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The NBA and NHL will be first out of the gate launching their new seasons, but neither will start with their biggest showdown of the year. That’s not the case with stock car racing. The NASCAR Cup Series kicks Feb. 14, 2021, with the Daytona 500, regarded as the Super Bowl of the sport. If Kevin Harvick has his way, it will be his first step toward wiping out a bad memory.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule is historic

The NASCAR schedule stretches across the country over nine months. Fans are used to mostly minor modifications from year to year, including the occasional addition of a track at the expense of a previous venue. The 2021 schedule, however, has more twists to it than the Sonoma road course.

When defending champion Chase Elliott and top contenders including Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin return to action, the schedule will break from tradition right out of the gate. Although NASCAR is still referring to the opening sequence of events in the plural, “Speedweeks” has been condensed into six days beginning with the Busch Clash on Feb. 9. It will be capped by the Daytona 500.

The really big change, however, has to do with the types of tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series teams will be visiting. Recent schedules have included two road courses per year, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The number soars to five in the upcoming season, including one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Aug. 15 – the week after Watkins Glen.

Even more intriguing, however, Bristol Motor Speedway will convert its half-mile oval into a dirt track for a March 28 race. According to NASCAR, that will mark the outfit’s first race on dirt for its signature series since 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.

The playoff sequence begins Sept. 5 at Darlington and wraps up Nov. 7 at Phoenix.

The sportsbooks say Kevin Harvick has the inside track

Chase Elliott captured the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship, bringing the title to Hendrick Motorsports for the 13th time since Jeff Gordon started the dynastic run in 1995. Elliott, who is entering his sixth season as a full-time driver, has scored all 11 of his victories since 2018 and has been voted the most popular driver the past three seasons.

The Championship 4 came down to Elliott, Denny Hamlin, and past champions Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Not surprisingly, all four are listed among the favorites to earn the 2021 championship.

The BetMGM Sportsbook rates the favorites as:

Rounding out the top of the list as 35-to-1 bets are William Byron, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, and Alex Bowman.

What makes Kevin Harvick the NASCAR Cup Series favorite?

One of the factors holding NASCAR back from greater popularity is its less-than-intuitive format for crowning a champion. The title used to be awarded based upon points accumulated during the season. One drawback was that races at the end of the schedule became anticlimactic once someone built an insurmountable lead. When Matt Kenseth won in 2003 with just one race victory, NASCAR made a change by creating a 10-race playoff.

The NASCAR Cup Series playoff starts with 16 drivers. There are three three-race segments, with four drivers eliminated after each based on points. That leaves the Championship 4 battling for the crown in the final race.

Kevin Harvick won nine races the last year, the first driver to win that many since Carl Edwards in 2008, and against all odds missed out on the Championship 4. Harvick was doomed by 16th– and 17th-place finishes in the two races before the finale in Phoenix.

With Stewart-Haas Racing one of the more competitive teams, sportsbooks are projecting that he is unlikely to run up against a similar misfortune in 2021.

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