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Grading NASCAR's 2021 driver changes: Bubba Wallace, Kyle Larson, Daniel Hemric, Hailie Deegan and more making big moves Featured

Posted On Friday, 27 November 2020 05:23 Written by
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Bubba Wallace has the chance to take his career to the next level in 2021 when he competes for the new team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing. Bubba Wallace has the chance to take his career to the next level in 2021 when he competes for the new team owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, 23XI Racing. Photo courtesy of Toyota.

2020 has been the busiest NASCAR Silly Season in years — Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer wrapping up their Cup careers; the surprise return of Matt Kenseth as a fill-in; Matt DiBenedetto holding on to the Wood Brothers ride by the skin of his teeth for one more year with Austin Cindric taking over in 2022; and much more.

Here’s my breakdown of who gets high marks on their new ride transition, and who has a rockier road ahead.

CUP SERIES:

Grade: A
Driver: Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing
The biggest announcement of 2020 was a home run move for Bubba Wallace. Bubba did what he could to improve the 43 team, and they had a great relationship with him, but in the end it’s all about getting to the next level. Teaming up with the new 23XI Racing team owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan is the perfect scenario for Bubba to succeed and reach new heights in his career. He’ll no doubt have a bevy of sponsors and funding to help boost the competitive nature of the 23 car, and the Toyota team will be affiliated with Joe Gibbs Racing. With everything he’s done to push forward the social justice movement within NASCAR, Bubba is arguably the sport’s most recognizable name outside the core fan base. And if he can be successful in his new ride and run up front regularly and contend for wins, it will be huge boost to the sport as a whole and draw in new fans. He’ll have a lot of people rooting for him to succeed, both inside and outside the sport. 

Grade: A-
Driver: Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports
Larson was suspended from the sport in disgrace after his N-word outburst in the spring while on iRacing. But he went through the necessary steps for reinstatement and now he’s back, in a highly coveted ride at Hendrick Motorsports, essentially replacing Jimmie Johnson (just not in the 48). Rick Hendrick and the sport are lucky to have Larson back, as he easily could have gone on dominating in sprint cars, which is his first and true love in racing. I’ll be curious to see if Larson can run on the level of Hendrick teammate and 2020 champion Chase Elliott, or if he’ll run more toward mid-pack with William Byron and Alex Bowman most weeks.  I see Larson pulling out a win or two in 2021. 

Grade: B+
Driver: Chase Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing
Briscoe, fresh off winning 9 races in the Xfinity Series in 2020 and contending for the title, is headed to the 14 car in Cup, replacing Clint Bowyer — who will start a new career in broadcasting next year (a great career move for him, too). This is a solid choice by Stewart-Haas Racing, and was the only logical fit (though Tony did say he’s tried for years to sign Kyle Larson). Briscoe has a bright Cup future, and I look forward to seeing how well he adapts to the top level of the sport. He’s currently unopposed for Rookie of the Year in 2021, so unless any late competitors emerge, the award will be his.

Grade: B+
Driver: Christopher Bell, Joe Gibbs Racing
After a year at the now-defunct Leavine Family racing team, Bell is moving to the 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing. This is not unexpected, as he’s one of Joe Gibbs’ top prospects and needed a home in 2021. Erik Jones was on the losing end of this move and had to find a new home for 2021. Bell should perform much better in the 20 car than he did in the lower-tier Leavine car in 2020. But can he compete at the level of his veteran teammates at JGR? Time will tell. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, but will need more consistency to reach his full potential.

Grade: B
Driver: Erik Jones, Richard Petty Motorsports
Jones moves to the 43 car to replace Bubba Wallace. I’ll just come right out and say that Toyota made a mistake letting Jones go. He is a talent and will surprise people in this ride. It’s a stretch to say he’ll contend for wins, but just as Bubba moved this team forward, Erik will continue that process and it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Chevy has a big win here by hiring Jones, and he could become a candidate for future Chevy rides at top-tier teams like Hendrick Motorsports. 

Grade: B
Driver: Ross Chastain, Chip Ganassi Racing
Chastain finally gets his Cup break in the 42 car. The Watermelon Man is a pure racing talent who always gives 100 percent on the track, and has gotten some raw deals/bad luck in the past. I see him returning the 42 car to the contender status it had when Kyle Larson was wheeling it. And if you’ve seen Ross race, you know he’ll do anything to win, no matter what his opponents might think of it. This can both help him and hurt him in Cup, depending how aggressive he is.

Grade: C
Driver: Daniel Suarez, Trackhouse
Suarez is moving from the bare-bones Gaunt Brothers Racing to a brand new team, Trackhouse, run by Justin Marks. This move is probably a slight improvement, but don’t expect Daniel to be running anywhere near the front. It’s a shame he can’t get into better equipment. In a proper car, he could be a regular top-10 driver.

Grade: TBD
Drivers: Corey Lajoie, Ty Dillon
These two drivers have yet to announce their plans. Lajoie and Dillon should land somewhere by the time we get to Daytona, but where? The 38 car for Front Row Motorsports is now available, the Gaunt Brothers ride may be available if they continue full-time, and the Spire team is a likely destination for Lajoie.
 

XFINITY SERIES:

Grade: A
Driver: Daniel Hemric, Joe Gibbs Racing
Hemric saw his greatest success a few years back in Xfinity, nearly winning the title. He struggled in Cup the following year, then lost his ride and went back to Xfinity part-time with mixed results in 2020. For 2021, his fortunes improve, as he is moving to the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which has won a ton of races over the years. This is the best move he could make without a strong Cup ride available to him. If he does well and racks up wins in the 18, which should be expected by the team, he will be in the pipeline for future Toyota Cup rides (for example, if 23XI expands in the next year or two).


Grade: A-
Driver: Jeb Burton, Kaulig Racing
Perhaps the most heart-warming driver signing of the offseason was that Jeb Burton will replace Ross Chastain as the full-time driver of the No. 10 Kaulig Racing car in Xfinity, a car that contended for wins and ran up front almost every week in 2020. This is a well-deserved ride for a driver who has paid his dues and tried to break through for years. Jeb is a driver to watch and will be competitive for wins and the Xfinity playoffs in 2021.

Grade: B
Driver: Brett Moffitt, Our Motorsports
While at a lower tier of competitiveness than he was at in the Truck series, Brett Moffitt is wise to move to full-time in Our Motorsports No. 02 Xfinity Series ride in 2021. Moffitt, who’s been around for nearly a decade now, had some strong Xfinity runs in 2020 with limited starts in the Our Motorsports Xfinity ride; and could pull off some impressive results with a full season focusing on that series. Brett’s a hell of a driver, and his success will likely depend on what kind of car the team can afford to put under him.

TRUCK SERIES:

Grade: B+
Driver: John Hunter Nemechek, Kyle Busch Motorsports
This is an odd one at first glance. Young John Hunter Nemechek LEFT his Cup ride in favor of running full-time in Trucks. He is going to the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 4 truck, which is very competitive in the series. This is a good move IF he can win and eventually get back up to Cup. But if he goes down two levels and doesn’t perform well in the truck, his career will be questionable going forward. Nemechek is betting on himself, so we’ll see how it works out. He’s very young, too, so that works in his favor in this scenario.

Grade: B
Driver: Hailie Deegan, DGR-Crosley
Deegan has made a lot of headlines in the past few years with her aggressive and winning ways in lower series, and now we’ll see what she can do in a full-time Truck series ride for DGR-Crosley. Ford has big hopes for Deegan to eventually end up in Cup, which would bring them a lot of attention, but she is very young so they would be wise not to rush her up the ladder. She should spend a couple years in Trucks, and then a couple years in Xfinity, before they even consider a move to rush her to the top level. In the past, i.e. Joey Logano’s early career at JGR, that kind of rushing of a very young driver’s career didn’t work out well for the manufacturer. I don’t anticipate Deegan will win in 2021 in her Truck, but if she can get comfortable with the new vehicles quickly, she may surprise people with some strong top-5 runs before the year is out. And I would call that a success in her development timeline.

Grade: B
Driver: Ryan Truex, Niece Motorsports
The most recent news is that the younger Truex will run full-time in the No. 40 Niece Motorsports truck in 2021. This is a strong ride that Ross Chastain raced well in. Truex will be under pressure to perform, and hopefully kick-start his career in the process.

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Matt Myftiu can be reached on Twitter @MattMyftiu.

 

Matt M. Myftiu

Matt Myftiu has been a journalist for two decades with a focus on technology, NASCAR and autos.

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