For the first time since 1971, NASCAR will start a season without an exclusive primary sponsor for its top division beginning with the 2020 Daytona 500. But don’t be fooled; a new decade has brought fresh optimism and excitement for a sport that feels like it’s finally turned a corner.
Television ratings, after years of cratering, were up 2 percent during the FOX portion of the schedule last year. (NBC’s coverage was flat after the sport’s championship race failed to bring in any fresh faces). 14 events had an increase in viewership last season, the most in any one year since 2013. The sport still averaged 3.3 million viewers over the course of its 36-race schedule; by comparison, the most recent NBA regular-season broadcast on ABC (Saturday’s Lakers game) pulled in 2.88 million.
Economically, Cup Series ownership remained its most stable in almost a decade. Teams chose to exercise a four-year extension on their charter agreement — it now matches the length of the TV contract as their working relationship with NASCAR continues to improve. Scheduling-wise, some ambitious ideas for 2020 (doubleheader weekend at Pocono Raceway, changing the season finale to one-mile ISM Raceway in Phoenix) are precursors to an even more dramatic schedule shakeup in 2021. The Gen-7 project is also a year away, the next evolution of NASCAR’s main chassis that all hope improve competition and reduce an ever-increasing dependence on aerodynamics.
On the racetrack, the sport begins with a Daytona 500 that feels like the most wide-open in recent memory. The Busch Clash, season-opening exhibition was a Demolition Derby of sorts in which only six cars finished the race; Erik Jones’ Toyota emerged the winner. A Ford of Joey Logano won the first Duel, pushed to victory by a fellow Blue Oval driver (Aric Almirola) before the Chevy pairing of William Byron and Jimmie Johnson took the second Duel.
That manufacturer parity has been paired with unpredictability at how the large, snarling drafting pack this race produces will play out. The Clash ended with a mishmash of wrecks, a comedy of errors as simple mistakes decimated the field. But the Duels on Thursday were far better, drivers learning the closing rate of this new tapered spacer package and managing to produce side-by-side action without wrecking the field.
Can they carry that momentum into Sunday? Or will another “Big One” decimate the action and pave the way for a major upset? Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon are two of the big surprises this race has produced over the past decade. Matt DiBenedetto, who’s never won at the Cup level, led the most laps in last year’s event before getting involved in a major wreck.
My thought is this time around, the veterans will have their say. Kevin Harvick seems to have a car that will move back and forth at will inside the draft. Johnson is running his final Daytona 500 and hasn’t won the big race since 2013 (or a points-paying Cup race itself, for that matter, since 2017). Logano has won once already in Speedweeks and is looking for his second 500 trophy in six years.
It all adds up to what should be one of the better NASCAR Super Bowls tomorrow. And how’s this breaking news to throw a wild card in the proceedings: President Donald Trump is not only attending but planning to drive a full lap around the racetrack in his limo.
Welcome to NASCAR 2020. It’s going to be one wild ride.
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse scored the first oval track pole in the history of JTG-Daugherty Racing and just the third of his seven-plus year career. It’s the perfect way to start off a new partnership that will debut in Sunday’s Daytona 500, marking the first start for Stenhouse outside of Roush Fenway Racing on the Cup level since 2011.
At least there will be some familiar faces helping out Sunday. Crew chief Brian Pattie made the move with Stenhouse from RFR while another familiar face, Mike Kelley, has come on board with JTG.
“That was a huge move for me going over there,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing people that I’m familiar with that have always been in my corner. To go to a whole brand new place, I think I’d have been lost not having them there.”
Who’s at the Back: Daniel Suarez
It’s been a tough fall from grace for the guy once tabbed as Carl Edwards’ replacement at the Cup Series level. But while Joe Gibbs Racing was fighting for a championship last year with three of their four programs, Suarez was one year removed from a pink slip. He wound up at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 and was not retained for 2020, forced to sign with an independent, single-car team in Gaunt Brothers Racing.
The No. 96 Toyota team didn’t have a guaranteed spot in this year’s 500, forcing them to race in during one of Thursday’s Duel qualifying events. That’s where Suarez fell victim to rough luck, in the wrong place at the wrong time when a miscommunication left Ryan Blaney making contact while on the way to pit road.
“Very simple,” Suarez said. “The No. 2 car, he started getting his hand out of the window super, super late. I didn’t see him and when I started getting out... the No. 12 was there. I’m getting tired of this.”
Suarez was probably also tired of interviews heading into the weekend. As the sport’s lone Mexican-born full-time driver in Cup, he was still here interviewing with Spanish-speaking outlets, among others about a disappointing first DNQ of what once was a promising Cup career.
Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension this week that will keep him driving the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford through the conclusion of the 2023 season. That will leave Harvick almost 48 years old by the end of the deal, three years older than Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and a soon-to-be-retired Jimmie Johnson when they hang it up. But Harvick sees no reason to cut his career short considering the team and equipment he’s with.
"Experience in this game matters a lot more than being able to run fast or jump high," Harvick said. "Our bodies don't matter as much as they do in other sports. When you look at a guy like Mark Martin, what was he, 55? Most of those guys were in their 50s when they quit. It is easier now than what it was then."
NASCAR team owners activated a four-year extension on their charter agreement that will keep it in place through the end of the 2024 season.Both sides felt the five-year deal has been beneficial, guaranteeing 36 spots in the 40-car field in every race to teams that have a charter. It’s assigned a franchise value to teams although their worth has been underwhelming thus far. In 2018, for example, former championship team Furniture Row Racing sold their spot in the field for just $6 million to Spire Motorsports. The Miami Marlins of Major League Baseball, by comparison, sold for $2 billion a few short years ago.
In a feel-good story at the back of the NASCAR Cup Series field, Timmy Hill made his first Daytona 500 after 92 career starts over almost a decade of Cup competition.Hill and small-time underdog MBM Motorsports had maxed out their credit cards to even make it to Daytona with their No. 66 car.
"I don't know how long it'll take to get this smile off my face,” Hill said, “As a kid, as a racecar driver, it's a dream to run in the Daytona 500. I'm fortunate enough that my car is very competitive [and capable] of running well in the race.
"We're here not to participate, we're here to race."
NASCAR by the Numbers
The total purse for this year’s Great American Race, a new record.
Drivers who have confirmed this Daytona 500 will be their last: seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and semi-retired Brendan Gaughan (starts 39th).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There are so many options here during a Speedweeks where manufacturer parity has reigned supreme. But two drivers have stood out for the way they’ve been able to maneuver through the draft: Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin already has two Daytona 500 trophies earned in the last four years and is hungry coming off a disappointing performance in Homestead-Miami Speedway’s Championship 4. Harvick has just one trophy from the Great American Race (2007) but is due for some good luck here. He hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any Daytona Cup event since 2016.
This is where you make your money in a superspeedway race. Yes, the longshots are important, but drivers in this range offer a high upside and are more likely than normal to survive the carnage and actually win rather than finish fifth.
Matt DiBenedetto, last year’s Daytona 500 story, tops the list in a new ride for Wood Brothers Racing. Searching for their 100th win, the No. 21 team has been here before, pulling off the upset with young Trevor Bayne nine years ago. Can Matty D earn his first win here and get over the hump? He looked awfully strong working with Harvick’s Ford product in the Thursday Duels.
Don’t sleep on young William Byron, who seemed to cross a threshold of his own with a surprise victory in Thursday’s second Duel race. Pushed to the front by Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, Byron brought home the first “win” for crew chief Chad Knaus since leaving Johnson’s side. At age 22, the third season for Byron could be his breakout performance on the Cup level similar to former No. 24 occupant Jeff Gordonback during his championship run in 1995.
Longshots galore at Daytona, right? Any of them are capable of a top-10 finish at a track that breeds underdog performances. But two drivers stand out. Ross Chastain, who had a top-10 finish at the Daytona 500 last year, has support from Chip Ganassi Racing for this year’s event. The team he’s driving for, Spire Motorsports, had a surprise rain-shortened victory with Justin Haley last year and knows these races are one of the few opportunities they have to cash in on a top finish.
I’d also watch the No. 62 of Brendan Gaughan as he navigates Daytona a final time. The Beard Motorsports team focuses on superspeedways only and is a strong contender for every part-time start they make. Gaughan does come with higher risk, though as he’s not running for points and will be aggressive in his last 500 appearance. Wrecking out is not a concern for this driver... but it will be for your fantasy total.
What Vegas Thinks
Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Brad Keselowski led the way on Vegas insider charts I’ve seen with 10/1 odds. A good longshot no one’s talking about? Check 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, at least 30/1 on most boards.
What I Think
I’m going to go with Kevin Harvick for his first Daytona 500 win in 13 years. His ability to maneuver through the draft and veteran experience makes the difference down the stretch.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.