2020 might have been remembered in so many ways: Jimmie Johnson’s final NASCAR Cup Series season, maybe someone else’s breakout year. The do-or-die year for NASCAR developing a new generation of racecar and eyeing a schedule shakeup. A season with so much on the line.
And then COVID-19 happened and everything screeched to a halt. Johnson’s final season is also the season in which he dodged a bullet after testing positive for the virus. The rookie class is stellar but still often lost in the shuffle. The new racecar will have to wait. The schedule saw a shakeup, all right, but not by design.
Still, here we are.
NASCAR has seemingly worked through its return relatively unscathed. A couple of crew guys, Johnson and part-time driver Brendan Gaughan have tested positive for the coronavirus. Compare that to Major League Baseball, where the Miami Marlins had multiple players come up positive in a matter of days, forcing a hold on their season, at least.
But has NASCAR really dodged a bullet here? Baseball caught those cases because they’re testing religiously. So are the NBA and NHL as they return to action. But NASCAR? The sport has steadfastly refused to test personnel at all, let alone on the weekly basis they should be.
It started out as a leader with strict protocols, keeping fans safe at home, though testing was never on the table. But somewhere along the line, the ball got dropped.
The sport needs to be much more aggressive right now—testing, hefty fines for anyone violating protocol and, sadly, for now, keeping the stands empty. It’s not a good look for a sport that already struggles with image.
But let’s talk about the rest of what 2020 has given us, starting with that rookie class.
Entering the season, it looked like the biggest battle would be between Cole Custer and Christopher Bell, mainly because of resources. Custer has Stewart-Haas Racing behind him, and Bell, while driving for a satellite team in Leavine Family Racing, is the young gun for Joe Gibbs Racing’s organization. Tyler Reddick, despite a pair of Xfinity titles in his pocket, figured to be a step behind in equipment. Richard Childress Racing has been a step or two behind those two teams in recent years.
But Reddick came out swinging. He has more top 10s than Custer or Bell, and despite Custer having a win, Reddick is four spots ahead of him in points.
But it’s not just Reddick who’s enjoying his success—he’s helped to elevate RCR as a whole. Teammate Austin Dillon won at Texas Motor Speedway a couple of weeks ago, with Reddick hot on his heels. Had the call for Reddick on the final pit stop been the same as it was for Dillon, with a couple of fresh Goodyears, the one-two finish might well have gone the other way.
Bubba Wallace, driving for satellite Richard Petty Motorsports, is also enjoying the improvement in RCR as a whole, with his average finish four full spots better than 2019 so far. The only driver who has not improved in this stable is Ty Dillon, whose performance for Germain Racing has been stagnant, with an average finish two positions worse than last year. But he’s the outlier, so it’s likely that his issues are internal, not due to his equipment.
As for Wallace, the unity shown in the sport as he stood up for Black athletes and Americans should go down as the highlight of a dreary season. The image of every driver and crew member standing behind Wallace was a powerful, beautiful one. The challenge here is for the sport to continue to stand for good when it’s not at the forefront of American conscience.
The driver behind both a moving video about racism and acceptance and the statement made by teams at Talladega Superspeedway was seven-time champion Johnson. Johnson and Kevin Harvick rallied the troops in a classy, moving way. Nobody should expect less from Johnson, who has been nothing but a class act since he entered the Cup Series in 2002.
Johnson has grown and blossomed since his rookie season. He was a little… well, goofy, in his early days, but he grew up and into the role of champion even through personal losses. He’s a role model not only for young drivers but also for his own children. He’s genuine, intense and funny in turn.
And it’s a shame that bad luck has plagued him so this year, because he deserves a better sendoff. When two drivers with more than 50 Cup wins are still eclipsed as the best of their generation, the driver to do that is on another plane. Johnson has been, and he’s had the speed to go out with a win, but not the luck. It would be a shame if he didn’t get one last victory celebration. Johnson, and his enduring class, will be sorely missed.
The racing, you say? It’s been like most seasons: some good, some not so good. The lack of practice hasn’t hurt the quality of the racing; it might have helped in making more different drivers competitive. It’s been less predictable and more exciting, though there is still work to be done; restarts still have the lion’s share of action. Drivers can run down others, but passing is still another story, and clean air still means too much. Despite that, it hasn’t been the same-old, same-old all the time, either.
2020 isn’t going to go down as the season that saved NASCAR; in fact, it’s left a lot hanging in the balance. But it hasn’t been terrible either, and it shouldn’t be painted that way.
It’s definitely been a strange ride. And it’s not over yet.
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