(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

NASCAR Mailbox: Who Can Challenge Denny Hamlin & Kevin Harvick in 2020?

Thus far, it’s clear that Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick are the top two contenders for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship. However, we have seen flashes of brilliance from several other drivers throughout the opening 19 races of the season. Some of these drivers come from Team Penske. All of its drivers have shown repetitive consistency and speed to win on any given weekend.

Can all three drivers give Hamlin and Harvick a run for their money? Does any single one stand out? Will multiple make it late in the playoffs, just one of them or any?

The NASCAR Xfinity Series has given fans some great and entertaining races this season. Austin Cindric has been a driver who has shown great consistency, but recently, he has broken through the barrier of reaching victory lane on an oval. Since winning his first race at Kentucky Speedway nearly three weeks ago, he has four consecutive top-two finishes, nearly tying Sam Ard’s record of four straight wins by finishing second to Brandon Jones at Kansas Speedway last weekend.

Has Cindric surpassed Chase Briscoe as the title favorite? Are both equal right now, or do you give the upper hand to one or the other? Is there anyone else who can compete with these two Ford drivers?

Q: Who is the biggest threat to Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick right now for the championship (assuming they are the two favorites)? -Matthew C., Florence, SC

A: There really is no driver who has been as strong as Harvick or Hamlin this season, but I am going to say any of the Team Penske cars can give them a run for their money for the rest of the season.

When we look at how each of the drivers have run between Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, all three have run consistently up front, leading laps. When you do that, you will definitely set yourself up to win a race. While the team has five wins this season as a whole, its cars have been much stronger than that has shown.

Blaney has been struck with a lot of bad luck, but he has shown race-winning speed in at least 10 races this season. All he has to do is put together several full races and we can see him competing for a title come November, easily. The No. 12 team probably should have at least three to four wins with the way its run, but his luck has said otherwise, as mentioned.

Logano has been an interesting story this season. While he started off the year strong with two victories in the first four races — all before the COVID-19 break — he has not visited victory lane since. The No. 22 team has been close and definitely has shown the strength, but certain things have not worked in his favor near the end of these races to allow him to capture another victory. Losing track position has been a huge issue with this team, being that he starts up front normally and runs inside the top five for the majority of the opening stint. Once he gets in traffic, that’s when his races seem to go downhill. If they can figure out how to keep him clean up there and fix the minor issues, he will be a contender.

Keselowski has had a quietly great season. While this is probably not his best to date, he has snuck in two wins, including a Coca-Cola 600 victory, his third crown jewel triumph. Many believed he would be the weak link at Team Penske with the crew chief swap over the offseason, but it’s proving to not be affecting his performance at all. With 14 top-10 finishes in the first 19 races, he is on quite a roll. He may not be viewed as a championship favorite, but he is proving to be one with his statistics.

Penske has three drivers who can easily contend right now with anyone. With two former champions and a young and up-and-coming superstar, the team is suited to win. Between the three of them, they will rack up a couple of more wins before the playoffs because the three teams are simply too strong not to get one before we begin the postseason in September. Once we get there though, we could see this team fully break out and show their full strength.

Q: Has Austin Cindric emerged as the favorite over Chase Briscoe in the Xfinity Series? Nicholas P., Oakland, CA

A: Cindric has most definitely made a case as a favorite with his recent stretch of races, but Briscoe should still be considered the favorite. Both drivers have the talent to win the title this season, and for sure, you will see both in the Championship 4 come November.

Looking back, it’s crazy to think that it took Cindric well into his third year to win on an oval, but then … he won three in a row, nearly four. He is coming into his own as a stock car driver, and he’s been one of the most improved over the last two-to-three years. Remember the dreaded No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing car from a couple of years ago? He drove that car and had the most amount of bad luck, along with some errors on his part, too. He has come a long way since that time period though.

Briscoe has not been to victory lane since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course race on July 4, but there is no worry in that camp. Cindric has been red hot, but that does not mean you should overlook the No. 98 team at all.

The only reason you could put Cindric over Briscoe at this point is because of the upcoming races and the amount of playoff points that Cindric could rack up. With Road America and the Daytona International Speedway road course coming up on the schedule in the month of August, those are two races the No. 22 team will excel at. However, Briscoe did just win the most recent road course race, so he will be a threat as well.

No matter how you look at it, the run Cindric has been on over the last month is historic. He was one lap shy of winning four races in a row for the first time since Sam Ard back in the 1980s. That record may never be broken, but for a driver who struggled to win on an oval for three years, it would have been one of the most impressive feats we would have seen in the sport.

Briscoe over Cindric? Yes, but it is not by much, and the gap has certainly closed up. Both will be strong as we come down to the wire. When we get to the championship race in November, it may be a tossup as to who the favorite will be. For now though, two young drivers having massive amounts of success is a fun story to watch, especially in a time like this.

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Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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5 comments

  1. Avatar

    “Who Can Challenge Denny Hamlin & Kevin Harvick in 2020?”

    Anyone that makes the final four because the championship rests on a one race crapshoot between 4 drivers. The rest of the year doesn’t matter at that point.

  2. Avatar

    I echo Bill B’s comments….

  3. Avatar

    With apologies to Coach Mora…

    “Playoffs? Who’s talking about playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we win a race.” Kyle Busch.

    No, he didn’t actually say that, but he’s gotta be thinking it.

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