Off-week reflections: Highlights from 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season so far

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·5 min read
Off-week reflections: Highlights from 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season so far
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Twenty-two races down. Fourteen to go.

NASCAR‘s 2021 Cup Series season has been an eventful one, to say the least, and now that the schedule is in the midst of a two-week break, there has been ample time to reflect on all that has happened so far. From numerous victors to new tracks and record marks to winless streaks, this year has seen a bit of everything. Below is a recap of five themes through 22 events.

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… NEW TRACKS, WHO DIS?

This year‘s Cup Series schedule features three new tracks in addition to two new track layouts. NASCAR hasn‘t had this much of a shake-up since 1969.

The road course at Circuit of The Americas made its stock-car debut on May 23. NASCAR‘s top competitors returned to Road America for the first time since 1956 on July 4. And then Nashville Superspeedway hosted its inaugural Cup Series race on June 20.

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Those were the three new venues.

One of the two new layouts already happened at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 28. The short track turned into the dirt track. There hadn‘t been a Cup Series race on dirt since 1970.

Still to come is Indianapolis Motor Speedway‘s road course, a configuration the Cup Series has never raced. That event will take place Aug. 15, the third-to-last regular-season race.

… KICK THE DUST UP

Ovals and road courses are nothing new to the Cup Series. Dirt, however, was a large question mark.

Sure, many drivers have competed in dirt races before. But not in a stock car. None of the active drivers were competing back in 1970, aka the last time NASCAR took on dirt.

RELATED: Bristol dirt weekend to return in 2022

The Bristol Dirt Race was scheduled to be one of the eight race weekends that featured practice and qualifying, as the sanctioning body continues to limit at-track time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cup Series completed its two practices Friday, but its four qualifying races were canceled due to wet-weather conditions. Sunday‘s main event was then postponed to Monday.

Joey Logano, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, ultimately won, leading 61 of the 253 laps. Martin Truex Jr.‘s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led a race-high 126 circuits but finished 19th. Kyle Larson, who‘s known as a dirt-racing maniac, actually placed his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 29th, four laps short of the total distance.

… EVERYBODY GETS A TROPHY

The first domino fell in the season-opening Daytona 500 with Michael McDowell, and another six went down in order.

NASCAR saw seven different winners in the first seven Cup Series races. Truex was the first repeat offender, claiming the fifth (Phoenix Raceway) and eighth (Martinsville Speedway) trophies. After Truex, though, there were another three different winners, making it 10 of out the first 11.

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A quick look at that order: McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron, Larson, Truex, Ryan Blaney, Logano, Truex (second win), Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Only for Truex to end the trend again.

Overall, there have been 13 different winners this season, the most recent being Aric Almirola at New Hampshire Motor Speedway right before the sport‘s off weeks.

… A NEW TOP DOG

Hendrick Motorsports became the all-time winningest team this season, taking the top spot from Petty Enterprises, which had been No. 1 since 1999. Hendrick Motorsports tied Petty Enterprises at 268 wins on May 23 at Circuit of The Americas and then pushed ahead a week later at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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Larson won the 2021 Coca-Cola 600 to put Hendrick Motorsports in the lead. Since then, Hendrick Motorsports has added an additional four victories. The team now stands at 273 wins all time.

Speaking of Larson and accomplishments, the pilot of the No. 5 Chevrolet has won a series-best four points-paying races this year, including three in a row between May and June. During that stretch, Larson also won the exhibition All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Larson sits second in the points standings with four races left before a regular-season champion is crowned.

… Y‘ALL GOOD?

Neither Kevin Harvick nor Denny Hamlin have won a race this season. Harvick had a series-high nine wins in 2020, while Hamlin had a second-best seven.

At this point last year, Harvick already had six wins and Hamlin had five.

Instead, in 2021, Harvick has driven his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to six top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. Hamlin‘s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has tallied 11 top fives and 15 top 10s. Each has one runner-up showing.

RELATED: How Kyle Larson caught up to Denny Hamlin in points

Harvick and Hamlin have 14 opportunities left to score a win, starting Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). But they only have four chances left to qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs.

Hamlin currently sits atop the point standings, and if he holds on to that lead, he‘ll earn the regular-season title and with that comes a postseason berth. Otherwise, he has a 283-point buffer on the cutoff line.

Harvick‘s advantage is only 82 points. He‘s only two spots away from elimination.

Both of them made the 16-driver field last season. This year is TBD.