The 2020 NASCAR season: 10 things you need to know as the sport returns

Geoff Magliocchetti
DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 01: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Snickers Throwback Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 02, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR is one of the first major North American sports leagues to return to live action. Here’s what you need to know as the season resumes.

Live sports are back, America, at least those of the pistoned variety.

NASCAR will be among the first major American sports leagues to return to live-action as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. All three of the organization’s national circuits will return to action in the coming days, beginning with the premiere Cup Series. Proceedings get underway with the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). The Cup Series will run two races at Darlington (the other coming on Wednesday night) with a lower-tier Xfinity Series race commencing on Tuesday. Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host all three national realms (including the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series) next week, complete with the Cup Series’  traditional running of the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.

The appetite of the American sports fan may lead to many new viewers for the sport. ESM has primed up what you need to know as things get back underway…

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

1. The First Lap in Sports’ Return

While NASCAR is indeed making a return, the comeback won’t exactly be a fully typical day at the races. 

In adherence to ongoing social distancing policies, the scheduled races will predictably be run sans spectators. Media attendees will be kept to a minimum and there will be no qualifying or practice sessions. The starting lineup for Sunday’s race will be determined by random drawings through divisions via car owner points standings (i.e., a random drawing of the top 12 will make up the first dozen spots). Qualifying will still be run for the 600-mile race on May 24. 

Pit stops will also look different, especially during competition yellow flags that will be thrown at a specific point in the race (it will come on lap 30 of Sunday’s event). During these caution sessions, cars will not gain or lose positions, provided they beat the pace car out of pit road. Teams are also limited to no more than 16 individuals at the track.

Sacrifices are already being made. Several tracks (including Sonoma Raceway, Chicagoland Speedway, and Richmond Internation Raceway) had to give up their dates as NASCAR intends to run full schedules.

It’s certainly not the perfect storm, but drivers are looking forward to the challenges presented and are confident that they will be able to adapt to the necessary changes.

“We’re going to be able to do this and it should be pretty effective,” Denny Hamlin said in a conference call last weekend. “Obviously there will be a huge microscope on how we’re doing things, making sure it’s done in a safe manner. For all of us, it’s just the unknown of making sure we’re doing it the right way. After the first week, I think it will be easier and people will have a better understanding. Certainly the first week there will be some questions that I’m sure drivers will have.”

2. Getting Finer in Carolina

NASCAR’s return comes in familiar territory, its hub of the Carolinas. Two of its most familiar tracks will host the opening, with Myrtle Beach’s Darlington dropping the green flag next Sunday and Wednesday before Charlotte duplicates the process further north next week. Both tracks hold special places in the hearts of fans and drivers alike.

Darlington is renowned for its treacherous semi-egg shaped track, earning a reputation as “The Track Too Tough to Tame” thanks to drivers’ repeated encounters with the wall and each other. It has hosted NASCAR races since 1950. Nearly seven decades of exciting races have ensued. One such occasion was the 2003 Carolina Dodge Dealers 400, when Ricky Craven held off Kurt Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history (0.002 seconds).

The unusual layout of Darlington often makes preparation and practice imperative, but that’s not possible in the current environment.

“The team aspect of things is going to be difficult because those guys are going to have to turn cars around, and your shop efforts are going to have to be really exceptional to prepare good cars,” William Byron said in another conference earlier this spring. “I think that, honestly for me as a driver, I’m just going to have to manage my time really well. I’m going to have to be in good physical shape but not be too worn out training too hard or anything like that.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing what that is like. I know our team on the 24 will do a good job of preparing and adapting to the circumstances, so I’m just looking forward to seeing how that plays out.”

After the Darlington events, the circuit shifts to Charlotte, the site of NASCAR’s headquarters and its Hall of Fame. Fans who are getting into the sport for the first time will certainly have their fill after the Coca-Cola 600. The race has annually been run on Memorial Day Weekend since 1961 and is the longest race on the NASCAR circuit at 600 miles (400 laps around the 1.5-mile track).

3. Feelin’ 22

If you’re looking for a name to root for, it’s probably not too late to jump on Joey Logano’s bandwagon. After all, it’s hard to top the year the 2018 Cup Series champion has been having so far.

The No. 22 Ford won two of the first four races on the Cup slate (including the most recent event in Phoenix) before its driver welcomed his second son alongside his wife Brittany last week. Logano holds the runner-up spot in the standings, a single point behind Kevin Harvick.

4. Hello, Newman!

The 2020 season began in February. as it always does, with the running of the Daytona 500. Hamlin’s third win in the event was overshadowed by a scary last-lap crash involving Ryan Newman. The No. 6 Ford was leading the race when it was inadvertently spun out by the No. 12 Ford of Ryan Blaney. Newman hit the wall hard, before his car flipped into oncoming traffic. After Corey LaJoie’s No. 32 machine slammed into Newman head-on, he crossed the finish line upside down in a shower of sparks.

After several tense hours, it was revealed Newman had sustained serious but non-life-threatening injuries. Less than 48 hours after the crash, he walked out of Halifax Medical Center alongside his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. Newman would miss the next three races to recover while Ross Chastain temporarily took over his Roush Fenway Racing car. Darlington will mark his first time back in the No. 6 car since the accident.

The pause has left Newman in a manageable position in terms of the playoffs. He restarts competition 54 points out of a playoff spot, though a win would certainly solidify his case.

5. A Familiar Face in An Unfortunate Case

Newman isn’t the only NASCAR star of the 2000s returning to the track. Matt Kenseth has emerged from retirement to pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. The ride was vacated after regular driver Kyle Larson used a racial slur during a streamed iRacing event.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup Series champion, has 39 Cup wins under his belt, including two triumphs in the Daytona 500. Ganassi’s No. 42 has been rather successful with top ten finishes in each of the last four final standings. His most recent race was the 2018 season finale (subbing for the fired Trevor Bayne in Roush Fenway’s aforementioned No. 6), but his competition is wary that it won’t take much for Kenseth to rediscover his racing groove.

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” said Hamlin, a teammate of Kenseth’s at Joe Gibbs Racing for five seasons. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse, but just different. So I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush towards the end. He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point!”

6. See You Again

It’s obviously the least of our concerns at this point, but the pause created a level of awkwardness in the final season of full-time racing for Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup champion confirmed that 2020 would still be his final season in Rick Hendrick’s No. 48 Chevrolet, refusing to budge from a plan established last November.

Johnson well might’ve been saving the best for last. After struggling over the past two seasons (his last win coming in June 2017 and missing out on the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career last year), the No. 48 began to resemble its old, victorious self. A late crash took him out of contention at Daytona but he followed it up with three consecutive finishes in the top dozen. That stretch includes a seventh-place showing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, the El Cajon native’s de facto home track and site of his first victory in 2002. Johnson was honored before the race and his family got things started by waving the green flag.

7. Cups by Hendrick

Johnson’s resurgence is only one of the positive stories coming out of the Hendrick Motorsports stables these days. The iconic race squad has amassed 16 NASCAR titles since its 1984 inception but had fallen on hard times in recent years. Granted, they were results other teams would potentially salivate over, but Hendrick cars have finished in the final standings’ top five only once since Johnson’s last title in 2016.

However, the team was on a roll at the time of the temporary shutdown. Hendrick’s quartet has united to lead 313 laps (led by Chase Elliott’s tally of 186) over the first four races and three of those drivers appear in the top five of the standings. Such a resurgence was prominently on display in Fontana, where Alex Bowman’s No. 88 led 110 of 200 laps en route to victory. While William Byron (currently 19th in the standings) may be struggling in the iconic No. 24 car, he was able to build momentum during simulated iRacing events that helped fill the void of sports in the pandemic’s early days. Byron won three of the seven virtual races run during the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series. His teammate Bowman likewise earned a win at pixelated Talladega.

8. King of the Hill

Speaking of iRacing, no one emerged from the simulated circuit better than Timmy Hill.

Standings were not kept in the Pro Invitational Series, but mathematics and NASCAR’s point system determined that Hill emerged as the de facto champion of the temporary circuit. He finished every race on the lead lap and finished no worse than 11th. His success probably should’ve come as no surprise, as he’s closing in on making 1,700 iRacing starts.

Hill’s actual racing career has been far less illustrious. Trapped in racing purgatory of microbudget teams, his best finish to date is a 14th place showing at the 2017 Indianapolis race. But his iRacing showcase may have been his ticket to at least start to turn the corner. His MBM Motorsports team is simply looking to finish the season, a task that became incredibly more difficult when they were forced to let go 30 employees during the shutdown. However, his performance allowed them to gain some extra sponsors for both Hill’s No. 66 Toyota and the Xfinity program. Hill probably won’t be contending for a title any time soon, but his success in the iRacing proceedings and how a small-budget team performs in these uncertain economic times will certainly be worth watching.

9. Minor League NASCAR

If you’re really looking to fill the live sports void in your life, you might want to keep track of the lower-tier national circuits as well. Thus far, the Xfinity series (the NASCAR equivalent of AAA-level baseball) has been dominated by a legacy selection. 19-year-old Harrison Burton (son of former driver Jeff) has finished in the top five in each of the first four races so far, part of a torrid start to his early NASCAR career (which includes a 12th-place finish in last season’s Truck standings). He’s pursued closely by Chase Briscoe at three points behind.

The Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series was only able to run two events before the shutdown. Grant Enfinger won the season-opening event at Daytona, besting Jordan Anderson by 0.010 seconds. Of note, Natalie Decker made history in that same race, as her fifth-place posting was the best by a female driver in Truck Series history. Veteran Truck Series driver Austin Hill currently leads the points in his No. 16 Toyota.

2020 NASCAR Cup Series Standings (After 4 of 36 Races)
Driver Points/Behind Wins Car/Primary Sponsor
1. Kevin Harvick 164 0 #4 Busch Ford
2. Joey Logano -1 2 #22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford
3. Chase Elliott -20 0 #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet
4. Alex Bowman -26 1 #88 Valvoline Chevrolet
5. Jimmie Johnson -33 0 #48 Ally Bank Chevrolet
6. Ryan Blaney -41 0 #12 PEAK Ford
7. Kyle Larson (out) -43 0 N/A
8. Aric Almirola -43 0 #10 Smithfield Ford
9. Matt DiBenedetto -46 0 #21 Menard’s Ford
10. Brad Keselowski -46 0 #2 Miller Lite Ford
11. Denny Hamlin -53 1 #11 FedEx Toyota
12. Kyle Busch -53 0 #18 M&M’s Toyota
13. Clint Bowyer -59 0 #14 Rush Trick Centers Ford
14. Chris Buescher -62 0 #17 Fastenal Ford
15. Martin Truex Jr. -68 0 #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota
16. Kurt Busch -74 0 #1 Monster Energy Chevrolet
17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr, -2 0 #47 Kroger Chevrolet
18. Bubba Wallace -3 0 #43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet
19. William Byron -3 0 #24 Axalta Chevrolet
20. Austin Dillon -13 0 #3 Dow Chevrolet
21. Erik Jones -13 0 #20 SportClips Toyota
22. Cole Custer (R) -17 0 #41 Haas Automation Ford
23. Corey LaJoie -22 0 #32 Ford
24. Ty Dillon -22 0 #13 GEICO Chevrolet
25. Tyler Reddick (R) -22 0 #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet

10. The Standings and the Playoff

Now a good a time as ever to update you on the NASCAR playoff picture.

As has been customary, the current plan is to run 26 “regular season” races. After such races, 16 drivers are invited to the ten-race “playoff” session. The easiest way to reach the playoffs is by winning races and finishing in the top 30 in points. If there are fewer unique winners than playoff spots, the rest of the field is filled via points. Once the playoff begins, each qualified driver’s point total rests at 2,000.

Drivers are seeded by a number of combined factors that accumulate into playoff points. These special tallies are earned via individual victories (five points each) and winning in-race stages (one point). The regular season champion also earned an additional 15 playoff points.

Once the playoff begins, elimination rounds are held in three-race increments. Drivers can automatically advance to the next round by winning one of three races in the interim. Four drivers per round are eliminated leading up to final, tenth race in which the best finisher wins the title.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags