5 people to know for 2021 NASCAR season

Often obscured by higher-profile names, there are many who play a key role for their team and could have a big impact on the NASCAR season.

Here’s a look at five names to know:

Mike Wheeler
Crew chief for Bubba Wallace at the new 23XI Racing team co-owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. The Toyota-backed team, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, should have some success and Wheeler will play a key role with that.

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He joins the team after having been at Leavine Family Racing the past two years. Wheeler was Matt DiBenedetto‘s crew chief in 2019 and moved to competition director in 2020 when Christopher Bell arrived. A former employee at JGR, his familiarity should help the No. 23 team with its alliance.

Just as important will be the communication between Wheeler and Wallace. If they connect and Wheeler can make the adjustments Wallace needs, it should help the team achieve success. With most races not expected to have practice or qualifying, communication will be key for a new driver/crew chief combination.

The more success this team has, the greater impact on the sport it could have.

Rudy Fugle
New crew chief for William Byron. Takes over for Chad Knaus, who moves into the role of vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports. Fugle comes from Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series and helped that organization win five owner titles and two driver crowns.

The pairing of Fugle and Byron is a reunion. Fugle was Byron’s crew chief in 2016 in Byron’s lone full-time season in the Truck Series. Byron won seven of 23 races but failed to make the title race.

The 23-year-old Byron has made the Cup playoffs each of the past two seasons and won his first Cup race last year at Daytona on the oval. It is Fugle’s job to further tap Byron’s potential.

Ben Beshore
The last time Kyle Busch worked with a first-time Cup crew chief, he won the championship. He’ll look to repeat that this season with Ben Beshore.

Adam Stevens made his Cup debut in the 2015 Daytona 500 for Busch’s team but without Busch, who was injured the day before in the season-opening Xfinity race. Busch missed 11 races but came back to win the championship in his first Cup season with Stevens. The two also won the 2019 title. Last year saw the No. 18 car struggle for speed and win only once, leading to a crew chief change.

Beshore, a former engineer for Busch’s team, will become Busch’s crew chief. It’s Beshore’s first full-time season as a Cup crew chief. He enters this season having served as a crew chief for 66 Xfinity races, including seven with Busch. Beshore also served as Busch’s Cup crew chief for three races in 2017 when Stevens served a NASCAR suspension for a wheel coming off after a pit stop.

To compare, Stevens had been a crew chief in the Xfinity Series for 124 races, including 52 with Busch, before pairing with Busch in Cup in 2015.

The main numbers, though, will be how many wins Busch scores this season as the 35-year-old seeks to return to a dominant level in Cup.

Chase Briscoe
The 26-year-old Xfinity driver moves to Cup in the Stewart-Haas Racing ride that Clint Bowyer had occupied.

Briscoe won nine of 33 Xfinity races last season and placed fourth in the points. SHR teammate Cole Custer won Cup rookie of the year honors last season, winning a race and making the playoffs. Can Briscoe equal that this season?

“It’s going to take awhile to figure out this Cup car and get used to how it drives,” Briscoe said in December, also noting the lack of practice at most events. “I’m excited for the challenge. I’m just looking forward to getting going and kind of seeing where I stack up.”

Sam Mayer
He turns 18 in late June and will be in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports the rest of the year. He also is scheduled to run a full Xfinity season in 2022 with the team.

Mayer ran six Truck races in 2020, winning once for GMS Racing. He’s a young talent worth keeping an eye on.

David Smith, a driver talent scout and analytics expert, listed Mayer as his No. 2 NASCAR prospect in May 2020. Smith listed Mayer behind only Chandler Smith, who returns to Kyle Busch Motorsports for his first full-time Truck season after running half the season last year. No. 3 on Smith’s list? Chase Briscoe.