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Young Season Has Been Full Of Young Surprises

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 1 2021

Christopher Bell got his first Cup Series win at the Daytona road course. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Numerous adjectives, including surprising, astonishing and exciting, can be used to describe the young 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. 

In the first three races, there have been that many different winners and two first-time victors. The veterans expected to be strong at the season’s beginning have stumbled and those not regulars in victory lane have quickly capitalized. Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron have already secured a berth in the playoffs with victories at Daytona, the Daytona Road Course and Homestead, respectively. Three drivers capable of winning, but none of them were expected to be in victory lane this soon in the season, if at all this year.

Bell and Byron have new crew chiefs. Byron and Rudy Fugle worked together in NASCAR’s Truck Series, but never in Cup. In fact, this is Fugle’s first venture as a Cup crew chief, yet they understand each other because of their history together.

“I knew how to push his buttons. I knew how to motivate him,” Fugle said about Byron. “That helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet.”

Fugle also noted that Byron’s former crew chief Chad Knaus “prepped” the young driver to get him to this point in his career. 

“I could not have done that three years ago,” Fugle said. “I couldn’t have prepped to learn how to work on Cup cars and prepped William. He (Knaus) built a great team. Not one other person has been changed out on this race team. We’ve got all the right pieces.”

Bell is paired with veteran crew chief Adam Stevens, who was with Kyle Busch for six years and two Cup championships. This is the third season for the McDowell-Drew Blickensderfer duo and they already have three top-10 finishes this year. McDowell points to this year’s technology status quo as beneficial to his team.

“There hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell explained. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the race track without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.”

 However, it’s not just the season’s first three winners that have left many shaking their head in disbelief. It’s also the flow of the races and those emerging as contenders during the various stages. For example, at Homestead-Motor Speedway on Sunday, Chris Buescher won the first stage and then Byron claimed the second before emerging with his second Cup victory, defeating Tyler Reddick by 2.777 seconds. Despite Reddick’s best Cup finish since last July at Texas, the California native’s racer attitude left him angry with his performance.

“I knew that it was going to take a well-executed restart, which, unfortunately, I didn’t do,” Reddick said. “When you see how much faster you were than the guys in front of you and you know you’re running out of time, it gets frustrating.”

Just behind McDowell, who finished sixth at Homestead, was Ryan Newman in seventh. It was Newman’s first top 10 since last October at Talladega and his first on a 1.5-mile track since November 2019 at Homestead. Even though Newman’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Buescher had to settle for a 19th-place finish the two consistently ran in the top 10 during the race’s first stage. Buescher acknowledged that veteran Jimmy Fennig’s appointment to executive vice president in charge of competition during the off-season was instrumental in getting the organization headed in the right direction. Fennig is now the central person who helps guide the team across all of the departments so everyone works towards common goals. Buescher noted some “old-school techniques” were implemented so they could “try and work to figure out what everyone’s knowledge is telling them.”

 Even Kurt Busch’s eighth-place finish came as a surprise. With 40 laps remaining in the 267-lap race, Busch had to pit for a loose left-front wheel. He lost a lap, but when the checkered flag waved he had salvaged a top-10 finish without the aid of a caution flag. 

If this year’s first three races are any indicator of the season’s remainder, this could be one of the most unpredictable and interesting one in quite some time.  

(Editor’s note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 1 2021
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