A schedule full of changes will have an impact on this Cup season. Already, it has made an impact on the preseason NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings before cars get on track at Daytona International Speedway.
Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins a journey for Cup teams that includes a record seven road course events, a race on a dirt track and other changes in a season that will end in November at Phoenix Raceway.
Here’s a look at the top 10:
PRESEASON NASCAR POWER RANKINGS
1. Ryan Blaney — It’s easy to overlook what Blaney has done on road courses because of Chase Elliott’s success. But don’t. Blaney has four top-five finishes, including a win, in the last six road courses races. He’s strong elsewhere. Blaney was one of only three drivers who scored top 10s in at least three of the four superspeedway races last year. Key for a championship season will be execution, something that the team didn’t always do well last year. Blaney told NBC Sports: “I thought we had crazy speed all year. We just didn’t quite execute, whether it was on my side or other things that happened that we’ve talked a lot about cleaning up.”
2. Chase Elliott — No champion has won consecutive titles since the championship race format debuted in 2014. It’s easy to expect Elliott to return to the title race in Phoenix and give himself a chance to do so this year. He says of this season: “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place. We want more.”
3. Brad Keselowski — One of the top drivers on superspeedways, his luck, particularly in recent Daytona 500s has been tough. It’s about time that turns for the better. Watch Team Penske on the 750 horsepower tracks. The Penske cars were strong. Keselowski won three races and had six top-fives finishes in 10 races on tracks 1 mile or less last year. Said Keselowski: “If you want to win races, it’s pretty clear there are only about six drivers that can consistently win multiple races in Cup. It’s nice to be on that list.”
4. Joey Logano — The Team Penske theme continues with Logano making the third Team Penske driver in the top four. He had six top-five finishes at tracks 1 mile or less, including a win at Phoenix early last season. Team stumbled in the middle of the season before scoring 14 top 10s in the last 19 races. Logano told NBC Sports: “We want to be great and to me great is winning five or six races a year and it’s putting yourself in position to win a championship. We’ve done a good job of putting ourselves in position to win the championship without having a bunch of playoff points or a bunch of wins in the bank. … We want to win more races.”
5. Denny Hamlin — Few drivers have been better the past two seasons. Hamlin seems poised to continue his strong runs. He’s focused on the early portion of the schedule. Hamlin told NBC Sports: “I think, within our race team, winning multiple races in the first seven, eight races is a goal we set out to say this sets the tone for the rest of the year.” He’s won at Daytona, Miami and Phoenix within the last two seasons. All three races are among the first eight of the season.
6. Kevin Harvick — It could be argued that no team is impacted more by NASCAR’s schedule changes for 2021 than Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team. He won on the oval at Indianapolis last year. That race moves to the road course. He swept both Michigan races. That track lost a race. He won at Darlington, which went from three races last year to two this year. He won at Dover, which went from two races last year to one. Said Harvick: “I think as you look at last year that’s one of those that you check off as a career year and you obviously want to do that again, but I’ve been around this long enough to understand that those types of seasons don’t come around all the time. But, look, it’s not to say that it’s not possible because that’s surely the goal – to try to repeat that.”
7. Martin Truex Jr. — Other than Chase Elliott, Truex likely is the most excited to see seven road course races on the schedule. He’s finished in the top three in three of the last five road course events. Team looks to clean up issues that kept it from winning more than once last year. He had 11 finishes of second or third. Had some of those been results been wins, he might have built up enough playoff points to have gone deeper into the postseason. Said Truex: “There were a lot of opportunities for us last year to have a great season and we came up short on a lot of those little key areas and decisions or little mistakes along the way, and things like that. We’re all looking at trying to get better.”
8. Kyle Busch — Coming off a disappointing season with one win, he and crew chief Adam Stevens parted ways. Busch has former team engineer Ben Beshore as crew chief. They also worked together in the Xfinity Series, which should help speed the communication between them. Busch told NBC Sports: “He kind of knows my little quirks.” The challenge is that most of the crew is new to Busch.
9. Kyle Larson — He’s back after missing the final 32 races of last season and with a new team in Hendrick Motorsports. What he’ll do is a bit of a mystery but the early portion of the season could provide key clues. The third race of the season is at Miami, a track Larson excels. He admits that doing well there will show how far the team has come and a poor finish will show how far they have to go.
10. Alex Bowman — He changes numbers to the No. 48, but his crew remains the same. The challenge for Bowman is that with Auto Club Speedway off the schedule this year, gone is the track he won at last year. His only other Cup win came at Chicagoland Speedway and it also is not on the schedule. He finished last year by placing in the top 10 in nine of the last 12 races. We’ll see if the momentum continues.