enter the season on a mission and lock up even more wins. However, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang has not reached Victory Lane. The team has not achieved the same level of speed despite pushing to make gains each year.
Crew chief Rodney Childers even acknowledged the issue during an interview with “Racer Magazine” in early July, saying that the team has “been off a little bit” all year long. Childers told the outlet that he did not expect to make the No. 4 any better before the start of the playoffs.
While Harvick is currently in the playoff picture, he remains only two spots above the cut line. He is nowhere near safe with four races remaining and could lose his spot if two new drivers win races.
Major Expectations Lead to Disappointment
Several drivers entered the 2021 season with raised expectations due to past success or moves to new teams. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer reached the playoffs in 2020 by winning at Kentucky on July 12, 2020. He locked up Rookie of the Year and created expectations among some fans that he could become the next SHR driver to contend for wins on a regular basis.
However, the 2021 season has not been kind of Custer. The second-year driver has dealt with a plethora of issues, including three crashes. Instead of building upon his previous seven top-10 finishes and two top-fives, Custer only has a pair of 10th-place finishes at Talladega Superspeedway (April 25) and Dover International Speedway (May 16).
Custer has performed more consistently over the past three weeks, finishing top 20 at Road America, Atlanta Motor Speedway, and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He just hasn’t been able to replicate his previous success.
Bubba Wallace, on the other hand, agreed to join the newly-formed 23XI Racing for the 2021 season and become the primary driver of the No. 23 Toyota Camry. He started his Cup Series career with Richard Petty Motorsports, a small team that previously struggled with funding, but moved to 23XI while working with a large number of partners.
Despite posting a career-high five top-10 finishes in 2020 with RPM, Wallace has only one top-five finish to his name in 2021 (Pocono). The early portion of the schedule featured a crash in the Daytona 500 and nine finishes outside the top 20.
There were multiple reasons for these issues early in the season. The 23XI team dealt with mechanical issues and tire strategies that backfired. Team co-owner Denny Hamlin also highlighted the number of mistakes that ruined top-10 days while also clarifying that Wallace has “raw speed” each week.
“Finish where you are running,” Hamlin told media members, per Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass. “They’ve run inside the top 10 in two races and have had a car capable of contending for top-five. Mistakes take them out of it. They’ve really got to work on their execution.”
More top-10 finishes are likely in the future for Wallace and the No. 23 Toyota Camry as the team continues to build chemistry. However, the early struggles left considerable room for improvement.