5 Biggest Disappointments of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season So Far

By Nick Sterling in NASCAR
| July 9, 2021 6:12 am PDT

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series just hit the halfway point in the 2021 season. While there have been some surprising drivers, there are those who have underperformed.

In this post I look at the biggest disappointments in the first half of the 2021 NASCAR season,

I expected all these drivers I discuss here to compete for a spot in the 16-driver playoff. Instead, most of them sit on the outside looking in.

5. Matt DiBenedetto

Matt DiBenedetto began his Cup Series career driving for an underfunded team. He finished outside the top 30 in the point standings in 2015 and 2016.

However, DiBenedetto got on people’s radar with a sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016. Following two more disappointing seasons, DiBenedetto joined Leavine Family Racing. The team had a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.

He led 49 laps in the Daytona 500 but crashed out late. He also nearly won a race at Bristol that season but finished a career-best second after Denny Hamlin passed him late in the race. The team replaced him with rising star Christopher Bell after the season.

DiBenedetto joined Wood Brothers Racing in 2020. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career, finishing 13th in the standings.

He also had a career-best 14.8 average finish. DiBenedetto nearly lost his ride but back-to-back second-place finishes convinced the team to give him one more season.

The 2021 season hasn’t been great for DiBenedetto so far.

He began the season with three finishes outside the top 25. He improved with five straight finishes between 12-16, but he still sat just 22nd in the point standings.

His best stretch of the season came in his next three races. He finished top 10 in all three races, with back-to-back top-five finishes at Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway.

DiBenedetto led 28 laps at Talladega and had a great chance to pick up his first career victory. Unfortunately, he lost the lead on the final lap. He ranked 16th in points following that stretch.

In eight races since then, it’s been nothing but struggles for DiBenedetto. His best finish in the last eight races is 18th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. He finished outside the top 20 in five of those eight races. DiBenedetto fell from 16th to 21st in the points, 60 points below the playoff cutline.

It’s unfortunate to see a fan-favorite like DiBenedetto struggling. It’s even worse considering he’s in a contract year. His only saving grace is Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski will likely leave to join Roush Fenway Racing.

That’s important because Austin Cindric, who drives for Team Penske in the Xfinity Series, is expected to replace DiBenedetto. With Keselowski leaving, Cindric could go right into his ride with DiBenedetto keeping his spot.

I do believe DiBenedetto needs to run better if he wants to keep his ride at Wood Brothers Racing.

4. Cole Custer

Cole Custer’s rise in the NASCAR Xfinity Series is one I honestly didn’t see coming. Custer won just one race in both 2017 and 2018. However, he exploded for seven wins in 2019 and finished second in the point standings.

Stewart-Haas Racing rewarded him for the great season by promoting him to the Cup Series in 2020. He didn’t do much in his rookie season, but he did have an impressive stretch of four top 10 finishes in five races.

That stretch included a surprise victory at Kentucky Speedway. Custer finished 16th after making the playoffs.

Following a solid rookie season, I expected Custer to compete for a playoff spot in 2021. However, his 2021 season has gone in a completely different direction.

He actually had a decent start to the season with finishes of 11th and 13th. Unfortunately, it’s all gone downhill since then. Custer finished outside the top 20 in five of his next seven races. The struggles dropped him from 11th to 25th in the point standings.

Custer posted a pair of 10th place finishes in his next four races. However, those finishes didn’t build any kind of momentum. In his last six races, Custer’s best finish is 20th. He finished 30th or worse in three of those races.

After finishing with a decent 19.2 average finish in 2020, that number has dropped to 22.9 in 2021. He sits a very disappointing 28th in points.

Just to put that into perspective, there are only 32 full-time drivers.

A big reason for Custer’s struggles is his Stewart-Haas Racing team. The team has been one of the best in the sport in the last decade, but they currently have just one driver in the top 20 in the point standings. Custer is behind his other teammates in the point standings though.

Clearly, there’s something they need to work on individually. His only hope of making the playoffs is pulling off an upset win for the second straight season.

3. Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick is by far the most successful driver on this list of biggest disappointments in NASCAR in 2021.

He won 23 races in 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing. He also finished top five in the point standings six times. Harvick made the decision to leave Richard Childress Racing following the 2013 season.

His decision to join Stewart-Haas Racing turned out to be the best of his career. He won the championship in his first season with the team in 2014. He won 35 races in seven seasons with the team, including 21 since 2018.

Considering Harvick made the Championship 4 in five of the last seven seasons, there was little reason to believe he wouldn’t be one of the best drivers in 2021. However, things haven’t gone according to plan.

Harvick did get off to a great start in 2021, though. Check out his first three finishes of the year.

  • 4th
  • 6th
  • 5th

The struggles began the following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After starting from the pole, Harvick failed to lead a lap and finished 20th. He had three top 10 finishes in his next five races, but the issue was he wasn’t threatening for wins.

One of those top 10’s was a 10th place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Harvick has absolutely owned that track, leading over 110 laps in six of his last seven races there before 2021.

He had another nice stretch of four straight finishes of sixth or better. That stretch included 22 laps led and a season-best 2nd place finish at Kansas Speedway.

Harvick finished outside the top 20 in two of his next three races, before rebounding with three straight top 10 finishes. He currently sits ninth in the point standings with six top-five finishes and a series-high 14 top 10 finishes.

Obviously, Harvick isn’t having a bad season, but we expect more from someone who is as accomplished as he is. His consistency is nice and all but his lack of playoff points is going to be a huge disadvantage once the playoff starts.

If his team can’t find race-winning speed, his consistency is basically all for not.

2. Christopher Bell

Christopher Bell had all the looks of a future superstar when he entered the Cup Series. He won five races en route to a Truck Series Championship in 2017. He then moved up to the Xfinity Series, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Bell won seven races in 2018 and eight races in 2019.

Bell moved up to the Cup Series in 2020 with Leavine Family Racing, who have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. He struggled most of the season but he did finish 20th in the point standings after scoring two top-five finishes and seven top 10 finishes.

Joe Gibbs Racing moved Bell to the No. 20 car, replacing Erik Jones. Expectations were high for Bell, as a lot of people believed he was a championship sleeper.

Bell’s season got off to a nearly perfect start. He led 32 laps in the Daytona 500 before settling for a 16th place finish. Bell won his first career Cup Series race the following week at the Daytona Road Course. Bell passed Joey Logano with two laps to go to win the race and lock himself into the playoffs.

With four top 10 finishes in his next seven races, Bell appeared to be a serious contender. He sat a very comfortable 10th in the point standings.

Unfortunately, his season took a nosedive after that. He had just one top 15 finish in his next seven races.

He led a combined seven laps in that span. Bell recorded his first top 10 in two months with a ninth-place finish at Nashville Superspeedway. However, two more finishes outside the top 15 have Bell sitting 16th in the point standings.

Truthfully, his placement in the standings doesn’t really matter considering he already has a win. They only reward playoff points for drivers so are in the top 10 at the end of the regular season. At this point, it’s more about his performance than his points placement.

Bell is performing better than his rookie season but not by much. His disappointment has more to do with how much he dropped off since the beginning of the season.

The fact that he’s locked into the playoffs helps a lot. At this point, they should really plan ahead for the playoff races.

1. Aric Almirola

Aric Almirola joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018. Almirola had limited success in his six years with Richard Petty Motorsports before that. He never finished top 15 in the points. He did however win a race but it was a rain-shortened affair at Daytona.

Almirola became a serious championship contender in 2018. He won a race and finished a career-best fifth in the point standings. He also posted a career-best 12.8 average finish. Almirola took a step back in 2019 and 2020, but he was still a consistent top 10 driver.

Going into 2021, many people expected Almirola to continue that consistency. Unfortunately for him, that’s far from what happened.

He finished 30th or worse in three of his first four races. Almirola sat 28th in the point standings leaving Las Vegas Motor Speedway. And that’s basically where he stayed for the season.

He improved slightly over the next six races. He scored three top 15 finishes, including a sixth-place finish at Richmond Raceway. However, the season went into an absolute tailspin from there.

Over the next six races, Almirola finished inside the top 25 just once. That finish was just a 22nd place run at Sonoma Raceway. I mean, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

Almirola finally had something good happen by winning the pole at Nashville Superspeedway. He remained up front all day and finished a season-best fourth. He scored a pair of 16th place finishes in the two races at Pocono Raceway.

I honestly have no idea what happened to Almirola. In his first three years at Stewart-Haas Racing, he was always someone you could trust for a seventh to 10th place finish. His downfall is one I didn’t see coming.

Like we mentioned with Cole Custer, Almirola’s struggles have a lot to do with Stewart-Haas Racing. But Almirola is 27th in the point standings, 20 points behind rookie teammate Chase Briscoe.

I know the team is struggling, but Almirola’s experience alone should put him ahead of his rookie teammate.

At age 37 and on a one-year contract, there are some questions about his future. He has backing from sponsor Smithfield, but he needs to show some improvement in the second half of the season if he wants to justify keeping his ride.

Betting on NASCAR in 2021

While our surprise list was led by a trio of Hendrick Motorsports drivers, the disappointments included three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers.

Honestly, Chase Briscoe probably would’ve been on this list if he wasn’t a rookie.

Most of these guys need to show some consistency in the second half of the season. If nothing else, just to prove to themselves that they can run with the top drivers.

Harvick already has that consistency. His big thing right now is competing for wins. If he can do that, he has the potential to make a run in the playoffs.

That said, to this point, these are the biggest disappointments in NASCAR in 2021. Barring quick turnarounds, these are drivers to avoid when betting on NASCAR the rest of the way.

Instead, focus your energy on guys with a great chance at making the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs, or even winning the whole thing. For more on that, check out the posts below.

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