A Brand New Year
For so long we talked about 2021 as the year of true change in NASCAR, with a (possibly) radical new schedule and a better next-generation car. And while both those things may still ultimately be true, we’ve got plenty of change in 2020 alone. We’ll start with the title sponsor or lack thereof. For the first time in five decades, there won’t be a title sponsor for the NASCAR Cup Series, but there will be four “premier” partners: Xfinity, GEICO, Busch and Coca-Cola. After years of Winston, Nextel, Sprint and Monster Energy, it will take some getting used to, that’s for sure.
On track, there’s a significant shift in the schedule. We’ll have the first-ever night race at Martinsville (be still my beating heart), a doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway (please no rain), a regular season that starts and now ends on the high banks of Daytona, the Lady in Black to open the playoffs, not to mention Thunder Valley to close out the first stage, and a new venue for the championship finale in Phoenix Raceway. In short, there’s change aplenty. Sure, the package is good on the bread and butter cookie-cutter tracks (a loaded food reference if ever there was one). But a decisive factor is the performance of the cars on the short tracks and road courses (more on that topic below).
Perhaps the real question this year is just how improved the Chevys will be with the new Camaro body. In the past two seasons, Chevy has won a paltry 11 races — six of which belong to Chase Elliott — compared to 29 for Ford and 32 for Toyota. I’d expect with a body designed specifically for one year of this package, they’ll be collectively a fair bit better.
The “New Old” Short Track Package
Let’s be fair, for the most part the short track racing was a real disappointment in 2019. “Flat out sucked” might be a description some would use. Take Martinsville, for example. In the spring race, Brad Keselowski led 446 of the 500 laps, while in the fall version, Martin Truex Jr. did him one better, dominating for 464 of the 500 laps. Talk about snoozers at NASCAR’s oldest and often best track. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that NASCAR President Steve Phelps recognized and acknowledged the issue during the championship festivities in Miami.
“Our promise to our fans,” Phelps said of the 2020 season, “is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”
Midway through January, NASCAR announced their plan to rectify the vexing issue. The new aerodynamics package, including a significantly smaller rear spoiler, will lower downforce and is similar to what NASCAR used in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The new package and will feature in 14 total races, 11 short track events and the three road courses. Of those 14 races, five are during the playoffs, including the final race at Phoenix Raceway. None other than Dale Jr. was delighted.
Appreciate all the folks that came together to make these necessary changes. Lots of compromise for the good of the sport. Im certain the drivers and fans are thrilled to hear this news. https://t.co/XFp2PfpgJC
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) January 14, 2020
Our first look at the new rules will come in the fourth race of the season at the scene of the season decider, Phoenix Raceway. We might not get a barnburner right out of the gate, and while the bar is decidedly low, the teams will have time to fine tune over the long season, and by the time we hit those crucial post season short tracks, my hope is we’ll see the sort of short track racing that made the sport famous in the first place.
The Great American Race
The 62nd annual running of the Great American Race kicks off the 2020 NASCAR Cup season this Sunday afternoon in true style. The sport’s biggest race by quite a distance, nothing quickens the blood quite like the roar of the engines getting up to speed on the first lap of the Daytona 500. Only seven drivers have won their first Cup race in the sport’s crown jewel, but the great equalizer of the high banks of Daytona is that anyone who takes the green can take the checkers — regardless of how your equipment is viewed elsewhere. And in a nice numerical quirk, 2020’s field contains seven previous winners of the 500: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon.
If we’ve learned anything about the 500, we’ve learned we know absolutely nothing. Sure, there are trends: Drivers likely to be in contention, teams you’d expect to be strong, but such are the vagaries of superspeedway racing. Just look at what happened in the Busch Clash, which bordered on the farcical, which is my English way of softening it. Oh dear. All that said, I for one can’t wait for the 500. I absolutely love this race and I always hope it’s a classic. We’ll see this Sunday afternoon.
Jimmie’s Long Goodbye
It has, I find hard to believe, been a decade since Johnson’s five-year spell of utter dominance when he won five straight titles (2006-2010). A glance back at the numbers during that spell needs no further explanation: 35 wins (19.4% of the races), 81 top fives (45%), 117 top 10s (65%) and 7,656 laps led (14.6% of the laps he ran). At that time when he was winning title after title, a lot of the criticism that came his way stemmed from the fact that the playoff schedule lined up extremely well against his skill set, with a preponderance of the mile-and-a-half circuits. The argument went that he wouldn’t have won under the previous season long rules, that in some way he wasn’t a legitimate champion or that his titles were less valued than those won by Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt.
But to me that misses the mark. What separated Johnson for me during that time period were two key factors: The first was an utterly relentless will to win and the requisite discipline to match it up; the second was a symbiotic relationship with one of the greatest head wrenches in the long history of the sport, Chad Knaus. Their collective drive made them unstoppable. Viewed now with a little bit of distance, it’s a five-year spell of supremacy we’ll likely not see again from one driver.
To finish up this first week of 5 Points for 2020, I’m going to lay out my predictions for this season. My final four is Kyle Busch, Elliott, Harvick and Hamlin. My bet for champion is Hamlin getting it done in the statistically best season for a Cup driver — the age-39 year. As for first time Cup winners, I’m betting on wins for Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and William Byron (at Sonoma if not before). Enjoy the Great American race, everybody.