CRANDALL: 2020’s Cup champ will stand alone

Matthew Thacker/Motorsport Images

CRANDALL: 2020’s Cup champ will stand alone

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CRANDALL: 2020’s Cup champ will stand alone

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Winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship is a big deal regardless of the circumstances, says Martin Truex Jr.

As such, Truex, who experienced what it was like to climb that mountain for the first time in 2017 (pictured above), doesn’t think that things will feel much different for whoever emerges on top after an extraordinarily unusual 2020 season.

“It would be huge for any team,” says Truex. “Obviously, the challenges this year have been unique and from that standpoint, maybe there would be some extra-special feelings from the crew for just the amount of work they’ve had to put in, or the challenges they’ve faced.”

If all goes according to plan, the postseason will remain as initially scheduled. It kicked off Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, and Richmond Raceway is up next. Bristol will be the elimination race for the first round.

Las Vegas, Talladega, Charlotte, Kansas, Texas, and Martinsville are to set the stage for the finale at Phoenix. But how the 16 teams who are competing for the championship got here has been anything but what was expected.

Chicagoland, Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and the first Richmond race fell off the schedule. The Daytona road course came in. A global pandemic forced the sport to pause for two months, then set in motion a relentless regular-season schedule of 22 races between May 17 and August 29 that included mid-week events and doubleheaders.

COVID-19 safety protocols are still forcing teams to work with limited rosters at the track. If possible, teams are keeping their road and shop crews separate and working in shifts. Engineers are working from home and communicating with their teams from afar during races. Driver interaction with the team, sponsors and media is virtual.

The list of differences in what those involved in the sport were doing in March and what they are doing now goes on. But the moral of the story is, 2020 is nothing like anyone has experienced before.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” says 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. “I think races like (New Hampshire where he won) are a perfect example of it. PJ1 (track resin) on the racetrack that has zero laps on it, super-treacherous. On top of that, no practice, no idea how your car is going to drive. You have to fire off in that corner, find a way to make it stick or the guy behind you is, and he’s going to beat you. It’s a heck of a challenge. I’ve never done anything like that.

Complex performance equations at places like New Hampshire make show-up-and-race events “a heck of a challenge,” says Keselowski. Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

“You’ve got to unload off the gate and be ready to go. Coming off a season last year where we had high downforce on the short tracks, at least, the cars had a lot of grip. Now it’s the opposite; cars don’t have very much grip at all. You start throwing all these things at the drivers, no practice, PJ1, low downforce, you’re starting to get back to seeing the drivers stand out and show their talent in the Cup Series.”

Joey Logano won two of the season’s first four races — back in a previous world. The 2018 series champion says a championship this year would mean no more or no less than it would in a typical season.

“It’s a championship, and that’s all that matters — the trophy on the little thing back here, and it’s reminding me how badly we want it,” he says, pointing at the 2018 silverware behind him. “No matter what the rules are, they’re the same for everybody. There’s going be a winner, and there’s going be a loser, and we just approach it the same way.

“Yes, we have to do things differently to achieve that trophy then we would have if it was a normal year, but the cards are dealt and we know what we’ve got, and we’ve just got to play them the best that we can.”

When asked about a championship, Kevin Harvick brings the focus back to the week-to-week mentality. His Stewart-Haas Racing group emphasizes being competitive week in and week out, which it did with seven wins in the first 26 races and claiming the regular-season title. Winning the championship is now a one-race deal, and Harvick acknowledges it’s hard to put that one week together, let alone a full 10 in the playoffs.

Harvick started the playoffs by winning once again. He now has eight this season and remains one of the favorites for the big prize. Harvick won his first title in 2014, the year the elimination format debuted.

“To have it all come together like it has says a lot already about our organization and the things that we’ve been able to accomplish in extreme circumstances,” says Harvick. “So winning a championship in this particular year would say a lot about the people, but being able to be competitive week in and week out and win races says a lot about the people already.”

The teams of Harvick and Denny Hamlin have stood above the rest in unloading ready to race without practice and qualifying. Hamlin has six wins.

“I think that any time you can show versatility in adverse conditions, you’re showing your strength,” says Hamlin. “That’s kind of what we’ve done this year. With everything that’s changed, our team has just done a phenomenal job of keeping it all together and, if anything, kind of exceeding in these extreme situations.

“I think it shows strength, certainly your preparation before you even get to the racetrack with the limited amount to no amount of practice. For me personally, I take a lot of pride in it.”

While everything leading up to a race is different, when the green flag waves, racing is still racing. A champion will be crowned the same way as always on November 8 at Phoenix, and there will be genuine emotion and celebration around the feat.

The traditional way to celebrate a title, as demonstrated by Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team last year, will give way to a different look in Phoenix. Russell LaBounty/Motorsport Images

Phoenix, like everything else, will be different, though. The grandstands will not be sold out, with only a crowd of about 20 percent capacity in attendance. There will be no crowded infield and pit road, overflowing with those eager to join the winning team in hysteria on the frontstretch.

NASCAR has not held a traditional victory lane since returning because of COVID. Drivers have climbed out to a quiet and empty winner’s circle, although recently, it appears the team has been able to come in at some point and get a commemorative, socially-distanced photo before pushing the car to inspection.

And so, sure, winning a championship in 2020 might not mean anything different than a regular season. However, it certainly will look and feel a bit different for those who have won it.

“It’s certainly going to be different,” says Truex’s crew chief James Small. “It’s also had some form of randomness in the fact that we’re going to do to the championship race and not have the ability to practice and dial your stuff in. That’s going to be a little bit different. It’s going to come down to who is prepared the best for that race.

“It’s no different than normal, but it will be special and it will be a testament to how great everybody’s at-shop preparation has been for that race. It’ll be a little different, I guess, in terms of being able to celebrate and things like that, so from that perspective winning the championship this year would be odd. But still, it’s going to be a great achievement for whoever does it. It’s not going to change that fact, that’s for sure.”

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