Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at the Daytona Road Course

What happened?

Christopher Bell won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at the Daytona road course on Sunday (Feb. 21), making it back-to-back first time winners to open the 2021 Cup Series season (the first time since 1950 that has happened).

Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Starting on the front row, alongside Chase Elliott, Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell got hit with a dose of reality in the very first corner of the race. In a sign of shenanigans to come for many, McDowell overshot the turn due to a cut tire and drove right through the grass. Further back in the field, Kyle Busch went off-track himself and suffered major damage to the front end of his car. The field made it through lap 1 with Elliott in the lead when a caution came out due to the debris from McDowell’s tire.

The field was clean for a few laps after the restart, with Elliott continuing to control the race out front. On lap 11, debris brought out another caution just before stage one ended. All of the leaders pitted besides Bell and Keselowski, but Elliott made quick work of the duo on the restart. The No. 9 Chevrolet gapped the field with ease and won the stage, leading all but one lap in the process.

Elliott retained the lead on the stage two restart, with some of the best road racers in the sport following his tire tracks.

Later in stage two, Ross Chastain wrecked after contact with Ryan Blaney. The incident ended Chastain’s day and subjected him to a 39th-place finish.

The wreck caused different pit strategies to come into play under yellow. AJ Allmendinger stayed out and took the lead under caution, then held on for a few laps until Hamlin took the point and won the second stage. Hamlin now has three stage wins (and playoff points) on the season.

Kurt Busch took the lead on the following restart before sliding through the grass and dropping to 25th. He seemed to misjudge the left-handed kink on the infield portion of the racetrack and was lucky he didn’t suffer more damage.

Elliott got back out front after a rough pit stop and appeared to be in control of the race when the final green flag pit stops cycled through. Then, with 15 to go, NASCAR threw a caution for weather. There was rain in the area, though many were puzzled by the call.

From there, mayhem struck throughout the field. Most of the leaders pitted (except Logano, who took the lead) and restarted outside the top 10. Elliott was pushed off track and somehow saved his Chevrolet before another quick caution came out for Tyler Reddick’s car catching fire.


Elliott’s nemesis most of the day, Martin Truex Jr., was spun on the next restart in turn 1. Logano continued to lead until another yellow was thrown for Corey LaJoie.

The final green flag run lasted eight laps, though there were multiple potential yellows. Kyle Larson looked to have completed a pass for second, then spun and barreled into the tire barriers. Elliott was spun by Hamlin while battling back toward the front, inside the top five. Chase Briscoe’s hood exploded over his windshield. Kyle Busch and others wrecked on the frontstretch.

While all that chaos was happening, Bell ran down Logano from nearly three seconds back. Coming to the white flag, he made some impressive moves to get around the block-happy Team Penske driver and pull away for the victory.

It was Bell’s first career win in his 38th start. Crew chief Adam Stevens now has 29 career Cup wins, fourth among active head wrenches (Rodney Childers, Paul Wolfe, Alan Gustafson).

Who stood out?

Many people expected Bell to win his first race this season, but how many expected it to come at a road course this early in the year? I can’t imagine too many people saw this one coming. Bell was subpar on this track type last year – 21st and 24th. He did win a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America in 2019.

STURNIOLO: Bell proves his worth at Joe Gibbs Racing… just two races in

On Sunday, the 26-year-old was the clear-cut, second-best car. He kept his machine clean, jumped when he needed to and made all the moves necessary to win as Elliott faltered. If the No. 20 team is going to be this fast on tracks where Bell isn’t the best, the rest of the field could have a problem in 2021. Bell generally specializes on 1.5-mile tracks, and with Adam Stevens calling the shots, he could definitely win multiple races as the year unfolds.

When you think of road course aces, Kurt Busch rarely comes to mind. Well, maybe he should. Busch was in the mix all afternoon before spinning from the lead. Pit strategy got him back to the front and his skill kept him there. Busch’s only career road course win was at Sonoma Raceway in 2011, so it was surprising to see him up there with the likes of Truex, Hamlin and others.

Every season, it seems like Busch is the same driver. He’s become so consistent as he’s matured, winning a race in each of the last seven seasons. With many more road courses to come, we could see a win or two from the No. 1 team in 2021.

Allmendinger impressed all day in the part-time Kaulig Racing No. 16. Seeing Allmendinger run well at a road course isn’t shocking for the former Watkins Glen International race winner. But considering the circumstances (part-time team, ‘Dinger hasn’t raced in Cup since 2018), his performance definitely stood out. It doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things; it’s just good to see ‘Dinger wheeling it on road courses in the Cup Series again.

Who fell flat?

Elliott’s four-race road course streak was bound to end some day – and Sunday was that day. For most of the race, he was the dominant car, leading a race-high 44 laps and winning the first stage. Ultimately, the weather caution doomed him while cruising to another likely victory. His crew cost him multiple spots on a few pit stops, too.

Daytona isn’t a total disaster for Elliott, and it might even be a good thing. He’ll have much less pressure in the remaining road course races now that the streak is finally over. Elliott still looks like the best road racer in the series and he’ll be in the mix at the six remaining dates despite today’s 21st-place result.

TOMLINSON: Elliott says ‘I Made Too Many Mistakes’

Like Elliott, Truex will leave Daytona wondering what could’ve been. Much of the pre-race and in-race coverage was about how Truex could challenge Elliott. We didn’t really get to see that all day, though. He started 19th, and when he got to the front, it was clear he didn’t quite have race-winning speed like his teammate. Then, the No. 19 Toyota was spun late in the race and subjected to a 12th-place finish.

Truex will remain among the favorites at the upcoming road course races, though as it’s easy to copy what I wrote for Elliott and paste it here. They’re still the two best road racers in the series and Sunday’s results don’t change that.

After nearly winning the Clash less than two weeks ago, Ryan Blaney was a non-factor on Sunday. His lack of speed was the most puzzling result of the day for me. Elliott and Truex ran well but ultimately got caught up in incidents. Blaney was out to lunch all afternoon, finishing 15th after some misfortune by others.

What did this race prove?

We’re in for some tomfoolery this year with six road courses still on the schedule. It seemed inevitable that Elliott would cruise to victory in most of those races, but Sunday proved anything is possible. Between rain, crazy restarts and pit road problems, road courses present so many opportunities to potentially lose a race.

Now, do I think each of the next six races will play out as wild as Daytona did? Definitely not. It’s obvious that we’ll get at least one or two butt-whoopings by an Elliott or Truex. But man, just a handful of chaotic races like that one are a welcome change from the races we usually get at Michigan International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and elsewhere.

The next generation of NASCAR drivers will all be wheelmen on road courses. In the past, it seemed like younger drivers struggled on these tracks. They were used to ovals and didn’t have to focus on road courses because there were only two on the schedule. Now, it seems like young drivers are all becoming forces at these tracks.

Not only did Bell get his first career win Sunday, Ty Gibbs grabbed his first win in his first Xfinity start on Saturday. It should be exciting and make for even better racing as these young guns get more practice.

Paint scheme of the race

Kyle Busch’s Interstate Batteries paint scheme is the same as last year, but it still caught my eye. It’s such an improvement from the old zebra design. My only gripe is that I wish it had red numbers, similar to Bobby Labonte’s scheme.

Better than last year?

Last year, the Daytona road course was run in August with a different rules package. There was some intriguing strategy in the race before a brief lightning delay. In the end, Elliott pulled away for the win, holding off Hamlin. The finish was a decent battle, but most of the race was relatively calm.

This year was a clear upgrade from 2020. There was far more sparring for the lead and closer racing, which did lead to more incidents overall. And even though Elliott is the sport’s most popular driver, it is a welcome sight to get another first-time winner. That only happens a few times each season (if you’re lucky), so it’s worth taking the time to appreciate.

Playoff picture

Bell joins McDowell as the second driver “locked” into the playoffs. I use the term “locked” in quotes because, well, we might actually get more than 16 race winners this year. It’s never happened in the 16-driver playoff era, so it’s odd to even consider it a possibility. Two unexpected winners changes the thought process, though. The number of race winners will be something to keep an eye on as we progress through the season.

It’s still far too early to start counting points. I know that, you know that. Just to take a quick look at where we stand: Hamlin currently leads Logano, Kevin Harvick, Bell and Elliott. McDowell is sixth in the standings, with unlikely challengers Ryan Preece (seventh), LaJoie (15th) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16th) in playoff position. William Byron (29th), Tyler Reddick (33rd) and Matt DiBenedetto (37th) are some drivers off to a rough start.

What’s next?

The Cup Series completes its Florida swing with a trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Dixie Vodka 400 will go green at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday (Feb. 28). After a pair of wild-card races to open the season, next weekend will be a return to normalcy at a 1.5-mile track.

Follow @LoganReardon20


About the author

Frontstretch columnist | Website

Logan Reardon, 23, has followed NASCAR since before he could talk. He's taken his passion for the sport and turned it into a budding writing career. Logan also works for NBC Sports as an editor and the Seattle Seahawks as a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @LoganReardon20.

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Carl D.

The infusion of drivers moving up from Xfinity to Cup over the last couple of years means we probably will see a couple more first time winners this year. Furthermore, we’re seeing a changing of the guard in Cup. These young drivers are talented and hungry and ready to make a name for themselves.

It’s always great to see ‘Dinger have a good run. I’ve always liked his upbeat personality.


i think chase was over hyped too much about the road course and #5 win.

all i know is it was a sweep at daytona for toyota this weekend.

Haz Mat

Yeah, you’d think he walked on water the way the commentators gush on about him.

Kevin in SoCal

Chase is the new golden boy after Dale Jr retired, his fans all went to Elliott.

Bill B

Well, it was definitely made for good entertainment, in a Keystone Cops sort of way. Lot’s of action, lots of cars all over the place, lots of contact. Is that good racing? I’m not sure but it was fun to watch. I think that if NASCAR hadn’t have thrown a caution for the “rain”, the finishing order would have looked a lot different aand more in line with what people expected. With that said, the race was a bit more crapshooty than I like it but some of that comes with the territory that heavy stock cars bring to a road course. I could make the same observation about the truck and X-finity race as well.

Wow, two drivers provisionally locked into the playoffs that weren’t expected to lock in. I bet some of the entitled ones that expect to be in the playoffs are starting to worry. There is no doubt that road course races have a higher probability of s**t happening than ovals so this season could produce a more crapshooty playoff field as well. However, if I had to bet on it, I’d say the usual suspects will still lock in by mid-season.

I am always happy for first time winners so congrats to Bell and the 20 team.


I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the fake “rain caution” which completely changed the outcome of the race. Kyle Busch called it correctly as “being for the show.” The track was not particularly wet, proven by the fact that NOT A SINGLE team elected to put on rain tires. If there was moisture in Turn 2, a local yellow would have sufficed.

Compare this situation with last season’s Texas race where the cars were allowed to race in full rain, eventually leading to Kevin Harvick’s poor finish and eventual elimination from the Playoffs. I understand that NASCAR uses cautions for entertainment purposes, but it might be less obvious if they were at least marginally consistent.


Jo – i wondered where the rain was. if track surface was that wet they would had opted for the rain tires. they needed to bunch up the field.


I was surprised when a caution didn’t come out when there was a cloud of dirt in the air.

Bill W

I watched all 3 races last weekend and this past weekend. I enjoyed the races far more on the road course .

Tom B

I noticed the sound bite of “punch your ticket into the playoffs” was not used once at Daytona. Thank you. Please have more cat stories and peanut butter cracker references. sarcasm

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