NASCAR's biggest races of 2021 

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500
Jeff Owens

After battling through a rough COVID-disrupted season in 2020, NASCAR officials vowed to shake up the Cup Series schedule this year. They weren't messing around.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule features seven new events, five new tracks and a host of traditional events moving to new dates on the 38-race calendar. It includes a new all-star race venue, the first dirt-track race since 1970, the return of a tradition-rich short track, and the most road-course races ever.

NASCAR even turned the traditional Clash at Daytona into a road-course race that will kick off the 2021 season Feb. 9 and serve as an appetizer for the Feb. 14 Daytona 500.

New tracks, new racing styles and a vastly different schedule, coupled with a pandemic that continues to bring uncertainty, will present the world's best stock-car drivers with one of their greatest challenges ever.

Also Read: NASCAR's 2021 TV schedule, start times

While 36 of the 38 events count toward the playoffs and the season-long championship, some tracks and events take on added significance and will be circled on the calendars of drivers, teams and fans.

Here's a look at the top 10 biggest races under the revamped 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule:

#1 Daytona 500

Much has changed, but one thing remains the same: The Daytona 500 is still the Daytona 500. It's NASCAR's biggest race and the Super Bowl of stock-car racing. Though the championship will be decided nine months later, there is no bigger race on the schedule, and there never will be.

A win in the prestigious Daytona 500 can make a driver's career or seal a Hall of Fame induction. There is no event NASCAR drivers would rather win, no trophy more coveted, and no race that leaves a bigger void for stars who never win it.

It is also where history and memorable moments will be made. Denny Hamlin will be looking to become the first driver to win the race three straight times this year, while 2020 champion Chase Elliott will be looking to become just the third driver to join his father as a Daytona 500 winner.

#2 Phoenix

NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500
NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500

NASCAR has decided its annual championship at several tracks over the years, with Atlanta Motor Speedway giving way to Homestead-Miami Speedway, which hosted the season finale for 18 years before it moved west to Phoenix last year.

The flat, 1-mile track in the desert turned out to be a compelling and competitive site for the championship race, with Elliott roaring to his first championship in dramatic fashion.

Also Read: NASCAR's best new driver-team combos for 2021

With wide straightaways and sweeping turns, Phoenix is one of the more exciting venues on the circuit and generally produces close races and often thrilling finishes. It will continue to rise in stature as the site of the season finale and championship weekend.

#3 Bristol Dirt Race

This unique event promises to be one of the strangest and most interesting races in years. NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports Inc. will turn one of the sport's most popular short tracks into a dirt-track curiosity. Seeing the high-banked, half-mile oval covered with dirt, and watching the sport's top drivers navigate it in 3,300-pound stock cars, will be a sight to behold.

NASCAR raced trucks and Late Model stock cars on dirt at Eldora Speedway to great success, but this will be the first Cup race on dirt since 1970.

Who will be the drivers to beat? It's anybody's guess, but keep an eye on veterans Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and rookie Christopher Bell, who all have vast experience on dirt.

#4 Road Courses

NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400
NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400

NASCAR keeps adding road-course races to its Cup schedule for a reason. Over the past 10 years, they have produced some of the circuit's most exciting races. As more and more drivers have gotten the hang of winding roads, right-hand turns and skilled braking, the races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma have been must-see events, producing close finishes, aggressive driving and plenty of bumping and banging. The Charlotte Roval, added to the schedule in 2019, has lived up to those standards, earning a place in the 10-race playoffs.

Now NASCAR has gone all in on road racing with four new events on this year's schedule — all of them at challenging and uniquely significant venues.

Road racing has become so popular that NASCAR chose to turn its non-points, season-opening event into a road-course clash. The annual Clash at Daytona will be run on the speedway's famous road course for the first time — an odd twist for a week of that climaxes with the sport's greatest superspeedway race. Though it will have no bearing on the Daytona 500 or its accompanying events, the Daytona Road course will present a new challenge for NASCAR's top drivers. NASCAR likes the idea so much it will return to the Daytona Road Course for the second points race of the season, a move necessitated by California Speedway having to opt out of the 2021 season.

In May, NASCAR will visit the finest road racing facility in the United States at Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas. The track, which also hosts a Formula 1 race, will be a treat for NASCAR drivers. Six weeks later, the series travels to Road America, the Wisconsin track that has produced numerous exciting Xfinity Series races over the years.

In August, NASCAR will return to famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but instead of racing on the iconic Brickyard oval, the Cup and Xfinity Series will switch to the Indy road course. The switch is a good one since the fast, flat oval was not a good fit for NASCAR's heavy stock cars.

#5 Bristol, Martinsville and The Roval

Bristol and Martinsville are two of NASCAR's most exciting and popular tracks. The unique, old-school short tracks generate bumper-to-bumper and door-to-door racing with plenty of fireworks and controversy. They are the perfect tracks for an elimination race in NASCAR's 10-race playoffs.

Bristol comes at the end of Round 1, Martinsville at the end of Round 3. Both will have drivers on pins and needles as they desperately try to advance in the playoffs and hope not to ruin the championship hopes of another driver. The Bristol race will eliminate four championship contenders, while the Martinsville event will set the final four.

The Charlotte Roval, another exciting road course, is the perfect buffer between the two iconic short tracks. Playoff drivers will have to survive the mix of winding turns and Charlotte's big-track oval to advance to Round 3.

#6 Talladega

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 500
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 500

For all the nerves that Bristol, Martinsville and Charlotte will bring, there is no track drivers fear more than Talladega, host of the fifth playoff race. The big, fast 2.6-mile oval is known for The Big One, the wild, frightening multi-car crashes that can wipe out half the field.

The October race will likely ruin someone's championship hopes before they ever get to Charlotte or Martinsville.

#7 Daytona

This is a big year for NASCAR's most famous track. Not only will Daytona International Speedway host the first two Cup races of the season, it will also host the final race before the playoffs.

The Aug. 28 race will set the 16-driver playoff, giving drivers one last chance to make the championship field with either a win or a by grabbing one of the final spots on points. Though most of the field will be set by then, there could be as many as five or six drivers racing for the final two or three playoff spots.

And, like Talladega, the Daytona oval is one of NASCAR's most dangerous tracks, where championship hopes can be wiped out in an instant.

#Texas All-Star Race

After 33 years at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR moved its annual all-star race to Bristol last year. Now it takes it to Texas Motor Speedway, a track similar to Charlotte in size and design but one that has had a flare for the dramatic over the years.

The over-hyped event needs a dose of excitement, and since everything is bigger in Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth is just the venue to deliver it.

#9 Nashville

After years of experimenting with new tracks and new markets, NASCAR will return to an old, traditional stronghold in June when it races at Nashville Superspeedway.

Nashville was a NASCAR hot bed back in the day and the old Nashville short track always delivered exciting action. The Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway, which once hosted the Xfinity Series, this season until a new track owned and being renovated by SMI is ready to add another short track to the schedule next year.

Regardless of what the one-time event holds, it will a welcome return to a city that was once a NASCAR staple.

#10 Darlington

NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500
NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500

Daytona may be NASCAR's most famous track and Bristol its most popular, but none is more iconic than the "Track Too Tough To Tame." Nestled in the rural Pee Dee region of South Carolina, Darlington hosted NASCAR's very first speedway race in 1950. Since then it has stood the test of time as one of NASCAR's most historic tracks and a national sports shrine on par with Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park.

It is also one of the sport's most difficult layouts, with the egg-shaped oval challenging drivers with narrow grooves and treacherous turns. Even the best drivers in the sport have earned more than one Darlington stripe. The iconic venue, demanding track and historic Southern 500 present the perfect setting for the first race of the playoffs.

Edited by Jeff Owens


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