A new racing season means new opportunities and new challenges. Over the winter, NASCAR’s Cup Series saw its usual flurry of changes among drivers, teams and crews. As a result of these changes, many drivers, rookies and veterans alike will be feeling the pressure to perform in 2020. Whether measuring their success against other competitors or themselves, lots of Cup Series racers will have something to prove this season.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year battle promises to be one of these pressure-packed fights. The top contenders will be the three best drivers from the Xfinity Series last year: Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell. Is there a favorite among the threesome to take ROTY honors? Reddick beat the other two for the last two Xfinity titles, earning one each with JR Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing. He also showed a lot of week-to-week improvement in 2019, earning 17 more top-five finishes than he had the year before. But Reddick’s full-time Cup Series career will begin with RCR’s No. 8 team, a car that struggled considerably last year with a rookie driver. The pressure will be on him to avoid the same situation playing out again.
Custer will be the third driver piloting Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 41 Ford in as many years. He too had a superb run in Xfinity competition last year, earning seven wins. Custer will probably have the strongest team of the three major rookies this season. Even though SHR regressed from its dominant 2018 season, this is an organization that is accustomed to competing for wins. Will Custer, fresh off his 22nd birthday, be able to carry the No. 41 back to the playoffs?
Bell, meanwhile, finds himself at the center of several different storylines. After winning 15 races across the last two Xfinity Series seasons, he has become the top prospect of Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. But without any seats open at JGR this year, Bell is set to run with Leavine Family Racing. Bell’s promotion displaced LFR’s previous driver, Matt DiBenedetto, who landed at Wood Brothers Racing after Paul Menard decided to step away from NASCAR. Given the level of investment that JGR and Toyota have made in Bell, it appears highly likely that Bell will take over one of the four JGR cars at some point in the near future.
What Bell accomplishes, or doesn’t accomplish, in his rookie year could have a major impact in determining driver lineups next year. If Bell were to go to JGR in 2021, he would most likely take over the No. 20 car currently driven by Erik Jones. Jones signed a new contract with JGR toward the end of last season, but it was only for one additional year. Through three seasons in the Cup Series, he has won two races and made the playoffs twice, though he has never been a true championship contender. Additionally, the No. 20’s level of performance lagged behind the other JGR cars for much of 2019. If Bell were to have a strong enough rookie season, Joe Gibbs might be tempted to move Bell to the main team as soon as next year at Jones’ expense.
The trouble is that, just a few years ago, Jones was in the same position that Bell is in now. Both drivers had a similar rate of success in the Xfinity Series and were hailed as can’t miss prospects destined to be the future of JGR. Even if Jones left JGR, he has had enough success in his Cup Series career to land with another team, one that would be able to capitalize on his prime years as a racer.
Effectively, Bell and Jones will be out to prove that they have more long-term potential than the other for JGR. Considering their similar path to the Cup Series, expect the stat line of Bell’s rookie season to look a lot like Jones’ (no wins, five top fives and 14 top 10s). Would those kinds of results be enough for Gibbs to bring Bell to the No. 20? Or, suppose Jones has a breakout season and wins multiple races. Could JGR afford to get rid of any of its drivers if all of them are performing at a high level? With too few seats for too many talented drivers, Gibbs may have to make a very difficult decision this season about the futures of Jones and Bell.
As far as DiBenedetto is concerned, letting him leave the Toyota fold may come with a high price. The journeyman driver nearly pulled off a victory at Bristol last year in what would have been the feel-good story of the season. Although he is in a new environment, the Wood Brothers are a satellite operation heavily supported by Team Penske, similar to LFR’s relationship with JGR. DiBenedetto should feel right at home with that scenario, and he will have access to fast cars. If he were to score the long-anticipated 100th win for the Wood Brothers and reach the playoffs, it would be proof positive that DiBenedetto has what it takes to be a contender in the Cup Series. But if he struggles, he could wind up being just a placeholder in the No. 21 for Austin Cindric. Once again, DiBenedetto’s future is on the line.
Even a number of drivers returning to familiar teams have something to prove in 2020. Martin Truex Jr., for instance, will be racing without Cole Pearn on the pit box this year. Pearn and Truex spent the last five years taking NASCAR by storm. They elevated Furniture Row Racing from a mid-pack team to a championship winner, and their move to JGR set them up well for future success. But Pearn’s departure, the bombshell of the offseason, means that James Small will be the new crew chief of the No. 19. Prior to joining forces with Pearn, Truex had only won two races in nine Cup Series seasons. In 2020, Truex will be out to prove that he can be an elite racer with or without Pearn.
The other major crew chief change was actually a three-way swap between the Team Penske drivers. Ryan Blaney gets Todd Gordon from Joey Logano. Paul Wolfe becomes Logano’s new chief after nine seasons with Brad Keselowski. Blaney’s former crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, moves over to Keselowski’s team.
At first glance, it looks like Blaney got the best result of this deal. Gordon helped lead Logano to a championship in 2018, and the No. 22 has been the most consistently strong Penske Team over the last few seasons. If this swap was in fact made with Blaney in mind, the pressure will be on him to take another step forward and contend for wins with a little more frequency. Meanwhile, Keselowski and Logano will have to adjust to life without their longtime crew chiefs. Team Penske’s measurement of success in 2020 will have a lot to do with the performance of its own teams relative to each other. In a pressure-packed environment like that, no one wants to be the weak link in the chain. Expect the Penske drivers to race each other just as hard as ever.
Several other racers will be driving with something to prove in 2020. Kyle Larson may be this year’s top free agent. Whether he stays at Chip Ganassi Racing or goes to another team will hinge on a good performance this season. Clint Bowyer is also in a contract year and will be looking to get back to victory lane with SHR. For Hendrick Motorsports, is this the year where William Byron and Alex Bowman break out?
Even Jimmie Johnson, who in some ways has nothing left to prove, won’t want to end his NASCAR career with another season like he had in 2019. Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth all managed to win a race in their final full-time seasons. Can Johnson do the same? Could he even win an unprecedented eighth championship at NASCAR’s highest level?
From veteran to rookie, there are sure to be a lot of drivers with something to prove in 2020.
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