It has been six months (28 weeks; over 190 days) since the drop of the first green flag of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, which occurred at Daytona International Speedway for the 62nd running of the Daytona 500. Since the start of the season in February through last weekend in the second half of August, a lot has happened both on and off the track.
It has forced the competitors, teams and the sport to change its approach prior to and following a racing event in looking out for the social well-being of others while also continuing to be competitive towards one another for wins and points. Now, following a 25-race Cup regular-season stretch spanning seven months, it all comes to the final regular-season event of the season that will determine the 16 competitors who will contend in this year’s postseason battle for the championship and where it will all be determined…at Daytona.
Flashback to February 16 and 17 when the Daytona 500 occurred; the season started off on a harrowing note when veteran Ryan Newman was involved in a vicious accident approaching the finish line while competing for the win as he rolled upside down and was rammed into the driver’s side by the on-rushing Corey LaJoie before he came to a rest on his roof with flames and fuel leaking out of his car. For nearly two days, the racing community froze while awaiting Newman’s status as he was extracted from his car and transported to a local hospital in Florida. Then came the photo and the clip of Newman walking and exiting the hospital holding the hands of his two daughters. For approximately a month, all seemed to return to normal and the 2020 racing season could resume with a lot of anticipation on the line.
Then came the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March that changed everything. With a number of races postponed, all on-track activities wiped clean from the slate following the opening NASCAR races (four Cup, four Xfinity and two Truck races) and a season on a hiatus along with the rest of the world, NASCAR was faced with a challenge like none other in previous seasons. While the competitors turned to racing online and attended to personal matters for nearly two months, it was no secret that all were anxious to return to the race track and reignite their competitiveness since the start of the season.
Then, like a spark igniting into flames, the season was back to on-track racing in May after NASCAR released its first installment of a revised schedule across the Carolinas followed by another wave across the East Coast. Following a triumphant return throughout May, which included a number of national division races run at Darlington Raceway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway, the season started to come into full swing and became salvageable with NASCAR racing slated on weekdays and multiple series competing twice or three times a day in a revised schedule featuring familiar racing venues. Additionally, doubleheader and triple-header series races on weekends turned into quadruple-header weekends or even went as high as featuring five major division races per weekend.
Of course, with a season being salvaged, sacrifices to the schedule were made as tracks that include Chicagoland Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Watkins Glen International, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Iowa Speedway, Eldora Speedway and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park cancelled their scheduled racing events this season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. New to this year’s Cup regular season amid the schedule changes include weekday races at tracks that include Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway and at Kansas Speedway, the All-Star Race running at Bristol in July, a pair of doubleheader races at Michigan International Speedway and at Dover International Speedway to go along with a Pocono Raceway doubleheader near the end of June and the first stock car racing event at the Daytona International Speedway Road Course.
In the midst of a salvageable season and with races being checked off a handful at a time per week came a new weekly approach for the competitors and teams to piece together their cars and equipment in time for race day and race trim with no practice nor qualifying sessions held prior to the main event. It was not an easy task for the competitors and crew members as they also had to remain vigilant, healthy, strong and aware of their surroundings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with competitors like Jimmie Johnson, Austin Dillon, Brendan Gaughan and Spencer Davis being diagnosed with the disease at least once.
In addition, throughout June, the NASCAR community paused for a moment of unity and solidarity towards the social justice movement and following a number of deaths and incidents involving racial injustices towards African Americans. This included the stance of solidarity against racism all competitors and teams exemplified at Talladega Superspeedway on June 22 towards Bubba Wallace, driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE and NASCAR’s lone African-American competitor in the Cup Series, when a noose was discovered in Wallace’s garage stall prior to race day, though the FBI investigation concluded that Wallace was not a victim of a hate crime.
One thing that remained unchanged since the on-track season resumed and amid the challenges across society was the competitiveness shared amongst the drivers and the teams towards one another while battling for wins, records/milestones, every point and every position as possible through every lap and every turn.
Since the season resumed on May 17 at Darlington through last weekend’s doubleheader events at Dover International Speedway on August 22-23, NASCAR checked off 22 Cup races in 99 days (including the All-Star Race at Bristol). During the 99-day span and including the Xfinity Series and the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, NASCAR also checked off 50 races off of its revised schedule.
Finally, with the Cup schedule back to its regular, unchanged weekend approach of racing and done from midweek racing and additional doubleheaders for the time being, this year’s regular season comes full circle with the final race prior to the Playoffs set to occur back at Daytona International Speedway. Already set to occur on Saturday, August 29, the regular-season finale at Daytona, though it can provide the unexpected, promises to be a thrilling one with the competitors on the bubble or on the outside of the Playoff cutline giving it their all to keep their championship hopes for this season alive. Following Daytona and the conclusion of a long regular season that includes the start in February, the 10-race stretch in the Playoffs will commence on September 6 back at Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500.
Currently, 13 competitors have locked up spots for this year’s Playoffs (10 based on regular-season wins and three based on points) led by this year’s regular-season champion Kevin Harvick following a 25-race regular-season stretch. Teammate Clint Bowyer can potentially clinch a spot in the 2020 postseason should he record three or more stage points within the first two stages at Daytona or if he finishes 34th or better this upcoming Saturday. That leaves two spots up for grabs with Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron occupying the spots inside the cutline following Dover while others that include Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, rookie Tyler Reddick, rookie Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell and Ryan Newman are among others who have a final opportunity to win or point their way into the Playoffs should they also survive what promises to be an eventful run at the World Center of Racing in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Catch the NASCAR Cup Series regular-season finale at Daytona on August 29 at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.