A look back at NASCAR's topsy-turvy first half of 2020
The 2020 Super Start Batteries 400 kicks off the second half of the NASCAR Cup Series season. Kansas Speedway will host the third 1.5-mile oval in a row on the schedule before a much-needed 10-day breather. It'll be the longest time off for the Cup level since its return from a two-month COVID-19 suspension in mid-May.
I've already given out some NASCAR midseason awards this week. So in this space, let's take a breather ourselves and simply take a look at where the sport stands halfway through the year.
Let's start by taking a moment to once again congratulate NASCAR on being able to restart effectively in the middle of a national pandemic. Despite several obstacles to the sport's return, more rain delays than at any time in the modern era and off-track controversies (Confederate flag ban, the Talladega noose), they ended the FOX portion of the schedule down one percent in viewership. That's simply incredible considering the circumstances. Remember, the Daytona 500 was rain-delayed and run on a Monday; a "normal" rating for that race would have left NASCAR up a few percentage points.
On the track, eight races remain until the 2020 NASCAR playoffs and four drivers have clinched a spot in the field of 16. Barring injury or unexpected catastrophe, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano will make the field by winning at least twice through 18 events. None of those drivers is a major surprise: all but Hamlin are former champions and two (Harvick, Hamlin) made the Championship 4 last season.
Six other drivers have all but secured a bid by winning once through the season's first half: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Cole Custer, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, and Martin Truex Jr. NASCAR guarantees up to 16 playoff positions to race winners (as long as they stay inside the top 30 in points) so, barring some bizarre circumstances, they have nothing to worry about.
That leaves six spots left to fight for. Right now, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, and Jimmie Johnson would make the field through their position in the standings. If no new winners pop up, there's only a handful of drivers left able to catch them. William Byron, Tyler Reddick, and Erik Jones are the only trio within striking distance at this point.
That means everyone from Bubba Wallace on back in the standings needs to win a race in order to make the postseason. That list includes a number of heavy hitters: 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman, hotshot rookie Christopher Bell, and restrictor plate specialist Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All of them are capable under the right circumstances, especially with events like Daytona's first-ever road course race and a superspeedway finale at the same track still on the schedule for August.
Up front, there's parity, but only in the sport's upper class: a familiar slate of multi-car teams are sharing the spoils. Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing each have five wins apiece. Hendrick Motorsports has two while Richard Childress Racing broke through for the first time in 2020 last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. No single-car team has won since Justin Haley's rain-shortened Daytona upset in July 2019.
Over on the manufacturer side, Ford is on pace for its second title in three years. Ford has won 10 times, twice Toyota's total while Chevrolet is sitting at just three victories. A distant third, the Bowtie Brigade is poised to continue their title-less streak after winning every manufacturer's championship from 2003 through 2015.
Will Kansas change any of these trends? Not necessarily. The last four winners at the track are all inside the top six in this year's point standings. They're all from organizations that have won multiple times in 2020.
But then again, don't things tend to come in threes? Kentucky Speedway gave us a shocking ending with Custer, the rookie, charging to a NASCAR Overtime victory from sixth place. Last week saw RCR's Dillon use pit strategy to gain the lead, then keep it in clear air during the closing laps at Texas. Is there room for a third Cinderella story before NASCAR takes its short summer break?
It would be a great way to start the second half.
Super Start Batteries 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Track: Kansas Speedway (Kansas City)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Richard Childress Racing
Kudos to Dillon and his crew chief, Justin Alexander, for playing the track position game along with rookie teammate Tyler Reddick. Their decision to finish the race on older tires got them up front and they stayed there, keeping faster cars behind them over a number of restarts. The end result was the first RCR 1-2 finish for the program since Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2011.
Dillon now has three victories, including two crown jewel NASCAR events (Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600).
Who's at the Back: Quin Houff
Houff, in his first year driving for Starcom Racing, is still seeking a top-20 finish after going 0-for-18 in the season's first half. But Texas produced his biggest rookie mistake yet, an ill-timed dive onto pit road in front of traffic. A huge wreck ensued in the middle of green-flag pit stops that changed the outcome of the race, trapping several leaders midpack and allowing the Dillon/Reddick pit stop strategy to take place.
Plenty of criticism followed, from Matt DiBenedetto to veteran Brad Keselowski. The latter suggested drivers like Houff should get demoted to lower series in the future for repeated bonehead moves that result, in part, from a lack of experience.
But Houff has stood his ground this week, claiming he couldn't see due to a mirror that fell off during the race. The rookie also made pointed comments on Corey Lajoie's podcast this week that few, if any drivers, on the grid criticizing him even know who he is halfway through a rough rookie season.
NASCAR has decided not to allow practice or qualifying on race weekends the rest of the season. The decision is due to driver and crew safety while limiting at-track time in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials feel like the racing has remained competitive although they're looking at revising the starting lineup procedure (currently done through a random draw based on owner points) once the playoffs begin in September.
2011 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year Andy Lally is returning to the stock car racing. He'll run a limited schedule with the No. 02 of Our Motorsports at Daytona's road course along with Road America next month in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Tony Kanaan was announced as the first major driver of Tony Stewart's new SRX Racing Series. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner is retiring from full-time open-wheel racing after the 2020 season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead changes Sunday at Texas. That's the second-most for any race this season (Talladega Superspeedway had 57).
Straight races where the Cup Series winner started outside the top 10. (Austin Dillon started 21st at Texas). That's the first time that's happened since 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Some usual suspects lead the list here. Chase Elliott has three straight top-four finishes at Kansas, a win, and 93 laps led since the fall of 2018. He's also got momentum remaining from an All-Star Race win last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Denny Hamlin, meanwhile has three top-five finishes and no run worse than 16th in his last five Kansas starts. Impressive from start to finish last fall, he led 153 laps for his first win at the track since 2012.
Those are my top picks but Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., and Joey Logano all have wins and consistency at this place within the last five years. Two of these that work for you should lead to success.
Aric Almirola was strong at Kansas early in his career, leading 69 laps in 2012 before crashing out with Richard Petty Motorsports. He hasn't led a single lap at the track since and was a nondescript 12th and 23rd in 2019. I don't care. Ride the hot hand here (and a cheaper price) for a driver who hasn't finished worse than 10th in his last seven starts.
There were few racetracks last year Jimmie Johnson put two full races together. Kansas was one of them. A sixth and 10th-place finish last year give hope to the No. 48 team they can right the ship Thursday after an awful month of July. (COVID-19 diagnosis, Kentucky wreck, invisible in the All-Star Race, Texas wreck).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing are due for some good luck after another devastating crash at Texas. Four straight top-20 finishes at Kansas and a respectable average finish (17.8) provide hopes for recovery.
Rookie Tyler Reddick scored his first Cup Series top 10 at the spring Kansas race last year. He'll be priced high after a second-place finish, perhaps above the lower tier, but worth every penny to squeeze into your roster. On the edge of a playoff bid, the No. 8 team is poised for another spectacular run.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick is once again the favorite to win. The series co-leader with four victories sits at 4/1 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Chase Elliott is next on the list at 6/1.
You like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for fantasy? Think lightning can strike three times? He's sitting at 125/1 as a longshot bid.
What I Think
I'm going to say things do come in threes. How about Aric Almirola cashing in on his recent hot streak with a stirring victory at this 1.5-mile oval he nearly won at eight years ago.