How 2021 is NASCAR's season of transition

·6 min read

The beginning of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is here. And it’s impossible to not think about the 2022 season and beyond.

The 2020 season shaped up to be NASCAR’s season of transition. But that transition slowed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on the season. With teams taking financial hits for any missed races, NASCAR’s immediate priority became getting all 36 Cup Series races and all its scheduled Xfinity and Truck Series races completed.

That objective was accomplished. NASCAR ran all 92 national series races on its calendar, even if it had to do more juggling than a clown at a circus.

The pandemic hasn’t left — and it shows no signs of departing anytime soon. But NASCAR is forging ahead in 2021 with the protocols it implemented when it restarted in May. Those protocols, NASCAR has said, are designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

And while those protocols allowed NASCAR to be the first major sports organization to resume competition in 2020, they don’t include regular coronavirus testing. NASCAR enters 2021 as the only major American sports governing body that isn’t regularly coronavirus testing its participants.

New car pushed back to 2022

As the pandemic forced NASCAR to scramble to reschedule a bunch of races in 2020 and teams furloughed employees during the shutdown, the planned introduction of the new Cup Series car was pushed back to 2022.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 was set to be the first points race for the new car, but with NASCAR’s development of the car pushed back and teams not in an adequate position to both work on their current cars and a new car throughout 2020, the decision was made to move the new car back to 2022.

That means teams will spend the back half of the 2021 season balancing their work on cars for this year and cars for next year. Teams in the playoffs will have to balance their developments for potential title-winning edges without falling behind at all with a completely new car in 2022.

The new car is a radical departure from previous iterations of Cup Series cars. While the car will drive differently than the current car does, teams will also be getting numerous parts from central suppliers. That sourcing has already forced teams to start thinking about how they’ll differently find speed in upcoming seasons.

NASCAR isn’t done tweaking the car yet either. While officials said at the beginning of February that they were done with the development of the car — development that has taken place without more than a small number of cars on track at the same time — there are still some small changes that can be made after continued testing throughout the season.

Continued diversity efforts

NASCAR finally banned the Confederate flag in June in the wake of social and racial justice protests across the country. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Friday that the sanctioning body had data that showed a significant majority of NASCAR fans supported the decision -- and longtime NASCAR fans were more against the move than newer NASCAR fans were.

The move to ban the flag came after Phelps publicly acknowledged that NASCAR could do better when it came to diversity and inclusion efforts. With the entrance of Michael Jordan and Pitbull as team co-owners ahead of the 2021 season, NASCAR has a marquee opportunity to continue to shed the stereotypes that have long been associated with the sport through 2021 and beyond.

"I think it was a moment in time for us back in June that seemed for us it was the right time to act," Phelps said. "I think it was the right time for our country. I think it was the right time for our sport. The response to that was fantastic."

"What we do in the areas of social justice and diversity equity inclusion is going to be authentic to who we are. May not be the right thing for the NBA, but it's going to be the right thing for us."

The NBA is, of course, largely made up of Black players. Bubba Wallace is the only Black driver racing full-time at any of NASCAR's top three levels. While representation among the driving ranks matters -- and will take a while to realize -- Phelps said NASCAR's efforts also extend to positions behind the scenes too.

"We've broken our [diversity, equality and inclusion] strategy into three pieces: what are we going to do for ourselves internally, what are we going to do as an industry, and what are we going to do with the partnerships we can secure," Phelps said. "Those things I'm proud to say are working well."

"From an internal standpoint it's supplier diversity, creating more opportunity for women and minorities in our company, in our hiring practices. It's making sure that we're doing training for all of our employees in sensitivity, unconscious bias training."

Marquee free agents … again

A lot of drivers had contracts that expired at the end of the 2020 season. And while the 2020 free agency process was relatively quiet, a few of those drivers signed one-year deals and are set to be free agents again after the season.

Brad Keselowski re-upped for one season at Team Penske while Alex Bowman’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports is for just one season. Matt DiBenedetto kept his ride with the Wood Brothers, but his extension with the Penske satellite team is also only through 2021. And same goes for Aric Almirola at Stewart-Haas Racing

What will the market look like as 2022 approaches? That’s hard to figure out, especially as the pandemic looms, teams spend to develop the new car and television ratings (hopefully for NASCAR’s sake) stay stable. The high-dollar driver salaries of the mid-2000s may never come back. But unless there are teams willing to spend to attract established Cup Series drivers, it’s hard for drivers with expiring contracts to improve their situations.

More changes to the schedule?

Is the 2021 schedule a jumping off point for more radical changes in the future?

NASCAR made its most significant changes to the Cup Series schedule ahead of 2021. The Cup Series now goes to tracks like Nashville Superspeedway and Circuit of the Americas in Austin while the Brickyard 400 on the Indianapolis oval has been ditched for a race on the Indianapolis road course.

Fans have been clamoring for more Cup Series road courses for some time. And with the substitution of the Daytona road course for Auto Club Speedway as a temporary 2021 fill-in, seven of the 36 points races on the Cup schedule are at road courses.

Will NASCAR continue to have more than a handful of road courses going forward? Will it add more short tracks? With the introduction of dirt at Bristol for the spring race, there are just five paved tracks under a mile on the Cup Series schedule in 2021. If road courses were the big addition to the 2021 schedule, short tracks should be the next addition in 2022.

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