5 NASCAR Drivers That Have Surprised So Far in the 2021 Cup Series

By Nick Sterling in NASCAR
| July 9, 2021 8:01 am PDT

The first half of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is officially in the books. We’ve had plenty of time to evaluate everyone’s performance. Some drivers and teams exceeded expectations in ways we would’ve never thought.

We’ve had some drivers surprise us by outperforming subpar equipment, while others took a good car and made it a championship contender.

While we’ve certainly seen some big disappointments in the 2021 NASCAR season, it’s always best to remain positive.

With that, let’s reflect on what’s transpired so far, and go over the five biggest surprises from the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season.

5. Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez’s NASCAR career has been a whirlwind, to say the least. He won the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship in 2016 after winning three races. Then, Suarez moved up to the Cup Series after Carl Edwards’ surprising retirement.

I think most people knew Suarez wasn’t ready for the Cup Series, but his team, Joe Gibbs Racing, was in a bind and needed a driver.

Suarez missed the 16-driver playoff in 2017 and 2018. Joe Gibbs Racing replaced him in 2019 with Martin Truex Jr. Suarez went to Stewart Haas Racing and had the best season of his career. However, he missed the playoffs and lost his ride to Cole Custer.

In 2020, he drove for Gaunt Brothers Racing. The team didn’t have the same equipment as others, leading to a 31st place finish in the points.

After four years in the Cup Series, people were already calling Suarez a bust.

But it’s tough to get your footing when you race for three different teams in four seasons. Once 2021 started, it became four teams in five seasons.

Trackhouse Racing Team, owned by former driver Justin Marks and rapper Pitbull, signed Suarez to drive for their new team. Considering this was a new team, along with the fact that Suarez had never made the playoffs, expectations were extremely low. But Suarez and the team showed everyone they could compete.

The team didn’t get off to the best of starts with six straight finishes of 15th or worse. The Bristol Dirt Race changed his misfortunes. Despite his limited dirt racing experience, Suarez drove through the field. He led 58 laps on the day and finished fourth.

It was another so-so stretch with four finishes outside the top 15 in his next five races.

Suarez has really found his groove over the last eight races, though. He has six finishes inside the top 15 in those races, including two top-ten finishes.

Race Finish
Jockey Made in America 250 36th
Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 15th
Pocono Organics CBD 325 13th
Ally 400 7th
Toyota/Save Mart 350 12th
Coca-Cola 600 15th
EchoPark Texas Grand Prix 33rd
Drydene 400 9th

Suarez finished a season-best seventh at Nashville Superspeedway. In that span, Suarez has gone from 22nd to 18th in points.

People thought this team was going to struggle to run top 30, so 18th is extremely impressive. He sits 48 points off the playoff cutline, so there’s a real chance he races his way in.

After years of switching teams, it appears Suarez has found a home with Trackhouse Racing.

4. Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell has raced for a variety of teams in his 14-year career. Early in his career, he ran part-time for each team. Before 2017, the highlight of his career was winning an Xfinity Series race in 2016.

McDowell ran his first full-time season for Leavine Family Racing in 2017. He finished 26th in the standings with a 22.3 average finish. McDowell joined Front Row Motorsports in 2018. After finishing 26th and 27th in the standings in 2018 and 2019, McDowell improved that mark to 23rd in 2020. He also posted a 20.9 average finish.

Considering his team and previous success, I can’t imagine people expected McDowell to finish any better than 20th in the standings. McDowell’s life changed forever after the 2021 Daytona 500.

Daytona, along with Talladega, is one of those tracks where underfunded teams can run with the top dogs. That’s because the draft is the ultimate equalizer at superspeedway races. McDowell ran a smart race and put himself in a position to win. He sat third on the final lap behind fellow Ford drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

On the final lap, Keselowski moved low to pass Logano. McDowell went to push him but misjudged it and turned Keselowski into Logano, causing a big wreck. McDowell avoided the crash and came to the checkered flag first.

He captured his first career win in NASCAR’s biggest race. The win also qualified him for the playoffs, meaning he will finish at worst 16th in the standings.

While the win was impressive, I don’t think anyone expected McDowell to carry his strong performance through the season. Well, he put that talk to rest with an eighth and sixth-place finish in the next two races. He sat an extremely impressive fourth in the standings after those three races.

He did struggle with just one top 15 finish in the next six races. After that, he finished third at Talladega Superspeedway and 13th at Kansas Speedway.

In eight races since McDowell has just one top 10 finish. It was an eighth-place finish at Circuit of the Americas. Even though we are just over halfway through the season, McDowell has a career-high two top-five finishes and five top 10 finishes. His 16.8 average finish is well on pace to break his career-high.

At age 36, it’s great to see a journeyman like McDowell finally pick up his first career win and have so much success.

3. Alex Bowman

Following two seasons of racing for underfunded teams, Alex Bowman got his big break in 2016. He subbed for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the second half of that season with concussion issues. He had three top 10 finishes and nearly won at Phoenix Raceway before finishing sixth.

Bowman didn’t race in the Cup Series in 2017, but Hendrick Motorsports tabbed him to replace Earnhardt Jr. when he retired following that season. Bowman went winless in 2018 before picking up his first career win in 2019.

He won early in the 2020 season en route to career-best sixth-place points finish.

He really excelled in the playoffs, scoring seven of his 15 top ten finishes in those final 10 races.

His 2021 season didn’t exactly get off to the best start. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 but finished 35th after wrecking early. Bowman finished top 10 in his next two races, but he really struggled over the next five races. He had a great third-place run at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he finished outside the top 10 in his other four races. He sat 17th in the standings through eight races.

In the ninth race of the season at Richmond Raceway, Bowman finally broke through. Bowman passed leader Denny Hamlin with 10 laps to go to pick up his first win of 2021.

After three finishes outside the top 15, Bowman won his second race of the season at Dover International Speedway. He got by his teammate, Kyle Larson, on pit road late in the race to capture the victory. The win was especially special for Hendrick Motorsports. The team had their first 1-2-3-4 finish ever.

Bowman has hit his stride since that race. He finished inside the top 10 in five of six races since then. He even picked up his third win of the season at Pocono Raceway after leader Kyle Larson cut a tire in the final turn, allowing Bowman to steal the win. Bowman is up to 11th in the point standings.

I’m not too surprised with Bowman being 11th in the points. His 14.3 average finish is right on pace with his 2019 and 2020 numbers. However, I’m surprised by his three victories. He’s also three top-five finishes away from setting a career-high. With 17 races to go, I’d say he has a pretty good chance to top that mark.

Sitting at +1300 to win the championship, I think Bowman is a good dark horse pick.

2. William Byron

Between William Byron and Alex Bowman, I expected one of them to take the next step towards becoming a championship contender. While Bowman has more wins, Byron has been much more consistent.

Byron quickly rose through the NASCAR rankings. He won seven races in the Truck Series in 2016 before moving up to the Xfinity Series in 2017. Byron won the Xfinity Series Championship that season with four wins. His success allowed him to join Hendrick Motorsports in the Cup Series in 2018.

He missed the playoffs in his first season but finished 11th in the standings in 2019. He dropped to 14th in 2020, but he did pick up his first career victory at Daytona International Speedway.

Following a pair of disappointing finishes to start the 2021 season, Byron went on a tear that showed everyone he was a championship threat. He won the third race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Byron led a race-high 102 of 267 to pick up his second career victory.

After barely making the playoffs in 2020, the early win locked him into the 2021 playoffs.

Byron finished in the top 10 in his next 10 races. His 11-consecutive top 10 finishes allowed him to go from 29th to second in the point standings. In that stretch, he led over 20 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway. He also finished second at Talladega Superspeedway.

In his most recent six races, Byron has three top-five finishes.

Event Finish
Jockey Made in America 250 33rd
Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 12th
Pocono Organics CBD 325 3rd
Ally 400 3rd
Toyota/Save Mart 350 35th
Coca-Cola 600 4th

He led 19 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 22 in the second race at Pocono Raceway. Byron arguably had the fastest car in that Pocono race and looked to be in the position to win. However, he had to pit from the lead with three laps to go after running out of fuel. He would go on to finish 14th.

He currently sits third in points with a career-high eight top-five finishes. Byron needs just one more top 10 finish to set a new season-high. His 9.9 average finish is well above his previous season-best of 14.9.

While Byron has been extremely consistent this season, he hasn’t been a true threat to win many races. That’s going to have to change if he wants to win the championship.

His lack of wins has his odds at just +1400. I think that’s great value for someone who sits third in the standings.

1. Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson’s success goes well beyond NASCAR. He is one of the best dirt racers in the country. His success in both aspects makes people consider him the best all-around driver in the world.

Larson raced for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2020. Larson won six races in that span, with four coming in 2017. Everyone knew Larson was one of the most talented drivers, but his team wasn’t among the best in the sport.

NASCAR suspended Larson in April of 2020 after he uttered a racial slur during an iRacing event. Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson after the event.

Over the next few months, Larson completed sensitivity training while also giving back to other communities. Hendrick Motorsports rewarded Larson with a second chance by signing him to a contract for the 2021 season.

Everyone always said once Larson got into a top car that he’d be unstoppable. Well, that’s exactly what happened in 2021.

He finished in the top 10 in five of his first six races. That stretch included a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after leading 103 of 267 laps. Larson also led 269 of 325 laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway before losing the lead with nine laps to go.

The next five races represented his worst stretch of the season. He finished in the top 15 just once in that span, but the finishes don’t tell the whole story. Larson drove from last to the top five in 50 laps in the Bristol Dirt Race before being caught up in a crash. He suffered a freak engine failure at Talladega. Finally, he had the dominant car at Kansas before a late incident with Ryan Blaney dropped him back to 19th.

He left Kansas ninth in the standings, 144 points behind Denny Hamlin. In eight races since then, Larson has gone on an unprecedented tear. He finished second in three consecutive races. He had the dominant car at Dover International Speedway but lost the lead late on pit road to teammate Alex Bowman.

Following the three second-place finishes, Larson became the first driver since 2018 to win three consecutive races.

He won the Coca-Cola 600 after leading 327 of 400 laps. The win was No. 269 for Hendrick Motorsports. That win allowed them to pass Petty Enterprises for the most wins by a team in NASCAR history.

Larson led 54 of 90 laps at Sonoma Raceway and 264 of 300 laps at Nashville Superspeedway in wins. He even won the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway. However, that isn’t a points race, so it doesn’t count towards the win streak.

It looked like Larson would become the first driver to win four in a row since 2007, but he blew a tire in the final turn while leading at Pocono Raceway. He wound up finishing ninth. He finished second the following day in the second Pocono race. That gives him seven top-two finishes in the last eight races.

He went from 144 points behind Hamlin to just two. Larson leads the series with four wins, 11 top-five finishes, 14 top 10 finishes, 1,441 laps led, and 12 stage wins. The move to Hendrick Motorsports has been perfect for Larson.

You won’t get much value with his +250 odds to win the championship, but it may be worth it considering he’s far and away from the best driver.

Assessing NASCAR’s Biggest Surprises in 2021

Obviously, this list is spearheaded by Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Their team has been the best all season, with Larson leading the way.

There’s a chance all four of their drivers make the Championship 4. I touch on that more in one of the links below.

As for Suarez and McDowell, it’s great to see guys who struggled to find a home for years have success for their teams. We know we’ll see McDowell in the playoffs. Maybe Suarez will find his way in there too.

We’ll see if any drivers can surprise people in the second half of the season and find themselves in championship contention.

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