Change is constant in the NASCAR Cup Series. But nothing attracts attention quite like changes to NASCAR’s driver-team lineup.
With sponsors coming and going and new, young drivers always knocking on the door, NASCAR’s top series features several new driver-team combos each year. But rarely are there as many significant and potentially impactful moves as we will see during the 2021 season.
Three drivers who have won NASCAR Cup races will be with new teams this season, while three more up-and-coming stars will join teams that have the potential to win races and challenge for a spot in the 16-driver playoffs.
Who will have the most success with their new team?
Here’s a look at the most intriguing new driver-team combinations for 2021:
Can Bubba Wallace win for Michael Jordan in the NASCAR Cup Series?
No one will be under the spotlight more this season than 27-year-old Bubba Wallace, who made more headlines off the track than on last season.
As NASCAR’s only African-American driver, Wallace was heavily involved in the racial justice movement that swept the United States last year and became the sport’s chief spokesman for more equality in a sport that has been striving for years to become more racially diverse.
His leadership on the issue led to a surge in attention and popularity and put him in position to land one of the most attractive and financially lucrative rides in the sport. Wallace will drive this season for 23XI Racing, a new team owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and NASCAR Cup star Denny Hamlin.
Wallace will not only be backed by one of the most famous sports stars in the world, his team will have the resources to be competitive right away and possibly a contender in its debut season. Wallace recently told NBC Sports that his goal is to win two races and make the playoffs this season — a tall order for a first-year team.
Thanks to Hamlin’s co-ownership of the team (he and Jordan are golf buddies and close friends), 23XI will have support from Toyota and a valuable technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, the multi-car giant that Hamlin won seven races for last season. It will also be one of the most well-funded teams in the sport, with sponsorship from DoorDash, McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper, Columbia Sportswear and other well-known companies. In an era when even top teams are struggling to find sponsors, Wallace’s team is fully funded for the entire season.
Wallace, who won six races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, has made 112 Cup starts for underfunded Richard Petty Motorsports over the past four seasons. He had his best season last year with one top-five and five top-10s to finish 22nd in points. His best Cup performance was a runner-up finish in the 2108 Daytona 500.
Wallace has flashed potential in his four-year Cup career, especially on fast restrictor-plate tracks, where he has two of his three career top-fives. With solid sponsorship, a strong technical alliance and one of the most famous team owners in the world, Wallace will have his best shot this season to show what he can do on the track.
Can Kyle Larson revive his career at Hendrick Motorsports?
Like Wallace, Kyle Larson made headlines off the track last season. But unlike Wallace, it was for all the wrong reasons, ironically linking the two on one of the most explosive issues facing the United States.
One of the top young stars in the sport, Larson was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online iRacing event. He was subsequently fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and lost all his sponsors, costing him millions and putting his NASCAR career in jeopardy. The timing could not have been worse for the ultra-talented driver during his free agent season.
But Larson, who apologized repeatedly for the incident, said and did all the right things, earning reinstatement by NASCAR and giving him an opportunity to pursue another driving opportunity.
He landed a big one, signing a multi-year deal with Hendrick Motorsports. Larson, who was once considered the leading candidate to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick, wound up with Hendrick after all and will drive the organization’s No. 5 Chevrolet. He will team with 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott, giving Hendrick a shot at its 14th Cup championship.
Though Hendrick is still searching for sponsors for Larson, the elite organization has enough money and resources to put him in a competitive car. And he has proven he has the talent to win and contend for the championship.
Though Larson has yet to develop into the dominant star many expected, he had six wins in six seasons with Ganassi and finished in the top-10 in points four times, including a career-high sixth in 2019. With a much better team at Hendrick, he should have the chance to finally emerge as the superstar legends like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart predicted when Larson first entered the sport.
Can Alex Bowman live up to legacy of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48?
After paying his dues with underfunded, back-marker teams, Alex Bowman got his big break when Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion during the 2016 season. Bowman ran 10 races in Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports car and impressed team owner Rick Hendrick with three top-10 finishes.
Two years later, Bowman was hired to replace Earnhardt when the sport’s biggest star was forced to retire.
Though he struggled in his first full season, Bowman has shown vast improvement in the past two years, winning a race and making the playoffs in each of his last two seasons. He came on strong at the end of last season, scoring seven top-10s in the playoffs to finish sixth in the final standings.
Bowman’s switch for 2021 is a minor one and a lateral move. He will move from the No. 88 to the No. 48 after the retirement of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Bowman will make the move with his whole team intact, but he will face added pressure driving a car that won seven championships and was the car to beat for a full decade. In the final year of his contract — and with some big names on the market after this season — he likely will have to continue his upward trend to remain a contender at Hendrick.
Is Christopher Bell the next star at Joe Gibbs Racing?
Christopher Bell is the latest rising star who had to bide his time and pay his dues at Joe Gibbs Racing. While waiting for a seat to open with one of the top teams in the sport, Bell won 15 NASCAR Xfinity Series races in two seasons at JGR. He was also impressive as a Cup rookie last year, posting seven top-10s and finishing 20th in points with underfunded Leavine Family Racing.
Now he gets his big shot, replacing Erik Jones in Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota.
Bell, 26, will not only have a fast Toyota, but he will work with veteran crew chief Adam Stevens, who won two Cup championships with Kyle Busch. He will also have three veteran teammates to lean on in Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Bell was a dominant driver in the Xfinity Series and got the most out of a mid-pack car last season. Now he gets to see if he can follow in the footsteps of Busch, Hamlin and a host of other successful Gibbs drivers.
Is Chase Briscoe the future of Stewart-Haas Racing?
As a young ARCA and NASCAR Truck Series driver, Chase Briscoe was offered opportunities by both Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing. He ultimately wound up signing with Tony Stewart’s Stewart-Haas Racing.
It may have been the best move the young driver could have made.
Briscoe took the NASCAR Xfinity Series by storm last season, winning a series-high nine races and reaching the championship race. The performance was good enough to earn a promotion to the Cup Series, where he will replace the retiring Clint Bowyer in SHR’s No. 14 Ford.
Briscoe, 26, has already formed a close bond with 2014 Cup champion and perennial title contender Kevin Harvick, who won a career-high nine races with SHR last season. He will be given plenty of time to adjust to the Cup series as a rookie, but if his 2020 performance is any indication, he could one day follow in the footsteps of Stewart and Harvick.
Can Erik Jones give Richard Petty Motorsports a boost?
Erik Jones was once regarded as the best young driver in the sport and a potential rising star. But after three underachieving seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he was released after last season to make way for Bell. He will now face a much greater challenge at Richard Petty Motorsports.
Jones won two races and made the playoffs twice with Gibbs, but he struggled last season, going winless and stumbling to 17th in points. Now he joins an underfunded, single-car team that has not won a race since 2014 or finished in the top 20 in points since 2015. RPM finished 28th, 28th and 22nd with just three top-five finishes in the past three seasons with Bubba Wallace behind the wheel.
Jones, who was once the protege of Kyle Busch, is a talented driver with 17 career victories in the Xfinity and NASCAR Truck Series. At 26, he will be looking to revive his once-promising career while giving one of the sport’s most popular teams a chance to contend.