In 2020, drivers and teams had to deal with a load of different issues when it came to practices and qualifying. A lot of teams struggled with the lack of car time and being able to adapt during the race, this led to poor results and stunted development out of a lot of drivers. With practice and qualifying hopefully returning full time in 2021, these same drivers don’t have those same excuses. The mulligan they received in 2020 will probably not be given again.
There are expectations set by teams every year. Some teams like Front Row Motorsports hardly have any expectations and getting their underdog win at Daytona will probably keep them satisfied with Michael McDowell for another five years. Some have sponsorships that will keep them around even if their performance and talent are questionable like Aric Almirola.
I want to talk about five drivers who need to have a successful 2021 season. Whether it be because their performance in the last few seasons has been stale, or their breakout year is overdue, these guys need to get good and fast.
#5 – Ryan Blaney
Blaney has been on the brink of NASCAR stardom for years, and there is a large number of fans who view him as overrated. There is a lot of talk over his four Cup wins either being from pit strategy at Pocono, luck at the Charlotte Roval, or restrictor plate wins which have become undervalued amongst the NASCAR fandom.
While Blaney gets upfront when he has a fast-enough car, he always seems to have something go wrong or someone is just able to outdo him for the win. Last season was scheduled to be a big year for him before the pandemic hit and then once he came back the team as a whole just wasn’t the same.
2021 needs to be a multiple-win year for Blaney and expectations should at least be to get into the round of eight. If these goals are not met I doubt it will put Blaney in the hot seat, but with what his expectations are, he cannot afford too many more mediocre seasons.
#4 – Austin Dillon
Normally we don’t need to worry about AD. He’s driving the famous #3 for his grandfather and let’s not lie to ourselves, there is a lot of nepotism going on there. Dillon is actually coming off a solid year where he grabbed a race win and made it to the round of 12 in the playoffs after some inspiring runs.
The reason I have him on this list is that it’s a big question mark as to whether that will become the new norm or if his above-average 2020 was just a fluke. We just saw his brother Ty Dillon get bounced from his ride and currently residing in NASCAR limbo, so Childress has made it clear he won’t go bankrupt to keep his grandsons in the Cup series.
I think that if Austin goes back to his fringe top-20 ways and has a down year, we will finally see some change-ups take place at RCR.
#3 – Alex Bowman
Like Blaney, Bowman had a great start to the 2020 season before the pandemic hit. After that, he was mediocre compared to what his teammate Chase Elliott was doing. Scoring one win a year and making it to the round of eight isn’t good enough for a Hendrick Motorsports car.
Bowman just signed a big deal to be the successor to Jimmie Johnson and Ally is putting a lot of money into him, so I think that he’s safe for a couple of years. However, the expectations for Bowman are even higher now than they were before.
The development years are over for Bowman with this being his sixth full-time Cup season. He doesn’t need to win the championship, but just like Blaney, multiple wins and getting to the round of eight should be expected of him.
#2 – William Byron
Another Hendrick Motorsports driver who has underperformed next to the likes of their championship teammate. Byron’s development has been lackluster, to say the least. He came into Cup so early and has struggled to replicate any of his previous success in the lower divisions.
Even though he’s coming off a season where he scored his first win, it still felt like a down year in 2020. Prior to that win he was fighting just for a playoff spot in a Hendrick Motorsports car. Yes, Jimmie Johnson was in the same boat, but we all know that situation was different. While I don’t think a bad year will result in getting fired, I think he only has a couple more seasons of mediocre results remaining.
Hendrick Motorsports cars have speed, which was evident from Chase Elliott. The issues with the #24-team more than likely have stemmed from William Byron and I think his time is running out. The Cup series has become a cutthroat business and owners have shown they will not be afraid to cut talented drivers if their underperforming no matter how young they are.
#1- Matt DiBenedetto
After narrowly escaping the chopping block last season, Matty D finds himself in the same uncomfortable territory he sat in all of last year. He has a young Austin Cindric ready to take his ride in 2022, and he needs to show he’s capable of contending for race wins and show off to a new team.
Wood Brothers Racing is running with Penske equipment in the shop. While having an alliance with a larger team will not automatically equal the same speed, it does raise expectations for the driver to at least be comparable to Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney and DiBenedetto was not last year. He was a top-20 guy and that’s not gonna cut it.
His main goal of 2021 is to win a race and make the playoffs, he needs to show off for whoever could offer him a ride in 2022. There is talk that he may be taking over for Brad Keselowski or maybe he’ll be taking the wheel of a fourth Penske car, however, I doubt that to be the case as it would’ve been easier to skip WBR and put Austin Cindric straight into a Penske car.
If Matt DiBenedetto has another season like 2020, we’ve more than likely have seen the last of his competitive Cup days.