2020 has been a unique year in sports to say the least. We've seen everything from seasons being put on hold, to postseasons being played in different months, to players opting out and even virtual events.
Through it all, NASCAR had one of its exciting and most memorable seasons to date. It engaged new fans as one of the first sports to continue through the pandemic while also being the subject of a variety of social matters. NASCAR also delivered its fair share of storylines on the track as well.
We captured all of those moments and consolidated them into one place for you to look back on. Here is our 2020 NASCAR season in review.
Chase Elliott wins his first career championship
The most of the few blocks of this piece are going to be focused on the on-track accomplishments so it's only fitting that we begin with the biggest. Chase Elliott became the third youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a title at 24-years-old.
First he made it to the Championship 4 by winning his way in at Martinsville and then came all the way from the rear to take the checkered flag at Phoenix. Elliott never wavered in his pursuit of a title during the final race, passing Joey Logano in the Final Stage and driving on to win unchallenged.
Elliott joins his father Bill Elliott as a champion. The Elliotts join the Pettys and Jarretts as the third father-son duo to win a NASCAR Cup Series title. The win was also the 13th for Hendrick Motorsports in the past 26 seasons.
Daytona 500: Ryan Newman's wreck, Denny Hamlin wins
NASCAR has one of the longest seasons in professional sports, so coupled with a worldwide pandemic, February's Daytona 500 may feel like years ago. The exciting day resulted in Denny Hamlin winning his third Great American Race, but that was largely overshadowed by what happened to Ryan Newman who was involved in a wreck on the race's final lap.
Newman was racing in front of the field for position, something he's not a stranger to at Daytona, and made contact with Ryan Blaney that sent him airborne and flipping through the air. Once the dust settled, Newman did not climb out of his car. NASCAR immediately rushed onto the scene and pulled him out of the vehicle before rushing him to a Daytona area hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
The sports world offered condolences and prayers to Newman, as many worried the outcome was gruesome. However, in just days Newman was able to walk out of the hospital alongside his daughters and revealed he suffered a concussion.
Newman would be sidelined for multiple races but eventually returned to the track following the sport's COVID-19 hiatus, which we'll get to next…
iRacing and NASCAR's perseverance amidst COVID-19 pandemic
No one knew what to expect in sports when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. All sports essentially shut down their operations amidst uncertainty and danger surrounding the virus in the spring. NASCAR followed suit with the NBA and college basketball and put their ongoing season on hiatus.
NASCAR came ready with a plan to keep competition going as they introduced the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which featured drivers from the top series and retired drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. competing in virtual racing events. While there were no other sports going on, iRacing allowed sports fans a sense of normalcy to watch on Sundays and sportsbooks even provided odds to wager on the races.
The sport adjusted rather quickly, running the first iRacing event just 10 days after postponing the season on March 13th. Cup driver William Byron dominated most of the events while lesser-named drivers like Timmy Hill were able to garner some exposure.
iRacing helped fill the gap as NASCAR planned its return to competition. NASCAR became one of the first sports to return to action, coming back in May. They ran seven events over the span of 11 days and subsequently added mid-week races at various tracks in order to make up missed time on the schedule. The sport was able to get back on track -- literally -- and run its playoffs as scheduled.
Two Cup Series regulars, Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon, both were diagnosed with COVID-19 but each only missed one race. Johnson's cost him a shot at the playoffs due to missing out on the points while Dillon's diagnosis came after he already clinched a playoff spot.
NASCAR was also able to integrate fans into certain races based upon local laws and regulations. Bristol's All-Star race, originally planned for Charlotte, allowed 30,000 fans to attend which was by far the largest attended sporting event of the pandemic.
From a competition standpoint, NASCAR also implemented changes in making the Cup races one-day shows. That is something that will be adopted for races in the future and proved to be cost-effective for the teams. It also improved the competition in that there was uncertainty in how the cars would run. NASCAR also changed its qualifying format from pre-race lap times to a formula based on previous races and standings.
Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and the Confederate Flag
NASCAR was the subject of many off-track headlines this season which really started with Kyle Larson, who uttered a racial slur in an iRacing event in April. Despite a public apology, Larson was suspended by NASCAR and released by Chip Ganassi Racing. He was forced to undergo sensitivity training and elected to educate himself on race before ultimately being reinstated and committing to drive for Hendrick Motorsports next season.
Bubba Wallace also got into some hot water for rage quitting during an iRacing event, which cost him a sponsor, but what he did next brought him more sponsorship than ever before.
In early June, Wallace went on cable television, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota, for an interview where he called on NASCAR to ban the Confederate Flag, which had made its appearance at tailgates on the sport's schedule for decades.
"No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race," Wallace said in the interview. "So it starts with confederate flags. Get them out of here. They have no place for them. The narrative on that before is I wasn't bothered by it, but I don't speak for everybody else. I speak for myself. What I am chasing is checkered flags, and that was kind of my narrative."
Just days later, NASCAR went on to ban the Confederate Flag, issuing the following statement
"The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties."
The sport then traveled to Talladega Superspeedway where coincidentally a member of Wallace's racing team discovered a rope fashioned as a noose in the team's assigned garage. NASCAR made the media aware of it almost immediately, explaining that the sport was outraged and fully condemns racism. The sport also alerted the FBI, who launched an investigation that determined Wallace was not the subject of a hate crime.
Prior to the investigation concluding, NASCAR showed support for Wallace, rallying to push his car down pit road at Talladega. It was a strong sign of unity amongst all in the garage that made national headlines. Jimmie Johnson organized the demonstration.
Wallace went on to receive support from many outside of NASCAR as well as an influx of sponsorship. This allowed him to move onto his next venture with 23XI Racing that we'll get to next.
The Silly Season: Michael Jordan joins NASCAR
NASCAR had plenty of major rides available this season. Brad Keselowski re-signed with Team Penske to fill the No. 2 and Larson went to Hendrick like we noted. Those were the expected major rides to be filled prior to the season, but no move was bigger than when Michael Jordan elected to join the sport, buying the charter from Germain Racing alongside Denny Hamlin as a co-owner and Bubba Wallace as the driver.
The move was made possible thanks to the many sponsors Wallace brought to the table. Jordan and Hamlin named the team 23XI Racing and partnered with Joe Gibbs Racing to become a Toyota alliance team. Wallace elected to use Jordan's No. 23 as his car number for next season.
The Silly Season also saw Erik Jones lose his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in favor of Christopher Bell as Bell's team Leavine Family Racing shut down. Jones then went on to sign with Wallace's former team Richard Petty Motorsports.
Alex Bowman moved into the No. 48 to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson while Chase Briscoe signed a deal with Stewart-Haas Racing to take over for Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 when Bowyer moves to the broadcast booth next season.
Ross Chastain took over Larson's former ride in the No. 42, which is currently filled by Matt Kenseth, who came out of retirement briefly to fill the void left when Larson was released. Other moves included Matt DiBenedetto re-signing with Wood Brothers Racing for a year, Aric Almirola extending with Stewart-Haas Racing and Daniel Suarez moving to a new team next year called Trackhouse Racing.
How about Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin?
NASCAR's on-track action this season was dominated by two drivers: Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. Harvick won nine races on the season and currently boasts an average finish on the year of 7.3. Harvick won the regular season title by accumulating the most points, however due to a lackluster Round of 8, he did not advance to the Championship 4 despite being the constant Vegas favorite to win the title.
This was not a lost season for Harvick, rather a situation where he couldn't close the deal. Harvick passed Tony Stewart, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Lee Petty, Rusty Wallace and Kyle Busch to move into ninth on the all-time wins list with 58. He now seriously has a shot of passing the next driver on the list, Dale Earnhardt, who has 76.
Hamlin had the second-most wins on the season with seven. His first win came in the Daytona 500 and he also won at the other plate track in Talladega. Hamlin also won at Dover for the first time.
Hamlin did not win the title, however, as he has all season, Hamlin has suggested that he will not define his 2020 season based on whether he wins the title. He has noted throughout the year that the goal is simply to make it to the Championship 4.
Most memorable wins besides Daytona and Phoenix
We had plenty of options to choose from but here are some of the race outcomes that stuck in our memories the most. The first was when rookie Cole Custer won at Kentucky as a 250-to-1 long shot. Custer helped a William Hill Sportsbook bettor take home $25,000 on a $100 wager after climbing from sixth to first place in the final two laps of the Quaker State 400.
Custer, who was competitive in races prior, found himself in position to make a run at the checkered flag towards the end of the race. He then went on to pass Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick to take the checkered flag for the first time in his career.
The other race that stuck to the memory bank was Kurt Busch winning at Las Vegas. Busch is typically good for a win each season at this point in his career but this one was extra special in that it came at his home track.
Busch took the lead thanks to a debris caution with 32 laps to go and then executed multiple perfect restarts against Matt DiBenedetto and Denny Hamlin in order to win the race in overtime. After the win, Busch said it was bittersweet in that there were no fans in attendance before going on to party on the Vegas strip.
Kyle Busch delivered the latest memorable win of the season. Admittedly, in any other year a Busch win at Texas would be just another notch in the belt loop. However, this one came as Busch was in danger of going winless in a season for the first time in his Cup Series career.
Busch and his crew chief Adam Stevens executed a perfect fuel strategy as the No. 18 finally made it to victory lane. Unfortunately for the No. 18 team it came a round too late as the defending champion was already eliminated from the playoffs.
A farewell to legends
This season NASCAR will say goodbye to two long-time veterans. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and 10-race winner Clint Bowyer are hanging it up after the season ends. Neither were able to have a true swan song due to COVID-19 and the lack of fans in the stands at races and neither have been able to win a race in their final season.
It was an up-and-down year for Johnson in that had it not been for an asymptomatic COVID-19 diagnosis he likely would have made the playoffs and had a shot at a record-eighth title. However Johnson was in the spotlight this season for being competitive at times, while also serving as a mentor to other drivers on the track. Perhaps his biggest contribution this season came off the track, when he organized the demonstration in support of Bubba Wallace at Talladega.
If you wanted a perfect description of Johnson's season, here is Dale Earnhardt Jr. describing his former teammate prior to Johnson's final start of his full-time career.
Johnson plans to run an IndyCar schedule next year and is honed in on running marquee racing events not just limited to NASCAR. As for Bowyer, he plans to make the move to the full-time broadcasting business next season as he transitions away from full-time racing.
Bowyer had been extremely competitive during the season and even made it to the playoffs this year. However, he was ultimately eliminated after the Round of 12. Most people will agree though that Bowyer brought a lot of life and personality into the sport in a time where people could use a good laugh.