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The 2021 Daytona 500 is less than a month away with plenty of unknowns heading into what might be the most anticipated NASCAR Cup Series season in history.
While drivers such as defending champion Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin — just to name a few — are poised for more success this year, there‘s the potential for a dark horse to steal the spotlight.
As we head into what is shaping up to be an ultra-competitive 2021 campaign, which drivers are flying under the radar and could click off a win to make a significant playoff run? NASCAR.com‘s Zack Albert and Chase Wilhelm offer up their best picks.
WILHELM: After William Byron earned his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory last August at Daytona International Speedway, he‘s poised to have a breakout 2021 season.
Byron links back up with crew chief Rudy Fugle. Just based on some offseason conversations between the pair, it appears they are ready to pick up right where they left off, which was a title-caliber campaign with seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016. Byron later went on to win the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship with JR Motorsports, while Fugle earned a Truck Series title with Christopher Bell that same year.
Fugle‘s return injects new life into Byron and the No. 24 team. The fruits of their rekindled relationship could be achieved rather quickly, as well. Byron returns to Daytona with a points-paying win under his belt, while also earning a qualifying race victory before last year‘s running of The Great American Race.
One more item worth noting: Byron is also strong on road courses. The 23-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver earned a pair of top-10 finishes last year — an eighth place at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course and a sixth place at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. With seven road courses on the schedule this year, that potentially serves as seven chances for victory if he can go through teammate Chase Elliott to achieve it.
Byron should be on your radar as a multi-race winner and playoff threat this season, and rightfully so.
ALBERT: Solid pick, but let’s dive a little deeper into the pool of 2021 Cup Series dark horses, specifically the short list of first-year drivers.
Chase Briscoe carries a winning pedigree from the NASCAR Xfinity Series into his rookie Cup season, moving into the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford last driven by Clint Bowyer. Briscoe made waves last year by boldly predicting that he’d need at least an eight-win total for his season to be considered a success. He wound up besting that preseason goal, visiting Victory Lane nine times, leading more than 1,000 laps and clinching a spot in the championship finale.
Rookies typically face a steep learning process, and the expectation here is little different. But Briscoe’s experience level at age 26 is a bit heftier than most, and he’s an established winner in Xfinity, Trucks and ARCA competition during the last five seasons leading up to his Cup Series debut.
The retooled 2021 Cup Series schedule also plays to some of Briscoe’s strengths, with the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track race this spring and a flood of seven road-course events providing a bonanza of opportunity for the Hoosier native. Briscoe has already demonstrated his worth on the circuit’s bread-and-butter ovals, but he’s also a former winner on the Eldora Speedway dirt and the Charlotte and Indy road-course layouts.
Briscoe ranks as an odds-on favorite to become the second straight SHR driver to claim Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. You’ll get no eight-win prediction from here this year, but Briscoe is easily among the best bets to raise eyebrows and outperform those first-year expectations.