Feature

New Year, New Driver: Rising Stars Across NASCAR Share 2021 Racing Resolutions

By Cole Cusumano

It’s of popular belief with the changing of each calendar year comes a customary tradition in seeking change and new beginnings. Following what was one of the most challenging periods in human history, the initiative for progression couldn’t be higher. With 2020 in the rearview, rising stars throughout NASCAR’s National Series are eager to implement fresh strategies to maximize their performance.

While NASCAR was the first sport to complete a full-season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not without difficulty, as protocols prevented practice and qualifying from taking place. This made it increasingly tough on rookies and developmental drivers trying to get acclimated to stock car racing. 

Much like the rest of the world, 2020 became a season of growth and adaptation for drivers across each series. For NASCAR Camping World Truck Series up-and-comer Todd Gilliland, it was also a year of reflection, in reference to efficiency on race day.

“It showed the importance of preparing before you get to the race track; watching film, watching in-car, all that stuff that I never really did in the (NASCAR) K&N Series or even my first couple years in Trucks,” Gilliland told POPULAR SPEED.

Nigel Kinrade | Nigel Kinrade Photography

Perhaps the most important lesson Gilliland learned last season was the element of patience. He mentioned having a tendency to “overstep what the car will let you do,” and while Front Row Motorsports had a revitalization in many aspects last year, he believes success could have come tenfold if he was conscious of points racing and preserving his equipment.

This sentiment was echoed when speaking with Quin Houff, who said, “Everyone’s been a rookie, but no one’s been a rookie as green as I was,” in the NASCAR Cup Series. 

Much like the rest of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class, the driver of the No. 00 had the disadvantage of not being able to practice. This lack of track time was magnified, as he hadn’t turned laps at nine different venues on the 2020 circuit, in addition to only having 16 sporadic starts in a six-year span throughout NASCAR’s developmental series.

After having to learn under green flag conditions, Houff is taking his newfound knowledge of how to realistically manage expectations on a weekly basis into the 2021 season.

“There’s a different way that I have to run a race compared to somebody that’s up front every week,” Houff told POPULAR SPEED. “I’d say just learning about the strategies that we have to pull and how I have to work all that — what you need to give more of and what you can take more of.”

For Justin Haley, 2020 wasn’t about athletic progression, but building composure for the future. Although just 21 years old, he feels he’s hurdled the learning curve and focused more so on racing with conviction.

“There were some times in my rookie season where I was maybe a bit too timid to do certain things,” Haley told POPULAR SPEED. “When you get a little more experience and a little more confidence in the car, the team and yourself, you start making maneuvers and start really leading the team.”

Walter G. Acre Sr. | Nigel Kinrade Photography

Haley is calling 2021 his “hibernation year,” as he plans on maintaining a lowkey demeanor while mirroring his on-track performance last season. After securing his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory (three total) and making the Championship 4 in 2020, it’s no surprise the Kaulig Racing driver isn’t seeking much change in the New Year.

That’s not to say there isn’t a specific goal in place for Haley as a resolution for 2021. As expected, he hopes to win his first Xfinity Series title.

“Obviously, we know we’re a team that’s capable of doing so, but we want to go even further in that Championship race,” Haley revealed. “We learned a lot last year during the race and what some of the other teams do leading up to the race to kind of get and edge. Kaulig (Racing), in general, needed to get to the final four and learn the process of it all and where we might be lacking in some areas.”

Coincidentally, Gilliland had a similar goal after making the Truck Series playoffs for the first time in his career, citing he’d love to go on a championship run in 2021.

“That’s something I definitely want to do in the Truck Series,” Gilliland said. “Just making the playoffs last year was huge for us, but I think that just fueled the fire in my whole team to go further. To be one of the first two guys out of the playoffs was horrible, so I want to be one of those final four at Phoenix and that’s something we’re going to try to do this year.”

Up in the highest form of competition in NASCAR, Houff is preparing for his sophomore season in Cup by striving for different resolutions at each track, beginning with a respective finish in the Daytona 500. 

After a season with well-documented struggles, Houff is embracing the spirit of the New Year by calling 2021, “a very big year for me as a driver,” in hopes to apply experience amassed as a rookie. He’s taking the mantra “New year, new me,” to the next level as Daytona Speedweeks looms.

“I don’t like to throw a lot of pressure on myself, but this season I feel like I’m over the excuse line and in 2021 that excuse line isn’t going to be there — it’s time to go out and perform,” Houff said. “With the give-and-take I learned, I feel there’s going to be a certain amount of aggressiveness I need to put out there as a driver to continue to show I have the ability and talent to be there.

Matthew Thacker | Nigel Kinrade Photography

“I feel like with the experience I got and with what’s on the line, I’ve got to be able to punctuate a little bit better in 2021. Hopefully I can balance that out and not let that be something that becomes a negative thing, but at the end of the day we’re all out there to do a job and drive our cars as fast as we can, and that’s what I plan to do.”

If there was ever going to be a year for new beginnings, it’s the one succeeding a miserable 2020. A season marred by unprecedented trials and tribulations undoubtedly brought out the best in most and sparked newfound knowledge for rising talents. 

There’s no telling what these young athletes are capable of, but we’ll get our first look at the World Center of Racing in just under a month. Daytona Speedweeks begins on February 9 with the Busch Clash at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

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