When the engines start and the green flag flies for the first time, almost anything can happen during a new NASCAR Cup Series season. And last year, it certainly did.
Michael McDowell entered the 2021 season having never won a Cup Series race, until the story of his career changed entirely when he won the Daytona 500. Kyle Larson has gone from a pariah just grateful to have a second chance to the reigning Cup Series Champion after a historically dominant season. Alex Bowman won four races, while Denny Hamlin won just twice and Kevin Harvick not at all after the two controlled the Winner's Circle in 2020.
This year, continuing change in NASCAR has only made the upcoming season more difficult to predict: A brand new racecar is making its debut, and a new racetrack is on the schedule to follow the debut of the quarter-mile speedway built within the Los Angeles Coliseum that hosted the Busch Light Clash in early February.
Though no one can be certain just what this new season of racing will bring, it's at least possible to have an idea of what may or may not happen. Whether through past precedent, reading the tea leaves, or just going with my instincts and keeping it simple, I decided to take a crack at making predictions for what we can expect to see in NASCAR this year.
Here are some general expectations to look out for, followed by my picks for a Cup champion and more:
- A large part of why the playing field was so relatively level in 2021 was the planned obsolescence of the Gen 6 car, and the subsequent effect that racing a lame duck car and chassis had on things like team's research and development programs. And with the arrival of the Next Gen car, I anticipate the balance of competitive power being a little more lopsided.
In 2008, when NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow became the full-time Cup car and chassis, the season was dominated by the three drivers and teams that got a handle on the CoT first (Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch) who combined to win 24 of 36 races. Although increasing parity and lessening equipment disparities is a large part of the Next Gen platform, it's still likely that the teams with the most money and resources -- and the best drivers -- will be able to establish a baseline first and get a jump on the competition.
- That being said, I do think the exact teams that get a handle on the Next Gen car could very well fall outside the umbrella of the usual suspects like Hendrick, Gibbs, and Penske. Brad Keselowski's arrival at RFK Racing is sure to be a tide that lifts that ship, similar to the effect that Tony Stewart's arrival had on what was Haas CNC Racing or Kurt Busch when he moved to Furniture Row Racing back in 2013.
Speaking of Busch, he should also have a great impact on the performance of 23XI Racing, although it's fair to assume that their strength and the strength of Toyota as a whole will still be tied to the performance of Gibbs.
- However many drivers do win races, I expect there to be a few first-time winners among them. The first potential first-time winner that comes to mind is Tyler Reddick, as he's been banging on the door of Victory Lane and had multiple chances to win races late last year (Root for this if you want free chicken tenders). I expect Ross Chastain to have more than a few chances too, provided the transition from Ganassi to Trackhouse is a seamless one (Root for this if you enjoy watermelons getting smashed).
- Out of all of the things the Next Gen car offers, what I really can't wait to see is how the composite bodies perform and its effect on the level of competition. Composite bodies have been used over the last couple of years in the Xfinity Series, and they've both leveled the playing field by reducing the ways that teams can manipulate the body for a competitive advantage and also made for tougher cars that can better withstand hard racing.
What you don't see in the Xfinity Series is drivers holding back or having their day ruined by simple cosmetic damage. With composite bodies, cars in that series have bounced off each other and the wall and barely lost any speed or handling at all -- compared to the Cup Series, where even the tiniest amount of body damage can cut a tire or shave tenths off a lap time.
Most Improved Driver
Cole Custer: The 2021 season was a disappointing one as a whole for Stewart-Haas Racing, but no driver within the organization bore the brunt of a down year as hard as Cole Custer did. The 2020 Cup Series Rookie of the Year endured an awful season, only finishing in the top 10 twice and finishing on the lead lap less than half the time on his way to 26th in the final standings.
There's no doubt about Custer's abilities as a driver -- especially considering he already has a Cup win under his belt -- so I fully expect him to bounce back and start running more towards the front again.
Rookie of the Year
Austin Cindric: There are three rookie drivers in Cup this year, all of whom will be competing under the Ford banner. Cindric and Harrison Burton both move up from the Xfinity Series to drive for Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing respectively, while Todd Gilliland gets promoted from Front Row Motorsports' Truck Series team to their Cup team.
When handicapping the Rookie of the Year race, Cindric is the low-hanging fruit. And quite frankly, there's no reason to bet against him. He's driving Team Penske's No. 2, was outstanding in Xfinity competition over the last two seasons, and it's easy to foresee him contending for wins and a playoff spot by virtue of his demonstrated ability on road courses.
As much as I expect Cindric to win ROTY, I wouldn't discount Harrison Burton's chances of both pushing Cindric for that title and possibly earning the 100th victory for the famed Wood Brothers.
LaJoie breaks through: I'm going to go out on somewhat of a limb in saying this -- it would not surprise me in the slightest if Corey LaJoie contends for a playoff spot in 2022, nor if he ends up earning his first career win.
Anyone who's watched LaJoie through the years knows he's very capable of contending in the right equipment, and I think he would have won last August's regular season finale at Daytona had he gotten the right push with half a lap to go. LaJoie drives for Spire Motorsports, which has been building its program with an eye towards the Next Gen car and made significant strides towards being a mid-pack team capable of contending for a top 15s and even top 10s on their best days. If Spire's vision and LaJoie's buy-in pays off as intended, I don't think it's farfetched to suggest LaJoie could be a fringe playoff contender at the very worst and an upset winner in a best-case scenario.
Regular Season Champion
Kyle Larson: If there's any driver in NASCAR who can handle driving a completely different racecar, it's Larson. He's proven he can win in one car one day, win in another car the next, and barely bat an eye in doing so. Larson was NASCAR's most dominant driver by far last year, and he may have not even reached the apex of what he's capable of doing in a single season. Imagine if some of the second place finishes or missed opportunities (Atlanta, Pocono, and Darlington come to mind) had been wins instead?
Cup Series Champion
Denny Hamlin: Going off of that, I could easily stick with Larson under this heading and say he'll become the first back-to-back Cup champion since Jimmie Johnson. But the playoffs are volatile from start to finish, and they amplify the effects of both good and bad luck. If it hadn't been for a late caution, for example, Martin Truex Jr. could easily have been the 2021 champion by virtue of an extremely well-timed yellow during green flag pit stops.
I don't think the playoffs are "random" in how they determine a champion, but I do think that if a driver gets enough at-bats in the Championship 4, chances are they're eventually going to win one. That's what I think about Denny Hamlin: He was arguably the best driver not named Larson from start-to-finish last year, and he made the Championship 4 for the third year in a row.
Hamlin has been a championship contender from the start of his career onwards, and he's never been better since being paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart in 2019. I say Hamlin returns to the Championship 4, and this time finally wins his first Cup title.