1. This is Denny Hamlin’s Best Chance Ever for a Championship, Right?
Just when the NASCAR Cup Series appeared to be veering toward chaos thanks to back to back surprise victories by Cole Custer and Austin Dillon, Kansas Speedway marked a return to normalcy — albeit in a Thursday night affair with no fans in the stands. Hey, this is 2020, and the bar for normal is pretty much set on the ground.
For this season, things going according to the script means seeing Denny Hamlin in victory lane. He obliged with his fifth victory of the Cup campaign, serving notice once again that even though Kevin Harvick is having an excellent year, and the summer part of the schedule can produce weird momentum swings (although most of this season is summer anyway, so that could mean almost anything), it would be a surprise if Hamlin did not finally break through and claim the Cup championship that has so far eluded him.
Of course, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been here before. Exactly a decade ago, Hamlin had an even more stellar first half, winning five times in the first 15 races of the 2010 Cup season. But after claiming back to back trophies at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, he proceeded to lose some of his mojo, suffering through a stretch of 10 races where his average finish was 21.6. Hamlin recovered to win three more times, but he ended up second in the final standings for the first and so far only time in his distinguished top level career.
Things just feel different this time. Maybe it’s that the no-practice, no-qualifying format suits Hamlin more than it obviously does, say, JGR teammate Kyle Busch. Maybe it’s that there’s no dominant force like Jimmie Johnson to spoil things like he did 10 years back. Whatever the case, the stars appear to be aligning for Hamlin, and his team has been so strong that a prolonged swoon would now qualify as a shocker.
Perhaps wisely, Hamlin has downplayed the driver-to-beat talk and emphasized that the Cup playoff structure means the championship race is a crapshoot. He could blow an engine on lap two and be done (or not make the Championship 4 at all, but he’s already won enough races that it would be hard to falter before that). Yet consider that the title will be decided this year at Phoenix Raceway and not Homestead-Miami Speedway, and the winner of that race last year was… Hamlin.
Hamlin may or may not finish the job, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever have a better chance.
2. Was That Just a Really Good Race at An Intermediate Track?
Everyone loves short track races, and fans thrill to the spectacle of superspeedway events as long as everyone emerges unhurt, but on the great scale of common NASCAR fan overreactions, the idea that all 1.5-mile races are bad races has to be up at the top. Yes, intermediate tracks tend to lack character or distinction, but that doesn’t mean they can’t produce some gems.
The Kansas race wasn’t an all-timer by any means, but it was competitive and fun. Six different drivers led double-digit laps. There was briefly a glimmer that yet another surprise winner would emerge thanks to a strong run by William Byron, and even after Hamlin assumed the lead, Brad Keselowski looked like he might have a car good enough to run him down. Restarts were exciting without being such a mess that they led to big wrecks.
There actually aren’t that many more classically intermediate circuits remaining on the slate this year, but this Thursday night special bodes well because the Cup playoffs pay a visit to Kansas during the Round of 8. It’s not a cutoff race, but it’s still important, and there’s every reason to believe it could be entertaining again.
3. Can Jimmie Johnson Muster One More Win? Because He’s Toast If He Doesn’t
A lot that was once unthinkable when it comes to the seven-time champ has become a reality over the past few years, including entire seasons without seeing the No. 48 claim the checkered flag. But last year’s playoffs took the cake, simply because Johnson wasn’t part of them. Not even one of the top 16 drivers in the sport? Those kids who cheer for Johnson in the (excellent) Ally commercials were probably in tears.
They might want to stock up on tissues, because Johnson already faces a massively uphill battle to qualify for the postseason without a victory. Mathematically, he’s got a fighting chance, as 18 points out with seven regular season races remaining isn’t all that bad. His real problems are two-fold.
First, it’s not as simple as Johnson just catching his teammate Byron, who currently occupies the last playoff spot. There are two other drivers, Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones, between them. Both drivers could drop below Johnson in the time remaining, but it seems unlikely.
The bigger issue is that anyone else who sneaks in a victory and isn’t currently in the field of 16 would doom Johnson for good. And there are numerous threats: Jones, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Newman have all done it before. Reddick and Christopher Bell have been so good as rookies that few would be shocked if either or both joined Custer with a victory. Even Bubba Wallace has been much faster overall.
If someone other than the drivers already locked into the playoffs wins down the stretch, it needs to be Johnson. Otherwise, his full-time Cup swan song is destined to be a sad one.
4. Do Teams From All Three Manufacturers Have Decisions to Make During Silly Season?
The potential downside of this year’s Cup rookie class living up to its advance billing is that its departure could have left a huge talent void in the Xfinity Series. Happily, that hasn’t been the case — though it’s true that with the limits on Cup drivers dipping down and the unusual nature of this season, someone had to win those races — and as a result, teams in all three manufacturer camps will have some tough choices to make.
Let’s start with Ford since its situation is the most obvious. Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe have excelled after the departure of last year’s Big 3, proving they can be consistent winners. It’s now not at all crazy to envision Cindric moving up if Team Penske decides not to re-sign Keselowski, or imagining Briscoe in the No. 14 if Stewart-Haas Racing nudges Clint Bowyer to the broadcast booth.
Chevrolet teams should have several open seats and also now have candidates to claim them. Matt Kenseth doesn’t figure to return to the Chip Ganassi Racing fold, so Ross Chastain may finally get his opportunity at the big time. At Hendrick Motorsports, there have been all kinds of rumors: The No. 88 team may fold while Byron moves to the No. 48! Keselowski could jump to Hendrick! Or maybe Jones! Yet Noah Gragson has shown flashes of brilliance (among, um, other qualities), and if Justin Allgaier can bring Brandt with him, maybe he’s a legit candidate for a promotion even though he’s no longer a young lion.
That leaves Toyota, and with all due respect to the improving Brandon Jones, the development pipeline isn’t quite as full as it has been. There’s still a quandary, however, because Bell may warrant a shot with the JGR main roster if Jones is out.
Add it all up and there should be plenty of Silly Season intrigue playing out across all of the garages. And it should be kicking off any second now.
5. Should NASCAR Stop Talking About the Full-On Return of Fans to Tracks This Year?
One of the cliches about the coronavirus pandemic that has turned out to be true is the idea that the virus sets the timetable. Without turning this into a lengthy debate that would inevitably turn political, there’s no denying that the pandemic hasn’t gone away, and any thought that life would return to normal with nothing more than the passage of time has gone out the window. Sports have done what they could to get back on track, though the results so far have been decidedly mixed, and there doesn’t appear to be any hope of stands packed with fans until 2021.
NASCAR is no exception to that slightly sad rule. Some tracks have hosted varied amounts of fans, but exactly how many is dependent on where the venues are located and what the states decide. In some cases, that’s no fans at all.
That will be the case at Dover International Speedway, which is set to host a Cup doubleheader in late August. Despite the track presenting its plan to safely host a limited amount of fans, Delaware rejected it this week, meaning Miles the Monster will be lonely next month. This won’t be the last time a ruling like this comes down this year.
Ever since the sport roared back to life, there has been consistent messaging from NASCAR’s broadcasters and the governing body itself that it hopes fans can be back in the fold sooner rather than later. It’s an understandable notion, and for reasons ranging from aesthetics to finances, plays well with everyone who loves racing.
But it’s time to face facts: There aren’t going to be any races in 2020 where the stands are open to all who want to buy a ticket. Speaking of the day that changes like it’s right around the corner is tantamount to rubbing salt in a wound, and one that hasn’t even had any time to heal yet.
At this point, it’s well known that the tracks and teams wish spectators were present. The fans have had plenty of time to express their dismay at having to stay away. There’s no real good to come from dwelling on the fact that it’s simply not possible for now. It is what it is, and it would behoove everyone to accept whatever amount of fans make sense for each locale for the rest of the season and start planning for a full-fledged return in 2021. Here’s hoping it can happen in time for the next Daytona 500.