2020 NASCAR Cup Series Season Review – Passing of the Torch
As Jimmie Johnson stepped out of his iconic #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the final time as a full-time NASCAR driver, his rising star teammate Chase Elliott was busy celebrating his maiden Cup Series title in Phoenix.
The 24-year-old became on Sunday the third-youngest driver to ever win a Cup Series championship. Elliott follows in the footsteps of his mentor Jeff Gordon, who was also 24 when he won his first title back in 1995.
Rapid rise to the top
Elliott’s rise to fame has been meteoric, becoming competitive immediately in his first full season in 2016, winning Rookie of the Year. Elliott quickly became the new face of the sport in the wake of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement.
The Hendrick Motorsports #9 driver has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award every year since Earnhardt Jr’s retirement and looks set to hold that honour for many more years to come.
Elliott’s season was one of frustration for much of the year. Whilst 5 wins and 15 top 5 finishes are stats of a worthy champion, his team missed out on another 5 victories through bad luck, misplaced strategy, or costly errors on pit road.
However, when it counted, Elliott was the man to beat in the playoffs. He recorded the best results of anyone through the final 10 races of the season. Elliot was always a factor for the win almost every week, before winning the final 2 races at Martinsville and Phoenix to win the “Championship 4” format.
The other 3 drivers featuring in the championship finale would all have been worthy champions themselves.
The Title Contenders
Denny Hamlin, one of the greatest drivers to never win a championship, had one of the best seasons of his career, and arguably was the second-best driver over the course of 2020.
7 wins and 18 top 5 finishes are stats worthy of a first title, but sadly Hamlin struggled in comparison to his Championship 4 rivals in Phoenix to finish 4th.
2018 Cup Champion Joey Logano had a relatively quiet season, but once again became a force in the Playoffs and came close to his second title. Logano picked up 2 wins in the first 4 races of the season but then went under the radar until the Playoffs, where a win at Kansas put him in the title showdown. Logano’s short-run pace on Sunday was strong, but he faded on the long final run to finish 3rd.
Brad Keselowski came close yet again to his second title, but ultimately came up short despite having searing pace on the long runs in Phoenix, finishing runner-up to Elliott.
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The Team Penske driver was his usual ultra-consistent self, with an average finish of just 10.2 over the season. 4 wins and 13 top 5s however showed that he didn’t quite have the outright speed of some of his title rivals.
However, the strongest driver of all throughout the 2020 NASCAR season, didn’t even feature in the Championship 4!
Kevin Harvick had one of the best seasons of the modern era, picking up 9 wins, 20 top 5s and a stunning average finish of 7.3. Harvick should’ve gone on to the final showdown in Phoenix with a title shot, but for mediocre finishes in both Texas and Martinsville meaning that the Stewart-Haas driver missed out in the Round of 8 to Keselowski on points.
Highs and Lows
Harvick’s season was still less disappointing than defending champion Kyle Busch’s though. The favourite to retain his crown, Busch had one of the most difficult seasons of his career, threatening to go winless for the first time. A victory with just 3 races to go in Texas to kept his winning streak alive.
Elsewhere, rookie of the year Cole Custer picked up a maiden victory in Kentucky. Fellow rookie Tyler Reddick also showed huge promise for the future with a number of impressive performances.
Bubba Wallace had an encouraging year for Richard Petty Motorsports, so much so that he’ll be joining up with NBA legend Michael Jordan to form a new team in 2021 in partnership with Denny Hamlin.
2021 and Beyond
NASCAR’s points system has its critics, and undoubtedly the best driver over the whole season did not go on to win the championship. Everyone knows the game, though, and Chase Elliott peaked at the right time to take his first of perhaps many titles.
With Kyle Larson coming back from suspension to replace Jimmie Johnson as Elliott’s Hendrick teammate for 2021, alongside fellow promising young talents Alex Bowman and William Byron, the future seems particularly bright once again for Rick Hendrick’s Chevrolet squad.
Can Elliott follow in the footsteps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon to become another Hendrick legend? Only time will tell!