We made it! The 2020 NASCAR season is complete.
Sure, there was a 10-week stoppage after the first month of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus limited fans in attendance for most racetracks and created a dent in NASCAR revenue. The playoff itself also had a weird twist; a nine-race winner and regular season champion by a mile failed to make the Championship 4. In the end, it’s a year that won’t soon be forgotten.
But NASCAR deserves credit for getting all of its races in on time. Overall, they suffered less than other sports in terms of scheduling and kept their outbreaks under control. Only two prominent Cup drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon, missed time due to COVID-19 positive tests while no athletes were hospitalized overall.
As for championship weekend itself, Phoenix Raceway provided a changing of the guard at the NASCAR Cup Series level. Chase Elliott won his first Cup title in teammate Johnson’s last race. What a moment for Hendrick Motorsports in earning their first championship since 2016. The No. 9 team ends the season with five victories, 15 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes plus 1,247 laps led, all career highs for Elliott. The 24-year-old racked up back-to-back wins to close out 2020, becoming the third-youngest Cup champion in series history.
In NASCAR’s Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series, two late-race cautions played a factor in who won each title. Fortunately for Austin Cindric, it didn’t cost him on Saturday (Nov. 7). But that wasn’t the case in Trucks. A dominant Brett Moffitt elected not to pit late and dropped to 10th after spending much of the race on cruise control. That’s gotta hurt.
Here are a few unique stats to pinpoint after Phoenix with three new champions crowned and one walking away.
I remember that warm day in early June at Dover International Speedway, three years ago. It was quite chaotic: 15 cautions for 72 laps, with a yellow flying late during the middle of green flag pit stops. Ty Dillon inherited the lead for a career-high 27 laps; for a time, it looked like he’d pull a gargantuan upset.
But it’s the ending to that race which stands out the most.
Jimmie Johnson was victorious for the 83rd time, wearing a crafty tribute helmet to honor Cale Yarborough, his favorite driver as a kid. He beat out Kyle Larson, who led 241 laps, getting the jump on a green-white-checkered restart. That victory tied Yarborough for sixth on the all-time Cup Series wins list, yet another bullet point on Johnson’s gold-plated Hall of Fame resume.
Surely, Johnson would go to victory lane again, and for arguably the most fit driver in the garage, there was no end in sight. He was coming off a 2016 season in which he tied Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven championships, the most in Cup history. Dover was also the No. 48 team’s third win in the opening 13 races of the campaign, making an early push as the title favorite.
Then, out of nowhere, the struggles began. Johnson ended the season with just one additional top-five finish and 11 top 10s, both career lows. His 10th-place finish in the point standings was among his worst ever.
Those mishaps led into 2018 and Johnson kept spiraling downward. He gathered a career-low two top-five efforts and finished 14th in points. At the end of the year, he split from longtime crew chief Chad Knaus in hopes of turning the ship around. It’s something team owner Rick Hendrick says the duo wanted to do and wasn’t forced upon them.
Instead, Johnson was paired with Kevin Meendering, who moved up from the Xfinity Series. The pairing struggled… bad, and 21 races in, another switch was made, this time to Cliff Daniels. Since then, there have been signs of the seven-time champion we all know, but still no victories. Johnson also missed a playoff he once dominated during each of his final two seasons.
As everyone knows, this weekend was Johnson’s last as a full-time Cup driver. Next season, he will turn to IndyCar, running for Chip Ganassi Racing on the road and street courses. A career that seemed like it had years full of promise abruptly has come to an end at age 45. The lesson: you never know when a win is going to be your last.
I could go on and on about why I truly believe Johnson is the best driver in NASCAR history. Instead, I’ll end with this story.
I’ve watched NASCAR since I was three years old: 1998, to be exact. Every weekend, anyone who knew me was aware my eyes were going to be glaring at a bright television for at least three hours on a Sunday afternoon, no questions asked. And over the years, I’ve seen many drivers come and go, putting together careers most could only dream of.
But Johnson, man, he’s special. There were times where people — media, fans, non-fans — were tired of seeing the California native get to victory lane. Now? They look back and cherish those moments. His run of five straight championships between 2006 and 2010 is a run unlike anything in professional sports. He was dominant in the most competitive era of NASCAR, a time where you knew no matter what, the No. 48 Lowe’s car was going to end almost every race near the front.
Yes, Johnson ended his career on a 130-race dry spell, placing fifth at Phoenix. But don’t you dare hold that against him when when discussing his accomplishments. After all, Hendrick Motorsports as a whole was struggling for a few of those years.
Johnson ends his full-time career with 83 wins, 232 top-five and 374 top-10 finishes, leading 18,941 laps. It’s been a fun career to watch, then to cover.
I know there will be other dominant drivers that come and go in my years covering this sport. But there will never, ever be another Jimmie Johnson.
19 years… It’s been an incredible journey, and one that I could’ve never dreamed of. I get to go out on my terms, with the support of my family and friends and for that, I am grateful and fulfilled. pic.twitter.com/JZ5C3tywn4
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 8, 2020
Entering Saturday’s Xfinity finale at Phoenix, two drivers were on the verge of eclipsing 1,000 laps led for the season. Chase Briscoe needed nine laps to reach that mark while Justin Allgaier had more work to do, needing 68 laps.
Guess what? Though both drivers came up short of the championship, it was just the third time in Xfinity Series history — and just the second with two non-Cup drivers — that two drivers led at least 1,000 laps in a single season (1983 and 2010). Briscoe led the way with 1,032 laps led and Allgaier had 1,008.
This feat puts them among the all-time NXS elites. Let me explain.
In 1983, Sam Ard led a series-high 1,877 laps (hell, he led over 2,000 in 1984) en route to the championship. His 1983 season was one of the best in series history: 10 wins, 23 top-five and 30 top-10 finishes in 35 races with an average finish of 5.8 (those numbers were even better in 1984). His closest competitor in terms of raw performance was Tommy Ellis, who notched seven victories, 16 top fives and 21 top 10s while leading 1,544 laps.
Fast forward to 2010. Brad Keselowski paced the field for 1,147 laps on his way to Team Penske’s first NASCAR championship. His six wins, clinching him the 2010 title, were the most for a full-time Penske driver in Xfinity until Austin Cindric scored his sixth this weekend (winning the championship as well). Meanwhile, Kyle Busch, hands down the best Xfinity driver in the history of the series, went on a tear. He won 13 (THIRTEEN!) races while posting 22 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes in 29 starts. Oh, by the way, he led 2,229 laps, nearly double Keselowski’s number.
Sure, times have changed and Cup drivers are limited to five starts nowadays. Still, putting up 1,000 laps led for a single season is quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately for Allgaier and Briscoe, neither of them was able to beat Cindric in the championship race. The good news for Briscoe is he’s moving to Cup in 2021 while Allgaier will be back for another go at an Xfinity title.
What a season it was not only on the racetrack but also off the racetrack. Wish things would have went better tonight but a lot to keep our heads held high about. Congrats to my pal and fellow @FordPerformance teammate @AustinCindric on the championship. Daytona 500 next 😬
— Chase Briscoe (@ChaseBriscoe_14) November 8, 2020
When it comes to the 2020 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, it will be remembered for tempers flaring, intentional wrecking, chaos and, quite simply, kids learning how to race with no practice.
Sheldon Creed overcame all of those challenges… and then some.
No doubt, Creed was the breakout performer in Trucks this season, his second full-time year with GMS Racing. Through the opening six races of the season, the No. 2 truck showed speed but, like 2019, had nothing to show for it.
Then, in early July at Kentucky Speedway, Creed scored his first career victory, albeit in a rain-shortened race. That didn’t matter, though, as in August he was able to hold off veteran teammate Brett Moffitt for the win at the inaugural race on Daytona International Speedway’s road course. Two races later, he won at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway in another strong performance.
Creed led 242 laps over the next six races but wound up with nothing to show for it. He dominated at Darlington Raceway, only to pit late and get a speeding penalty on pit road, relegating him to 18th. Another breakthrough performance at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading a race-high 89 laps, was killed off by clean air as Creed fell behind Austin Hill and wasn’t able to pass him late. A few weeks later, he led 62 more laps at Kansas Speedway, but dropped off late as Moffitt was the victor.
But late in October, Creed was finally able to put an entire race together in which he dominated. At Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 2 Chevrolet led 131 of 152 laps, running away with the victory despite 10 cautions. The following week at Martinsville Speedway, Creed definitely didn’t have the best truck, but still paced the field for 65 circuits. He remained a strong title contender, advancing to his first ever Championship 4.
That led into this weekend at Phoenix. Creed led early but dropped off late, seemingly out of contention for the win. All of a sudden, a caution flew with three laps to go, just as Moffitt was on the verge of a second championship.
Pit strategy then came into play. Moffitt’s No. 23 team chose not to pit him while GMS championship competitors Creed and Zane Smith did. In just one lap, Creed charged through the field to gain seven positions, vaulting him to the title on fresh rubber.
Nobody can question Creed’s speed this season, leading a series-high 587 laps. He was most definitely the quickest truck for the duration of the year. And his fifth checkered flag — the first at Phoenix — granted him an opportunity to be the 18th driver in series history to hoist the season-long trophy.
Consider last season, Creed earned just four top-five finishes, missed the postseason and failed to record a victory. What a difference a year makes for Creed and a GMS Racing outfit capable of defending their title in 2021.
— NASCAR Camping World Trucks (@NASCAR_Trucks) November 7, 2020