Welcome loyal readers to the last regularly scheduled 2020 function for Club 61; to whit, my last weekly column for 2020. In honor of the momentousness of the occasion, I have decided not to submit this week’s effort in crayon. Club 61 isn’t a place. It’s a statistical anomaly that a bunch of my longest term and most loyal readers are 61 years of age, just as I am. Of course there’s a raging pandemic right now doing its best to see a bunch of you younger folks don’t reach that milestone.
Looking back on 2020, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone calling it “the same old, same old” or recalling it very fondly. What started out at rain-soaked Daytona International Speedway on stormy Sunday afternoon dragged over into Monday night and featured what visually at least appeared to be the worst wreck I’d seen in a Cup race in a decade. Ryan Newman was very lucky, I’d go as far as to say blessed, to escape that wreck with only minor injuries.
Joey Logano won at Las Vegas the following week, followed by Alex Bowman the next week at Fontana, then Logano again at Phoenix. (As we returned to Arizona this weekend, I almost felt Bobby Ewing was going to climb out of the shower and let us all know this entire year was a figment of our imaginations. If only that had been the case!)
On his walk to the press box after the race, Logano allegedly tripped over an old steamer trunk. Unsure what it contained, he asked his older and wiser competitor Jimmie Johnson what was inside. “Well, Joseph, it appears that’s somewhere around 30,000 properly filled out mail-in ballots for the Republican candidate in this year’s November election. Just push them in that closet over there. I doubt anyone will miss them.”
The circuit was then scheduled to head to Atlanta for a Saint Patrick’s Day weekend event. But as the trucks were pulling onto the property at AMS, something unexpected happened. The drivers of those great big rigs were told thanks to a tiny little virus they should haul ass out of there. Thanks to COVID-19, NASCAR was taking an extended time-out. What in blue-blooded tarnation are you talking about man-child? There are no time-outs in NASCAR, unless you count stage breaks.
As it turned out, there was about to be an extended break from stock car racing, at least the sort of stock car racing that bends up sheet metal rather than re-arranging pixels digitally. Real life stock car racing returned at Darlington on May 17, and there was much rejoicing. Kevin Harvick won the event. In fact the experiment went so well they returned to Darlington just three days later for another Cup race, won in this case by Denny Hamlin. Yep, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Those were the only two names you needed to know for much of this year’s NASCAR schedule. In order for Hamlin to win that race, his teammate Kyle Busch had to wreck Chase Elliott out of the way. Elliott, it should be noted, remains popular. Busch? Well not so much. Not at all, to be honest.
From the fifth race of the season, when the season restarted at Darlington, to the 29th race of the year (Bristol in September), Harvick won nine races and Hamlin won five. We haven’t seen stats like that since the era of Petty and Pearson. Hamlin managed an additional five second-place finishes in that stretch. Three of those second-place finishes were to Harvick. It got so ridiculous when the circuit hit Pocono for the doubleheader weekend (which was ridiculous enough on its own terms) that Harvick and Hamlin finished 1-2 in both races, with Harvick ringing the bell Saturday and Hamlin scoring the win Sunday. Yet one of those two drivers failed to reach NASCAR’s playoff final. Did anyone hear it rained a bit at Texas in late October?
My nomination for “surprise winner” of the year goes to Cole Custer at Kentucky. He only led five laps, but he led the ones they write the big checks for. Custer will never get his chance to defend that win, as NASCAR dropped the event from next year’s schedule. NASCAR also announced they were done with Chicagoland, which leaves me with a steamer trunk full of unused Blues Brothers jokes. And leaves the ISC with an unused joke of a racetrack.
One of the casualties of NASCAR’s unintended spring season break was at least a one-year delay in the introduction of the “new” cars with their lower-profile tires and larger-diameter wheels, composite bodies and higher grade on-board electronics. The new cars are now scheduled to be introduced no later than 2022. Likely this will be the last generation NASCAR “stock car” prior to the introduction of hybrid-powered cars you plug in as well as gas up. That’s important, because someday when your grandkids go to the Smithsonian to see the car that won the very last NASCAR race, that’ll be what it looks like. Quiet race cars.
Love and kisses to Mother Nature, but I just can’t abide quiet race cars. Onion rings bought at the track aren’t a healthy eating choice but what are you going to do, brown-bag celery stalks and bean sprouts?
How weird a year was it in Cup racing? Seven-time Cup champion Johnson was disqualified after having apparently finished second at the World 600 at Charlotte. Recall that for years, Charlotte Motor Speedway was known as Lowe’s, matching his sponsor for the salad days of his career. That was one of just five (eventually) top-five finishes Johnson managed during his entire retirement season. He averaged a 17th-place finish over the course of the season. They don’t usually print gum cards for you for that sort of stat. (Johnson also missed the Brickyard 400 after testing positive for COVID-19. Ouch.)
While Johnson’s disqualification might have been the highest-profile example, there were a whole lot of questionable incidents that seemed curiouser and curiouser. After a 2019 season that saw Joe Gibbs Racing’s Busch take the title and his JGR teammates claim two additional spots in the top four, there were some bumps in the road for JGR this year over and above Busch winning just one race. (Busch won five Cup races last year and eight in 2018.) It’s notable that between the four JGR teams, there were 18 instances where one of the four cars had to start shotgun on the field for failing pre-race tech twice. The No. 11 team suffered six such penalties, the No. 18 team four, the No. 20 team four and the No. 19 team four (the most notable of which was Truex’s rear spoiler at Texas, which also resulted in NASCSR seizing the spoiler and issuing a $35,000 fine). The penalty also dropped Truex from 31 points out of the title lead to 51 points in arrears, effectively eliminating him from title contention. In most instances, the penalties seemed to focus on subtle issues related to rear suspension settings outside of regulations. Long-term fans may recall rear camber issues alleged to have been involved with Harry Gant’s Mister September four-race winning streak in September of 1991 and Bill Elliott’s “Elliott Express” four-win streak early in the 1992 season.
Aiding JGR’s fortunes after being sent to the back of the pack all those weekends were competition cautions early in most of this year’s races that let them regroup, advance and adjust as the situation warranted.
NASCAR’s times facing severe challenges that in fact threatened its existence (and I think we can safely include 2020 on that list) have given rise to some notable cheating scandals in the days of yore. The Ford/Chrysler factory boycott years of 1964 and ’65 yielded Junior Johnson’s infamous “Yellow Banana” ’65 Galaxie, perhaps the most illegal car ever allowed to compete in a NASCAR race. As the car factories left the sport in the early ’70s and Winston began to take over, the use of illegal nitrous oxide horsepower adding systems was rampant. No less a driver than AJ Foyt got nailed running one in Daytona 500 qualifying.
The relative lack of success with the JGR teams (with the notable exception of the No. 11) might just be because NASCAR stumbled across some of their chicanery in the inspection barn. You can’t close the door when the wall’s caved in.
With Chase Elliott having clinched this year’s title Sunday, the driver voted “Most Popular Driver” is also the sport’s champion. That doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. The last time the twin honor occurred was in 1988 when Chase’s dad Bill was so honored. Some media outlets have reported in fact that it was the only other time a driver was champ and most popular driver. That’s not the case. Lee Petty managed the trick in 1954. Not many of you will recall Rex White or his 1960 season (or 1960 for that matter), but White was champion and most popular driver. Richard Petty was a very popular guy and took both honors in 1964, 1974 and 1975. Bobby Allison earned the dual honor in 1983. And that’s it to date.
With no apparent irony intended, NASCAR president Steve Phelps summed up this year’s Cup season by saying, “I would suggest that this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport.” As an aside Mr. Phelps, you might note there’s a whole lot of that going around right now.
So in closing to my fellow members of Club 61,
Wherever you are tonight,
I wish you the best of everything, in the world
And I hope you find whatever you are looking for,
Yeah and it’s all over before you know it,
It all goes by so fast,
And the bad nights take forever,
And the good nights don’t ever seem to last
– Tom Petty