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.
Chase Elliott's first #CupSeries title has led to the most first-day merchandise sales of any #NASCAR champion in the past decade, a good sign for the racing body as it tries to build its next generation of superstars (@A_S12).https://t.co/C8XSNUnK5y pic.twitter.com/Zvq5j8wM6G
— Sports Business Journal (@sbjsbd) November 9, 2020
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!