5 Cup races not to miss in 2021

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A schedule that includes a dirt race, more events on road courses and other changes has plenty of options to choose from, but here are the five can’t-miss Cup races for 2021.

Bristol dirt race

The March 28 race at Bristol Motor Speedway is set to be the first time Cup has raced on dirt since 1970. No one truly knows what to expect. That makes it worth watching whether you like the idea of Cup racing on dirt or not.

It should be fun to watch those drivers with dirt experience, namely Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others.

“I’m super pumped,” Dillon said after the race was announced in September. “I’m hoping it becomes a staple.”

Circuit of the Americas

The road course in Austin, Texas, which has hosted Formula One and IndyCar, will host NASCAR for the first time. The Cup race is scheduled for May 23. 

The stock cars will run the same 3.41-mile, 20-turn course F1 and IndyCar used. Lewis Hamilton won the inaugural F1 race there in 2012. He has five wins at that track.

Road America

 The Xfinity Series has raced at the Wisconsin road course since 2010 and provided many memorable moments, but July 4 will mark the first time the Cup Series will have raced there since 1956.

Jeremy Clements scored his lone Xfinity win there in 2017 after contact with Matt Tifft spun both coming to the white flag while battling for the lead. Clements got his car going faster and cruised to the victory. In 2011, Justin Allgaier ran out of gas while leading under caution on the last lap. Reed Sorenson went on to win. Austin Cindric won last year’s Xfinity race.

Martinsville playoff race

 It’s the last chance to make the championship race. This season that final chance comes on Oct. 31. Chase Elliott won at Martinsville this past season to advance to the championship race and won that event to claim his first Cup title. Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year, failed to advance to the title race. Harvick attempted to knock Kyle Busch out of the way at the finish to get the point Harvick needed to advance to the title race but both cars spun.

There’s often drama at the Virginia short track in the playoffs. 

Consider the chaos in recent years:

In 2018, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race. Truex called the move a “cheap shot.” Logano went on to win the championship.

In 2017, Denny Hamlin and Elliott argued after Hamlin’s contact knocked Elliott out of the lead in the final laps of the race.

In 2015, Jeff Gordon scored an emotional win to advance to the title race. This also was the day Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked Joey Logano as payback for an incident earlier in the playoffs at Kansas.

Phoenix championship race

 It all leads to this Nov. 7 race at Phoenix Raceway. Late restarts led to dramatic finishes in the Xfinity and Truck race and the Cup event saw Chase Elliott collect his first series crown. 

Can the track’s second year hosting the season finales prove as dramatic?

Jimmie Johnson to run Chicago Street Course Cup race

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LOS ANGELES – Jimmie Johnson says that one of his Cup races this season with Legacy Motor Club will be the July 2 Chicago Street Course race, which will air on NBC.

The seven-time champion will run select Cup races this season after spending the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. Johnson, who left NASCAR in 2020, will return in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway as a driver and part owner of Legacy MC. His No. 84 car does not have a charter and he’ll have to secure one of the four spots for non-chartered cars.

Johnson said on Fox before Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum that he looked to do more Cup races beyond Daytona and Chicago but did not announce any others. He will drive the NASCAR Garage 56 entry in June in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

 

Kevin Harvick to join Fox booth in 2024

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LOS ANGELES – Kevin Harvick will move from the car to the TV booth next year when he joins Fox Sports.

Harvick, who is in his final season driving in Cup, will join Mike Joy and Clint Bowyer in the booth for the NASCAR races on Fox in 2024.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Harvick said on Fox on Sunday. “We’re coming right to the booth. I couldn’t be happier. For me, the timing in life has just been absolutely perfect with everything on the driving side and now to have this opportunity to tell people about racing, there’s not anything I love more and I can’t wait.”

The announcement was made before Sunday night’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Harvick advanced to the Clash through his heat race.

RFK Racing drivers fail to qualify for Clash at the Coliseum

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After heat races and a pair of last chance qualifiers, RFK Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher failed to qualify for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum for the second straight year.

Former champion Chase Elliott led wire-to-wire Sunday to win the second last chance qualifier to move on to the feature. He was joined by second-place Ty Gibbs and third-place AJ Allmendinger.

Michael McDowell led all 50 laps in the first last chance qualifier race to advance to the feature. Also moving on to the 150-lap main event were Christopher Bell and Todd Gilliland.

MORE: Clash at the Coliseum starting lineup

Among those failing to advance from the first last chance race were Harrison Burton, whose late-race slide cost him several spots, and Ty Dillon.

Austin Cindric got the provisional starting spot and will be 27th — and last — at the green flag. The race is scheduled for an 8:20 p.m. ET start.

William Byron led all 25 laps in winning the fourth heat race.

Also transferring to the feature from the fourth heat were Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, Ryan Preece and Erik Jones, who took the fifth and final spot with two laps to go.

Denny Hamlin dominated the third heat, leading 20 of the 25 laps to win. Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Daniel Suarez followed in the top five to transfer to the main event.

The biggest loser in the third heat was Bell, who spun out after late-race contact and finished sixth.

Martin Truex Jr. took the lead from Kyle Busch late in the second heat and won easily. Busch was second, Austin Dillon third and Kyle Larson fourth.

Kevin Harvick, starting his final season in Cup, made a strong last-lap move and edged Elliott for fifth and the final transfer spot to the feature.

Aric Almirola, who failed to make the Clash feature last season, took the lead late in the first heat race and won the 25-lapper in front of Alex Bowman and Justin Haley.

“It was about being more prepared,” Almirola told Fox Sports. “There was no way to be prepared a year ago. I was really disappointed to watch this race from the grandstands last year.”

Rookie Noah Gragson and defending race and reigning series champion Joey Logano also finished in the top five to join the first three in the feature.

Burton spun out early in the first heat.

MORE: Heat race 1 results

MORE: Heat race 2 results

MORE: Heat race 3 results

MORE: Heat race 4 results

Last Chance Qualifier race 1 results

Last Chance Qualifier Race 2 results

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!