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H2H: Who had the biggest breakthrough of 2021?

In a season that saw five new tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, three first-time Cup Series winners, two organizations scoring their first Cup victory, five first-time NASCAR Xfinity Series winners, five first-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winners, notable names notching their first multi-win season at the sport’s top level and three first-time NASCAR national series champions, there were plenty of breakthrough performances to dig through in 2021. But which ones stood out the most?

NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Sean Montgomery debate who had the biggest breakthrough across all of NASCAR in 2021.

2021 WINNERS: NASCAR Cup Series | Xfinity Series | Camping World Truck Series

KRAFT: For me, it’s Bubba Wallace as the driver who had the biggest breakthrough in 2021. After three full-time seasons driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, he made the move to 23XI Racing — a new team started up by Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, who may well be a NASCAR Hall of Famer when all is said and done. The new team has its bumps in the road throughout the season, makes a crew chief change late in the season but hits pay dirt in October at Talladega Superspeedway for Wallace’s first career Cup Series win and his first win in a national series event since 2017. The win also saw him become the second Black driver to win in NASCAR’s top series and the first to do so since Wendell Scott since 1963. Wallace has shown during his Cup career that he is a factor at superspeedways and he was able to cash in at the 2.66-mile track.

The win was a monumental moment for the sport both on and off the track. The victory comes in the midst of drivers that Wallace came up the ranks with — Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson — winning Cup Series championships as part of a new wave of drivers making their mark. It also came at the site of where Wallace was thrust into the social-justice spotlight nearly 16 months earlier where the Cup garage rallied behind Wallace during pre-race ceremonies as a sign of support following the finding of a noose in Wallace’s garage stall that an FBI investigation concluded had been there for months. He has become a public voice for NASCAR as the sport looks to reach a broader and more diverse audience.

On the track, the Talladega win sets a baseline for what the expectations are in 2022: To build off that victory with another and a playoff berth in 2022 for 23XI Racing with new teammate Kurt Busch in the fold.

RELATED: Bubba Wallace through the years | Inspiring Talladega win goes out to kids with racing dreams

In the honorable mention category for me: My answer for the biggest surprise of 2021, Ty Gibbs, was a consideration with his four-win Xfinity Series season in a part-time capacity. Along the same lines, Josh Berry’s two-win partial campaign with JR Motorsports that helped land him a full-time ride at the Xfinity organization can be considered. As can Ryan Blaney’s first multi-win Cup season in six full-time years.

MONTGOMERY: The biggest, and perhaps most underrated, breakthrough of the season is Kurt Busch’s summertime win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. If you look back at the end of the 2020 season, rumors swirled around a bit, suggesting the veteran may be headed towards retirement. The 2021 win once again proved that he not only has retained the talent and grit to still win at NASCAR’s highest level, it extended his consecutive seasons with a win streak to eight — only trailing his brother Kyle Busch (17), Brad Keselowski (11) and Joey Logano (10) among active drivers. The sale of Chip Ganassi Racing to Trackhouse Racing in June heightened the urgency for the elder Busch to make another playoff push as he searched for a new ride for the 2022 season, and he answered the challenge just a month later by picking up his fourth win at the Georgia track.

Fast forward to next season and the 2004 Cup Series champion has a new ride for a second-year team in 23XI Racing alongside Wallace. The combination of a winning resume and over two decades of top-flight success brings invaluable experience to an organization seeking its first postseason appearance. While a lot of chips had to fall in place for the Las Vegas native to land where he did, 2021 certainly breathed a breath of fresh air into his career. Now, the retirement rumors have faded. The highly-anticipated Next Gen car and a talented, eager team allow Busch to look more towards the future rather than reflect on the past. At 42 years old, the 33-time winner is beginning a brand new journey.

RELATED: Kurt Busch’s 2021 season in review

While the Atlanta win will go down as the last for iconic racing owner Chip Ganassi in the Cup Series (for now, at least), it also serves as a giant page-turner into another chapter for Busch’s impressive story.

The honorable mention goes to Alex Bowman. Bowman reeled off four wins in 2021 — second most at Hendrick Motorsports — after having only two in the previous six seasons combined. Look for the driver of the No. 48 to be a solid dark horse in 2022.