CRANDALL: Cup Series takeaways from a season like no other

John Harrelson / Motorsport Images

CRANDALL: Cup Series takeaways from a season like no other

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: Cup Series takeaways from a season like no other

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When we’re reflecting back on the 2020 racing season certain things will immediately come to mind, obviously led by the global pandemic and how it forced NASCAR to adapt to many schedule changes and reduced on-track activity.

The way the industry adapted and experimented in the face of adversity is the biggest takeaway from 2020. It was a tremendous feat to finish the schedule on time. And along those lines, we were reminded that the good teams continue to be good no matter the variables thrown their way.

Another takeaway from the season is that Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team are really good. OK, we already knew that, but Harvick seems to be getting better with age, and he is solidifying future NASCAR Hall of Fame status.

Those were a few of the obvious takeaways from this year. Here are a few others that stood out:

The All-Star Race is too short to be great at Bristol

Bristol Motor Speedway is a great racetrack, and logic says that putting the All-Star Race on a short-track would lead to an exciting race.

Wrong.

The All-Star Open had some fireworks with Michael McDowell and Bubba Wallace getting together and a few other torn-up cars, but the main event lacked a little bit of action.

Just like we’ve seen at Charlotte Motor Speedway the last few years, the leader drove away to an unchallenged victory. Kyle Busch did his best to hunt down Chase Elliott (main image), but the thing about Bristol is that it takes time to get worn in to where drivers can start digging on the outside. A 500-lap race at Bristol shows that, whereas a 140-lap All-Star Race without any other events before it to help lay down rubber just wasn’t long enough.

“I think we could definitely have the track prepared better if we did race here again,” said Kevin Harvick. “Heck, they didn’t even clean the outside lane one time. Never really had a chance to even get high enough to get that lane to come in. The second lane came in, a couple cars made a little bit of ground. The bottom was so dominant, you had to run most of your laps down there.”

Bristol is like any great action movie – it needs time to build to a dramatic conclusion.

Matt DiBenedetto is for real

If there is one thing everyone in auto racing knows, good drivers need good equipment to succeed. You can’t make a slow car go fast. Matt DiBenedetto took another big step forward in 2020 by showing he can be not only a consistent top 20 driver, but a playoff contender when in the right situation.

DiBenedetto took Wood Brothers Racing to the postseason for just the second time in the team’s history when he made the playoffs in 2020. In doing so, DiBenedetto should have made it clear that he can get the job done.

DiBenedetto gave Wood Brothers a taste of playoffs action. Image by Harrelson/Motorsport Images

The California native got a taste of running up front in the second half of 2019 when Leavine Family Racing began acquiring used Joe Gibbs Racing cars. In addition to making the playoffs, DiBenedetto had a career year in 2020 by putting up single-season highs in all statistical categories.

Even better, every year that DiBenedetto has been in the Cup Series, he has shown improvement from one season to the next. There should no longer be any question about whether he can get the job done.

Racing in the rain can work

Hold on, it isn’t what you think. Technically, Cup Series teams didn’t race in the rain at the Charlotte Roval because the deluge moved out of town before the green flag. But NASCAR officials decided not to completely dry the racetrack, which left the racing surface damp enough to create interesting strategies for drivers and teams.

Drivers were left searching for puddles to keep their rain tires cool, while on pit road, crew chiefs debated when the right time was to change to slicks with the track continuing to dry on its own.

Through the first stage, strategies were split, and it made for some great racing watching drivers either try to conserve their tires, or, like Ty Dillon, use slicks as an advantage to drive through the field.

The Xfinity race was perhaps not the best example, but NASCAR’s best can play well in the rain. Image by Kinrade/Motorsport Images

It was the opposite of what occurred in the Xfinity Series race. Heavy rain in the Saturday race resulted in many torn-up race cars and drivers who appeared to be in way over their heads. Mistakes and chaos lurked around every corner, and, while the madness provided great entertainment, it wasn’t exactly the best racing.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said winner AJ Allmendinger. “That was miserable, crazy, all at the same time.”

The variables for the Cup Series race were perfect. It wasn’t raining, but the track wasn’t dry either; the Goodyear rain tires performed as expected; and drivers showcased racing in adverse conditions can be done and done well.

Team Penske had good teams before, but new pairings make them better

Roger Penske knew what he was doing; that much was apparent early in the season. All three of his teams won races in 2020, and two of the three made the Championship 4 after he paired all three groups with a different driver. But what stands out here is that while all three teams were already successful, the new combinations make them even better.

A “kick in the pants” from a new-to-him crew chief Bullins was just what the doctor ordered for Keselowski in 2020. Image by Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won a combined seven races, and Keselowski admitted his new team was the kick in the pants he needed. The former champion became a bit complacent but was challenged anew with Jeremy Bullins and the new No. 2 team.

Meanwhile, Logano and Paul Wolfe both have a focus forward – an ‘all business all the time mentality’ – and are perfect for each other.

“I would say we’ve come a long way, and we have a long ways to go,” said Logano. “That makes me excited about the future – I’m probably even more excited about 2021 than what we’ve done so far. I feel like we’ve got a long road ahead of us being able to become more and more successful as we keep getting to know each other, seeing the growth we’ve had towards the end of the season.”

The only disappointment was Ryan Blaney winning just one race with Todd Gordon. However, that pairing is going to be good. I stand by my statement after the reshuffle announcement was made that Blaney is the biggest winner here. Yes, the No. 12 team picked a bad time to have some bad races when the playoffs started, and it resulted in an early exit; but they should have won multiple races in 2020.

Blaney led a career-high 668 laps and had an average finish of 13.8. That is barely behind the 13.7 average finish he put up a year ago, which is his career-best in the Cup Series. With a crazy 2020 behind them and now with some experience together, Blaney is primed to give Team Penske three genuinely dominant teams.

The newest version of Denny Hamlin is legitimate

Denny Hamlin winning six races in 2019 with Chris Gabehart could have been chalked up to simply coming out strong with a new crew chief. The real test is what comes after that – continuing to win and be consistent in the long run.

So, Hamlin coming out and winning seven races in 2020 showed that the right people are in the right place on the No. 11 team, and it’s rubbing off on the driver.

Clearly, all the right people in all the right places on the JGR No. 11 team. Image by Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Hamlin is having some of the best years of his career and, for the first time since 2009-10, finished in the top-five in the point standings in back-to-back years. Additionally, his mindset is also changing. Hamlin seems to be more at peace with his career, doesn’t appear to be bothered by questions about a championship, and is keeping focused on one win and one week at a time.

Hamlin said during the summer, “I’m racing more with my mind now than I am with my talent. I just feel like I have to be smarter. I have to really be strategic with my moves. I have to really put a lot of effort into thinking about putting myself in the right situation.”

It’s a good mindset to have, especially when paired with someone like Gabehart, who is very detailed oriented and methodical. Gabehart is the classic calm, cool, and collected crew chief and is a good leader for Hamlin.

Hamlin also putting in the work to better himself is going to continue to push this team forward.

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