Believe it or not, nearly two months have passed since the NASCAR Xfinity Series was in action. Yes, the offseason is more than half over. Woo!
Before you know it, cars will be on track for the 2021 season opener at Daytona International Speedway, where teams will spend two weeks as the series will run the road course (first of seven for the season) in the second race of the season.
With the full-time additions of AJ Allmendinger, Jeb Burton, Daniel Hemric, two entries for Our Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing fielding a full-time driver (Myatt Snider) for the first time since 2019, the immediate future of the series is bright. There’s going to be a legitimate battle for teams to make the postseason, as 15-16 teams realistically have a shot — and that’s just of those who’ve announced a full-time run so far for 2021.
But enough looking ahead. It’s time to reflect back on an action-packed 2020 season that saw eight series regulars visit victory lane, Ford dominate the season despite having just two cars on track and organizations having to overcome the 10-week shutdown due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike previous years where I’ve reviewed the season in three separate columns, we’re doing things differently this year. This post will be focused on different categories, highlighting drivers and teams for their standout performances… or not so much.
The only thing faster than the six months that sped by between NASCAR’s return at Darlington Raceway to its championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway was Chase Briscoe.
Prior to the 2020 season kicking off at Daytona, Briscoe stated he needed at least eight wins to secure his future in the sport past Phoenix. Boy, would he ever do that.
The No. 98 team scored its first win of the campaign at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second race of the season. Two weeks later, the sport was shut down. But when it picked back up at Darlington, it was Briscoe who had a thrilling battle with Kyle Busch to score the victory (more on that later).
In the first race of a doubleheader at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Briscoe went six laps down, only to gain all of them back en route to a seventh-place finish, a moment that’s often forgotten. Oh, yeah, he won the second race in South Beach. That was the first of three victories in a four-race stretch, picking up trophies at Pocono Raceway and the inaugural event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The No. 98 won an impressive five times in the opening 13 races of the season.
As I look back it still hasn’t sunk in what we did this weekend let alone this season so far. So honored and blessed to get to drive for such an amazing team. Here are a few of my favorite moments from Saturday. pic.twitter.com/3W5V5PNGXw
— Chase Briscoe (@ChaseBriscoe_14) July 6, 2020
Then a brief summer slump hit Briscoe, though he still had the quickest car on a weekly basis. He went a month and a half without winning, earning his sixth victory of 2020 at Dover International Speedway in late August. But he closed the regular season with a win at Bristol Motor Speedway, following that up by leading 164 of 200 laps in Sin City to lock himself into the Round of 8. Through the first four postseason races, he led 72.1% of all laps (419 of 581) and locked himself into the Championship 4 via a triumph at Kansas Speedway.
Come Phoenix, Briscoe came up short of hoisting the championship but had one of the best seasons in recent memory. Nine victories (second most in a single season for Xfinity regulars in series history), 16 top-five finishes and 1,032 laps led highlighted his career highs.
The current playoff format doesn’t always reward the best driver or team over the course of the season. But that doesn’t mean Briscoe’s season was a failure — in fact, it’s the opposite, as he’s going full-time Cup racing next year with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Though Briscoe clearly had the best season, you could argue it was a toss-up for best driver with Austin Cindric, who won the title and scored five wins in a six-race scorching hot summer stretch.
Who are we kidding, it’s got to be Briscoe’s SHR team. The No. 98 Ford led the series in victories and laps led, always in the fight for the win.
Aside from those two statistics, it’s scary how similar Briscoe’s 2019 and 2020 seasons were for SHR. His top 10 total was actually down from 26 to 23 in 2020, and his average finish was .2 positions worse (8.2 in 2019, 8.4 in 2020). The No. 98 scored 27 lead-lap finishes in both seasons and had just one DNF each year.
— Ford Performance (@FordPerformance) October 18, 2020
Nonetheless, what SHR did with just one entry is remarkable. Even more, what Ford Performance did with just two cars is unheard of, combining to win 15 of 33 races between Briscoe and Cindric. Surely the competition is glad Briscoe has gotten the nod to move to Cup.
Most Improved Driver
When Noah Gragson moved to JR Motorsports for the 2019 season, I thought it was a mistake. Sure, the Las Vegas native was coming off a season in the Camping World Truck Series where he made the Championship 4, but he’d earned just two victories in two full-time seasons with Kyle Busch Motorsports, hands down the best Truck team at that time .
In Gragson’s rookie season, there were flashes of maturity and improvements as a racecar driver. But he was the only full-time JRM driver to not find victory lane, though he finished eighth in the championship standings with an impressive 22 top-10 finishes.
Heading into 2020, Gragson had a lot to prove. The No. 9 team immediately got into the win column, scoring his first series victory at Daytona. By the fifth race of the season at Darlington, he’d already led more laps (90) than his entire rookie season (72).
In the seventh race of the year, Gragson scored a controversial win at Bristol, moving JRM teammate Justin Allgaier out of the way with four laps to go. That led to frustration inhouse, and the drivers went on to have multiple run-ins throughout the season.
During the summer months, Gragson got into a post-race altercation with Harrison Burton at Kentucky Speedway and moved Riley Herbst out of the way the following week at Texas Motor Speedway. Both incidents led to people questioning if the driver had really made improvements as a racecar driver or just being too aggressive on the track.
Even so, Gragson was stout in the postseason, scoring finishes of second, third and second in the opening round. But when the Round of 8 began at Kansas, the No. 9 was involved in an incident with playoff drivers Cindric and Ross Chastain. By finishing last, Gragson was in a must-win scenario at either Texas or Martinsville Speedway.
Come the final lap at Texas, it looked like Gragson was going to clinch a spot to Phoenix until Burton got around the No. 9 on the final corner of the last lap. Of course, Gragson was fuming, believing his car got too tight. He went on to finish the year with finishes of third and second.
Congrats @AustinCindric on the ship! Fun race. Ended up p2. 2 3 2 36 2 3 2. Thank you Johnny Morris, Rusty Sellars, Mat & Evan, Brent, and Howard for a great season! Ready for homestead next weekend! #LFG #FEA @BassProShops @TrueTimber @blckriflecoffee pic.twitter.com/WWTsQItoj3
— Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) November 8, 2020
Most Improved Team
The layup choice here is Kaulig Racing. After all, the team scored five victories in 33 races (76 starts between three drivers), after having just two in its first four years of existence (150 starts). But sometimes it’s nice to be different.
Some of the best racing in all of NASCAR is the middle of the field in the Xfinity Series. While the top 11 teams separated themselves in 2020, the battle from 12th to say 25th is tight, and on any given week those positions are interchangeable.
Want proof? Mike Harmon Racing scored an eighth-place finish at Kentucky with Kyle Weatherman, the first top-10 finish in team history. MHR is my choice for most improved team.
— Mike Harmon Racing (@mhrracing) July 10, 2020
Why does a small organization that finished 30th and 34th in the owner standings, respectively, get the nod? Let’s compare 2020 to Mike Harmon‘s first 11 years as a team owner.
In 33 events this year (65 starts across two teams), MHR scored 21 top-20 finishes. Bayley Currey, the team’s leading driver scored a team-high nine top 20s. The success rate of 50.8% doesn’t sound too impressive, right? Well, when putting that up against the team’s total of four in its first 253 performances leading into 2020, it’s quite impressive.
Much of the success came from securing the most funding in team history. Team owner Harmon told Frontstretch in November he spent more money on tires on this season than the previous three years combined. If the team can continue its upward trajectory, it could be battling for a top 20 to 25 in the owner standings in 2021.
I’ve said this for years, but the Xfinity Series puts on the best racing in NASCAR, in part because of its aerodynamic package as well as the composite body on the car. Drivers can beat the hell out the right side of the car and still be in contention come the end of the race.
In addition, the Xfinity cars often have a lot of off-throttle time, much more than the two other national touring series.
Case in point: Darlington in September.
The entire race was solid, as Denny Hamlin, in his only race of the season, started shotgun and rocketed through the field taking the lead in just 33 circuits. The No. 54 team would struggle on pit road, only for the 44-time Cup winner to race back to the lead.
But remember that battle for the win?
With over 20 laps to go, Hamlin caught Chastain for the lead. But the Xfinity regular didn’t nudge, bouncing off the wall as Hamlin did the same. Meanwhile, Brandon Jones was catching the leaders.
It all came to a head coming to the white flag when Hamlin tried a big slide job move on Chastain and bounced off the wall. The No. 10 lost its nose and also pancaked the wall. Meanwhile, Jones was in the right place at the right time and went on to score his third victory of the season.
— Xfinity Racing (@XfinityRacing) September 6, 2020
The final 20 laps of that race was edge-of-your-seat, thrilling racing, which is a reminder of when racing is good, it can be really good.
Darlington II is my choice, though I would allow Darlington I, Charlotte Motor Speedway in May and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course as potential candidates. And for whatever reason, the monsoon race at the Charlotte ROVAL was highly entertaining, though extremely dangerous.
Remember that thrilling finish I spoke of earlier between Briscoe and Busch at Darlington? Not only was it superb racing, but Briscoe was also racing with a lot on his mind.
Originally, the Xfinity race was slated to run on May 19. But Mother Nature was having none of that, and NASCAR postponed the race until May 21 due to rain.
Prior to the event, Briscoe posted on social media that he and his wife Marissa had just learned their unborn child’s gender on May 18. But during a 12-week exam the following day a fetal doppler test failed to detect a heartbeat.
Unfortunately, the Briscoes had a miscarriage. More heartbreaking is Briscoe wasn’t at the test May 19 with his wife, as he was preparing to race the 200-mile event at Darlington that was eventually pushed back to May 21.
The fact Briscoe even had the mindset to race two days later is mind blowing, but the fact he went toe-to-toe with Busch — the best Xfinity driver in history — for the victory made it that much more special.
Sure, paint was swapped and it was as incredible racing, but that doesn’t weigh in comparison to the emotions that Briscoe was going through, who was crying behind the wheel when he took the lead for the first time. The fact he was able to keep his composure under control and outduel Busch simply makes it the most heartwarming moment of the season.
— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) December 13, 2020
Expected More From
Many Xfinity drivers and teams overachieved in 2020, and the sanctioning body delivered during trying times. But Chastain didn’t score a single win with Kaulig, which hands down had its best season to date.
Yes, Chastain was most consistent driver in the series; his average finish of 8.2 and 27 top-10 results topped the series. His 553 laps led (48.4% of Kaulig Racing’s laps led in five-year history) was impressive as well. On the flip side, he scored just three stage wins all season long, the first not coming until late August.
And come the playoffs, the No. 10 team didn’t show that same consistency that it had in the regular season. In seven postseason races, Chastain had three finishes outside the top 10; in the first 26 events, he had three such finishes.
Sure, some of the results in the playoffs weren’t his own fault. In the opening race of the Round of 8, Anthony Alfredo put the No. 10 Chevrolet in the wall; Chastain lost some of his aero balance and finished 12th. The following week at Texas, he triggered a four-car pileup on a late race restart, going on to finish 12th. After the cutoff race at Martinsville Speedway, he was on the outside looking in as his teammate, Haley, was to the good.
Haley ended the season third in points with three victories (all on superspeedways). Allmendinger picked up two victories in just 11 starts. Chastain couldn’t get the No. 10 car to victory lane when expectations were high for the Florida native. That’s a small disappointment.
Nonetheless, Chastain is moving to the Cup Series full time, competing for Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 42 Chevrolet. His consistency, work ethic and speed paid off.