NASCAR’s 2020 season was so far from predictable that making predictions for next year feels like tempting fate at worst and foolish at best, but the offseason provides more time to sit around and speculate, and that’s partially what I’ve been doing since the checkered flag waved at Phoenix.
Plus, if you’re as ready to move on from 2020 like most people, indulging in a creative thought exercise about 2021 doesn’t seem so wrong. Right? So join me in closing the year by imagining what’s ahead. Here are my 2021 NASCAR predictions — the surprises, the stars and the team to watch:
1. Tyler Reddick will win a race
Reddick did not win Rookie of the Year honors nor did he win a race in 2020, but he led laps — 30 to be exact. While that’s not a massive number, it was the most laps led of any Cup rookie during a year with hardly any practice. That seems promising for next season when there will be more practice and qualifying opportunities. Plus, each race in which Reddick led laps, he led laps in the final stage — at Talladega, Homestead, Texas and Daytona — demonstrating his ability to get out front late in a race.
There were also more moments during the season when it looked like Reddick would pull a Cole Custer and grab an upset win than there were moments when it looked like Custer would win. Reddick came close to creating upsets of his own. He finished second in the first Texas race behind his RCR teammate Austin Dillon and fourth at Homestead.
Another rising sophomore, Christopher Bell, could be a candidate to snag a first Cup win next season as he transitions to the JGR powerhouse, but Reddick’s No. 8 team should only get faster in 2021 through RCR’s collaboration with Hendrick on R&D for the teams’ Chevy engines, so I still give the first “upset win” advantage to Reddick over Bell.
2. Kyle Larson will win multiple races
Larson’s return to NASCAR is coming in a promising fashion. The driver will debut with Hendrick in the No. 5 Chevy next year following a six-month suspension from NASCAR for using a racial slur. The 28-year-old driver has won more than 40 sprint car races while away from NASCAR this year and he doesn’t appear out of practice, at least on dirt. While a transition to a new team and back to NASCAR could potentially hold him up early in the season, he’s a dynamic driver who is out to prove himself in his best equipment yet.
Larson is my way-too-early pick to win the dirt race at Bristol because 1. Bristol is a solid track for him (two top-fives, seven top-10s and 641 laps led in 12 races) and 2. He knows dirt. The stock cars on dirt will be a new challenge, but Larson seems to thrive with variety and the 2021 schedule is diverse.
While we haven’t watched Larson race in the era of limited practice or qualifying, my guess is that Larson will adapt well to the road course-heavy schedule and could give teammate Chase Elliott a run for his money at Charlotte’s road course, where Larson has led almost 30 percent of the laps he’s raced there in Cup. Fans seem to be eagerly awaiting Larson’s return in 2021 and I think he’ll deliver with multiple wins.
3. Michael Jordan’s team will be good, not great, in its first season
The NASCAR team owned by NBA icon Michael Jordan and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, 23XI Racing, is set to debut next season with Bubba Wallace behind the wheel. Jordan said he wants the team to “be competitive and compete for a championship as soon as possible,” but Hamlin conceded in October that they’re operating on a short timeline to put a race team together.
Wallace is a good enough driver to win Cup races in fast equipment, but it will likely take some time before the team is storming through the field. Wallace last competed in Toyota equipment in 2014 and he’ll be working with a new crew chief, Mike Wheeler, next season. That’s a pretty significant switch.
The alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing should benefit the team regarding equipment and information (remember Martin Truex Jr.’s 2017 run with Furniture Row?). But overcoming the factors of fielding a brand-new team, racing a new schedule and having limited practice opportunities due to the pandemic will be a significant challenge and a likely barrier to immediate wins. My prediction is that 23XI Racing wins before other new teams in 2021, but before established teams? Not quite.