Despite the year 2020 has been, the one positive we’ve seen is NASCAR. It has given us some fantastic racing and been a distraction for many fans who have been affected by world events. Even before the COVID-19 shutdown, the NASCAR Cup Series put on some of the best racing there’s been with the new package that debuted last year.
What could be the reason for the better racing? Even before the break, could it be teams learning things and experimenting, leading to better racing? Is there somewhat more manufacturer parity now that Chevrolet has been more competitive with a new body to its Camaro?
Going into this season, we knew the rookie class was going to be stout. Between Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer, all three were due to succeed right away. However, John Hunter Nemechek has surprised so many and arguably outperformed all the other rookies with a trio of top-15 finishes. Not only has the No. 38 car been running well, but Front Row Motorsports is coming off its most consistent week of the season with Nemechek in 13th and teammate Michael McDowell scoring a 14th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Is Nemechek legitimately the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year? Is this an overreaction or can he keep this up and possibly steal a few top finishes? Could it be FRM providing better cars than they have in years past, or was Nemechek just overlooked to start the year?
Q: What could be the reason for the better racing overall in 2020 compared to last season? Ryan H., Albany, NY
A: Statistically, there are a few reasons why we have seen more competitive and better racing this year.
First off, Chevrolet is competitive once again. While they scored a few wins over the past couple of seasons since the debut of the Camaro ZL1, it sure seems like they have figured things out with its new body. Not only have they been better, but they are arguably the top manufacturer to begin 2020.
When you add another manufacturer into the equation, you will always have more competitive races. Ford and Toyota have dominated the sport since 2017, and we have not seen Chevrolet have much recent success outside of Jimmie Johnson’s 2016 championship campaign. Hendrick Motorsports has resurged this season after being a little off from their winning standard the last few years.
Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott have been two of the fastest drivers race after race, which was something we have not seen too much of. While Elliott has had success, Bowman has had lackluster years. Now, Bowman has shown what he can do with a fast racecar. The idea here, manufacturer parity is a great thing. Three competitive manufacturers equal better races with more drivers being in the mix. If you have that, racing will always be closer and better.
Every driver learns new things about the type of racing every year, and that could be another reason. When this package first debuted, drivers were thrown off by the different type of racing we saw. But now that they have a year under their belt with it, they have learned how you have to race, which has made for excitement.
NASCAR has always had that excitement level, but in 2019, it just seemed like it was lacking, especially near the end. Add in the COVID-19 break this year, and with the no practice and qualifying, you have a recipe for success. Aside from the break, the first four races were phenomenal. Learning how to race this package is huge, and many drivers have seemed to learn the aggressiveness they need and what they need to race like.
With the schedule adjustment now, this should not change one bit. Eventually, we will have some practice and qualifying again, but for the time being, the excellent season should continue. Drivers will continue to learn more and more, and as they do, we should see some races be even better than what we have seen so far.
Q: Who do you see as the best rookie so far? Is Reddick or Bell still the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, or has someone else emerged? Tyler S., Grand Rapids, MI
A: Reddick and Bell both have had solid rookie campaigns, despite both having shared their mishaps to start the year. Custer has as well, and he has probably seemed to have the biggest learning curve of the rookies in the top series. But Nemechek is the one to look out for, and it may surprise some.
Is he the favorite right now to be top rookie? I’d say so.
His statistics back it up, but just watching how he’s raced and who he has outraced tells the story as well. At Bristol, with about 200 laps to go, he passed eight-time Bristol winner Kyle Busch. Yes, Nemechek, who had never raced at the track in a Cup car, passed a guy who has 22 Bristol wins to his name across the top three series.
While that is just one of the moments why he has been the top rookie, his results have been impressive. Finishing eighth in the first race back at Darlington Raceway was one of the most impressive performances we’ve seen in a long time by a rookie. Nemechek is also not in equipment like Bell, Reddick or Custer. Front Row has not been as strong as Richard Childress Racing, Leavine Family Racing (with a Joe Gibbs Racing alliance) or Stewart-Haas Racing. Quite simply, it doesn’t have that type of funding.
To do this with a top team in the sport is one thing, but to do it with a team who has not had a massive amount of success over the years is another. If we had to give an underdog of the season award so far, it’d go to the No. 38 team. Sitting 20th in points is something not many expected to say the least. Even though he is behind Reddick, who sits 18th, Nemechek has been stellar.
Can he actually make the playoffs? That is a stretch. But what he can do is continue to prove each week that he is a solid driver and deserves to be in Cup. FRM continues to improve as well. McDowell has not had the best of seasons so far, but a 14th at Bristol proves the team has some speed overall. McDowell sits 23rd in points, ahead of guys like Custer and Bell.
As FRM improves, expect Nemechek to as well. It seems that the Cup Series fits him well, and I expect him to have success as the year goes on and beyond that. He definitely can win Rookie of the Year, and even though it has not been an extremely competitive battle for the award in some time, winning it in 2020 would be a huge accomplishment with the class he is up against.
Nemechek could maybe steal a top five or two as the season goes on, and with FRM’s superspeedway success, possibly a win. That is probably an overreaction, but not out of the question. He is a proven winner in the Truck and Xfinity series, and expect his success to carry him through Cup. Don’t count him out, especially with how he has run recently. We know anything can happen at this level, and he has the talent to surprise a lot of people.