NASCAR 2021: These are the champions of the three national series
The 2021 NASCAR season is in the books – Kyle Larson, Daniel Hemric and Ben Rhodes are the champions in the three national series
An eventful 2021 NASCAR season is over and the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series champions have been crowned. In addition, 2021 marks the end of a NASCAR era, as there will be a true revolution in NASCAR’s top tier with the introduction of the Next Gen car in the 2022 season. For now, however, it’s time to shine a light on the three champions who celebrated championship victories last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona.
NASCAR Cup Series: Kyle Larson
It was an open battle between the four title contenders until the final lap of the finale at Phoenix Raceway. After 312 thrilling laps Kyle Larson secured victory and thus his first title at Cup level. The Californian beat Martin Truex Jr. who came close to the rear of the Hendrick Chevrolet in the closing stages but was unable to pull off a decisive maneuver. Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott finished behind the pair.
Kyle Larson is 29 years old and comes from Elk Grove in California – a small town south of Sacramento and northeast of San Francisco. The Cup champion has his roots on the local dirt tracks, where he started racing at the age of seven. Early on, Larson was given nicknames like “Young Money” because he showed great talent. Accordingly, the Californian quickly fought his way through the various classes.
Although an IndyCar career was also on the cards, Larson signed a contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2012 to draw attention to himself in the junior program there. Accordingly, the youngster now had to prove himself in Late Models on asphalt ovals. He made his debut at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida – not far from Daytona – and won the race with just a single lead lap.
First successes on asphalt
Larson made his Truck debut for Turner Motorsports in 2012 at Kentucky Speedway and won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Just one year later, he won his first NASCAR Nationwide race at Rockingham Speedway. He made his winning donuts without a steering wheel, which NASCAR subsequently blacklisted for safety hazards. Larson never won the Truck Series, but returned to the championship sporadically over the course of his career.
With new experience under his belt, the now 29-year-old made the move to the second NASCAR league in 2013 – at that time still the Nationwide Series. He drove the Chevrolet Camaro from Turner Scott Motorsports and, right from his first start at Daytona International Speedway, had a lot of luck to be able to race at all today. His car was flipped into the air and smashed into the catch fence. Even the engine was ripped from its moorings in the process. While Larson was uninjured, some car parts and a tire hit spectators in the stands.
Larson became the season’s best rookie despite the difficult start. Over the course of his career, the new champion collected a total of 13 race wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two victories in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Larson contested his first Cup race in 2013 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500 – at the time for HScott Motorsports. He finished the race only 37th due to an engine failure.
The leap into the Cup Series
In 2014, Larson then inherited former Formula 1 and IndyCar legend Juan Pablo Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing. In the #42 car, the Californian scored a total of six race wins in 6.5 years. His best season was the 2017 championship, in which Larson visited Victory Lane four times and ultimately finished eighth overall. In 2019, he finished sixth overall with just one win thanks to the playoff system. And then came the 2020 season that would change everything …
COVID-19 had the world in its grip and the V8 engines had to fall silent for a while due to the crisis. Fortunately, however, there is the virtual world, where very realistic simulations allow racing from home. This was fatal for Larson, however, as he made a racist statement in a conversation with a friend that was heard in public. The consequences followed promptly: first sponsors dropped the youngster, then Chip Ganassi felt compelled to fire Larson.
Like the phoenix from the ashes
Suddenly, the Californian disappeared from the scene – at least in the NASCAR world. While he prepared his Cup return via seminars and made amends with his social commitment, the dirt track specialist won one sprint car race after another. He quickly became a hot candidate again on the NASCAR driver market and it was Rick Hendrick who made a decision and signed Larson for the 2021 season. So with the green light from NASCAR, the 29-year-old climbed into the #5 Chevrolet Camaro after an enforced break.
The rest is history: Larson started in the car sponsored by Hendrick himself with the livery of the son of the team boss, who died years ago – Ricky Hendrick. He won a total of ten races during the 2021 season and secured his first NASCAR national title at Phoenix. Along the way, Larson captured his first win at the Knoxville Nationals and his second victory at the legendary Chili Bowl – two crown jewels of US dirt track racing. At 29, Larson still has plenty of time to make himself immortal in the NASCAR world, he certainly has the talent …
NASCAR Xfinity Series: Daniel Hemric
Half a meter decided the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship: Austin Cindric actually looked like the sure winner, but Daniel Hemric took out his elbows in the final turn, leaned on the leader’s Ford and crossed the finish line just inches ahead of the 2020 champion, securing not only his first NASCAR national victory, but also the title outright.
Like the finale in Phoenix, Hemric’s career has resembled a roller coaster of emotions – with many ups and downs. The 30-year-old started racing at the tender age of five and worked his way through the various series at his home in Kannapolis, North Carolina. His idol at the time was Carl Edwards, which is why Hemric also started climbing on top of his car after his victories and jumping down with a backflip.
His talent did not go unnoticed and in 2010 he won the legendary Legends Million at Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the time, he received $250,000 (about 216,000 euros) in prize money – the highest sum ever awarded in a Legends race. After proving himself in the national series, the now 30-year-old made his NASCAR Truck debut with Sharp Gallaher Racing at Martinsville in 2013. Because he had problems early in the race, it was only enough for 32nd place.
His first full Truck season, however, was a bit of a wait: it wasn’t until 2015 that Hemric was allowed to compete for the championship for the first time. He took over the car from NTS Motorsport and ultimately finished seventh overall. The following year, he signed on with Brad Keselowski Motorsports and made it to the final round via the points thanks to numerous top-5 results. After a strong season, he moved to Richard Childress Racing to try his hand in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Richard Childress and the rapid rise and fall
Hemric did a good job in NASCAR’s second division, sneaking into the playoff finals thanks to his incredible consistency despite not winning a single race. However, an electrical issue then put a spanner in the works at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which is why he only finished fourth overall. The North Carolina race driver competed in his first Cup race in 2018 at Richmond and that was the start of the roller coaster ride …
Richard Childress confirmed Hemric as a full-time Cup driver for the #8 car in 2019. It was a season to forget: his best result remained a seventh-place finish at Pocono and he was only good enough for 25th overall. Although Hemric had a two-year contract, he and Childress went separate ways again after the disappointing season. In 2020, Hemric stayed afloat as a part-time driver with JR Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series before finding a new home.
Joe Gibbs Racing signed the now 30-year-old for the 2021 Xfinity season and was to be rewarded. Hemric once again impressed with his consistency and thus made it to the final of the playoffs. He pushed Cindric into second place in the final turn, won his first NASCAR national race, finally did the backflip in front of a large crowd and was crowned champion. Was that the end of a hilly career, or just the beginning after all?
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes celebrated his title in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in Phoenix exuberantly and the subsequent press conference was correspondingly relaxed, to which the newly crowned champion certainly did not bring his first can of Bud Light on this evening. In the race itself, a third place finish behind Chandler Smith and Stewart Friesen was enough for Rhodes to clinch the title, as he finished ahead of the title contenders Zane Smith, John Hunter Nemechek and Matt Crafton.
At 24 years of age, Ben Rhodes is still a real diamond in the rough in the NASCAR world and brings a lot of potential to the table. The race driver from Louisville, Kentucky, has been part of the Truck Series since 2014 and competed in his first Cup race in 2021 with Spire Motorsports. The Truck title has been his first big shot in the national NASCAR cosmos and could now open many doors for a promising career for him.
From karting to NASCAR
Rhodes, like many NASCAR drivers, started racing at the age of seven on local ovals in a kart. He won many minor championships before trying his hand at Legends Cars and Late Models. In 2012, former NASCAR Cup driver Marcos Ambrose signed the young talent to his Late Model team. Rhodes started as a part-time driver in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East a year later and was accepted into NASCAR’s Next young talent development program.
In 2014, Rhodes not only won the K&N Pro Series East, but also made his ARCA and Truck Series debut. Following that strong showing, the now 24-year-old was able to look forward to his first Xfinity Series outings with JR Motorsports in 2015. Rhodes made his debut in NASCAR’s second division at Iowa Speedway while working to get back on the grid as a full-time driver in 2016. No sooner said than done, Rhodes signed on with ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series for the upcoming season.
It would also become the Kentucky race driver’s new home: To this day, Rhodes has remained loyal to the championship and also to ThorSport. Over the years, he claimed two victories and four top-10 overall results for the team. The year 2021 then marked the breakthrough for the Toyota driver: Rhodes won the first two races of the year, made it to the Truck Series finals and won the title with a third-place finish. What will also be remembered is the press conference that Rhodes attended visibly drunk. His stories were funny and possibly just the beginning of a successful NASCAR career.