Pre-season power ranking for Daytona International Speedway is before the non-points paying Cup Series Clash for the first time on a road course this Tuesday.
With the Daytona 500 right around the corner, after the Clash, it’s time to put together the first 2021 edition of the NASCAR Cup Series power ranking. Deciding on the top-20 is a difficult task. This season is shaping up as one of the more competitive seasons in recent memory. New teams such as Trackhouse Racing and 23XI Racing joining the Cup Series and young drivers such as Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell are primed for a breakout. The top of this ranking will get the most attention, but the middle and bottom are the sleepers who could find their way to the top as the season progresses.
1. Kevin Harvick
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4
Even without qualifying for last season’s championship race, there’s not much debate that Harvick was 2020’s best driver. Harvick missing out on a well-deserved championship will add some extra motivation to the team of the No. 4, and that should be scary to his opponents. Harvick was utterly dominant at times last year en route to a nine-win season, and double digits may be a possibility this year.
2. Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports No. 9
Whether or not Elliott deserved to win the 2020 championship is really inconsequential. Elliott won when he needed to win, and fully cemented himself as one of the best drivers in the sport. Even with that success, there are still doubters of Elliott; people will compare him to his father, and see his championship as a product of a faulty playoff system. In 2021, he’ll have a chance to quiet those doubters by putting together another well-rounded season, and there’s little reason to think otherewise.
3. Brad Keselowski
Team Penske No. 2
Lost in the season-long battle between Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin was the fact that Keselowski wasn’t all that far behind the pair at the top of the standings. Keselowski was one stage away from claiming his second NASCAR championship last year, and his incredible consistency was the main reason why. Keselowski signed a crucial extension with Team Penske this offseason, allowing him to focus on the tasks at hand and push hard for that 2021 title.
4. Denny Hamlin
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11
There has been a common theme in Hamlin’s career; always one of the best, but never quite the best. That theme hasn’t been more clear than it was in 2020, as Hamlin played second fiddle to Kevin Harvick for most of the season, and missed out on the championship to Chase Elliott. Despite this, it would be a mistake to count Hamlin out this year. He may not win seven races again, but he’ll be upfront a lot and take home his share of checkered flags.
5. Kyle Busch
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18
After winning his second Cup Series championship in 2019, Busch dropped to just one win in 2020 in a shockingly turbulent season for the veteran. Busch was obviously affected by the lack of practice and qualifying, as his ability to work on the car over the course of the weekend is one of his biggest strengths. Even with only a few full race weekends this season, expect Busch to make necessary adjustments and bounce back to become a championship contender yet again.
6. Joey Logano
Team Penske No. 22
Logano didn’t win the championship in 2020, but he was a lot closer than people seem to realize. A scary thought is, at age 30, Logano may just now be entering his prime. He already has a championship and a long list of victories, but there may still be another level or two to Logano’s success. Whether we see him take his second championship in 2021 or not, Logano has to be one of the favorites to contend for a long, long time.
7. Alex Bowman
Hendrick Motorsports No. 48
Following a dominant win at Auto Club prior to the COVID layoff, Bowman’s 2020 season went through a long rough stretch. Bowman’s summer performance was subpar at best, but he bounced back and ended up making a deep playoff run. With full-time sponsorship secured via Ally, Bowman has all of the pieces in place to truly begin to make himself one of the best, but he’ll have to get over the inconsistencies that have plagued him so far in his career.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19
Like his teammate Kyle Busch, Truex didn’t quite live up to expectations in 2020. Partially because of the domination of Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019, Truex was seen by many as a favorite to win the championship last year, but ultimately fell way short. It’s very possible that Truex’s career has begun its downslope, but it’s difficult to tell after just one season. 2021 will be a crucial year for Truex’s future with JGR.
9. Ryan Blaney
Team Penske No. 12
The 2020 season was a bit frustrating for Blaney. He led nearly 700 laps and grabbed a ton of stage points, but was only able to secure one victory. Blaney was bounced in the Round of 16 after a poor string of races, ending a somewhat disappointing season. Though he is still relatively young, there is already a building thought that Blaney may be at his peak. A multi-win season and a deep playoff run could go a long way towards quieting this thought.
10. Aric Almirola
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10
After nearly squeaking into the championship race in 2018, Almirola hasn’t repeated that success, and he comes into 2021 with a two-year winless streak. Even while finishing with the ninth most top-ten finishes in the series last season, Almirola’s string of consistency ran out in the Round of 12, and his inability to finish off a race with a win was apparent. This season will go a long way towards Almirola’s future, but he can certainly keep himself in this ride with an impressive year.
11. Kurt Busch
Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1
Busch put together a 2020 season similar to 2019, but with a little bit more playoff luck. He won at Las Vegas to advance to the Round of 8 before finally being bounced, and the veteran was as consistent as ever. Though Busch is likely in the twilight of his long and successful career, it’s hard to imagine him not at least finding his way into the postseason once again.
12. William Byron
Hendrick Motorsports No. 24
Byron got the proverbial camel off of his back with his win at Daytona last year, but there are still plenty of questions about his future in NASCAR. With just one win in three years with Hendrick Motorsports and just one Round of 12 appearance, the scrutiny on the No. 24 driver will intensify if he isn’t able to improve his consistency. That being said, Byron can also be looked at as a breakout candidate, and a big year isn’t out of the conversation.
13. Christopher Bell
Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20
There seems to be a wide range of expectations for Bell following his move from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. As a rookie with LFR, Bell got off to a slow start, but finished off the season strong, piloting the No. 95 to a 20th place points finish. In a more competitive car, Bell should be seen as a playoff driver. He’s got plenty of talent, and with a car to match that talent, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him in victory lane this year.
14. Kyle Larson
Hendrick Motorsports No. 5
Larson made just four starts in 2020 before being released from Chip Ganassi Racing after his iRacing incident. After locking up a ride with Hendrick Motorsports, it will be interesting to see how quickly Larson can readjust to asphalt racing after a nearly year-long layoff. The changes to this year’s schedule should benefit Larson due to his skills on road courses and dirt tracks, but it may be a few races before he looks like himself on track.
15. Tyler Reddick
Richard Childress Racing No. 8
Lost in the craziness of fellow rookie Cole Custer winning at Kentucky was the success that Reddick had with RCR in his first Cup Series season. Reddick nearly snuck his way into the playoffs, and he has all the looks of a breakout candidate this upcoming year. A checkered flag or two are a very real possibility for the youngster, and a spot in the playoffs seems almost probable.
16. Austin Dillon
Richard Childress Racing No. 3
2020 can be classified as a bounceback season for Dillon, who had a strong run to the Round of 12 after missing the playoffs entirely in 2019. Dillon’s season put him back on the radar as a sleeper contender, just like his teammate one spot above him. This season will say a lot about the development of both Dillon and Richard Childress Racing as a whole.
17. Matt DiBenedetto
Wood Brothers Racing No. 21
DiBenedetto’s move to the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 car was the biggest headline of last offseason. While his first season wasn’t necessarily a disappointment, it seemed a little bit mediocre given the hype around the ride change. Luckily for DiBenedetto, he’s got another year in a competitive car to prove that he really can be a playoff threat. That elusive first win could be in the cards as well.
18. Cole Custer
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41
Of the 16 drivers who made the playoffs last year, Custer was probably the most shocking. Custer’s upset win at Kentucky got him in as a rookie, but he wasn’t able to advance out of the first round. This year, Custer will have a chance to build off of that rookie season, but the relative success of his 2020 year also brings added pressure. If he fails to bring the No. 41 back to the playoffs, it will be difficult to see 2021 as a success.
19. Bubba Wallace
23XI Racing No. 23
Wallace is likely the biggest wild card coming into 2021. Obviously his new 23XI Racing car will be more competitive than his ride at Richard Petty Motorsports, but we won’t know how much more competitive for a while. New teams typically take a little while to gel, and given the limited offseason work allowed, it may be a few races before Wallace can produce impressive results. However, there’s little reason to believe that Wallace won’t be fighting for wins by the summer, and he has an outside shot at a playoff berth.
20. Chase Briscoe
Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14
There’s a very real possibility that Briscoe could be the most Cup-ready rookie in the past few years. He keeps cars clean, runs consistently, and wins so many races. Briscoe showed off his ability to almost take over a race in the Xfinity Series last year, and though he isn’t going to be dominant as a rookie, there should be lofty expectations for him coming into a very competitive ride.
BEST OF THE REST
21. Chris Buescher (Roush-Fenway Racing No. 17)
22. Ross Chastain (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42)
23. Erik Jones (Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43)
24. Daniel Suarez (Trackhouse Racing No. 99)
25. Ryan Newman (Roush-Fenway Racing No. 6)
26. Corey LaJoie (Spire Motorsports No. 7)
27. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47)
28. Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports No. 34)
29. Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 37)
30. Anthony Alfredo (Front Row Motorsports No. 38)