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NASCAR Cup Series Season Reviews | Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing

Expectations were high for Joe Gibbs Racing coming into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season after a strong 2020 campaign. Last year saw Denny Hamlin make the Championship 4 and Kyle Busch escape a winless season with a strong finish down the stretch. The other two JGR teams struggled a bit. Martin Truex Jr. had a down year in 2020 and Erik Jones was ultimately ousted from his ride for failing to live up to Joe Gibbs Racing’s high standards. Christopher Bell took over the No. 20 car starting this season to round out a formidable foursome for the Super Bowl-winning coach-turned-NASCAR team owner. 2021 proved to be a great year for JGR as all four drivers would qualify for the NASCAR Playoffs.

The following article continues a FlurrySports series that looks back on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season from the perspective of drivers and race teams. Read on for season reviews of the two Joe Gibbs Racing veterans, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Denny Hamlin NASCAR Cup Series season reviews Joe Gibbs Racing
Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

NASCAR Cup Series 2021 Season Reviews | Joe Gibbs Racing (Part I)

Denny Hamlin — No. 11

Denny Hamlin hoped to continue his Daytona 500 winning streak as he had won both the 2019 and 2020 editions of the Great American Race. He was there at the end of the NASCAR Cup Series season-opener once again this season but ultimately finished fifth. Hamlin followed that up with a third-place finish at the Daytona Road Course and took the points lead early in the season.

Denny Hamlin Puts Together Impressive Streak of Top-5 Finishes

After the third race at Homestead-Miami, Denny Hamlin started his own little streak of top-5 finishes that ran from Las Vegas to Richmond. The No. 11 car almost got the win at Richmond, but Hamlin was beaten on a late restart and failed to take the checkered flag for a race that he largely controlled. After falling a lap down at Talladega, he got overly aggressive and caused a wreck that did not help his situation. His top-5 streak came to an end there.

Despite Leading in the Points, Hamlin Fails to Win in Regular Season

Hamlin continued to have great runs, but something always seemed to happen that would prevent him from getting an outright race win. No incident drew more attention than what transpired at the Indianapolis GP. Leading late, Hamlin was dumped by Chase Briscoe and fell all the way back to 23rd. He lost the points lead for the first time since the Daytona 500 following that result. Shockingly, Hamlin entered the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs without a win.

Winless Drought Comes to an End in Southern 500

Once the postseason began, Denny Hamlin wasted little time in ending that winless drought. He was able to hold off a hard-charging Kyle Larson in the playoff-opener at Darlington Raceway and get the win in the prestigious Southern 500. The win locked the No. 11 team into the Round of 12. In the first race of the Round of 12 at Las Vegas, Hamlin once again found victory lane. This win automatically locked him into the Round of 8.

Although he did not continue his round-by-round winning ways, Hamlin’s Round of 8 went smoother than that for several other playoff drivers. He never fell below the cut line and was locked into the Championship 4 before the final stage commenced at Martinsville. Hamlin had the lead late in that penultimate Martinsville race but was moved out of the way late by Alex Bowman. The No. 48 car went on to win the race, and Hamlin showed his displeasure by hitting Bowman during his post-race burnout.

Denny Hamlin Comes Up Short in the Championship Race

After a great points season filled with consistency,Denny Hamlin attempted to win his first NASCAR Cup Series Championship and bring home the hardware for Joe Gibbs Racing in the season-finale at Phoenix Raceway. Unfortunately, Hamlin really had nothing for the other three Championship contenders as he hardly led at any point in the race. He finished third in both the race and the standings.

Pressure Mounting as First Title Continues to Elude Hamlin

While 2021 was not a bad year for Denny Hamlin, time is running outfor him to capture that elusive NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Hamlin is now in his 40’s. It’s impossible to know how much longer he can stay behind the wheel racing full-time.

Kyle Busch NASCAR Cup Series 2021 season reviews Joe Gibbs Racing
Credit: John K Harrelson / NKP / LAT Images

Kyle Busch — No. 18

Kyle Busch started the year hoping for a much better 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season after a horrible 2020 by his standards. His 2021 season didn’t start great relative to his terms either.

Season Turns Around After Slow Start

Kyle Busch was involved in the last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500 and then finished 35th the following week at the Daytona Road Course. At Homestead-Miami, he finished tenth for his first top-10 of the year. The next week at Las Vegas, Busch earned his first top-5 with a third-place finish. Then the roller coaster portion of his season began. Busch would finish well one week and follow it up with a disappointing performance the next.

At Kansas Speedway, he finally broke through and earned his first win in the aptly named “Buschy McBusch Race 400”. the win came on his birthday, but it didn’t happen without a controversial caution flag thrown by NASCAR. He followed up the win with a third-place run at Darlington. Excluding a 27th-place finish at Dover, Busch had a solid stretch of positive finishes with seven top-10’s in an eight-race span. That included a miracle win at Pocono where he could not shift the car for the entire second half of the race!

Rain Dooms Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Teammates at New Hampshire

At New Hampshire, Kyle Busch was a part of the controversial ruling in which NASCAR didn’t throw a caution flag in time for rain in the opening laps. The No. 18 wound up backing into the fence and was knocked out of the race due to heavy damage. An angry Busch answered NBC’s questions as best he could after climbing out of the car.

Busch would add another top-5 and an additional top-10 to his stats before the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. He started the playoffs off as the 4-seed in the points standings.

Despite Numerous Struggles, Kyle Busch Extends Playoffs Run

Kyle Busch started the playoffs on a low note as his evening at Darlington was cut short when he hit the wall and caused too much damage to continue. The following week at Richmond, he helped his chances with a ninth-place finish. That put him above the cutline going into Bristol. He would cut a tire down late in the race and finish 21st, but Busch still managed to advance on to the next round on points, albeit just barely.

The Round of 12 was a bit kinder to Busch. Finishes of third at Las Vegas and fourth at the Charlotte ROVAL were enough to propel him to the Round of 8 despite his 27th-place showing at Talladega. Busch was able to stay above the cutline early on in the Round of 8 with a top-10 run at Texas. The next week brought about a disastrous 28th-place finish at Kansas that bumped Busch below the cutline going into the penultimate race at Martinsville. The No. 18 team was not able to earn any stage points during the race. Even though he ultimately finished second, it would not be enough to move on to the Championship 4. Busch finished out the NASCAR Cup Series season with a 7th-place result at Phoenix.

Return of Practice Sessions in 2022 Figures to Benefit Kyle Busch

Overall, Kyle Busch finished the 2021 season with two wins, 14 top-5s, 22 top-10s. His average finish for the full season was 12.8. Busch will be back in the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022. After a season that at least saw him trend positively, Busch will aim to get back to the championship-contender status he achieved prior to 2020. Perhaps the return of NASCAR Cup Series practice and qualifying before races will help him accomplish that goal.

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