Sports Business Editor
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season has seen a fair share of drama and storylines. A season that was briefly interrupted due to a global pandemic still saw all 36 points races completed, nothing short of an impressive feat put together by the drivers and their teams.
The season started as any season does, with a battle for the Daytona 500. After a postponement pushed the race into a second day, Denny Hamlin became the first driver since 1995 to win back to back Daytona 500 races. However, the normalcy of this season would last less than a month longer, as three more races went off as scheduled before NASCAR announced operations would be halting due to COVID-19. At first, the decision was made to not allow any fans at races, but then the season as a whole was put on pause.
The solution that NASCAR came up with to still race all 36 races and determine a fair champion was to begin racing more than once a week, and some races being held as doubleheaders at one track. These types of alterations are not common for any series in NASCAR, but the entire organization was confident that they could make it work. They did just that, with limited team employees allowed at each race, and the elimination of practices and qualifying in order to decrease the amount of time spent gathered at the tracks. This new set up, particularly the lack of practice, set up an entirely new challenge for drivers. They would have to work with their teams on perfecting a car set up for each track without ever getting to test it. Many drivers spent extra time in driving simulators to try and gain as much experience as they could within the rules of the pandemic.
The doubleheaders put on the schedule occurred at different points throughout the season, and happened at tracks across the country. These places, like Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, and Michigan International Speedway, were scheduled for races on both a Wednesday and Saturday, so that teams had an appropriate amount of rest in between. Even though not every race on the original 36 list was completed in 2020, NASCAR did well in making sure that enough races were held to ensure the authenticity of the competition. One specific oddity that happened due to the schedule changes were the back to back races at Dover International Speedway, where drivers ran a race on both Saturday and Sunday. These races were two of six races that were scheduled at the track that weekend across the three major NASCAR series, so even if fans could not be in attendance there was plenty of racing to be seen.
After announcing the restructured schedule and starting races back up in May after a two-month break, NASCAR saw a largely smooth season. Some fans were allowed to be in attendance at certain tracks, based on local restrictions. NASCAR President Steve Phelps, when speaking about the challenge of completing this season, said, “As of now, we’re the only major sport that finished a full season. Certainly proud of that.” This signals just how massive of a challenge NASCAR was handed and how happy they are with the way it panned out.
The NASCAR playoffs began on September 6, with the original schedule being followed with new restrictions in place. 16 drivers entered the playoffs, as is tradition, all competing for the one spot as NASCAR champion. Of the 16 drivers there were many notable names, like Cole Custer, a rookie in the cup series who qualified after winning at Kentucky. That win was the first by a rookie since 2016, however Custer would not fare too well in the playoffs, being eliminated at the end of the first round. Another name to note was Kyle Busch. Busch has had a rather successful race career, including winning the 2019 championship. The reigning champion struggled in 2020 and found himself on the outside looking in after just the second round of playoff races. In the final round of the playoffs, however, Busch finally secured his first win of the year, which meant that his streak of winning at least one race in every season in which he has competed will last at least one more season.
The final four drivers left when the first three rounds of the playoffs ended were Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick, who won the most races in the regular season and was seen by many to be the favorite to win it all this year, was eliminated in the last race before the final, a disappointing end for him and the Stewart-Haas Racing team.
Each of the four drivers entering the final race with a chance to bring home the trophy had their own unique stories. Logano won the 2018 series title and came into the final race at Phoenix with two previous wins there, including one earlier this season. Elliott, the youngest driver of the final four, has had limited playoff success in his short career, but did win the race before the finale. This means he came into the final race with the most momentum of any driver. Brad Keselowski won the championship in 2012, and the car he brought to Phoenix for the final race won the only two races it was used for, at New Hampshire and Richmond earlier this year. Finally, Hamlin came into the last race with two wins at Phoenix but is among the most successful drivers in the field who has yet to win a championship.
The Season Finale 500, the race to decide the championship, saw the four playoff drivers dominate. But Chase Elliott was the first across the line, winning both the race and the 2020 championship. It was the first of his career, and at only 24 years of age he has plenty of racing left in him.
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