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Did You Notice?: NASCAR 2020 Tidbits And Loose Ends… It’s Not Just About The Championship 4

Did You Notice? … NASCAR wasn’t just about the Championship 4 and Chase Elliott‘s first NASCAR title at the ripe old age of 24? Certainly, Elliott’s back-to-back wins to finish the year were impressive; he’s the third-youngest champion in NASCAR history. Elliott’s surging popularity should serve the sport well heading into a time of transition next season.

2021 will mark the first year running a number of NASCAR Cup Series races on the current schedule and the last with the current chassis and handling package. But before launching into a new frontier, we should close the book on several storylines outside the Championship 4.

Here’s a closer look at a few accomplishments (and failures) teams and drivers will remember about 2020.

  • Kevin Harvick didn’t win the title. He didn’t even make the Championship 4. But that shouldn’t take away from arguably the best season he’s had in the Cup Series. A career-high nine wins set a record for any driver age 44 or older in the modern era (Bobby Allison held the old one with eight victories in 1982). His average finish of 7.3 was also a career best; we haven’t seen one dip that low since Jeff Gordon’s 7.3 in 2007 (Gordon also failed to win the title that year despite a season-best six victories). However, perhaps the biggest accomplishment of all was completing 9,911 of 9,914 laps on the year. It’s a NASCAR Cup Series record in this age of durability where Harvick never finished more than one lap down in any race. (Martinsville Speedway in June, Homestead-Miami Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in October were the three lead-lap misses.)  Harvick has averaged 27 top-10 finishes over the last three seasons and is well-positioned to pick up where he left off in 2021.
  • Kyle Busch also failed to make the Championship 4 for the first time since the year NASCAR’s playoff format changed in 2014. However, his win at Texas this October kept his streak of at least one race win per season alive at 16. That’s two off the all-time record held by Richard Petty from 1960-1977.
  • Alex Bowman won just once, early in the season at Auto Club Speedway, but had a solid run in the NASCAR playoffs. His sixth-place point finish is the best for the No. 88 car since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth way back in 2013. And – get this – Bowman’s 440 laps led are the highest for any driver of the No. 88 since Earnhardt’s first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports way back in 2008. For the 27-year-old Bowman, headed to Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet next season, the future is bright.
  • It sounds like small steps, but Austin Dillon tied his career high with four top-five finishes at Richard Childress Racing. 135 laps led was also a career best for a No. 3 Chevrolet that simply struggled to stay on the lead lap in 2019. A +3.3 jump in average finish, from 19.5 to 16.2, bodes well as RCR’s two-car team continues to rebuild from its rock-bottom years of the late 2010s. Keep in mind Dillon led just 171 laps in the first seven years of his Cup career. (That’s like, what, two races for Dale Earnhardt in his prime?)
  • Clint Bowyer had a respectable last year in Cup with 12 top-10 finishes, a playoff appearance and 280 laps led. The same could not be said, though, for two future NASCAR Hall of Famers that slipped quietly into the night. Jimmie Johnson‘s fifth-place finish in the Phoenix Raceway finale was the first for him since Dover International Speedway back in August. Fellow Frontstretch writer Dustin Albino did a great job detailing just how abruptly this seven-time champ’s level of dominance slipped away. Johnson’s 2016 title came paired with five wins, 11 top-five finishes and 16 top 10s. Keep in mind that even during a championship year, those top-five and top-10 results were career lows. Yet over the final four years of his career, Johnson racked up a total of 14 top-five finishes. He never earned more than 12 top 10s in any of those final years, went winless since June 2017 (130 races) and missed the last two 16-driver playoffs. It’s not quite a Darrell Waltrip or Richard Petty dropoff but not ideal. Just look at Harvick, three months younger than Johnson. How could two Hall of Fame-caliber drivers head in such different directions?
  • For all the talk about Johnson’s slump, Matt Kenseth’s comeback attempt was even worse. The 48-year-old posted an average finish of 21.4, the worst of his career as a full-time driver, and earned just two top-10 finishes (one of which was his first race out at Darlington Raceway in May). That’s one less than Kyle Larson had driving the same car in 2020. Larson had just four starts in the No. 42 before getting fired over a racial slur; Kenseth had 32. The 2003 Cup champion also posted the worst average finish of any Chip Ganassi Racing driver since Juan Pablo Montoya in 2012. That year, Montoya’s season began with this moment that encapsulates exactly how Kenseth’s super-sub effort felt for the majority of 2020.

  • Cole Custer was a deserving NASCAR Rookie of the Year over former NASCAR Xfinity Series championship rivals Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell.  Reddick had more top-10 finishes and a better average finish overall (17.5 to 19.2). But Custer won a race, getting the jump on a thrilling final restart at Kentucky Speedway to become the first rookie to make the Cup playoffs since 2016. Expect all three to make the postseason next year with Bell jumping over to Joe Gibbs Racing from now-defunct Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota.
  • Speaking of LFR, a late surge by Bell gave them their first top-20 points finish in their last year running in NASCAR. (Although Bell’s 20.2 average finish falls short of the 18.3 Matt DiBenedetto posted a year earlier). For Matty D, it all ended up working out. He’s set with the Wood Brothers in 2021, at least, after posting a 14.8 average finish there this season. That’s the best for the No. 21 Ford since Morgan Shepherd ran the car in 1994. I know it’s frustrating for DiBenedetto fans considering he’ll be a free agent in 2022, but what if LFR and DiBenedetto had stayed together? He’d be without a ride, as economic conditions forced LFR to close regardless of who was behind the wheel.
  • Ford bested Toyota and Chevrolet for the manufacturer’s title. Despite losing the driver’s championship, their 18 wins gave them a second trophy in three seasons, the best run they’ve had in Cup since 2002. And with NASCAR Xfinity Series nine-time winner Chase Briscoe moving up in 2021 and NXS champion Austin Cindric right behind him a year later? The Blue Ovals are in the best shape we’ve seen them in since snagging Stewart-Haas Racing from Chevy a few years ago.
  • Finally, a tip of the cap to Michael McDowell who posted the best points finish of his Cup career (23rd). McDowell’s four top-10 finishes for underfunded Front Row Motorsports were double the number he’d posted in any other season of his Cup career. (Remember, McDowell used to start-and-park; he finished just 16 of 119 starts between 2010 and 2013).

Did You Notice? … Before taking off, I want to take a moment to thank all my loyal readers who have followed my columns another year at both Frontstretch and Athlon Sports. Your loyalty and feedback are always appreciated, especially during a year it was difficult to even focus on NASCAR considering all that’s going on in the world. You’ve kept this website growing with your unwavering support, and we have high hopes for 2021 after another year of growing our audience.

Keep it tuned right here every Wednesday (I’ll be popping in now and then) along with every other day during the NASCAR offseason. We’ll keep working, delivering the stories you expect from us, while the 2021 Daytona 500 edges ever closer. It’s just 95 days away!

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About Tom Bowles

Avatar
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

30 comments

  1. Avatar

    Nice overview of the past year.

    Glad you got a chance to reference the Montoya wreck with the track dryer. Always a good laugh and something that will make highlight or blooper reels for years.

    I don’t know which is more perplexing, Johnson’s rapid fall or Harvick’s rise. Neither should have happened statistically.

    Thanks for keeping this site running Tom, it’s appreciated. Good job!

    • Avatar

      For me, the shot of Jimmie and his girls in front of his car this weekend tells the tale. You take a down period for HMS as a whole, combine that with his age and the never ending changes in the race package, and then throw in the tiny thought in the back of his head while driving about making sure he gets safely home to them.. and that’s all it takes to drop a few tenths per lap.

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        So what does that say about Harvick?

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          Rhetorical question or no? Ha! I’d say Kev really only cares about one person in the world.. but that’s not fair to him (because I don’t like him!). SHR has been very strong over the same period, so a little easier on that front. Plus Kev’s youngest is still only what – 3?.. will get harder as they get older

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            I don’t like him either so that’s the answer I was looking for. LOL

            BTW, his son is now 8.

            Doesn’t the time fly? (now that’s rhetorical) LOL

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            harvick’s son is racing Hilary, so next harvick driver learning the ropes. His daughter is also interested in racing.

            with covid kevin has been able to be at track with Keelan and also on baseball field.

    • Avatar

      I think it has to do more with the car than the driver.

  2. Avatar

    Thanks Tom. Thanks to all at Frontstretch.

  3. Avatar

    JGR will have to do a little forensic work over the off-season to figure out why they weren’t more dominant in 2020. While it was true that Hamlin won several races and made the “Final 4”, his performance in the latter stage of the “Playoffs” showed he had lost some speed leading into the penultimate race. Martin Truex Jr. ran well early in the season, stuck around a bit in the “Playoffs”, but only won a single race in 2020. Kyle Busch, who is arguably the most talented driver in NASCAR & defending Cup Champion, suffered a long losing streak that was only snapped after he had missed out on the 2nd-round of the “Playoffs”. Erik Jones failed to win a race, or make the “Playoffs”.

    Next year JGR will be replacing Erik Jones with Christopher Bell, but how short a “leash” will Bell have if the #20 team repeats the mediocre performance of 2020? Kyle Busch will probably be getting a new crew chief and perhaps a new crew. Truex will have to be looking over his shoulder in 2021 because Gibbs has been quick to pull the plug on fading star drivers (see: Matt Kenseth). Thanks to a banner year in 2020 and tight relationship with FedEx, Hamlin is safe for the next couple of seasons, but could he see another slump in 2021?

    • Avatar

      They will be back. They failed a ton of inspections this year – meaning they found the gray area and eventually NASCAR started catching up (and paying closer attention). The 9 car HMS brought to Phoenix was new, and pushed all the rules in every area they could find during the year – thus the failed inspection. NASCAR catches 3 of the 10 cheats – and then lets them race with the other 7 undetected. The game goes on and on..

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        LOL! How are those sour grapes tasting?

        I cheer for both Kyle and Chase and thoroughly enjoyed both season-ending championships. The conspiracy theories just add a touch of humor.

  4. Avatar

    Excellent – considering I’ve been an HMS and Chevy guy for 30+ years. I just call them like I see them.. It’s a lot like the election – most people are “ok” with questionable ethics in an election if their candidate “wins”. I’m not ok with it. People with morals, values and ethics are a dying breed in this country – and the country suffers for it.

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      More funny stuff! Keep it coming. We all need a laugh.

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        Thank you for proving my point!

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          “Questionable ethics”? That’s hilarious! At least Brad Keselowski didn’t lie down at the entrance to Victory Lane and pound his fists on the pavement and demand a do-over. He just threw his team under the bus and let it go at that. But you enjoy yourself with your baseless conspiracy theories and outright lies, if that’s what you need to get through the night.

        • Avatar

          No, sweetie, you aren’t capable of striking anything. Just another pathetic swing and miss. Now take some warm milk and your meds and drift off to dreamland.

        • Avatar

          easy on jo jo, reality slips in and out. sometimes jo jo is a famous scribe, sometimes a Kevin or kyle fan. next year jo jo will once again be a forever fan of whomever the champion is. I’d love to be a little bird during jo jo’s next session.

          • Avatar

            I keep asking for proof, but poor “Echo” cannot provide any, because none exists. Take your delusions elsewhere. Maybe medication would help you. A mind is a terrible thing to lose.

  5. Avatar

    Meaning to reply to Jo with the previous.

    • Avatar

      Tough day, bud? Tough life?

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        Poor jo jo, age is slipping in again. Sad that now your throwing Harvick under the bus after picking him week after week the last few years. I guess jo jo isn’t enough for ya at home, but becoming a fantasy kyle fan, after the fact, seems just right for your mo. la di da tip toe through the tulips.

      • Avatar

        Echo, I don’t know what drugs you are taking, but I’ve never been a Harvick fan. I cheered for Bill Elliott, then Kyle Busch, now Busch and Chase. And I haven’t throw anybody under the bus – but you seem to be breathing in a lot of exhaust fumes to be so thoroughly confused SMH!

  6. Avatar

    Echo, I don’t know what drugs you are taking, but I’ve never been a Harvick fan. I cheered for Bill Elliott, then Kyle Busch, now Busch and Chase. And I haven’t throw anybody under the bus – but you seem to be breathing in a lot of exhaust fumes to be so thoroughly confused SMH!

    • Avatar

      repeating yourself is a sign you should follow up on during your next session. sometimes aging is a slow process, but some slip in and out of reality and don’t even realize it. poor jo jo. but hey, if your happy then keep on believing whatever it is today. lol I bet a year from now you are a forever fan of that champion too. keep it up, your on a happy roll.

      • Avatar

        How about you prove that I’ve ever been a Harvick fan? I know that’s asking a lot of someone who has selective memory, but just find one instance in any previous article’s comments where I’ve said I was a fan of his. Or are you slipping into that slow (or in your case, advanced) process of aging? Or maybe you are having trouble with understanding. English as a second language, perhaps?

        However, I guess in the current climate, any fool can allege anything totally lacking in credibility and still expect people to believe it, even the POTUS. Why should an addled NASCAR fan like you be expected to any different? You are simply confused and that is a very worrisome sign indeed.

  7. Avatar

    Looks like we have a resident douche bag here at the site now. That should provide hours of entertainment.

    • Avatar

      Normally I avoid feeding the trolls, but the off season can get boring.

      • Avatar

        Yeah, it’s starting to look like we will all be spending a lot of time at home with the way the Covid deal is going right now. It will be nice to have a diversion. Like I said, hours of entertainment,,,, And it’s free!!!!

  8. Avatar

    “2021 will mark the first year running a number of NASCAR Cup Series races on the current schedule and the last with the current chassis and handling package”

    I hope so since 2020 was suppose to be the last year before COVID delayed it to 2021.

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