Busch Clash Preview: NASCAR's 2021 Kickoff

Busch Clash Preview: NASCAR's 2021 Kickoff

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The 2021 NASCAR season kicks off with the annual exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, the Busch Clash, on Tuesday.  Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this NASCAR exhibition event in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for this race and its unique format.  

The Busch Clash is a much shorter race than the 500-mile event the following Sunday, the Daytona 500.  In fact, new for this season, the Cup Series will race this exhibition event on the road course at Daytona.  This new wrinkle will put some new faces at the front of the pack, and potentially a new driver in victory lane.  Thanks to the one-million-dollar purse that is paid to the field, and around $200,000 of that to the winner of this event, the competition seen in this exhibition race in some ways will be more heated than what we will witness in parts of the Daytona 500 the following week.

The racing consists of a 35-lap event that equates to 126.35 miles of racing on the 3.61-mile Daytona road circuit.  The racing is divided into two stages with the break coming at lap 15 and the checkered flag coming at lap 35.  The criteria to make the 2021 Busch Clash are based upon the following qualifications, with eligibility based on a driver having competed in the NASCAR Cup Series within the last two seasons:

  • Pole winners from the 2020 season.
  • Past Busch

The 2021 NASCAR season kicks off with the annual exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway, the Busch Clash, on Tuesday.  Most fantasy racing leagues don't recognize this NASCAR exhibition event in the fantasy racing season, but some do along with many daily fantasy racing games and racing pools that form specifically for this race and its unique format.  

The Busch Clash is a much shorter race than the 500-mile event the following Sunday, the Daytona 500.  In fact, new for this season, the Cup Series will race this exhibition event on the road course at Daytona.  This new wrinkle will put some new faces at the front of the pack, and potentially a new driver in victory lane.  Thanks to the one-million-dollar purse that is paid to the field, and around $200,000 of that to the winner of this event, the competition seen in this exhibition race in some ways will be more heated than what we will witness in parts of the Daytona 500 the following week.

The racing consists of a 35-lap event that equates to 126.35 miles of racing on the 3.61-mile Daytona road circuit.  The racing is divided into two stages with the break coming at lap 15 and the checkered flag coming at lap 35.  The criteria to make the 2021 Busch Clash are based upon the following qualifications, with eligibility based on a driver having competed in the NASCAR Cup Series within the last two seasons:

  • Pole winners from the 2020 season.
  • Past Busch Clash winners, who raced full-time in 2020.
  • Past Daytona 500 pole winners and Daytona 500 winners, who raced full-time in 2020.
  • All 16 Chase participants from last season.

This exhibition race has a recent history of repeat winners, but that will likely change this weekend.  The road course wrinkle will bring new contenders to the top of the list because the road circuit is totally unlike racing solely on the high-banked four-turn oval.  Since the race is just 35 laps, improving the car or using pit strategy will be reduced in impact.  The teams that show up with fast race cars right off the hauler, and with capable road course drivers will be the ones to beat.  For our statistical analysis, we've looked back at the past 20-road course winners to get a feel for our top contenders this week.  Below are the winners of the last 20 events on the NASCAR road circuits. 

WinnerSeasonEventLaps LedStarting Position
Clint Bowyer2012Sonoma716
Marcos Ambrose2012Watkins Glen85
Martin Truex Jr.2013Sonoma5114
Kyle Busch2013Watkins Glen295
Carl Edwards2014Sonoma264
A.J. Allmendinger2014Watkins Glen296
Kyle Busch2015Sonoma1711
Joey Logano2015Watkins Glen116
Tony Stewart2016Sonoma 2210
Denny Hamlin2016Watkins Glen106
Kevin Harvick2017Sonoma2412
Martin Truex Jr.2017Watkins Glen243
Martin Truex Jr.2018Sonoma622
Chase Elliott2018Watkins Glen523
Ryan Blaney2018Charlotte Roval169
Martin Truex Jr.2019Sonoma598
Chase Elliott2019Watkins Glen801
Chase Elliott2019Charlotte Roval3519
Chase Elliott2020Daytona Road347
Chase Elliott2020Charlotte Roval272

This race is completely different than any Busch Clash before it due to the road course wrinkle.  The short duration of just 35 laps makes it also different than most road course events.  From the historical stats above we get a very clear picture of who has become the leaders in this style of racing the last few seasons.  Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. have dominated these facilities dating back to 2017.  Those two drivers will be the focus of our attention this week.  There are some outside contenders in the mix, and we'll visit those as well.  Road course racing can get pretty wild at times, like the events that produced Ryan Blaney as the Charlotte Roval winner in 2018.  We have to keep that possibility in mind as we examine the field.

This exhibition race is unlike any of the normal Cup Series events, so we'll handle the prognostications a bit different as well.  We'll give you our picks for who'll contend for the win in the Busch Clash.  This exhibition race field is shaping up to be about 21 drivers, and these are the ones who we see as the top threats to win the first race of 2021 and take the big purse in this Tuesday evening spectacle.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Chase Elliott – The winner of the past four Cup Series road course events will be impossible to ignore in this preseason shoot out.  Elliott swept both road course events last season and took victories in two of three events in 2019.  That makes the Hendrick Motorsports youngster the undisputed star of this style of racing, at least for the time being.  Elliott has successfully fended off primary challenger, Martin Truex Jr., in those wins and even a host of other stars from NASCAR's top division.  The two road course events of last season were held on this style of oval-hybrid road course.  Elliott had little difficulty taking those wins at both Charlotte and Daytona.  As the defending series champion sets out on his title defense campaign in 2021, you know he'll love to make a statement in this pre-season kickoff.  Elliott will be the top contender to win and serve notice of his dominance entering a very road course-heavy schedule in the upcoming season.    

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a four-time winner on the NASCAR road circuits.  Truex's 13.6 average finish at these facilities over the years make them easily his most successful tracks.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota last won at one of these tracks in 2019 at Sonoma.  Since then, Truex has sort of played second fiddle to Chase Elliott at these facilities, but by just the narrowest of margins. Last season's inaugural run at the Daytona road course saw Truex led 10 laps and battle with Elliott throughout to eventually finish third in the Go Bowling 235.  Truex narrowly lost the inaugural race at the Charlotte Roval in 2018 when he was wrecked by Jimmie Johnson within sight of the checkered flag.  Since then, he's posted a pair of strong seventh-place finishes at the Charlotte facility.  Truex is the best-equipped and most capable driver in the field to give Elliott a run for the money this Tuesday night under the lights at Daytona.

Ryan Blaney – The lone driver to break up the Chase ElliottMartin Truex Jr. monopoly on road courses the last three seasons is Penske Racing youngster Blaney.  The driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang swept to a surprising victory at the Charlotte Roval in 2018.  Blaney needed a little help from Jimmie Johnson that day to win, however, he was still racing among the leaders and in contention in that race.  That victory didn't happen by accident.  Blaney has shown great skill in these road course events.  His three-career starts at the Roval have netted two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes to go along with the victory.  Blaney also has 30 laps led and five Top-10 finishes in his last six road course starts.  If there's any driver in the field with a good shot at upsetting the dynamic duo of Elliott and Truex, it has to be Blaney and his Penske Racing team.            

Denny Hamlin – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time road course winner (Watkins Glen 2016), but more importantly he's gotten much better at this form of racing the last few seasons.  Hamlin has grabbed five Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last 10 road course starts.  One of those was a brilliant runner-up finish in last season's inaugural event on the Daytona road circuit.  That's the race we want to focus on in this case.  Hamlin started on the outside pole that day, led 16 laps and battled Chase Elliott to a runner-up finish in the Go Bowling 235.  He really seemed to warm quickly to the new circuit last August.  The Busch Clash will be a "mini" sequel to what we saw last summer.  At just 35 laps long, with a thinner field of drivers, we expect Hamlin to be a big standout.  He's worth considering across all front including pools, DFS and wagering. 

Kevin Harvick – Harvick is a three-time winner of the Busch Clash but never a format such as this week's event.  The Stewart Haas Racing star has shown his iron will and racing skill in this pre-season spectacle many times in the past.  However, Harvick will have to take to the infield at Daytona this time and show he can navigate the twisting turns and horseshoes to perfection.  Last summer's Go Bowling 235 was a good introduction to the course for the driver of the No. 4 Ford.  He finished a subpar 17th-place that day, but got an education and collected a lot of data.  Harvick has shown his oval-hybrid road course skill in the three starts at the similar oval in Charlotte recently.  He has finishes of ninth-, third- and 11th-place at the Roval.  The veteran driver even led 34 laps in the appearance where he finished third.  Harvick has won as recently as 2017 at Sonoma on road courses, so never count out this crafty and skilled driver. 

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star is one of our top contenders and top performing road course drivers the last couple seasons.  Logano rides a three-race road course Top-10 streak into the Busch Clash.  That string was punctuated with his incredible runner-up finish at the Charlotte Roval last October.  Logano now has one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes at that similar oval-hybrid road course in North Carolina.  His debut at the Daytona road course went well last summer.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford Mustang started fifth on the grid, led 1 lap and finished a respectable ninth-place in the Go Bowling 235.  That was a good shakedown of this new racing facility for NASCAR, and Logano will surely show what he learned in this Tuesday night's Busch Clash.    

Alex Bowman – The Hendrick Motorsports driver will be one of our top "outside plays" this week in the season-opening exhibition race at Daytona.  Bowman may pale in comparison to the drivers above him in this list, however, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has shown the signs over the last two seasons that signal untapped potential on these road courses.  Bowman to two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts on the winding circuits.  As most would expect, they've gotten incrementally better as we've moved along.  By far his best performance was a runner-up finish at the Charlotte Roval at the end of 2019.  Bowman followed up on that with a strong eighth-place finish in last season's Roval installment.  His debut at the Daytona road course went well by all accounts with a steady 12th-place finish in the Go Bowling 235 last Summer. Bowman is a "below the radar" and stealthy fantasy racing play in this exhibition event.        

Kurt Busch – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran has been a wonderfully gifted road course performer for his entire NASCAR career.  Busch has one-career win (Sonoma), 12 Top-5 and 22 Top-10 finishes on these style tracks.  That equates to a career average finish of 14.4.  That mark is good enough to make these circuits his best tracks in all the NASCAR Cup Series schedule.  That success has been recent as well.  Busch sports two Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in his last 10 road course events.  That all culminated in his strong fourth-place finish at the Charlotte Roval last October.  That was his last look at an oval-style road course leading into this week's Busch Clash.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet faces some uphill odds beating some of the drivers above him in this list, but he'll not be far off their back bumpers come the checkered flag.  Of that, you can be guaranteed. 

Erik Jones – Jones sets out with a new race team in 2021.  He'll join Richard Petty Motorsports and the No. 43 Chevrolet for the new season.  The former Joe Gibbs Racing driver will hope to bring some of his past road course success into his first start with his new team in the Busch Clash.  Jones has three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in his last 10 road course events.  Although he has no wins, those numbers place him among the very elite in the Cup Series at this style of racing.  Jones finished a steady 11th-place in his Daytona road course outing last season, and he posted an impressive third-place finish in the Charlotte Roval event of last October.  Jones takes a bit of a step back in terms of teams this season, but the road courses are often an equalizer in that respect.  Smaller less-funded teams can compete with the bigger teams on these circuits.  Jones should give a good look in his first impression of 2021. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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