All photos in this piece provided by Getty Images
Going into any new season it goes without saying that every driver and every team in the NASCAR Cup Series hopes to perform as well as possible. For each, however, those expectations of success are different for each team as some have the resources, the experience, and the capability to win races while others may not. For some, the occasional top-10, or even top-20, might meet or even exceed expectations.
Of all the members on each team, the driver is obviously the most notable. Often times, whether fair or not, success or failure is seen as the responsibility of the occupant of the car’s cockpit more than anyone else. So for that reason, it is important for every driver to be seen as performing equal to his equipment or, better yet, outperforming his equipment.
Listed below are five drivers who must perform well in 2021:
Aric Almirola: Any driver whose contract is set to expire at the end of the season has that extra bit of pressure to perform well. According to the Jayski.com Team Chart, Aric Almirola finds himself in that very circumstance with Stewart-Haas Racing going into 2021. The 36-year-old driver has not won a NASCAR Cup Series race since 2018 and has managed a total of only nine top-5 finishes over the past two full seasons. He has, however, earned 30 top-10 results in his past 72 starts.
As is always the case with any team is racing, financing will be a factor in determining just how much pressure a particular driver might be under in terms of keeping his seat. For the past several years, Almirola has enjoyed the backing of Smithfield Foods, even dating back to his time with Richard Petty Motorsports. If that company wishes to continue their relationship with this driver and team, the likelihood of the the Florida native being re-signed is high. But if not, that likelihood diminishes greatly.
One problem for all of the “other” drivers at Stewart-Haas Racing is the comparison to teammate Kevin Harvick. In 2020, the No. 4 Ford had significantly more wins and top-5 finishes than all of his three teammates combined. Statistics such as those would automatically cause any observer to question the abilities of those who are not keeping pace with the team’s top star.
Again, it depends on whether or not Smithfield or any other sponsor wants to return and if they want to return with Almirola. But that factor aside, one would have to think that this is a driver who definitely needs to win, run consistently near the front, and make a solid run into the NASCAR Playoffs in order to remain in his ride beyond 2021.
Christopher Bell: In at least a couple of ways, Bell finds himself in a similar situation as Almirola. It is believed that his contract will expire at the end of the season and the comparisons to his teammates is also a very difficult one to live up to. However, Almirola might not have as much leeway with his team as Bell has with his in that a much younger age makes it more likely that his team will be more willing to extend the Oklahoma native’s deal even if his performance does not necessarily live up to expectations.
High expectations have in deed followed the 26-year-old Bell for as long as he has been in the higher ranks of NASCAR. Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have invested much in his career and almost certainly want to see the now second-year Cup Series driver pay dividends by winning races and making the playoffs.
After spending his rookie campaign with JGR affiliate Leavine Family Racing in 2020, Bell will officially move into the primary team’s fold as he takes the reins of the No. 20 machine vacated by Erik Jones at the end of last year. With that said, he will be, at least in theory, racing with the same equipment as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex, Jr. And while he may not be expected to match those drivers lap for lap, he will be expected to keep a somewhat close pace.
Predicting that he will receive a contract extension from JGR would seem a safe bet going into the season. But the length of that extension could very well depend on his performance. After all, there is a precedent in that the once highly touted Jones was only given a one year extension in 2019 then was let go at the end of 2020.
The excuse of not having the same equipment as the other JGR drivers is now gone. Bell must at least improve on the performance of the No. 20 car over last year, but it is more likely that his team would like to see even more than that from their young chauffeur.
Ross Chastain: Many have looked forward to the time in which Ross Chastain would get a full-time ride that would give him the opportunity to show what he can do in good equipment. This winner of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series races will move into the No. 42 Chevrolet on the NASCAR Cup Series for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021. After spending seasons at the sport’s top level in lesser equipment, this will be the 28-year-old’s best ride to date.
Chastain has scored two wins in the Xfinity Series and three victories in the Truck Series over the course of his career. CGR may not necessarily be up tp par with the elite organizations at the Cup Series level but it has proven to be competitive. Kurt Busch has won one race and made the NASCAR Playoffs in each of the past two seasons in the No. 1 Chevrolet for CGR.
At the same time, the bar for Chastain in the No. 42 is both high and low. Kyle Larson won six races in six seasons and had scored one top-5 and three top-10s in the four races he drove in 2020 prior to his suspension. However, Larson’s replacement, Matt Kenseth, largely failed to keep pace with the front runners in that car.
As said above for Almirola, much will depend on funding going forward in Chastain’s career. That said, he probably does not have to win races for his team this season but he definitely has to perform better than Kenseth did in the same car. He also needs to hold his own in comparison to Kurt Busch to give himself a shot at remaining on the Cup Series level beyond 2021.
Cole Custer: Teams and sponsors don’t seem to be as patient with young drivers as they once were. Years ago, a rising star would be given multiple seasons to prove his worth at the sport’s top level before being cast aside. Nowadays, it seems as if a determination is made as to whether or not a driver will be a success after only a year or two.
Cole Custer faces one of the same challenges as Almirola in that his teammate wins a lot of races and places within the top-5 frequently. The 22-year-old was the only other Stewart-Haas Racing driver besides Harvick to win a race last season when he pulled off an impressive late-race restart in Kentucky. However, he earned only one other top-5 for the rest of the season.
Like Bell, his age will buy him a little time but probably not as much as it would have a decade ago. The California native was very good in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and he needs to begin experiencing at least some of that type of success at the sport’s top level.
Another thing that could add pressure to Custer’s situation is that SHR is adding rookie Chase Briscoe to its Cup Series lineup. While many may judge the comparison with Harvick to be an unfair one for such an inexperienced driver, that same sentiment will not apply to comparisons with the driver who led the Xfinity Series in wins one year ago.
Custer may not necessarily be in a must win situation going into the 2021 campaign, but he definitely needs to improve his overall performance over last season or he could find himself in a must win scenario going into 2022. And more, he cannot be outdone by his newest teammate or else patience may begin to wear thin with the SHR top brass.
Matt DiBenedetto: Many fans seem to be rooting for the likable Matt DiBenedetto to succeed in the NASCAR Cup Series, and there have been flashes in which it looked as if that indeed would be the case. However, the fact is that this is a driver who has never won at he Cup or Xfinity Series level. And in season in which he will turn 30 years old, the time may have come in which he needs to do just that.
He did earn a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs last season driving the iconic No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing but was eliminated after the first round of cuts were made.
But the bigger problem for DiBenedetto may come from the fact that the pipeline behind him is filling up and room will likely have to be made somewhere for the next driver coming up. The Wood Brothers team has a close relationship with Team Penske in terms of sharing information and providing other assistance. Also, that car has been used in the past as a stepping stone into a Roger Penske-owned ride as was the case with Ryan Blaney.
Austin Cindric was the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and is the son of a highly place Team Penske executive. The plan is for him to spend one more season in the lower series, but after that, he is coming to Cup. Team Penske could choose to expand to a four-car operation on a full-time basis in 2022(as it will be doing for the Daytona 500 this year) to make way for Cindric. Or, it may work out a deal to, at least temporarily, place him in the No. 21.
For DiBenedetto, the message is clear. Either perform well enough to force Team Penske to find another way to move Cindric up so that he can keep the Wood Brothers ride or perform well enough that some other team would want to sign him.
Of all the drivers mentioned in this piece, DiBenedetto’s future in NASCAR may be the most precarious should he not succeed in 2021.
Please also consider reading these pieces about the upcoming NASCAR season:
Also, dirt racing fans can check out InsideDirtRacing.com for more racing content.