Extended cut: Memorable moments of 2021 NASCAR season

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·10 min read
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  • Kyle Larson
    Kyle Larson
    American racing driver
  • Chase Elliott
    Chase Elliott
    American stock car racing driver
  • Brad Keselowski
    Brad Keselowski
    American stock car racing driver
  • Kyle Busch
    Kyle Busch
    American racing driver and team owner
  • Denny Hamlin
    Denny Hamlin
    NASCAR driver
  • Joey Logano
    Joey Logano
    American racing driver

A few days after Kyle Larson captured the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship, we listed five of the most memorable moments from the season.

But as we get ready to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, we can’t help but add a few more.

This “extended cut” of memorable moments adds – among other things – a major milestone for Hendrick Motorsports; the upset victory of the season; and road course chaos at the Racing Capitol of the World. Oh, and some dirt.

Let’s start, once again, from the beginning.

Perseverance (finally) pays off

A nearly six-hour rain delay pushed the finish of the Daytona 500 past midnight the following morning. But those that stayed up saw a wild ending.

Michael McDowell was running third behind Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski down the backstretch on the final lap. As McDowell drafted behind them, Keselowski moved inside on Logano entering Turn 3.

Contact was made between the teammates, setting off a fiery, multi-car wreck that McDowell narrowly escaped. Moments later, the caution came out to freeze the field, with McDowell leading ahead of Chase Elliott.

With that, McDowell had finally earned his first career win in his 358th Cup Series start.

Back in the spotlight

Kyle Larson spent much of the 2020 season indefinitely suspended by NASCAR after his use of a racial slur during an e-sports event in April 2020.

While continuing his dirt-track career, Larson spent time working to make amends for his ignorance and to mature personally. He also received a second chance in NASCAR when Hendrick Motorsports made him driver of its revived No. 5 car.

It didn’t take long for Larson to reward Rick Hendrick’s faith in him. Just four races into his tenure at HMS, Larson claimed his first win for the team at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March.

It took a little bit longer for Larson to round into championship-caliber form. But the Vegas victory was a critical moment in his return to NASCAR.

Get dirty

March also saw the Cup Series race on dirt for the first time since 1970. Over 2,000 truckloads of dirt was used to transform Bristol Motor Speedway’s high-banked, concrete half-mile into a dirt track.

It was not an entirely smooth outing.

Various competition changes were made early in the weekend. Then torrential rains and flooding postponed the race one day to Monday. During the race, dust from the track forced NASCAR to drop double-file restarts in favor of single-file restarts.

But the spectacle of Cup cars on dirt still yielded some compelling racing – including an overtime finish that saw Joey Logano win out after Denny Hamlin‘s attempt to pass Logano high on the restart backfired.

Top of the mountain

In May, Kyle Larson’s run to the championship truly began. He opened the month with three consecutive runner-up finishes at Darlington, Dover, and Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Then on Memorial Day weekend, he finally returned to Victory Lane with a dominant win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That gave Hendrick Motorsports its 269th career Cup win, pushing them past Petty Enterprises to become the winningest team in series history.

Good to the last drop

The second race of Pocono’s June Cup doubleheader became a classic fuel mileage derby.

Brad Keselowski was forced to pit from the lead with nine laps to go for fuel. That gave the lead to William Byron, who tried but couldn’t stretch his fuel and pitted with two laps to go.

With Byron out of contention, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were now first and second. But then Hamlin blinked and pitted while Busch began the white-flag lap.

Busch made it around one more time to win the race – a result that seemed improbable earlier, when his No. 18 car suffered from transmission issues. At one point, Busch’s car chief entered the Toyota to try and pry loose a stuck shifter.

But while getting out of pit road was tough, those issues also made Busch pit a lap later than others who ran out of fuel ahead of him. In the end, it all worked out.

Beers, brats, burnouts

Big crowds greeted the Cup Series on Fourth of July weekend at Road America, the first time that the series had raced on the Wisconsin road course in nearly 65 years.

They saw what’s been a familiar sight in recent years on the twisty tracks: Chase Elliott victorious.

An ill-fated qualifying session left the reigning Cup champion 34th on the grid for the race. But Elliott still managed to work his way to the front and claim his second win of 2021.

The rowdy fans left an impression on Elliott, who was goaded into a second victory burnout at Turn 5 following his post-race interview with NBC Sports. Elliott subsequently blew out his rear tires and needed a push back to the front stretch.

Bro-tastic battle

With the “help” of teammate Ross Chastain, Kurt Busch bested his brother, Kyle Busch, to win in July at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Leading the race with 25 laps to go, Kyle Busch closed on Chastain to put him one lap down. But Chastain slowed Kyle Busch down, enabling Kurt Busch to catch and pass him for the lead.

An attempt by Kyle Busch to take the lead back with seven laps to go was not successful, and Kurt Busch pulled away to a win that clinched him a playoff spot.

In their respective post-race comments, Kurt Busch praised Chastain, while Kyle Busch was less complimentary. As for Chastain himself?

“I’m racing to stay on the lead lap, and I’m very aware of what’s going on, on the track around me,” Chastain said. “Kurt asked for the bottom and I gave it to him.”

Loudon surprise

Entering the final race before the Olympic break at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Aric Almirola was winless and 27th in points. He left the “Magic Mile” with a seat at the playoff table.

Almirola held off Christopher Bell to win a race that ended eight laps short of scheduled distance due to oncoming darkness. The victory snapped a 98-race winless streak for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver.

Six laps into the race, rain hit the track and set off a multi-car crash. The extended stoppage brought darkness into play, and NASCAR announced after the end of Stage 2 that the race would continue “until conditions dictate otherwise.” If the race had to be shortened, officials would announce 10 laps to go to the checkered flag with no overtime period.

That announcement came at Lap 283 with Almirola leading Bell. Almirola then had to maneuver through lapped traffic in order to keep ahead in the final 10-lap run.

Wild times at the Brickyard

The inaugural race for the NASCAR Cup Series on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course looked poised for a straightforward finish.

But with nine laps to go in the 82-lap scheduled distance, a debris caution wiped out Kyle Larson‘s lead of over four seconds on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.

And with that, things got wild.

Two major crashes in the same spot on the 14-turn circuit pushed the race into double overtime. On the second OT attempt, Chase Briscoe went off course in Turn 1 while racing for the lead with Denny Hamlin, was given a stop-and-go penalty for said infraction, and then turned Hamlin around in Turn 10.

Taking advantage of the madness? A.J. Allmendinger, the full-time Xfinity Series regular for Kaulig Racing who took the lead coming to the white flag and went on to claim his second career Cup victory.

Say it with us – “It’s Bristol, baby”

NASCAR’s return to Bristol Motor Speedway in September – minus the dirt – produced some true highlight-reel moments.

The Xfinity Series’ regular season finale ended with AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier in contention for the win on the final lap. Coming out of the last turn, Cindric got into Allmendinger and they both slid across the finish line, with Allmendinger winning the race and the regular season title.

One night later in the Cup race, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick were racing for the lead late when contact between them cut down Elliott’s left front tire. After returning to the track several laps down, Elliott ran Harvick hard and then stayed in front of Harvick, which enabled Kyle Larson to catch Harvick and pass him for the win with four laps to go.

After the race, Larson celebrated while Elliott and Harvick confronted each other on pit road. Their feud was revived later in the playoffs at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval with two more incidents – and Elliott moving on in the post-season.

Bubba makes history

With rain threatening at Talladega Superspeedway in October, Bubba Wallace surged into the lead. But the most important move he made was the one he didn’t.

Three laps later, he stayed low down the backstretch to keep Brad Keselowski behind him instead of attempting to block Joey Logano. Ryan Preece was spun out of the pack and a wreck ensued to bring out a caution with Wallace still in front.

Then came the rain. And the waiting. And ultimately, the joy, as Wallace was declared race winner after 117 laps of a scheduled 188.

For the first time in 58 years, a Black driver had won in NASCAR’s premier division.

“This is for all those kids out there who want to have an opportunity, in whatever they want to achieve, to be the best in what they want to do,” Wallace told NBC Sports afterwards.

“You’re gonna go through a lot of bullshit. But you’ve always got to stay true to your path and not let the nonsense get to you and stay strong. Stay humble. Stay hungry.

“There have been plenty of times where I’ve wanted to give up, but you surround yourself with the right people and it’s moments like this that you appreciate.”

Temper, temper

Moments after taking the checkered flag in November at Martinsville Speedway, Alex Bowman had a visitor join him on the front stretch.

Denny Hamlin, whom Bowman bumped out of the lead with eight laps to go before winning in overtime, drove toward Bowman’s car. Bowman spun out of Hamlin’s way and his car briefly locked front bumpers with Hamlin’s before Hamlin backed up and drove off.

Hamlin was still able to clinch a spot in the Championship 4 (so did Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr., all of whom joined Kyle Larson). But that didn’t stop Hamlin from lighting into Bowman, calling him a “hack” that “gets his ass kicked by his teammates every week.”

Bowman said his contact with Hamlin wasn’t intentional, but also noted Hamlin’s own history at Martinsville: “He’s been on the other side of that. He’s crashed guys here for wins. I hate doing it. Obviously, I don’t want to crash somebody and I just got loose underneath and spun him out.”

The pit stop of a lifetime

Kyle Larson put it clearly after winning the season finale at Phoenix Raceway to claim his first series title: Without his final pit stop, he and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team would not be champions.

For much of the race, Larson’s car was down on performance and needed continuous adjustments. But he had two elements in his favor: A strong pit crew and the No. 1 stall on pit road, earned by winning pole position.

It all came together after a caution for debris with 30 laps to go. Larson entered pit road fourth, worst among the Championship 4 drivers. He came out first after his pit crew changed four tires in 11.8 seconds, their second-fastest stop of the year.

That was all Larson needed. He led the final, 24-lap sprint to the finish to cap off his historic season.

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Extended cut: Memorable moments of 2021 NASCAR season originally appeared on NBCSports.com