NASCAR Draft Kit: 2021 Driver Rankings

NASCAR Draft Kit: 2021 Driver Rankings

This article is part of our NASCAR Draft Kit series.

Below are our driver rankings and outlooks for the 2021 NASCAR season.

1. Kevin Harvick He may have come up short in the title chase last season, but Harvick's dominance is undeniable.  The Stewart Haas Racing star hung nine victories on the wall and 20 Top-5 finishes last season.  His past three seasons have seen the driver of the No. 4 Ford average seven wins and 27 Top 10s for those campaigns.  Harvick is without question the most dominant and most productive driver in NASCAR's top division.  While it may not equal championships due to NASCAR's playoff format, it does equal dominating production that can be relied on in fantasy racing leagues.  Rodney Childers will continue to call the shots from the crew chief position and he will guide Harvick to another multi-win, championship-contending campaign in 2021.

2. Chase Elliott The 25-year-old driver pulled the clutch performance of last season, winning three of the last five races during the playoffs and captured the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.  Elliott will have a tall task for an encore performance in 2021.  However, we believe we've yet to see the best from this growing driver.  The Hendrick Motorsports star posted five wins and 22 Top-10 finishes last season, which were career-best marks.  Now we'll get to see if Elliott and crew chief, Alan Gustafson, can build on that performance.  Considering that the youngster is currently the most dominant driver in NASCAR on the road circuits, you have to like his

Below are our driver rankings and outlooks for the 2021 NASCAR season.

1. Kevin Harvick He may have come up short in the title chase last season, but Harvick's dominance is undeniable.  The Stewart Haas Racing star hung nine victories on the wall and 20 Top-5 finishes last season.  His past three seasons have seen the driver of the No. 4 Ford average seven wins and 27 Top 10s for those campaigns.  Harvick is without question the most dominant and most productive driver in NASCAR's top division.  While it may not equal championships due to NASCAR's playoff format, it does equal dominating production that can be relied on in fantasy racing leagues.  Rodney Childers will continue to call the shots from the crew chief position and he will guide Harvick to another multi-win, championship-contending campaign in 2021.

2. Chase Elliott The 25-year-old driver pulled the clutch performance of last season, winning three of the last five races during the playoffs and captured the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship.  Elliott will have a tall task for an encore performance in 2021.  However, we believe we've yet to see the best from this growing driver.  The Hendrick Motorsports star posted five wins and 22 Top-10 finishes last season, which were career-best marks.  Now we'll get to see if Elliott and crew chief, Alan Gustafson, can build on that performance.  Considering that the youngster is currently the most dominant driver in NASCAR on the road circuits, you have to like his chances this season.  The Cup Series will compete on seven road courses, up from the three events of the past couple seasons.  That's a huge development and favors Elliott tremendously.  We expect to see the No. 9 Chevrolet team winning multiple races and contending for the championship once again in 2021.

3. Kyle Busch No driver was impacted more by the COVID-affected season last year than Joe Gibbs Racing star Busch.  When NASCAR resumed action after a brief shutdown in early 2020, the sanctioning body scrapped practice and qualifying to streamline race weekends.  That one development seemed to hurt a lot of drivers, Busch chief among them.  He and crew chief Adam Stevens were very good at improving a car before the race and were denied that ability last season.  As a result, Busch struggled to a one-win, 20 Top-10 season that saw him finish a distant eighth in the points.  Coming on the heels of his 2019 championship, it was Busch's worst campaign since 2014.  The two-time Cup Series champion should rebound well in 2021.  He'll have a new crew chief, Ben Beshore, calling the shots.  Busch should have little trouble adapting and returning to a more typical 4-to-5-win season this year.

4. Joey Logano Logano's last season fit right in the slot of his typical performance over the past three seasons.  The Penske Racing star grabbed three victories and 21 Top-10 finishes, but most importantly was hot at the end of the season.  A little more week-to-week consistency and it could have well been Logano hoisting the trophy last November in Phoenix.  Still, the strength of the No. 22 Ford team is undeniable, and its ability to dominate at certain stretches of the season obvious.  Logano remains paired with Paul Wolfe as crew chief for the this year, and they'll look to build on the chemistry they formed in their first season together.  The duo seemed to adapt well to the lack of practice and qualifying and posted one win and four Top-3 finishes in the final five races of 2020.  That bodes well with the short off-season and new campaign rapidly approaching.

5. Denny Hamlin The 40-year-old veteran is coming off the best two-season run of his NASCAR Cup Series career.  Hamlin has averaged seven wins and 23 Top 10s the last two campaigns and he's challenged for the championship.  Were it not for some ill-timed inconsistency during the playoffs, Hamlin could have likely won the championship each of the last two years.  However, that has been his lone shortcoming.  As to dominance and statistical production, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has it in spades.  The No. 11 Toyota team returns completely intact after last season and still headed up by crew chief, Chris Gabehart.  Hamlin and he will keep this team operating at a high level, but we tend to believe the numbers will begin a slow creep downward with time.  The veteran driver has crossed that invisible 40-year-old line that typically starts to erode driving ability.

6. Brad Keselowski Keselowski's 2020 season was statistically his best campaign since 2016.  The move to crew chief Jeremy Bullins last year seemed to pay dividends and spark this veteran driver to some higher performance.  Keselowski grabbed four victories and 22 Top-10 finishes en route to a second-place finish in the championship standings.  He seemed to have more consistency week-to-week and lowered his average finish to 10.1, which is as low as he's posted since his 2012 championship season.  Keselowski will look to hold onto these gains in 2021 and even take it up a few notches.  Bullins returns to guide the No. 2 Ford team and to continue building chemistry with Keselowski.  The duo has to be very confident and upbeat about the new season.  With one year under their belts of no practice and qualifying, Keselowski and his Penske Racing team have successfully adapted to this style of racing.  He may present the most upside potential of the top tier drivers in 2021.

7. Martin Truex Jr. The Joe Gibbs Racing star took quite a few steps back last season.  Truex lost his long-time crew chief, Cole Pearn, at the end of 2019 and that loss showed up on the race track last year.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota forged forward with James Small calling the shots, and the duo labored to just one win while still posting 23 Top-10 finishes.  The prior three seasons saw Truex average 6 wins and 24 Top 10s while finishing either first or second in the standings from 2017 to 2019.  The consistency was still mostly there, but Truex's ability to dominate events and win races was clearly gone.  His average finish ballooned from 9.8 in 2019 to 11.7 in 2020.  The loss of practice and qualifying surely didn't help matters.  Truex will look to put this past campaign behind him and carry forward.  He's certain to rebound to some extent, but we don't expect to see any seven or eight win performances this year.

8. Ryan Blaney One of the top rising drivers in the sport, Blaney held serve in 2019.  He didn't quite make the gains we expected for him last season, but much of that can be attributed to the COVID-affected campaign.  Blaney still slugged it out to one win and 17 Top-10 finishes.  The driver of the No. 12 Ford didn't make a deep drive into the playoffs, and that's where much of the disappointment comes in.  Still, Blaney's numbers held up well when compared to 2019 and his average finish held steady at 13.8.  Crew chief Todd Gordon and Blaney now have one season under the belts as a duo, and will now look to climb from here.  This driver and team certainly have that potential.  Blaney has become one of the top superspeedway drivers in the series, and his road course skills are improving with each passing start.  This could be the season where he notches a multi-win campaign and breaks the 20 Top-10 plateau for the first time.

9. Kyle Larson 2020 was a tough season for a lot of drivers, but none more troublesome than Larson.  He got off to a fast start last year, posting Top 10s in three of the first four races of the schedule.  At that point things came to a halt due to COVID.  In the void of actual racing, iRacing blossomed in popularity for several weeks.  Larson would grab headlines for the wrong reason during this time, and the rest is history.  The former Chip Ganassi Racing star served his community service and went through sensitivity training and found a path back into the sport he loves so dearly.  Shortly after NASCAR reinstated him, Hendrick Motorsports jumped at the opportunity to sign him for the No. 5 team.  Cliff Daniels will serve as crew chief, and he and Larson will look to win races right away.  We expect the duo will find a way into victory lane at least once in 2021 and likely challenge the 20 Top-10 plateau as well.

10. Alex BowmanThe incremental improvement for Bowman continued last season.  The Hendrick Motorsports veteran posted his second-career victory (Fontana) and grabbed a career-best 15 Top-10 finishes.  It would all add up to a deep run into the playoffs and sixth-place finish in the final driver standings of 2020.  The week-to-week consistency still wasn't there, but this driver and team would tend more to go on mini hot streaks during the season.  The car number switches from No. 88 to No. 48 this season, but the team remains much the same.  Greg Ives will continue guiding Bowman as crew chief and he will inherit Jimmie Johnson's old sponsor, Ally Financial.  We expect Bowman to continue taking steps this year.  His first multi-win campaign could be in the cards and higher Top 10 totals as well.  This driver and team present a lot of upside in draft or auction style fantasy racing leagues.

11. Kurt Busch After another successful campaign with Chip Ganassi Racing, Busch signed an extension through the 2021 season to stay with the No. 1 Chevrolet team.  The veteran driver racked up one win and 19 Top-10 finishes last year and posted another season similar to his previous four.  That type of consistency year-to-year makes Busch one of the easiest drivers in the Cup Series to forecast.  He's captured at least one victory and north of 15 Top 10s in every season since 2014.  The 42-year-old, 20-season veteran is showing no signs of slowing down.  Still, the clock is ticking on his productivity vs age index.  Busch will turn 43 during the middle of this season, and there is some reason to begin watching closely.  While we don't expect him to fall off a cliff in terms of production, he should still grab comparable numbers to 2020.  It could be that this season becomes his last racing full-time at NASCAR's top level, and he plans to go out racing at a very competitive level.

12. William Byron Season three in NASCAR's top division saw Byron continue to blossom as one of the sport's budding stars-to-be.  The young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet grabbed his first-career win in a thriller at Daytona late last season, and Byron grabbed 14 Top-10 finishes.  The week-to-week consistency has yet to materialize, but we believe that could be coming in 2021.  Rudy Fugle takes over as crew chief and replaces Chad Knaus atop the team's tool box as Knaus moves into Hendrick's VP of Competition role.  Fugle has spent the last eight seasons guiding multiple drivers in the Camping World Truck Series to 28 total victories and two championships (Erik Jones and Christopher Bell).  We like the pairing of this seasoned crew chief moving into Cup for the first time and the aggressive young driver Byron.  This duo could make some major waves this season, and the potential is tantalizing.

13. Aric Almirola Almirola smashed through some obstacles and the COVID-affected season to rebound from his 2019 performance.  The Stewart Haas Racing veteran posted six Top-5 and 18 Top-10 finishes last year, but couldn't scratch the win column nor drive deep into the playoffs.  Still, he lowered his average finish almost 2 spots from 2019 to a more attractive 13.3 average finish.  This uptick in performance was thanks mostly to a mid-season hot streak that saw the No. 10 Ford team reel off five consecutive Top-5 finishes and string together nine consecutive Top 10s from June until August.  A bit of a late-season swoon during the playoffs would see his early exit and damper his performance a bit.  Almirola will hope to overcome that in 2021 but he faces some head winds in returning to victory lane and pushing his numbers to any higher levels.  We should see the average finish remain pretty close to the same, but could see a slight downturn in the Top-10 totals for Almirola.

14. Cole Custer It was an incredibly successful first season of Cup Series racing for Custer.  He waged a year-long battle with Tyler Reddick and finally prevailed to win 2020 Rookie of the Year.  Custer's one win (Kentucky) and seven Top-10 performance was enough for him to finally pull away from Reddick and win that honor.  He'll look to up the ante in 2021 as he and crew chief Mike Shiplett return for season 2 in NASCAR's top division.  Custer is as the old cliché goes "the goods".  The soon-to-be 23-year old driver is seasoned and skilled beyond his years, and proved to be a quick study behind the wheel in his first full season of Cup Series racing.  Things went a bit lean for Custer in the final weeks of the season, but he should rebound nicely this season.  If we see improvement and growth similar to other young drivers the past few years, Custer should likely steal another victory and push his Top 10 totals easily into the double digits.

15. Tyler Reddick While Reddick wasn't able to out-duel Cole Custer in last season's Rookie of the Year battle, the two waged quite a war.  The Richard Childress Racing youngster stayed right with Custer through most of the campaign.  He actually tallied two more Top 10s than Custer with 9 total for the season.  However, Reddick would fall short in the ROTY chase.  The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet returns for season 2 at the Cup Series level and he'll continue to move forward with Randall Burdett at crew chief.  Reddick showed some tremendous skill at both superspeedway and short track racing last year, so those would seem to be his strengths at this point.  The soon-to-be 25-year-old talent will take some more steps forward in 2021.  As Reddick continues to impress, larger teams will begin to notice and Childress will have to fight to keep this youngster in the RCR stable.

16. Christopher Bell Bell makes the move from Leavine Family Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2021.  The talented youngster had a slow start to his rookie campaign last season, but he made big moves late in the year to tally seven Top-10 finishes and wind up 20th in the overall championship points.  Bell will join a more capable team this season as he takes over Erik Jones' old ride at JGR.  The No. 20 Toyota should help propel Bell to greater heights.  Crew chief Adam Stevens moves from LFR to JGR with Bell to continue guiding the young driver.  This continuity and chemistry remaining intact is a huge bonus for Bell and the No. 20 Toyota team.  There is a sizable amount of potential and growth possible with this driver and team, and Bell is one to target in the mid-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts.  There's just loads of potential that should be realized this season.

17. Matt DiBenedetto DiBenedetto's good 2020 season earned him just one more year in the Wood Brothers Racing Ford.  Youngster Austin Cindric is primed to take over this ride in 2022, so DiBenedetto is living on borrowed time this season.  The veteran driver earned career-best marks with three Top-5, 11 Top-10 finishes and a 13th-place effort in the driver point standings.  With performance like that it's hard to believe DiBenedetto is on the hot seat, but he is with Cindric coming the following season.  We need to consider 2021 his audition to stay in the Cup Series.  Many teams will be watching what the veteran driver does very closely.  The motivation, will and desire to post as good, if not better numbers this season will not be an issue.  DiBenedetto already races like his hair is on fire, and now he's looking to find a new team for 2022.

18. Austin Dillon The reunion of Dillon and crew chief Justin Alexander went pretty much according to script last season.  The duo combined for a surprising win at Texas and Dillon logged nine Top-10 finishes by season's end.  It would net an impressive 11th-place finish in the points despite a bit of a malaise during the playoffs.  2020 was a huge success for the No. 3 team after a lackluster 2019 season for Dillon.  He and Alexander will remain paired once again this season, which is the good news.  However, we do feel like last season was likely a high water mark for this driver and team.  It was Dillon's second-highest Top 10 total and tied a career-best mark for finish in the driver standings.  A three-season sampling for Dillon is likely to be more indicative of where he goes in 2021.  With the Cup Series getting deeper and richer in talent, it's just the most reasonable expectation.

19. Chase Briscoe The prime rookie of this season's small rookie class is Briscoe.  He'll take over the No. 14 Ford of Stewart Haas Racing after a smashing season in the Xfinity Series in 2020.  Briscoe tallied a whopping nine victories and 16 Top-5 finishes but fell short in the championship playoffs thanks to some late-season inconsistency.  With the retirement of Clint Bowyer, it was an easy decision for SHR to promote Briscoe into that ride.  He'll inherit Bowyer's crew chief, John Klausmeier, and the two will begin to build chemistry right out the gate in 2021.  Bowyer tallied 12 Top-10 finishes with this race team last season, but it may be a bit overly ambitious to expect a similar level of performance for Briscoe.  After all, the youngster has absolutely zero experience racing in NASCAR's top division entering this season.  However, we could see some modestly good performance that might mirror Tyler Reddick's stats as a rookie from last season.

20. Erik Jones Jones was one of the big losers in terms of free agency moves last season.  Joe Gibbs Racing did not renew his contract to drive the team's No. 20 Toyota in favor of the incoming Christopher Bell, and the young driver was forced into free agency.  Richard Petty Motorsports didn't waste any time snapping Jones up.  He has 147 starts of Cup Series experience and is still a tender 24-years-old.  That was an easy decision for RPM, but probably not the choicest of rides if you're Jones.  However, he will have to forge forward in what will clearly be a downgrade from his prior team.  Jones' nine Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes of last season are lofty numbers to aspire to in the No. 43 Chevrolet team.  It's more likely that he and crew chief Jerry Baxter in season 1 will work on communication and developing driver/crew chief chemistry.  Seven-to-eight Top 10s is likely the high water mark for this driver and team in 2021.

21. Bubba Wallace Little did Wallace know entering his contract season at Richard Petty Motorsports how things would unfold last year.  He was likely racing for a new job and new team, but would have never guessed how things would play out.  After a five Top-10 finish and 22nd-place points finish campaign, Wallace landed a bunch of new sponsors and grabbed the attention of Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan.  The duo put together a new team with Wallace's bevvy of new sponsors called 23XI Racing.  The team purchased the charter of the now-defunct Germain Racing and will field Toyotas acquired from Leavine Family Racing.  Mike Wheeler will assume the crew chief responsibilities and brings five career victories and 148 starts of Cup Series experience to the table.  It will be new adventure for Wallace and likely an increase in performance right away, but we would caution against unreasonable expectations for this driver and team this season.

22. Chris Buescher Buescher had as solid and dependable a season as one could expect for a driver in the middle tier of the Cup Series driver field.  He posted a career-best eight Top-10 finishes in 2020, but only managed a 21st-place finish in the final driver standings.  A little bit of inconsistency in the stretch run of last season is much of the reason for the lackluster points finish.  However, there are many positives to point to with this driver and team.  Buescher soundly ran circles around his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Ryan Newman.  That alone speaks volumes of his ability as a driver.  The 28-year-old Texan will once again be paired with crew chief Luke Lambert at the No. 17 Ford team and they will look to up their performance another notch or two.  Buescher's driving ability is undeniable, and he tends to flourish on the superspeedways.  However, the team does have its limitations and it's best to temper your expectations accordingly.

23. Ross Chastain The journeyman driver makes a return to NASCAR's top division in 2021.  Chastain spent last season racing full-time in the Xfinity Series for Kaulig Racing, and doing a pretty good job in that division.  He'll now return to the Cup Series and fill the seat of Chip Ganassi Racing's embattled No. 42 Chevrolet team.  This team is frankly a hot mess at the moment.  After Kyle Larson's abrupt release early in 2020, Matt Kenseth came out of retirement last year to finish the season behind the wheel.  The team languished to just two Top-10 finishes in 32 starts under Kenseth's guidance.  Now Chastain will be tabbed with the heavy lift to get this team back to competitive racing.  He'll have the help of crew chief Phil Surgen, who has just 17 starts of Cup Series experience.  The duo will face an uphill battle, but the good news is that they have good equipment and great resources at CGR.  This season likely will be a "dig out" effort at best to get the ship righted.

24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The 33-year-old veteran has fallen into a bit of a rut the last couple seasons, and is now posting similar stat lines that slot him in the middle portion of the driver standings.  Stenhouse notched just four Top 10s in all of 2020 and finished 24th in the driver point standings.  These were remarkably similar marks to his 2019 campaign and a sign that Stenhouse has stalled in terms of performance.  The move to JTG Daugherty Racing has failed to yield the fruits that this driver posted in his career-best Cup Series campaign of 2017 at Roush Fenway Racing.  He now enters a contract year at the No. 47 Chevrolet team.  Stenhouse will again be paired with crew chief, Brian Pattie, and the two will look to figure out a way out of this malaise.  He will be racing for his job in 2021, but will face major hurdles to get back where Stenhouse was just three seasons ago.

25. Ryan Newman To say that 2020 was a tough season for Newman would be a huge understatement.  He started off the season racing for the win in the Daytona 500, but a millisecond of bad luck would put the driver of the No. 6 Ford on his roof sliding across the finish line and then t-boned by the No. 32 of Corey Lajoie.  The head injuries sustained would sideline Newman for three months, but the COVID shutdown of NASCAR would enable him to only miss three races.  When Newman returned to action it was clear that he wasn't his "old self."  Whether it was the lack of practice and qualifying or whether he just was not up to 100-percent physically is up for debate.  However, the two Top-10 finish, 25th-place points finish campaign was easily the worst of his 19-season career.  Newman enters the 2021 season 43-years-old and with a lot of questions.

26. Michael McDowell McDowell came out of the blue of sorts last season and posted a career-best effort in the Front Row Motorsports' No. 34 Ford.  The 36-year-old veteran grabbed four Top-10 finishes, wound up 23rd in the championship standings and posted an impressive 20.9 average finish for the campaign.  All were career-best marks for the 357-start Cup Series regular.  While these were not eye-popping stats, they were modest improvements over anything McDowell had done previously.  Consequently, it brought a lot of fantasy racing value to the table for weekly lineup and season-long fantasy racing owners willing to take the plunge with McDowell.  As per typical, the larger ovals and superspeedway proved to be his best tracks.  Additionally, some good performances on the short tracks and road courses bolstered McDowell's season.  He returns in 2021 to the same team and same crew chief and will look to channel these gains into additional performance.

27. Ryan Preece The second full season of Cup Series racing saw Preece go sideways in terms of performance.  The driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet posted two Top-10 finishes and saw his average finish grow from 23.1 to 24.3 over his 2019 campaign.  It all added up to a 29th-place finish in the final driver standings, and somewhat of a disappointment over expectations.  The 30-year-old driver has had tons of success in the lower divisions of racing, especially on dirt, but it has failed to translate to NASCAR's top division so far.  Preece will return to this well-sponsored race team, and continue his pairing with crew chief Trent Owens. The short tracks seem to be in pretty good shape, but if Preece hopes to make any headway he has to improve his large and intermediate oval performance in 2021.  A lot of things will have to come together if Preece is to improve and not stall once again.

28. Anthony Alfredo While not confirmed at the time of this writing, Alfredo has been widely rumored to be in contract discussions with Front Row Motorsports.  Should these rumors be true, the youngster would take over the No. 38 Ford that John Hunter Nemechek piloted last season.  Nemechek drove this car to three Top-10 finishes and a 27th-place points finish in 2020, so there is some modest potential.  Nemechek departed for the Camping World Truck Series so this ride is available to the next young talent willing to take on the task.  Alfredo has spent the last three seasons quickly moving up the ranks from the ARCA Menards Series all the way up to the Xfinity Series last season.  The 21-year-old driver collected nine Top-10 finishes in just 19 starts for Richard Childress in that division of NASCAR.  The level of talent is pretty obvious, and this team's potential is well established.  However, with zero Cup Series starts to his credit, Alfredo's learning curve will be steep.

29. Daniel Suarez Last season's move to Gaunt Brothers Racing didn't go quite as planned for Suarez.  He earned just three Top-20 finishes, and wound up a distant 31st-place in the driver point standings.  The 28-year-old Mexican has parted ways with the team after just one season, and has joined Justin Mark's new race team, Trackhouse Racing.  It will field the No. 99 Chevrolet for Suarez and have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.  This should be a modestly better team for Suarez in 2021, however, a new race team.  Travis Mack comes to the team as crew chief and brings four seasons and 96-combined starts of experience between the Cup and Xfinity Series.  Suarez will be challenged to make many gains with this new team, but there are some encouraging signs even before their first race.

30. Ty Dillon The biggest name in the free agency pool entering the 2021 season is easily Dillon.  The 28-year-old driver has 162 Cup Series starts to his credit and is coming off a 26th-place standings finish campaign.  Germain Racing could no longer continue forward with the No. 13 team due to sponsorship issues and other struggles, so it sold its charter to 23XI Racing and packed it in this season.  This left Dillon without a Cup Series ride and looking at new opportunities.  Those have been few and far between, and as of this writing, Dillon is still searching.  There are a handful of small race teams that could use an experienced driver like Dillon, but their upside is very limited and so would be the potential.  He's a driver to watch closely as we enter February 2021, and see if anything significant can materialize.

31. Corey Lajoie Lajoie is one of a handful of off-season movers climbing into new race cars this  season.  He left Go FAS Racing at the conclusion of last season and brought his crew chief, Ryan Sparks, with him to Spire Motorsports.  Lajoie will pilot the team's No. 7 Chevrolet and look to build this small race team's performance.  Last season saw a host of different driver's in this cockpit and with it a general lack of performance and consistency.  The driver conglomerate could only manage two Top-25 finishes.  Lajoie brings four full seasons of Cup Series experience to the table and three-career Top-10 finishes.  The 29-year-old driver's strength is superspeedway and intermediate oval racing.  Those events will be his best starts, while short tracks and road courses are his definite weakness.  Those are facts to keep handy when considering weekly lineup formats.

32. Brennan PooleThe rookie campaign in 2020 was an up-and-down affair for Poole.  He did manage one Top-10 finish (Talladega) in the fall of last season, but was otherwise learning on the job.  A total of nine DNFs would hinder his progress in the standings and Poole would wind up 32nd-place at season's end.  The average finish for the campaign would check in at a lofty 29.5.  Poole will return to the No. 15 Chevrolet of Rick Ware Racing this season.  He'll once again be paired with veteran crew chief Pat Tryson.  This small race team and young driver will once again face many challenges to climbing the ladder.  However, the bright spot on the schedule will always be the superspeedway ovals of Daytona and Talladega.  Poole grabbed finishes of 16th-, 35th-, 15th- and ninth-place on these tracks, so he does provide some fantasy racing utility to that end.

33. Quin Houff Houff is expected to return to StarCom Racing and its No. 00 Chevrolet Camaro for 2021.  The 23-year-old driver is entering his third season in NASCAR's top division and now has 53 total starts to his credit.  While his progress to this point has been hindered by the limitations of his small race team, Houff has shown some growth and improvement.  He improved his average finish by almost 1.5 spots over his 2019 campaign.  Houff also was running at the finish of 30 of 36 events, which is a pretty good accomplishment for a driver in the lower end of the field.  Still, the 31.3 average finish for the season left a lot to be desired and needs some improvement in 2021.  StarCom will once again tab George Church to call the shots for Houff atop the team's war wagon.  That renewed partnership and chemistry should surely help.  This driver and team are likely looking at another season measured by just incremental gains.

34. B.J. McLeod This veteran driver will get to go full-time Cup Series racing this season.  Ownership has combined with Joe Falk and the team has obtained Go FAS Racing's charter.  That combined with a technical alliance with Stewart Haas Racing has birthed a new race venture called Live Fast Motorsports.  McLeod will pilot the team's No. 78 Ford for the full 36-event schedule.  He's a veteran of 57 Cup Series starts spread over five seasons.  Now he'll get a crack at the full schedule and with what is likely his best ride to-date.  Sponsorship is secure, the crew chief will likely be Todd Parrott and the equipment is Stewart Haas Racing quality.  It should all add up to a pretty good splash for McLeod.  The potential for performance and the upside is likely better than many of the drivers in the tier outside the Top 30.

35. Timmy Hill MBM Motorsports will shift to Fords this season and it has arranged to have Hill at the helm again for a full season.  The 27-year-old driver will pull double duty this season between the Xfinity and the Cup Series, but his points will only count towards the Xfinity Series championship.  That will be his main focus.  Hill will race for purse money and team owner points in NASCAR's top division as the MBM team continues on its growth plan.  Last season's campaign amounted to little more than a start-and-park operation with Hill registering 14 DNFs.  The two Top-20 finishes illustrate the team's lack of consistency and lack of performance.  Hill will continue to pull this team upward, but gains will be very hard to come by given the scarcity of funding and lack of resources.

36. Austin Cindric The 2020 Xfinity Series champion may have been denied his opportunity to race full-time in the Cup Series in 2021, but he certainly left a remarkable impression last season.  Cindric grabbed six victories, claimed 26 Top-10 finishes and battled to the wire against Chase Briscoe to claim the crown in that division of NASCAR.  The 22-year-old talent was tabbed to take over the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford this season, but Matt DiBenedetto will get one more season behind the wheel of that ride.  That development will limit Cindric's participation in NASCAR's top division to just a handful of starts.  Penske Racing will likely field a fourth, part-time team to get the young driver some Cup Series experience.  Cindric is wildly talented and a quick study behind the wheel, but his impact will be limited due to a very small Cup Series schedule.

37. Justin Haley Kaulig Racing intends to move to NASCAR's top division full-time at some point.  2021 is likely a transition season for this Xfinity Series team to get up to speed on Cup Series racing.  Haley is the top prospect driver for this race team, and he'll get all the starts in the team's No. 16 Chevrolet.  Haley is slated to race in all the road course and superspeedway events this season and that could mean as many as 10 or 11 starts.  The young driver is fresh off a three-win, 21 Top-10 performance and third-place points finish in last season's Xfinity Series campaign.  The level of talent is not in question, but the newness of this race team will be a limiting factor.  Haley does have five-career Cup Series starts over the past two seasons, with one very big win (Daytona 2019) to his credit.  That experience will be golden as he sets off on his first season of major participation in the NASCAR Cup Series.

38. Reed Sorenson At the time of this writing it is unclear which team Sorenson will race for this season.  Rick Ware Racing plans to field four full-time teams in 2021, and Sorenson will likely be the pilot for one of those rides.  The 34-year-old veteran spent last season racing a half-time schedule of 17 starts with Spire Motorsports.  So this season could be his first full or near-full schedule in quite some time.  Sorenson has 346 starts of Cup Series experience and that is valuable to a smaller race team.  However, the level of performance is clearly what's lacking to consider use in fantasy racing leagues.  Sorenson's last four seasons have yielded no Top-10 finishes and average finishes of 32.1, 32.6, 32.7 and last season's 33.4.  In spite of RWR's growth and improvement, the outlook is still somewhat pessimistic.

39. J.J. YeleyYeley patched together what was nearly a full slate of Cup Series starts last season, split between Spire Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing and Rick Ware Racing.  The 44-year-old veteran made 34 of the 36 events between these two race teams.  It was Yeley's biggest slate of racing in NASCAR's top division since 2015.  However, the results were spotty at best.  He claimed no Top-10 finishes and just four Top-25 finishes.  The average finish checked in around 31.0, which has been the norm for this driver over the past four seasons.  Yeley's plans for 2021 have not been announced at the time of this writing, but he appears to be involved with Rick Ware Racing to some degree and that team's four different cars.  It's difficult to forecast Yeley's potential impact without some idea of his degree of participation, but it could be anywhere between 15-to-30 starts.  However, the level of performance seems pretty well established for this driver and the trend line is pretty well set.

40. Garrett SmithleySmithley will continue to build his Cup Series resume with the 26 starts he made last season for Rick Ware Racing, Spire Motorsports and Tommy Baldwin Racing.  It looks like the young driver could be involved in a driver rotation in the RWR No. 53 Ford.  At this time, it's not clear how many starts the 28-year-old will get in this rotation, but it could be north of 20.  Now with 43 Cup Series starts of experience to his credit, Smithley is no longer green.  However, his ability and this team's limits will challenge his level of performance in 2021.  Todd Parrott will head up the RWR No. 53 team, but that veteran crew chief will be handicapped by equipment and resource limitations. Smithley has a 33.7 average finish for his brief career in NASCAR's top division, and we see that needle moving very little this season. 

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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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