By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

The first two races of the 2021 season are in the books and we already have a pair of first-time winners. This time it was Cup series sophomore Christopher Bell who bested veteran Joey Logano with a thrilling pass on the penultimate lap of the Daytona Road Course. Bell getting a win in 2021 wasn’t too much of a surprise. The Joe Gibbs Racing golden boy has risen through the NASCAR ranks under the banner of Toyota virtually his entire stock-car career. It was only a matter of time before he broke through piloting one of the best cars in the field. Bell’s win also marked a moment NASCAR had not seen in 70 years. The last time the first two races of a season were won by first-time winners goes all the way back to 1950.

The stars of NASCAR now leave Daytona and won’t return until the end of the regular season. The next stop is Homestead Miami Speedway, the first true test to see who really is the cream of the crop. Homestead is a one of several 1.5-mile ovals that define NASCAR’s schedule. Performing well this weekend should translate to success for much of the year. Daytona’s oval and road course put driver’s skill at the forefront with less focus on the car itself. To win at Homestead, drivers will need a great car under them and that means speed and handling are key.

Homestead also marks the first race of the year Cup cars will run the high downforce/low horsepower configuration. The spoiler, much taller than it was a week ago, will generate a ton of drag down the straights helping cars behind catch a draft. In addition to the spoiler, a larger splitter sitting just ahead of the front tires will help keep the cars planted to the ground giving them large amounts of downforce. With slower speeds a result of this configuration, engineers will need to find ways to trim the cars out to try and harness that little bit of extra speed. The better funded teams in NASCAR are typically the ones who find this extra pace.

This weekend also serves as a chance to get in a rhythm for the rest for the season. Daytona was filled with calamity and wrecked race cars. Homestead’s worn out surface should space out the field with long, green-flag runs where drivers can put together more consistent laps without the added pressure of running into the car next to them. Names like William Byron, Tyler Reddick, and Matt Dibenedetto need a strong finish to begin to climb themselves out of a deep points hole. Unexpected names like Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece look to maintain the great start to their seasons. The usual favorites however, will be difficult to beat this Sunday. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick dominated the 1.5 mile tracks last year. Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Ryan Blaney will most likely show speed. Chase Elliott nearly won this race a year ago after a duel with Hamlin in the closing laps. There’s also Kyle Larson who in the past has found himself in contention to win this race nearly every year. And with all the hype around Michal Jordan’s 23XI Racing, can Bubba Wallace deliver his team its first top 10?

If you’re a new viewer, don’t expect the same wild, crash-filled moments seen in the first two races of the year. Homestead is notorious for chewing up rubber and tires will play a big role in who wins on Sunday. While restarts are always crazy with this configuration, look for the field to eventually stretch out after about five laps with those gaps increasing more over long, green flag runs. The high line right up against the wall is the preferred lane for drivers. Momentum is key at 1.5 mile tracks and Homestead’s high lane is where drivers can find it when tires begin to lose their grip. This race probably won’t generate very many yellows as the field won’t be so packed tightly together. As for the winner, count on Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick to resume the same dominance they had on the 1.5 mile tracks last year. Other front runners should include Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

Whoever find themselves in victory lane, it should be a solid race with many of NASCAR’s usual stars in the front duking it out for glory on a hot afternoon under the Florida sun. Let’s have ourselves a race!

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