2020 NASCAR Cup Rookie of the Year mid-season review

Five months after the first green flag of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season waved, the series has reached its halfway mark of this year. During the first 18 races of the 36-race schedule, a lot has occurred within the sport both on and off the track. From Ryan Newman’s harrowing accident on the final lap of the Daytona 500 to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that paused the on-track racing from nearly two months, from the sport returning at Darlington Raceway in May to running doubleheaders and four to five division series races a week, this season has been like none other in recent years. Among the storylines that have been ongoing throughout this year’s racing season has been the battle for this year’s Rookie-of-the-Year title between six up-and-coming competitors working their way to emerge as the next future stars of the Cup Series.

Through the first 18 Cup races of this season, Tyler Reddick continues to lead the way in the rookie standings. Even though he is currently 17th in the regular-season standings and is 14 points shy of moving into the top-16 cutline to qualify for the Playoffs, Reddick has recorded a stage win at Talladega Superspeedway in June, the most top-10 results (six) and the best average result (17.17) among his five fellow rookie contenders. He is coming off a career-best result of second place at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished behind teammate and race winner Austin Dillon following a late strategic call for fuel only. His previous best result was fourth place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in June. In addition to his stats, another factor the Corning, California, native has displayed through the first half of this season is the speed to keep pace and contend against NASCAR’s elite on a weekly basis. With eight races remaining until the Playoffs is set, Reddick and his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE team led by crew chief Randall Burnett look to carry the speed and competitiveness throughout this season and from winning the previous two Xfinity Series championships towards contending for the 2020 Cup title.

Trailing behind Reddick is Christopher Bell. For Bell, it has been an up-and-down first half of his rookie Cup campaign that has seen a major improvement entering the second half of the season. For the first five races of the year, the Oklahoma native and the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota Camry team finished no higher than 21st, sustained two DNFs and were ranked 32nd in the regular-season standings. Since the second Darlington race in May through last weekend’s race at Texas, Bell has recorded five top-10 results and has worked his way up to 21st in the standings. His highlight run was at Pocono Raceway in June, the first of two Pocono races of the weekend, where he rallied from starting 36th to record a career-best fourth-place result ahead of former boss Kyle Busch. He is, however, 102 points below the top-16 cutline to make the Playoffs and needs to generate more strong results to come within reach of the Playoffs mark. With Bell and Leavine Family Racing’s future uncertain beyond 2020, the combo aims to strive for more and emerge as a competitive single-car organization for this season and beyond.

Also trailing Reddick for the lead in the rookie standings is Cole Custer. While Reddick leads this year’s rookie class, the thing that Custer has, and the others rookies do not have, is a win. That was the case in July, when Custer made a bold, four-wide pass for the lead on the final lap against top names like Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. to score his first NASCAR Cup career win in his 20th series start and in an upset fashion. The victory not only made Custer as the first rookie contender to win a Cup race since 2016, but it also guaranteed the Californian and his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang team a spot to this year’s Playoffs with an opportunity to contend for a Cup title. Prior to the win, Custer’s season started off on a low note with a lone top-10 result (ninth) at Phoenix in March along with seven results outside the top 20 in the first 16 races of the season. The turning point came at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Fourth of July weekend, where he recorded his first top-five finish in NASCAR’s premier series. A week later, ironically, Custer won his first Cup race at Kentucky. Despite being involved in a multi-car wreck last weekend at Texas, Custer and his team appear to adapt to this year’s weekly approach of starting in a position based on a random draw and diving into competitive race trim on race day. With the Playoffs a month away from commencing, Custer and his team have time to continue to gain more momentum and contend for more wins and points that would make the Californian not only a potential Rookie-of-the-Year winner, but also as a title threat for this season.

Next up is John Hunter Nemechek. A third-generation driver from Mooresville, North Carolina, the opportunity for Nemechek to move to the Cup level came in the final three races of the 2019 season, when he took over the Front Row Motorsports Ford entry driven by Matt Tifft. When Tifft suffered a seizure and opted to focus on his health, Nemechek was named one of two full-time competitors for FRM. He started off his rookie season strong by finishing 11th in the Daytona 500 before he recorded finishes outside the top 20 the following three races. He rebounded on a strong note at Darlington in May by finishing ninth for his first top-10 career result in the Cup level. He finished in the top 20 in four of the next seven races before recording a career-best finish of eighth at Talladega, a result where Nemechek was in race-winning position before being involved in an incident approaching the finish line. Thus far, he has finished in the top 20 nine times and he is currently 25th in the regular-season standings, 120 points below the cutline. With the recent string of consistent finishes inside the top 15 to 20 results and the momentum building for Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek looks to place an FRM entry into their first postseason appearance since 2016 and extend the on-track success previously displayed by his father, Joe.

Behind him is Brennan Poole. Like Bell, this season marks Poole’s first season ever racing in the Cup level, an opportunity that he announced last December when signing with Premium Motorsports. Unlike Bell, Poole has struggled in keeping pace with his fellow rookie contenders. His lone highlight was finishing 16th in the season-opening Daytona 500 in his first Cup race. For the next 17 races, he has finished no higher than 24th, which occurred at Bristol Motor Speedway in May. With the Texas native 32nd in the regular-season standings, he needs to grab a win and work his way into the top 30 in the standings to have any shot towards making this year’s Playoffs.

Last but not least is Quin Houff, who was promoted to a full-time driving role in StarCom Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE for the 2020 and 2021 Cup seasons. Since his start this season, however, Houff has finished no higher than 23rd, which he finished at Indianapolis. He has also recorded five DNFs this season, including last weekend at Texas, where a last-minute turn to slow and come to pit road resulted with him clipping the cars of Bell and Matt DiBenedetto before wrecking himself out of the race. It was a move that was met by sharp criticism by Brad Keselowski. He is 34th in the regular-season standings and like Poole, he needs to grab a win and generate consistent results towards the front to work his way into the top 30 in the standings and have any shot for this year’s Playoffs.

While Reddick leads the 2020 Cup Rookie-of-the-Year standings through the first half of this season, Harrison Burton leads the current Xfinity Series rookie standings while Christian Eckes leads the current Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series rookie standings.

The Cup rookie contenders will embark on an 18-race stretch to conclude this year’s racing season and strive for more on-track success for the future, beginning on Thursday, July 23, for the Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway. The race will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.


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