Less than one week after Super Bowl LV, it will be NASCAR's turn put on their own “big game" of sorts when they run the coveted Daytona 500. Before we dive into the biggest race of the year, it’s important to look at both driver and team changes that occurred during the offseason. Now, I will only be looking at the "chartered" (guaranteed to race every weekend) teams, as it's very difficult to tell if these changes will lead to success or whether the partnership will be short-lived. Don’t think I forgot about the reigning champion, either. Chase Elliott put on a great performance in last year’s playoffs, including the final race, and there is no better way to start out the season than by jumping right into the biggest race of the calendar year.
The Champ / Best All-Around Driver
Kevin Harvick’s 2020 season was one of the most impressive I’ve witnessed in a long time. Case in point - nine wins and 20 top five finishes in a 36 race season. Harvick rarely made a mistake, but in the end, it was Chase Elliott who was the NASCAR champion. Elliott simply took a different path than Harvick, as Harvick was racking up wins while Elliott was winning race stages and placing in the top 10 at the end of each stage. In case you didn't know, a NASCAR race is broken down into three stages. At the end of a stage, the winner gets 10 points, second place gets nine points and all the way down to 10th place gets one point.
The driver with the most points at the end of the season is the champ, and when the playoffs hit last year, Elliott was ready and seized the opportunity. So why was Elliott the "best" all-around driver? While he didn’t have all the stats that Harvick had, when you compare the two you can see why Elliott takes the crown. It would be hard to find a better driver that was able to restart a race and gain positions, and it was Elliott who ranked in the 97th percentile here while Harvick ranked in the 52nd percentile. Elliott was also better at defending his position on restarts, ranking in the 84th percentile, compared to Harvicks' 58th.
Elliott’s 84th percentile rank in "passing" was much better than Harvicks 58th percentile rank as well. And something happened in early October during the playoff round of 12 too, when Harvick’s magic seemingly ran out and Elliott’s team seemed to have saved the best for the last. In the five races leading up to the championship race, Elliott secured playoff points 12 out of 15 times, in addition to two wins, while Harvick secured points only twice in that same span. Don’t expect Elliott to slow down any time soon either. He’s young, has a top organization formed around him, and he knows exactly when to hit the next gear. The regular season is worth watching, sure, but just make sure to tune into the show again come playoff time.
Christopher Bell: 2020 Levine Family Racing Statistics - Top 5’s (2); Top 10’s (7); Average Finish 20.2
Christopher Bell received a promotion leaving Levine Family Racing, which closed up shop at the end of the 2020 season. He's now a part of Joe Gibbs Racing and joins a team that has won three out of the last six championships, won back-to-back Daytona 500’s and is looking to do anything but slow down. Bell had an impressive rookie season too, considering all of the COVID-19 restrictions (no practice and no qualifying, as well as limited in-person time during the week with the team). According to Motor Sports Analytics, Bell was ranked as the best passer (99th percentile) among all drivers throughout the course of the 2020 season. While he was great at the 2 and 1.5 mile tracks, he was ranked near the bottom when it came to road courses. Bell lost 30 more positions than expected at two road courses. Compounding his road course woes, NASCAR has increased the number of road courses this year from two to six. Looking at the bright side, however, Bell now inherits crew chief Adam Stevens, who had great success with Kyle Busch.
Erik Jones: 2020 Joe Gibbs Racing Statistics - Top 5’s (9); Top 10’s (13); Average Finish 15.9
Erik Jones was let go from one of the most dominant teams in NASCAR in order to make room for THE aforementioned Christopher Bell. Jones will now join Richard Petty Motorsports, which is a downgrade in equipment and budget from what Jones is accustomed to, but an upgrade for RPM in driver rating. When comparing Jones and 2020 RPM driver Darrell Wallace Jr, Wallace Jr ranked higher in crashes (78th percentile) while Jones was in the 55th percentile in crashes. Jones was also ranked 2nd in the 2020 season for best passer, gaining 258 positions overall. While RPM does not have the resources that Joe Gibbs Racing has, Jones might just be able to bring with him the knowledge from four years of experience with JGR. Jones will be teamed up with Jerry Baxter, who was crew chief for Darrell Wallace Jr last year.
Kyle Busch: 2020 Joe Gibbs Racing Statistics - Total Wins (1), Top 5’s (14); Average Finish 13.8
No, Kyle Busch is not leaving Joe Gibbs Racing, but I do believe it's important to point out the fact that he will no longer be paired with longtime crew chief Adam Stevens. After six seasons, 28 cup wins and two championships - his latest in 2019 - this duo will split. Busch had a rough year in 2020, as he went winless until the third to last race of the season. Busch was eliminated from the playoffs in the round of 12, and this was in fact the first time that the pair didn’t reach the championship in five seasons. What was the difference? Teams do have down years, sure, but Busch cited a lack of practice and inconsistency in team speed, in addition to poor green-flag pit cycles and questionable strategies (Charlotte Roval 2020) - which are some of the factors that really hurt the No. 18 team. Ben Bashore will now serve as the new crew chief for Busch. Beshore was a race engineer for JGR in 2015, served as crew chief for Busch in 2017 for three races (Stevens was suspended) and was a crew chief in the Xfinity series in the 2019-2020 seasons.
Corey LaJoie: 2020 Go Fas Racing Statistics - Top 10's (1); Average Finish 25.6
Corey LaJoie goes from a one-car, 20-employee team to the two-car, 50-employee Spire Motorsports team that will utilize cars from Ganassi Racing and engine support from Hendrick Motorsports. LaJoie does retain a familiar crew chief, however, with Ryan Sparks, who was also his crew chief last year. The team will also gain valuable experience in the hiring of Steve Letarte, who was the crew chief for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Letarte will serve as a consultant, working on projects to help build the team. Lajoie does his best work at Superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. Letarte also guided Earnhardt Jr to a 2014 Daytona 500 victory, and both a larger team and better equipment should increase his overall production.
Kyle Larson: 2020 Chip Ganassi Racing Statistics (4 Races) - Top 5's (1), Top 10’s (3)
Yes, four races. Larson was let go by Ganassi after he used a racial slur during an iRacing event when NASCAR was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at 2019, Larson did have quite a successful season with one win, 18 top 5’s, 11 top 10’s and finishing 6th overall in the points standings. Now he’s jumping into Hendrick Motorsports, which is a top tier team. There, he'll be teammates with reigning champion Chase Elliott and also teamed up with Cliff Daniels, who was Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. If Larson and Daniels can mesh early on intermediate two-mile tracks - add running up near the wall- then this just might be a great mix for Larson. In his 19 cup races at these tracks (California and Michigan), Larson has four wins and two 2nd place finishes. Daniels will have to be better under green flag pit stops, though. The No. 48 Johnson team ranked 3rd worst in this category overall, losing 93 positions in 2020.
Daniel Suarez: 2020 Gaunt Brothers Statistics - Average Finish 26.6
I saved the last two drivers here because these drivers/teams have the most uncertainty heading into this season. Daniel Suarez signed with the newly-formed Trackhouse Racing in early October, with plans to run a full season. Performer Pitbull joined in mid-January as a co-owner, and he should bring in both money and sponsors. Trackhouse Racing also teamed up with Richard Childress Racing to help provide the pit crew and car. Suarez has struggled in the past, as three teams in three years doesn’t usually equal out to success. When Suarez did race for Stewart-Haas in 2018, he had four top 5’s and 11 top 10’s. Does better equipment/more money poured into the team mean greater success in 2021? Well, history actually says yes. Suarez is now teamed up with crew chief Travis Mack, who has experience in the Xfinity series (Michael Annett- playoffs 2019/2020), and at the cup level with Kasey Khane at Levine Family Racing.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr: 2020 Richard Petty Motorsports - Top 5's (1), Top 10’s (5); Average Finish 21.1
This is the team that everyone is anxiously anticipating ahead of the 2021 season. The brand new 23XI Racing team with co-owners Denny Hamlin (driver - Joe Gibbs Racing) and NBA legend Michael Jordan teaming up to start their own NASCAR venture. Sponsorship for the entire race season has already been sold out, and the team will have an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing. They will also provide chassis and share their information. Toyota Racing Development, on the other hand, will build the teams' engines and provide technology, data and technical assistance. The good news for 23XI racing is that Daytona has indeed been good to Bubba Wallace. He has two top 5’s in six races at the Superspeedway. Mike Wallace will serve as crew chief here as well, who helped guide Denny Hamlin to a 2016 Daytona 500 victory.