No one could have seen this coming.
NASCAR has promoted 2021 as the best Cup Series season ever. That claim remains to be seen, although through the first seven races, it might be the most unpredictable season ever.
There have been seven different winners in the seven races, and definitely not who you would expect.
It started with Michael McDowell pulling off an upset in the Daytona 500 when Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski wrecked each other on the last lap. Fast-forward to last Monday when Logano, who has limited dirt-track experience, emerged as the unlikely winner of the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Heading into Daytona, oddsmakers installed Denny Hamlin as a pre-race favorite at 5-1 in the 500. He had three wins in the “Great American Race,” including the previous two. On the other hand, the odds on McDowell to win were 66-1, near the bottom of the pack.
Surely the next week at the Daytona road course would be easier to pick. After all, defending NASCAR champion Chase Elliott had been the recent king of the road with five road-course wins. If Elliott faltered, it had to be Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch taking home the trophy. Turns out, it was a Joe Gibbs Racing driver who won, but not who the experts expected. Christopher Bell, whose previous best road-racing finish was 21st, captured the win.
The series next went to mile-and-a-half Homestead. Hamlin, Harvick, Logano or one of the Busch brothers all seemed like good picks based on past performance. William Byron, perhaps the most unlikely of the Hendrick Motorsports camp, came through with the victory. Byron had a solid ninth-place finish his last Homestead race, but there was little to indicate he would lead 102 of the 267 laps.
Las Vegas, home of the oddsmakers, was next on the list. If any of the races went closest to form, it was here. Most expected Kyle Larson to win races in 2021, but it was somewhat surprising to see it happen in just the fourth race of the season. He outdueled Keselowski for the trophy.
Former series champion Martin Truex Jr. won the next week at Phoenix, which doesn’t sound like much of a surprise. Dig deeper into the stats and Truex had led a total of 123 laps in 30 previous Phoenix races. The favorite going in was Harvick, a nine-time Phoenix winner, or Elliott, who dominated the championship race in November.
The series then moved to Atlanta. After his run at Las Vegas, it wasn’t shocking to see Larson setting the pace. He won the first two stages and led 269 laps overall, yet he didn’t win. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney ran him down and passed him with eight laps to go for the victory.
That brought us to the most unpredictable weekend of the year: the historic race on the Bristol dirt. Larson, Bell and Austin Dillon, who won all three races he entered at the previous week’s Bristol Dirt Nationals, were the early favorites.
None was a factor in the race. More surprisingly, Larson finished 35th in the Camping World Truck Series race, which was won by Truex, whose previous dirt experience was limited to a pair of exhibitions.
In the Cup race, Dillon finished a lap down in 21st. Larson, who was caught up in an early crash with Bell, finished 29th. Bell, who lost control trying to make a run on the high side, was 34th.
The race came down to Logano and Hamlin, drivers with little dirt experience. Add in Daniel Suarez, even more of a novice to dirt racing, and there were battles for the lead no one expected.
Next up is Martinsville and the first race under the lights for the Cup Series’ oldest track.
Recent history would suggest that Keselowski, Truex or Elliott as the favorite on the flat, paper clip-shaped short track. If you’re looking at career numbers, Hamlin leads with five wins while the Busch brothers have two each.
But there is little running to form this crazy season, and who will take home one of the Martinsville grandfather clocks as a winner’s trophy is anyone’s guess.