Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: 7 NASCAR Cup Drivers Who Have to Win in 2021

Entering August 2020, if you’d asked me which drivers were on the hot seat and might lose their ride if they didn’t produce soon, William Byron would’ve been near the top of my list.

Sure, Byron signed an extension with Hendrick Motorsports that month, but contracts aren’t always fulfilled in sports. Plus, Rick Hendrick doesn’t keep drivers around for too long if they aren’t winning races and they aren’t the most popular driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. Byron had been in the car since 2018 and had gone winless. How much longer would Hendrick really have given him?

Then Byron won the regular season cutoff at Daytona International Speedway for his first career win and a spot in the playoffs. He then backed that up with a commanding win at Homestead-Miami Speedway this past weekend. These two wins likely mean that Byron is not a bust and that we’ll see him in the No. 24 HMS Chevrolet for many years to come.

But when one driver moves off the hot seat, another one moves on. Here are seven drivers who could potentially lose their ride if they don’t win in 2021.

1. Brad Keselowski

All right, hear me out before you crucify me. Keselowski has won at least one race every year since he got in the No. 2 Team Penske entry back in 2011. He’s probably going to win at least three races this year like he has every year since 2016.

But if he weren’t to win a race this year, then his first winless season in a decade would come at the worst possible moment it possibly could. Keselowski signed a one-year deal to drive this year with Penske. That could mean that the two parties are still trying to come together on a money figure, or it could mean that Keselowski was waiting for economy to get better and see if better opportunities would open up.

Regardless, Keselowski needs to win early and often this season to boost his stock, whether that be his stock with Penske or his stock with other teams. If he were to go winless for the first 20 races or so while Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Cindric and/or some other driver Roger Penske may have his eye on were to win, Penske may decide he wants to save money by putting a younger, cheaper driver in the No. 2.

Keselowski showed he is at least aware that a situation like this could happen to him when he tweeted last week.

On the other hand, if Keselowski is looking to land with another team, such as 23XI Racing, who is likely expanding to at least a second car soon, he needs to win a ton to prove to them that they need a veteran and championship contender like him.

Keselowski is a Cup champion and a future Hall of Famer. He finished runner-up in points just last year. He will have a ride next year. But he plays a bigger role in his future if he wins races this year.

2. Matt DiBenedetto 

DiBenedetto already knows that the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford will not be his next year; it will be Cindric’s. But he needs to win ASAP to prove to other big teams that he can get it done at the top level of NASCAR. If he goes winless again with a team that is getting Penske equipment, I don’t see any competitive team wanting him next year.

It does sort of feel like Keselowski and DiBenedetto are pitted against each other next year. As I mentioned earlier, if DiBenedetto were to win while Keselowski doesn’t this year, Penske could save a lot of money on driver salary by putting DiBenedetto in the No. 2. Or Cindric could potentially get the No. 2 and DiBenedetto gets to stay in the No. 21 after all.

DiBenedetto could also end up at a team like 23XI next year. But all this hinges on him finding his way to victory lane. There’s probably more pressure on him to win this year than any other driver.

3. Alex Bowman 

Hendrick and Ally showed a lot of faith in Bowman when they moved him over to the No. 48 to replace Jimmie Johnson, but he’s in the last year of his contract. He has two Cup wins to his credit, but his most recent one was on March 1, 2020, now over a year ago. What have you done for me lately?

Hendrick doesn’t mess around too long with drivers who aren’t winning consistently. And now that Bowman is piloting the car that has won more championships than any other for the team, he’s got a big spotlight on him. If he wins, that’ll create even more hype for him. But if he goes winless, the struggles will be amplified.

And one win a year isn’t really good enough when your teammate is winning a championship. And now that Byron has won two races since Bowman’s last, that turns the heat up on his seat a little bit.

Even if Hendrick likes Bowman and wants to keep him around, all it takes is for Ally to decide it wants to try its chances with another driver. After all, it paid good money to sponsor the No. 48, and the only time it’s visitied victory lane so far was in the Busch Clash.

Bowman needs to deliver for that car and that sponsor if he wants to continue driving it past this year.

4. Kyle Larson

Larson just got to Hendrick, so he doesn’t need to win right away, but he does need to win at some point before the year is over.

He signed with the team to a multi-year deal, but he doesn’t have that much sponsorship. Most of the sponsorship on the No. 5 Chevy is coming from Hendrick’s personal companies. That means that Hendrick essentially took a gamble on Larson that he would win races, distance himself from his incident last year and attract new sponsors to the team.

Larson won six times in his six-plus years at Chip Ganassi Racing, and the excuse for him not winning more was always that the equipment was holding him back. Many have claimed that he is one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR, if not the most talented. Now he’s got a car to match said talent.

If Larson doesn’t win this year, Hendrick might be forced to bring in a driver that brings sponsorship.

5/6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. & Ryan Preece

JTG Daugherty Racing has two full-time teams this year and only one charter. Preece’s No. 37 is currently the car without the charter, and the team said back in January that it only had sponsorship for 24 races and could go part time if more funding isn’t secured.

Stenhouse, on the other hand, is believed to be in the final year of his deal with the team. So it somewhat seems that should the team not find more sponsorship, these two drivers are pitted against each other and whoever does better could keep the full-time ride.

If Preece were to win a race and locked himself into the playoffs, why would JTG not move him over to the chartered ride to ensure that he makes all the races and has the most funding for a championship? If Stenhouse were to win, then why keep losing money with the No. 37 and instead channel those resources into the No. 47’s bid for the title?

Neither driver necessarily has to win to keep their ride, but if one of them were to then they would immediately secure their future with the team. Going into the season, I’d say Preece was more on the hot seat after an abyssmal 2020 season where many other drivers were rumored to replace him in the No. 37. But after seeing Preece score top 10s in two of the first three races, the heat might’ve shifted to under Stenhouse’s seat. This is his ninth full year in Cup and he has two wins to show for it.

Both drivers are racing for their livelihood. Because if either were to lose their JTG ride, their days in the Cup Series might be over.

7. Aric Almirola

Almirola’s spot in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford is likely safe for as long as he has Smithfield backing him. Plus, he was the second best driver with the team in 2020, posting career-highs in top fives and top 10s.

But when you’re with one of the top teams in the garage, you’re expected to win, and Almirola has two wins in nine full-time seasons. Almirola obviously has a great relationship with Smithfield, as it followed him from Richard Petty Motorsports to SHR. But you have to wonder how much longer it’ll keep giving him the bacon if he’s not winning consistently.

Smithfield appears to have scaled back its support for him slightly this year. Last year, he had a Smithfield wrap on the car for 33 of the 36 points races. This year, that number is supposed to be 25. With young teammates Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe looking to do big things in Cup, Almirola needs to find his way back to victory lane to ensure his place with the team and his importance to the sponsor.

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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