Who… should you be talking about after the 2020 Season Finale 500?
At age 24, Chase Elliott joins an elite group as the 34th driver to take the title of NASCAR Cup Series champion. He had to start from the rear of the field at Phoenix Raceway after the No. 9 Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection twice for the 2020 Season Finale 500. However, he made his way through traffic easily and was back in contention before the end of stage one.
From there on out, Elliott was dominant Sunday (Nov. 8), first taking the lead on lap 120 and then leading 153 laps on the way to his 11th career win and first championship. Chase joins his Hall of Fame father Bill as the third father-son duo to each win Cup titles; in this case, they come 32 years apart. Elliott is the favorite for the Most Popular Driver award in 2020 which would make him the first Most Popular champion since, yes, his dad back in 1988.
The Dawsonville faithful were just a little excited at Elliott’s title.
Maybe it was fitting that while Championship 4 drivers finished in the first four positions, the top driver not in the hunt was Jimmie Johnson in his final race. Johnson didn’t have a car that could compete with the top four, but he easily bested the rest of the field. It was one last reminder of his old magic, when the No. 48 ran up front week in and week out.
What… was the hidden gem in the weekend?
NASCAR’s sendoff for a champion. No matter how long the road, it always ends too soon.
Where… did the retiring drivers end their careers?
For Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer, Phoenix Raceway marked the last time they’d strap into a NASCAR Cup Series car, at least as full-time competitors. Really, though, their legacies were cemented long before Sunday and will resonate long after.
Bowyer had success on the track, but he’ll be remembered as someone fans could relate to. While his popularity may have been dampened a bit by a role in the Michael Waltrip Racing playoff cheating scandal, that’s not really who Bowyer was as a competitor. He was tough on track and the guy next door off it. The Kansan’s down-to-earth, quirky personality won over fans and will continue to as he moves on to the FOX broadcast booth for 2021.
Kenseth was the last driver in the field who could boast a full-season title, winning the 2003 championship by such a margin that many blamed him for the change the following year to a playoff format. Kenseth was a relentless competitor and a smart one. He didn’t often dominate races, not even when he won convincingly. But he was, somehow, someway, always there, in the end, stalking the win. His sarcastic, biting humor made him as entertaining off the track as he was skilled on it.
Seven-time champion Johnson walks away from 19 years, 83 wins, and the most underappreciated career of any driver in history. He won with a regularity that frustrated everybody not on his team or a fan of his. His streak of five straight titles will likely never be matched, and yet it’s Johnson’s class that the sport will miss the most. Nobody who knew him disliked him, and all who knew him respected him as a racer and as a person. There are drivers in the field who might match his skill on their good days, but none who match the class that Johnson displays.
Like those who have gone before, these three now belong to the ages.
When… was the moment of truth in the 2020 Season Finale 500?
Not once during the race did any driver make a move to challenge the championship contenders. That’s the problem with this title format: the championship race doesn’t seem to play out organically.
Were the four contenders really so fast that nobody in the field had anything for them? After all, they were the four racing for the Cup. But that seems improbable at best. Kevin Harvick was not only the winningest driver this year, he’s the winningest driver at Phoenix. Suddenly, he couldn’t keep up? (Harvick failed to lead a lap and finished seventh). Kyle Busch terrorizes the field even when he’s not winning yet he wasn’t anywhere near the front. Johnson, who had nothing to lose and had the fastest car outside the Championship 4, never even looked like he tried.
Even if it was nothing more than the other drivers not wanting to impact the championship, falling so far behind gives the wrong impression. It’s not a big step to wonder if the rest of the field was told not to race the contenders, letting the quartet race among themselves. It’s only a slightly bigger conspiracy to wonder if NASCAR might give the Championship 4 a little something in the tapered spacer to ensure nobody could steal the show. That’s not the case, obviously, but no fan should ever need to wonder if it was.
Why… should you be paying attention in the offseason?
You shouldn’t. It’s the offseason. Go do something else already.
Seriously, NASCAR Silly Season was off the chain this year and there will be a lot of changes to get used to in 2021. The new car is still a year away, but NASCAR ushers in a new era with a change-up of the schedule, adding three road courses while saying goodbye to Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Iowa Speedway (for the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series, at least). The famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval also gets replaced by its road course.
Two teams, Leavine Family Racing and Germain Racing, turned their final laps at Phoenix. Two new teams, 23XI Racing and TrackHouse Racing, enter in their place. Kyle Larson will also return to the sport in a new ride with Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR rolls on, and the next race is just down the road in February. I can’t wait.
How… long until the 2021 Daytona 500?
Just 97 days, race fans. See you on the other side.