No one could have seen this coming.
NASCAR has promoted the 2021 Cup Series as the best season ever. That claim remains to be seen, although through the first seven races, it might be the most unpredictable season ever.
There have been seven different winners in the seven races, and definitely not who you would expect.
It started off with Michael McDowell pulling off an upset in the Daytona 500 when Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski wrecked each other on the last lap. Fast forward to Monday and it was Logano, who has limited dirt-track experience, as the unlikely winner of the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Heading into Daytona, oddsmakers installed Denny Hamlin as a pre-race favorite at 5-1 for the 500. He had three wins in the “Great American Race,” including the previous two. On the other hand, McDowell had 66-1 odds to win, near the bottom of the pack.
Surely the next week at the Daytona road course would be easier to pick. After all, defending NASCAR champion Chase Elliott had been the recent king of the road with five road-course wins. If Elliott faltered, it had to be Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch taking home the trophy. Turns out, it was a Joe Gibbs Racing driver who won, but not who the experts expected. Christopher Bell, whose previous best road-racing finish was 21st, captured the win.
The series next went to the mile-and-a-half Homestead track. Hamlin, Harvick, Logano or one of the Busch brothers all seemed like good picks based on past performance. William Byron, perhaps the most unlikely of the Hendrick Motorsports camp, came through with the victory. Byron had been solid with a ninth-place finish his last Homestead race, but there was little to indicate he would lead 102 of the 267 laps.
Las Vegas, the home of the oddsmakers, was next on the list. If any of the races went closest to form, it was here. Most expected Kyle Larson to win races in 2021, but it was somewhat surprising it came in just the fourth race of the season. Driving the No. 5 Chevrolet, he outdueled Keselowski in the No. 2 Ford for the trophy.
Martin Truex Jr. won the next race at Phoenix, which doesn’t sound like much of a surprise with a former series champion in victory lane. Dig deeper into the stats and Truex had led a total of 123 laps in 30 previous Phoenix races. The favorite going in was Harvick, a nine-time Phoenix winner, or Elliott, who dominated the championship race in November.
The series then moved to Atlanta. After his run at Las Vegas, it wasn’t shocking to see Larson setting the pace. He won the first two stages and led 269 laps overall. Yet, he didn’t win. Ryan Blaney, in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, ran him down and passed him with eight laps to go for the victory.
That brought us to the most unpredictable weekend of the year with the historic race on the Bristol dirt. Larson, Bell and Austin Dillon, who won all three races he entered at the previous week’s Bristol Dirt Nationals, were the early favorites.
None of them were a factor in the race. More surprisingly, Larson finished 35th in the Truck Series race. That race was won by Truex, whose previous dirt experience was limited to a pair of exhibition races.
In the Cup race, Dillon finished a lap down in 21st. Larson, who was caught up in an early crash with Bell, finished 29th. Bell, who lost control trying to make a run on the high side, was 34th.
The race came down to Logano and Hamlin, two drivers with little experience racing on dirt. Add in Daniel Suarez, even more of a novice to dirt racing, and there were battles for the lead no one expected.
Next up is Martinsville and the first race under the lights for the Cup Series’ oldest track.
Recent history would suggest that Keselowski, Truex or Elliott are favorites on the flat, paper-clip shaped short track. If you’re looking at career numbers, Hamlin leads with five wins while each of the Busch brothers have two Martinsville wins.
But there is little going to form this crazy season and who will take home one of the Martinsville grandfather clocks as a winner’s trophy is anyone’s guess.