We’re 11 races into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and as we head to the 12th event of the year on Sunday in Homestead, the championship front runners are getting clearer and clearer by the week.
Four drivers have combined to win two races a piece. You have three more drivers with one win each. That’s seven winners and none of them really being flukes per say. But, with 15 races left in the regular season and us still being in the midst of a global pandemic, I think the front runners are here to stay.
First off, we have to acknowledge Kevin Harvick as the favorite but he’s not shown to have the most overall speed though. Harvick, has two wins, both coming in dominating fashion, but both also on tracks that are sort of an anomaly. Harvick dominated at Darlington in the first race back following a 70 day COVID-19 break and looked like he was the only car in the race last Sunday in Atlanta, but Atlanta is an aged surface to where you can’t take a lot from there and apply that anywhere else. Darlington, is most closest to Atlanta and Homestead, two tracks not in the playoffs either. While Darlington does have a playoff date now, it’s in the first round and does nothing to help Harvick past that.
He has a top 11 finish in literally all but one race, and to me, is a top five car in terms of race pace and a definite Championship 4 contender.
But, the best outright speed belongs to the Hendrick Motorsports camp. No one will deny that statement either. The garage all agrees but HMS just keeps getting in their own way. Chase Elliott should have four wins right now, not one. He was going to win at Darlington before getting punted by Kyle Busch. Elliott, had fresh tires, the fastest race car on track and a car of Denny Hamlin in front on old tires. Then, a race later, Elliott was brought down pit lane while leading in overtime. That decision cost him a victory. A week later, he crashed while trying to go for the win at Bristol. All-in-all, that’s four top two finishes at the very least taken away. He has the top speed.
Alex Bowman used to be second as he should have won the second race of the year in Vegas before a late race caution put him in the same situation as Elliott was at Charlotte. He’d lead 110 of 200 laps a week later in Fontana. Over his last six starts though, he has one top 10’s and two overall in his last six. To me, he’s on the back end of this list. The speed has been there, the results not.
Jimmie Johnson has had improved speed and should have six straight top 11 finishes, but until he wins again, I can’t put him in that Championship 4 conversation just yet. Johnson, is riding a 106 race winless streak. I put him ahead of Bowman now, but still towards the back of this list.
William Byron has had speed but tires and bad luck have relegated him to 16th in the points. He can’t be considered until he gets into the good side of the playoff grid.
While HMS has given wins away, Penske was the next best in class to capitalize. Three of their four wins were handed to them from Hendrick, including both of Brad Keselowski’s and one of Joey Logano’s.
Still, their best car may not be either of them but rather Ryan Blaney’s. Blaney, should have started the season off with a top two finish in each of the first three races. A late race caution in Vegas and a tire problem at the end of Fontana derailed that. Now, he has four top four finishes in his last five starts on the season and the only reason it’s not five is a mistake he made after leading 60 laps at Bristol.
Keselowski, has six straight top 10 finishes on the season with Logano having scored just one top five since his win in Phoenix.
That leaves Joe Gibbs Racing. Erik Jones, like Byron, hasn’t had the consistent finishes, so he’s behind Bowman on this list. The other three have combined to win three this year, two of which by the same driver (Denny Hamlin). Last year, this foursome won 19 of the 36 races, a NASCAR single season record. They’ve won only 20-percent of the races this year.
Martin Truex Jr. says the lack of practice time to get the cars dialed in and the rise of Hendrick as to what. Still, they’re right there in the top five and are getting closer and closer. Last Sunday in Atlanta, they put three cars in the top five. A week earlier in Bristol, Kyle Busch and Hamlin had the win there for the taking.
Busch, has scored six top four finishes in his last nine starts on the season, half of which being a runner-up. His problem is, he’ll admit that he’s lucked into those. He led seven laps last Sunday in Atlanta and other than 100 laps led in Bristol, the only other race he led in was 14 circuits out front in Daytona.
Hamlin, has four top fives in his last seven on the season and while not looking like the fastest Toyota car, he’s the most consistent.
Truex Jr. is the quickest car out of the bunch, and starting to heat up. Sunday in Atlanta was his first stage win of the season as well as his first top five too. Then, he won Wednesday night in Martinsville.
That’s why I’d rank this group in terms of Championship 4 favorites or fastest cars as Elliott, Blaney, Harvick, Truex, Hamlin, Busch, Keselowski, Logano, Johnson and Bowman. That’s 10 drivers right there.
An 11th I’d throw into the mix though is Kurt Busch. He’s had five straight top 10 finishes on the season and seven top eights in his last nine overall. I’d slide him in front of Johnson right now in fact. The speed isn’t better than any of the four HMS cars but he’s finding the finishes where they’re not.
The fight for the championship is between these 11 drivers and I don’t see that changing any time soon.