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Five questions heading into the NASCAR season

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 24, 2020 at 11:00 AM

With the Daytona 500 less than 25 days away and the Food City 500 at Bristol less than 75 days away, it’s time to look in the crystal ball at the 2020 NASCAR season.

It’s a season of change, including a vastly different schedule. The traditional July 4 race will be in Indianapolis instead of Daytona, Pocono will host a doubleheader weekend instead of two different race weekends, the Bristol Night Race moves to September — and into the playoffs — and the season will conclude in Phoenix instead of Miami.

Changes were made to the race cars with the short-track package, which should have some affect at Bristol, but more improve the racing at Martinsville and the flatter tracks.

Here’s a look at five major questions surrounding the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series.

WHO WILL MAKE THE FINAL FOUR AT PHOENIX AND WHO IS THE CHAMPION?

Before anyone turns a competitive lap, we’re picking defending champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano as the final four.

The Joe Gibbs Racing organization still appears the team to beat and I give Busch a slight edge over his teammate Hamlin to win his third series title.

Hamlin, the defending champion of the Daytona 500 and Bristol Night Race, is the most recent winner at Phoenix.

Elliott continues to show improvement and is arguably the best road racer in the series at this moment. The Chevrolet teams have promised better performance this season and Elliott could have a car to challenge Toyota on all tracks.

Logano is a slight favorite to emerge as the top Ford contender. Kevin Harvick should still be steady, although it’s hard to see him maintain the success of the last two seasons.

As for Martin Truex Jr., expect a drop-off with crew chief Cole Pearn, with whom he teamed for 24 of his 26 career wins, taking a break from the sport.

HOW WILL THE BRISTOL RACE CROWDS BE?

Based on the second half of the 2019 season, there was a noticeable uptick in interest. For that reason, I suspect the Food City 500 will be better attended than last year’s estimated crowd of 35,000.

The final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway drew an average of 3.759 million viewers, best among the races broadcast by NBC. However, it was still the lowest in 18 years for a season finale, continuing a downward trend of viewership.

Another question surrounds the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, which had an increase in TV viewers in 2019 and a large crowd on hand. For years, fans have clamored for the Night Race to be part of the NASCAR playoffs.

However with the race scheduled on Sept. 19, it’s in the heart of the college football season. Tennessee hosts Furman and Virginia Tech plays at Middle Tennessee that day. If Tennessee upsets Oklahoma the previous Saturday, interest in the Vols will be through the roof.

How that impacts the race is a great unknown.

WHO WILL WIN ROOKIE OF THE YEAR ?

It’s arguably the most talented rookie group since the 1979 class of Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte and Harry Gant.

Cole Custer has to be the early favorite for rookie of the year driving the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s a car in which former series champion Kurt Busch won six races from 2014-18. Last year, Daniel Suarez drove the No. 41 car to 11 top-10 finishes.

Christopher Bell takes over the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, which has increased support from the Joe Gibbs organization. Of the three rookies, Bell should have the best chance to win a single race as previous driver Matt DiBenedetto nearly pulled off the upset in the Bristol Night Race and had two top-six finishes on the road courses.

Tyler Reddick, the two-time defending Xfinity Series champion, looks to make it back-to-back rookie-of-the-year awards for the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Daniel Hemric won the award in 2019, but Reddick is expected to take the team to a higher level. Reddick showed great promise at Kansas last season, finishing ninth in just his second Cup Series start.

WHO WILL HAVE A BREAKOUT SEASON?

If the Chevy camp indeed has its issues with the Camaro straightened out, then William Byron in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet could have a big year.

He won five pole positions in 2019 and was runner-up at the first Kansas and second Daytona races. The 2017 Xfinity Series champion is still 22 years old and in his second season working with crew chief Chad Knaus.

His 2019 numbers dramatically improved, generating five top-five finishes compared to zero during his rookie season. His top-10 finishes jumped from four to 13. Showing speed and flashes of brilliance, it’s now about consistency and cutting down on mistakes. If that happens, look for him to register multiple wins.

HOW WILL JIMMIE JOHNSON DO HIS FINAL SEASON?

Could Johnson win an eighth NASCAR championship, breaking a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time? Will he be mired in another winless season with his last victory coming June 2017 at Dover.

His winless streak has reached 95 races and there was little in Johnson’s 2019 performance to suggest he’s close to getting back to victory lane. However, three factors point to a season where 2-3 wins look possible.

Johnson seems energized after making the announcement about his final full-time season and being partnered with new crew chief Cliff Daniels. There’s the aforementioned promise of better performance from all the Chevrolet teams. Finally, Johnson has put an emphasis on building a strong bond with the team and enjoying the season. It makes me believe his crew will do whatever it takes to get him back in the winner’s circle.

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