5 people to know for 2021 NASCAR season

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Often obscured by higher-profile names, there are many who play a key role for their team and could have a big impact on the NASCAR season.

Here’s a look at five names to know:

Mike Wheeler

Crew chief for Bubba Wallace at the new 23XI Racing team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. The Toyota-backed team, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, should have some success and Wheeler will play a key role with that. 

MORE: 5 key storylines in 2021

He joins the team after having been at Leavine Family Racing the past two years. Wheeler was Matt DiBenedetto‘s crew chief in 2019 and moved to competition director in 2020 when Christopher Bell arrived. A former employee at JGR, his familiarity should help the No. 23 team with its alliance.

Just as important will be the communication between Wheeler and Wallace. If they connect and Wheeler can make the adjustments Wallace needs, it should help the team achieve success. With most races not expected to have practice or qualifying, communication will be key for a new driver/crew chief combination.

The more success this team has, the greater impact on the sport it could have.

Rudy Fugle

New crew chief for William Byron. Takes over for Chad Knaus, who moves into the role of vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports. Fugle comes from Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series and helped that organization win five owner titles and two driver crowns. 

The pairing of Fugle and Byron is a reunion. Fugle was Byron’s crew chief in 2016 in Byron’s lone full-time season in the Truck Series. Byron won seven of 23 races but failed to make the title race.  

The 23-year-old Byron has made the Cup playoffs each of the past two seasons and won his first Cup race last year at Daytona on the oval. It is Fugle’s job to further tap Byron’s potential.  

Ben Beshore

The last time Kyle Busch worked with a first-time Cup crew chief, he won the championship. He’ll look to repeat that this season with Ben Beshore.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Axalta presents the Pocono 400 - Practice
Ben Beshore served as Kyle Busch’s crew chief for three Cup races in 2017 when Adam Stevens was serving a NASCAR suspension. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Adam Stevens made his Cup debut in the 2015 Daytona 500 for Busch’s team but without Busch, who was injured the day before in the season-opening Xfinity race. Busch missed 11 races but came back to win the championship in his first Cup season with Stevens. The two also won the 2019 title. Last year saw the No. 18 car struggle for speed and win only once, leading to a crew chief change.

Beshore, a former engineer for Busch’s team, will become Busch’s crew chief. It’s Beshore’s first full-time season as a Cup crew chief. He enters this season having served as a crew chief for 66 Xfinity races, including seven with Busch. Beshore also served as Busch’s Cup crew chief for three races in 2017 when Stevens served a NASCAR suspension for a wheel coming off after a pit stop.

To compare, Stevens had been a crew chief in the Xfinity Series for 124 races, including 52 with Busch, before pairing with Busch in Cup in 2015.

The main numbers, though, will be how many wins Busch scores this season as the 35-year-old seeks to return to a dominant level in Cup.

Chase Briscoe

The 26-year-old Xfinity driver moves to Cup in the Stewart-Haas Racing ride that Clint Bowyer had occupied.

Briscoe won nine of 33 Xfinity races last season and placed fourth in the points. SHR teammate Cole Custer won Cup rookie of the year honors last season, winning a race and making the playoffs. Can Briscoe equal that this season?

“It’s going to take awhile to figure out this Cup car and get used to how it drives,” Briscoe said in December, also noting the lack of practice at most events. “I’m excited for the challenge. I’m just looking forward to getting going and kind of seeing where I stack up.”

Sam Mayer

He turns 18 in late June and will be in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports the rest of the year. He also is scheduled to run a full Xfinity season in 2022 with the team.

Mayer ran six Truck races in 2020, winning once for GMS Racing. He’s a young talent worth keeping an eye on.

David Smith, a driver talent scout and analytics expert, listed Mayer as his No. 2 NASCAR prospect in May 2020. Smith listed Mayer behind only Chandler Smith, who returns to Kyle Busch Motorsports for his first full-time Truck season after running half the season last year. No. 3 on Smith’s list? Chase Briscoe.

Christopher Bell wins Cup Series pole at Talladega Superspeedway

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Playoff driver Christopher Bell won the pole position Saturday for Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Bell, 11th in the playoff standings and below the cutline entering Sunday’s race, ran 180.591 mph to edge second-place Kyle Larson at 180.516.

Playoff drivers took six of the top-10 starting spots.

MORE: Talladega Cup qualifying results

The race is the second in the second round of the playoffs. Any playoff driver who wins the race will automatically advance to the next round.

Joey Logano leads the playoff standings.

Noah Gragson, replacing Alex Bowman, who is sitting out the race with concussion-like symptoms, qualified seventh.

The race (2 p.m., ET) will be broadcast by NBC.

 

 

Sunday Talladega Cup race: Start time, TV info, weather

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Sunday will mark a difficult crossroads for NASCAR. As several of its top drivers express serious concerns about safety, the Cup Series is at Talladega Superspeedway, the circuit’s biggest track and site of many massive wrecks over its 53 years of existence.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Sunday’s 188-lap, 500-mile race is the middle event in the second round of the playoffs. With a win automatically advancing any of the 12 playoff drivers to the next round, the final laps are likely to be frantic.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) will begin with Joey Logano atop the playoff point standings. Following him in the top eight are Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe.

Below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron fell below the line this week when NASCAR penalized him for bumping Hamlin under caution during last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty.

Bowman will miss Sunday’s race because of concussion-like symptoms he has experienced after a crash at Texas. Noah Gragson will replace him.

Bell won the pole Saturday with a speed of 180.591 mph.

Details for Sunday’s race:

START: The command to start engines will be given by Jimmy Rane, president of Great Southern Wood Preserving, at 1:52 p.m. (ET). … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:04 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 11 a.m. … Driver introductions are at 1:15 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Barbara Embry, chaplin of Citizens Baptist Medical Center, at 1:43 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by the 313th U.S. Army Band at 1:45 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 188 laps (500 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 60. Stage 2 ends at Lap 120.

STARTING LINEUP: Talladega Cup starting lineup

TV/RADIO: NBC will broadcast the race at 2 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 1 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 1 p.m. … SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mainly sunny. High of 78. 5% chance of rain.

LAST TIME: Bubba Wallace won last October’s race, which was shortened to 117 laps by rain. Brad Keselowski was second.

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Saturday NASCAR schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

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Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup cars will start the day’s action by qualifying for Sunday’s playoff race, followed by the Truck playoff race and then the Xfinity playoff race.

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday, Oct. 1

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.