From Michael Jordan to Kyle Busch to the still raging COVID-19 pandemic, storylines to watch in the 2021 NASCAR season

Big things are happening in NASCAR, as the 2021 Cup Series season is set to start with Sunday’s Daytona 500.

With a totally revamped schedule that includes tracks that are new to NASCAR, several high-profile drivers with different teams and high-profile celebrities joining the ownership ranks — plus the continuing challenge of racing during the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s a lot for fans to keep track of.

So ahead of NASCAR’s nine-month season, here’s a breakdown of six top storylines to keep in mind throughout the year, from two-time Cup Series champ Kyle Busch’s potential to bounce back after a subpar 2020 to the upcoming Silly Season as drivers look to avoid becoming free agents.

The impact of Michael Jordan and Pitbull becoming team owners

Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suárez are two of several drivers with new rides this season, but they’re also accompanied by two new and extremely high-profile team owners: Michael Jordan and Pitbull, respectively.

In September, Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they teamed up to create a new Cup Series team, 23XI Racing — a nod to both Jordan’s iconic No. 23 uniform and Hamlin’s No. 11 car. Wallace signed a multiyear deal with his new team after racing full time for Richard Petty Motorsports the last three seasons, and he’ll pilot the No. 23 Toyota.

“(Jordan) wants a winning race driver, and he took an opportunity to invest in me and he has seen something that sparked his interest to make this deal happen and move forward with it along with Denny,” Wallace said last week. “So I can’t thank them enough.”

Wallace is still looking for his first Cup Series win, but before the cars even hit the track for a race, it’s difficult to speculate on what kind of season he and the team could have.

In a very different situation going into his fifth Cup season, Suárez is now racing with his fourth team in four years. After driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, he competed for Gaunt Brothers Racing in 2020, and this season he’s with the newly formed Trackhouse Racing team. And only a few weeks ago, Pitbull was announced as a co-owner of the team.

“He’s not called Mr. Worldwide just because of nothing,” Suárez said last week. “The Latino community loves him. I think he’s a huge plus, a huge help to have someone like Pitbull super close to a race team to help us in many, many things. But obviously, just to bring the community together and to bring more Latinos to this racetrack, to this team, make this team something different, something young, something cool, something modern.”

At this point it’s not totally clear how involved Jordan or Pitbull will be with their NASCAR teams or if they will make appearances at races — although Pitbull will be the grand marshal for the Daytona 500. Regardless, they’re undeniably bringing a ton of attention to the sport.

Can Kyle Busch bounce back after a down season?

Two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch had a strong 2020 season by many drivers’ standards.

Following up his 2019 championship run with a one-win season certainly wasn’t ideal for the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver. But he extended his streak of winning at least one race in each of his 16 full-time seasons, even if he didn’t get to victory lane until the 34th of the 36 races.

Regardless, Busch is one of the most talented drivers on the track who’s accustomed to winning multiple races each year. Before 2020, his last one-win season was in 2014, and he won 18 total races between the 2017 and 2019 seasons. So it’s logical to think 2020 was just an off year for him and he’ll return to his usual dominance sooner or later.

Maybe a new crew chief will provide Busch and the No. 18 team with a needed spark. After six years and two titles, Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens split up after last season, and, still with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stevens will now work with Christopher Bell and the No. 20 team.

Busch’s new crew chief is Ben Beshore, who previously was an engineer for the No. 18 team and a crew chief for Gibbs in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and 2020. Two seasons ago Busch and Beshore won four of their seven Xfinity races together.

Via NBC Sports:

“He kind of knows my little quirks,” Busch said of Beshore. “I have a whole new team essentially. The only guy that is the same is the car chief. Everybody else is different. I’ve got a whole new group of guys that I’ve got to learn, and I’ve got to teach them how I do things and what my system is and how I like stuff, where I had all of that for the past five years, six years.”

New tracks shake up the schedule

If you haven’t taken a good look at the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule yet, you might not recognize it when you do because there are a lot of changes.

Some fans wanted more road courses on the schedule, and they have that. Added to the schedule are events on Daytona’s road course (Feb. 21) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course (Aug. 15), along with new races at Circuit of The Americas (May 23) and Road America (July 4).

Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s “roval” still have their respective races as well, so that’s a total of seven road course events.

But there’s more.

For its March 28 race, Bristol Motor Speedway will be converted to a dirt track and will be the Cup Series’ first dirt race since 1970 at North Carolina State Fairgrounds. Nashville Superspeedway — a 1.33-mile track in Lebanon, Tennessee, previously used by the Xfinity and Camping World Truck series — also joins the Cup schedule with a race set for June 20.

Finally, Texas Motor Speedway will host the NASCAR All-Star Race on June 13 for the first time. The exhibition race was usually held at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the exception of the 1986 race being at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the 2020 race at Bristol.

Continuing to race during the COVID-19 pandemic

After the COVID-19 pandemic halted the NASCAR season for 10 weeks last spring, racing successfully returned and finished a full 36-race season. Protocols and restrictions were established, race weekends were shortened and just about everyone had to be prepared to roll with the punches of last-minute changes. The same should be expected for 2021 as the pandemic rages on.

In fact, NASCAR made its first change to the 2021 schedule in December, bumping Auto Club Speedway’s race off and replacing it with the Daytona road course race.

So instead of going from the Daytona 500 to Homestead-Miami Speedway and then heading to the Southern California track to start the West Coast swing, NASCAR will have back-to-back Daytona weekends, followed by a race at Homestead (Feb. 28) before taking on Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 7). Depending on state and local regulations during the pandemic, more adjustments could happen.

Like last season, the majority of 2021 race weekends will not include practice or qualifying sessions, with a few exceptions. New tracks and a few notable races will have practice and qualifying, including the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and Phoenix Raceway’s championship race, plus weekends at Bristol’s dirt track, COTA, Nashville, Road America and Indy’s road course.

The big takeaway here is situations remain fluid and NASCAR might have to continue adapting as it goes.

How will NASCAR combat racism and promote inclusivity?

Bubba Wallace sported a #BlackLivesMatter car at the June 10, 2020 race at Martinsville Speedway.

Thanks to Bubba Wallace, NASCAR took a major but massively overdue step of banning the Confederate flag from its events. Then driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace ran a #BlackLivesMatter paint scheme on the No. 43 Chevrolet. And a handful of drivers spoke out on social media about racism and police brutality against Black people following the death of George Floyd.

And in June, when the FBI was investigating the possibility of a hate crime committed against Wallace and the No. 43 team, NASCAR and its teams stood up in support of the only Black driver in the Cup Series.

Last season, NASCAR committed to continuing its anti-racism efforts and pledged to be more inclusive. But as NASCAR President Steve Phelps told NBC Sports in August:

“What actions can we take? I mean, it’s great to say the words, but if you don’t follow them up with actions, they’re really meaningless. And so, for us, it’s continuing down this continuum of this journey towards getting better. And getting better really means bringing a more welcoming and inclusive environment whether at the racetrack or you’re watching on television, that our sport is a place where everyone is welcome.”

When For The Win asked Phelps about NASCAR’s plans to combat racism in and outside the sport, he explained a threefold approach for addressing this internally, industrywide and beyond racing. Internally, Phelps said there is an ally council, a diversity council and employee resource groups to help ensure NASCAR is inclusive in its operations and hiring processes.

Externally, he noted that the governing body is working with its corporate sponsors, as well as groups like the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and RISE, to promote education.

“As an industry, we are going to mandate that everyone take sensitivity training, unconscious bias training,” Phelps said. “We are going to do that. Before we get to the (Daytona) 500, all the race teams, anyone affiliated with this, is going to do that.”

Anything more concrete from NASCAR and beyond performative gestures remains to be seen.

A busy upcoming Silly Season

Wood Brothers Racing re-signed Matt DiBenedetto, above, for the 2021 season, but it was only a one-year deal.

Contract details are often kept quiet in NASCAR, so it’s not always clear which drivers will be looking for new deals. However, as NBC Sports reported, several big-name drivers are entering the final year of their contracts, including Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto. And with the exception of the latter two, they’re all at least 36 years old.

Truex, a 40-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver, told NBC Sports that he’s happy where he is and as long as he’s competing for championships, he’s not too worried about his future. His teammate, Denny Hamlin, was headed into the final year of his contract, but last week the team announced multiyear extensions for Hamlin and his primary sponsor, FedEx.

Soon-to-be 37-year-old Keselowski signed a one-year extension last year through the 2021 season. Kurt Busch signed a multiyear extension with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019, and the 42-year-old driver said in September that there was a “50-50” chance the 2021 season will be his last in NASCAR.

DiBenedetto is the only driver on this list who knows he’s not returning to his current team, Wood Brothers Racing, next season. The 29-year-old driver signed a one-year extension through the 2021 season, but then he’ll be replaced by reigning Xfinity champion Austin Cindric.

“My whole career has had an expiration date,” DiBenedetto said last week. “I’ve thought it was over 1,000 times, so it don’t even faze me. I’m pretty mentally tough at this point. …

“My whole focus is on 2021 and driving the 21 car. Clearly it’s a sign that it’s our year. It’s ’21. So that’s been 100% percent my main focus — just knowing that all we need to do is go out there and kick ass and perform and the future will take care of itself. So I haven’t had any talks with anybody moving forward.”

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