1. Parity Inside the NASCAR Cup Series Round of 8
And then there were eight.
Four races remain in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, and we’re down to the semifinal round. Beginning with Sunday’s (Oct. 18) race at Kansas Speedway, drivers can start punching their tickets to this year’s Championship 4.
So what stands out about this year’s field? The answer is parity.
Yes, two of the final four spots already feel spoken for. Kevin Harvick has nine wins, starts with a 45-point edge on the cutline and has won the fall race at Texas Motor Speedway three years in a row. His main foil this year, Denny Hamlin, sits 32 points up on fifth-place Joey Logano and won earlier this summer at Kansas. You figure both of them will lock in easily.
But beyond that? It’s impossible to choose. You have two drivers from each manufacturer’s top team in the Round of 8. Ford has Team Penske’s Logano and Brad Keselowski; Chevrolet has Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman; Toyota has Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. It’s truly the best of the best when you add in Harvick. Even Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch, the closest to an underdog in this field, is the 2004 Cup champion.
Out of this group, five of the eight have won Cup titles. They’ve won 28 of 32 races this year, including 13 of the last 14, and hold down the top six spots in laps led.
Still not convinced? Check out the Cup winners since 2017 at the three tracks in this round.
Kansas: Elliott, Hamlin (2), Harvick, Keselowski, Truex (2)
Martinsville: Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Keselowski (2), Logano, Truex (2)
That’s six of the eight who have won a race at these ovals in the last three years. Five of them have won at Kansas alone. And what about Bowman, who was the king of intermediate ovals earlier this year? You can’t completely count him out.
Bottom line, after the Hamlin-Harvick combo, no other driver in the Championship 4 would surprise me with the exception of maybe Busch. The top six are the best parity we’ve seen in this postseason format and you could make a case for all eight.
2. Chase-ing Silly Season Answers
The Clint Bowyer decision to leave Stewart-Haas Racing for the FOX broadcasting booth in 2021 answers one of the biggest silly season questions left. It does feel slightly rushed from Bowyer, who likely wouldn’t be fighting anyone else for that third FOX spot in the booth had he waited another year until 2022, although Busch has shown promise as an analyst in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. One last year in the old car, driving for a team that made the playoffs, could have given him one more chance to rack up wins in top-tier equipment. Why not do one more and then bow out for the NextGen in 2022?
This choice was framed as Bowyer saying yes to an opportunity, but you wonder if that accelerated from SHR saying no to 2021.
Whatever the situation was, Bowyer’s departure opens the door for eight-time Xfinity Series winner Chase Briscoe to join the team. Conventional wisdom says Briscoe gets the spot unless there’s some back-room Tony Stewart deal with Kyle Larson we don’t know about. It’s a great move for SHR, transitioning from one of the oldest driver lineups on the circuit to two 20-something drivers with limited Cup experience (add 2020 Cup Rookie of the Year Cole Custer). They get younger without losing their centerpiece, a 45-year-old Harvick, in position to contend for 2-3 more years.
Larson then becomes the second big question as 2021 shakes out. Is Bowman’s move to the No. 48, paired with full-time sponsor Ally, designed to bring Larson into Hendrick Motorsports? Hypothetically, if that happens, all the top-tier rides are now spoken for. The most competitive opening left would be Richard Petty Motorsports, sitting 22nd in the standings with Bubba Wallace and on the verge of losing most of its sponsorship.
3. Too Wet ‘N’ Wild?
There was a lot of criticism Saturday (Oct. 10) over the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL Xfinity race run in the rain… er, a monsoon. A storm that would have caused an almost immediate postponement of an oval race produced a river disguised as a road course instead. The racing that followed was over standing water, raging downpours and limited lighting as the track descended into darkness.
Some were critical for the dangers of NASCAR choosing to compete under these conditions. Multiple drivers hinted at safety in their post-race comments and seemed happy to have the whole thing over with.
But the fans? Like this tweet from Jeff Gluck describes, the response to boating disguised as racing seemed overwhelmingly positive.
The replies say it all. Glad you enjoy it so much. Sounds like the crazier and more chaotic, the more entertaining for many of you. https://t.co/ipjmUM54Vx
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) October 10, 2020
Gluck is one of the best auto racing reporters of our generation, but on this point, I disagree. Count me among those who thought racing on was the right decision despite the safety and logistical challenges of the downpours. The strategy of how to navigate this type of track combined with the driver skill required made it a must-watch. Every two seconds, it felt like teams were navigating a new obstacle while slower speeds caused underfunded efforts who wanted to press their luck to have a chance. If you could wheel your car at 90% while someone else was going at 80%, you’d blow by them no matter how old your equipment was.
Yes, the ROVAL needed more lighting. Some nasty wrecks happened under those conditions. Then again, have you ever seen a Big One at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway? That scenario drivers sign up for four times a year seemed less safe than some of the demolition derby-style pileups Saturday.
If anything, the fan reaction showcases how much people pine for unpredictability. Too often the past 15-20 years, a sport based on risk vs. reward has become too predictable. The cars can’t pass, the top teams start up front, no equipment breaks and aerodynamics favor the leader keeping his spot.
How refreshing was it for fans to not be able to run to the fridge for fear they might miss something? NASCAR could take a lesson not from the rain but from why the rain became so exciting for the fan base.
4. Chase-ing History… Already?
When is it going to be Chase Elliott’s year? No Chevrolet drivers have made the Championship 4 since Jimmie Johnson in 2016. Elliott’s in year five in the Cup Series and needs to take a step forward to match his star power. This Round of 8 is a pivotal moment, it seems like, in a Championship 4 that’s there for the taking.
At least we know one place where Elliott’s talent is matching the popularity: road courses. Five of his nine wins have now occurred on these types of tracks, including the last four straight. It’s a skill he didn’t learn from Hall-of-Famer dad Bill, who only won on road courses once (Riverside International Raceway, 1983).
Already, those five victories put him in rarified air. He’s got the most road course wins among active Cup drivers and is fourth all-time for wins since Watkins Glen International got added to the schedule in 1986.
Most Road Course Wins in Cup Since 1986
Jeff Gordon, 9
Tony Stewart, 8
Rusty Wallace, 6
Chase Elliott, 5
That’s pretty good company to be keeping. And with six road courses on the 2021 schedule? Elliott could blow by that trio by the end of next year.
5. Keeping Kyle Busch’s 2020 in Perspective
Finally this week, a tough year for Kyle Busch hit rock bottom with his elimination from the NASCAR playoffs after the Round of 12. It’ll be the first time since 2014 the Championship 4 won’t have Busch in it.
But Busch, suffering through a winless season, can take solace his effort isn’t the worst title defense we’ve ever seen in the modern era. Take Dale Earnhardt; coming off back-to-back titles in 1990-1991, the Intimidator suffered through the worst luck of his career the following year. He won just once, collected just nine lead-lap finishes and stumbled to 12th in the season standings. It was the only time he’d finish outside the top 10 in points driving for owner Richard Childress.
What happened next? Longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine was replaced by Andy Petree. Earnhardt just missed winning the 1993 Daytona 500 and collected four top-two finishes in the first six races. He wound up cruising to his sixth title over Rusty Wallace and added a record-tying seventh one year later.
Champions know how to recover from adversity. Don’t expect Busch to be any different in 2021.