1. What will we see from the seventh generation race car?
That’s going to be the question hanging over the season, no matter what kind of racing we see, because it has the potential to change everything. We’ve had a couple of brief glimpses so far, and each was a bit different than the others — a good sign that NASCAR is at least trying some different options.
One of those cars seemed to have a little more daylight beneath it, something fans have asked for … but the others didn’t. We’ve also seen big spoilers and tiny spoilers and single-hub wheels and a couple different splitters. What stays remains to be seen.
We haven’t seen any different engines yet. What’s also desperately needed is an engine package that’s lower in horsepower without a tapered spacer restricting airflow. Cars need to be able to run without restriction but at safe speeds. That would go great with an aerodynamic and suspension package that would force drivers to get out of the throttle more, because that creates passing zones.
All of this makes 2020 a little bit of a lame duck season in terms of the actual cars and their performance, and we’ll surely see more and more versions of the new beast being tested as the season goes on. NASCAR has perhaps the biggest opportunity in years to make improvements to move the sport forward. But will we see them use it wisely?
2. There’s a rash of drivers ripe for a first win
It’s always fun to see a driver’s first victory celebration. Take a look sometime at the first celebrations for Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — many years and many wins have intervened, and drivers cherish every victory, but the emotion of that first one is something you don’t see repeated often.
There are some drivers who could get that winning feeling this year. William Byron comes to mind. He improved drastically last year and now has experience racing at the front of the pack with drivers who run there weekly. That’s important, and it puts him in good position.
Matt DiBenedetto got a big upgrade in equipment this year, and he’s shown that when he has a car he can race with, he can race at the front as well. He’s good at the superspeedways and short tracks.
While it’s a lot to expect of a rookie to win (racing against top Cup competition in the top series is not the same as having a few of them drop down to the lower series), it’s hard to overlook Cole Custer and Christopher Bell as possibilities. Custer steps into top equipment at Stewart-Haas Racing. Bell takes over DiBenedetto’s old seat, but look for Joe Gibbs Racing to give the No. 95 a lot more help now that Bell is in the seat.
Tyler Reddick is a longer shot because of his equipment — nobody at Richard Childress Racing or its satellites has been consistently contending and Reddick is a rookie to boot, even though he is RCR’s most talented driver.
One more dark horse for a first win, late in his career? What about Brendan Gaughan, who will hang up his helmet after the four superspeedway races this year? He’s been a legit contender at those tracks a couple of times with Beard Motorsports but was caught in multi-car crashes each time. Not his fault. And if you love a good celebration, you might want to root for this one to happen.
3. Silly Season could be extra silly
If you think about it, Silly Season 2020 is already underway, as it kicked off when Jimmie Johnson announced his retirement at the end of the year, making a prime ride available. There are also a lot of very good drivers whose contracts are reportedly up at the end of this year: 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson among them. While you have to figure that some will re-sign with their current teams, some could surely jump ship if the right offer (like maybe one with a No. 48 on the side) came along.
Jones, in particular, could be vulnerable with Bell in the pipeline, along with Bowyer and Almirola if they don’t perform at a playoff contender level. A lot of good seats could change hands (butts?) before the engines fire on 2021.
Larson’s name has been bandied about a lot for the 48. It’s no secret Rick Hendrick has wanted Larson in his stable. The biggest question there is whether Hendrick and Larson could see eye-to-eye about Larson’s sprint car racing — Hendrick limited Kasey Kahne’s extracurricular activity in that arena, and Larson might not go for that.
There are also some Xfinity drivers who would love to have a shot at the No. 48. Hendrick development driver Noah Gragson will need to step up his performance to be considered. Justin Allgaier is a veteran who could perform in top Cup equipment, but Hendrick may want someone younger for the long haul. Daniel Hemric will race for Hendrick affiliate JR Motorsports for several races as well, and he’s got Cup experience. Hendrick could also lure a prospect from another organization; for example, if Harrison Burton performs for Joe Gibbs Racing, he could be a target, and there isn’t much room for him at JGR in Cup for at least a few years, particularly if Jones sticks around.
And that’s just one car. If other veterans make moves, there will be others. If Larson moves on, look for Ross Chastain to get a top opportunity. There are a lot of pieces already in this year’s puzzle, and we haven’t even started racing yet.
4. What about the schedule?
2021 is also when we could see a major schedule overhaul, and that will be released at some point this season. We’ve seen a few hints with a doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway this year and some tightened up weekend schedules. Expect those trends to grow next year if they’re well-received this season.
How many big changes will there be? It depends largely on whether NASCAR is willing to drop a couple of its own International Speedway Corporation tracks in favor of others — if some independent track owners want to pony up some very, very pricey sanctioning fees.
Speedway Motorsports, Inc. is unlikely to release any of its races for other tracks, and in the past has been very willing to threaten lawsuits if NASCAR thinks otherwise. So in reality, there are limits to what NASCAR can do here. Fans would like to see more short tracks on the schedule, but there have to be tracks willing to pay seven figures for the privilege of hosting a Cup event, and they have to either have or be willing to fork out another seven figures for SAFER barriers and other upgrades (and NASCAR should not compromise on the SAFER barrier requirement, period).
The prospect of a shakeup is exciting and has real potential (hey, NASCAR, this would be the perfect time to go to a better title system … ), but it’s not unlimited. Wholesale change might take more than one TV deal cycle to happen.
5. Can a new title contender (or more) step forward?
Under the current championship format, anyone can make the championship four at Phoenix … on paper. In reality, though, it’s been mostly the same group of drivers making the cut. There’s nothing wrong with that, as generally the right drivers have made that final four most years. But race fans don’t always enjoy that kind of consistency if it’s not their favorite driver, and a couple of different faces in the title hunt could bring some renewed interest in the championship.
While Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are perennial favorites along with Harvick, there are certainly others who can make a run. Denny Hamlin proved that last year. Chase Elliott and Larson need to make their own luck a little better, but they have the talent. Joey Logano and Keselowski know how to win titles. You probably won’t see four different drivers than last year, but two is not a stretch at all.
A new face or two would also make some sponsors happier with the return on their investments and give what’s become a tired storyline in the final week of the season a boost. But is there anyone who can rise to the challenge? That’s a whole other story.