What’s different in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020

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The fog of the offseason has begun to lift and the start of a new NASCAR season looms.

When the fog clears, we will be met with the 62nd Daytona 500 on Feb. 16.

But this won’t be the start of just another season in NASCAR’s premier series. It will have a very different landscape compared to when the 2019 season ended in Miami in November.

While there’s a lot to breakdown for the coming season, it’s all essentially a preamble for 2021, which will see the Cup Series with its Next Gen car and potentially a very different race schedule.

Here’s what the table looks like for the Cup Series heading into 2020.

New Era, New Names

After serving in the role for three years, Monster Energy is no longer the entitlement sponsor of the Cup Series. With its departure also comes the end of the Cup Series’ entitlement sponsor model that had been in place since 1971 beginning with Winston.

After five decades of being the Winston, Nextel, Sprint and finally the Monster Energy Cup Series, the premier series will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.

2020 marks the start of NASCAR’s premier partner program, which includes Xfinity, Coca-Cola, Geico and Busch Beer.

Farther down on the series ladder comes the official merger of the ARCA Menards Series with NASCAR and what had been its K&N Pro Series circuits. The regional series will now be called the ARCA Menards Series East and West.

A glimpse at what Martinsville Speedway will look like at night. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Shuffling the Schedule

There’s a lot of expectations for what the Cup Series schedule will look like in 2021 after the end of NASCAR’s current five-year agreement with tracks.

But 2020 also has plenty of groundbreaking schedule developments.

– Martinsville Speedway will host its first official Cup night race on May 9. The short track also will host the final playoff elimination race for all three national series, with the Cup race held Nov. 1.

– Pocono Raceway will be the site of the Cup Series’ first ever doubleheader weekend June 27-28. Saturday’s race will be preceded by a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event and Sunday begins with a Xfinity Series race.

– Daytona International Speedway will host the Cup regular season finale, moving its second date from the traditional July 4 weekend to Aug. 29. The July 4 weekend race is now held by Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Cup races there July 5).

– Darlington Raceway and the Southern 500 will open the Cup playoffs on Sept. 6. It’s joined in the opening round by Richmond Raceway and in the playoffs for the first time, Bristol Motor Speedway, which will be the first elimination race.

– After being the site of the first elimination race the last two seasons, the Charlotte Roval will be the Round of 12 elimination race (Oct. 11) and be preceded by Talladega Superspeedway.

–  After a nearly two-decade run, Homestead-Miami Speedway is no longer the site of the championship weekend. Its place is now held by Phoenix Raceway, with the Cup championship race scheduled for Nov. 8. Miami’s Cup race will be March 22.

– Other notable changes: The Xfinity Series will compete at Martinsville (Oct. 31) for the first time since 2004. The Truck Series returns to Richmond Raceway (April 18) for the first time since 2005.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet Remodel

Chevrolet Cup teams will appear in Daytona with a slightly different look to their cars.

Chevy will field its Camaro ZL1 1LE model in 2020, replacing the basic ZL1 model. One reason for the change is difficulties with the latter’s pointed nose when it came to pushing other cars at Daytona and Talladega compared to Ford and Toyota and their flatter noses.

Familiar Names, Different Teams

When the full Cup Series starting grid forms for the first time at the Daytona 500, there will be a lot familiar faces sporting new numbers with new teams. That includes a rather accomplished rookie class.

Matt DiBenedetto debuts with Wood Brothers Racing in the No. 21 Ford, moving over from Leavine Family Racing and taking over for Paul Menard, who retired from full-time racing.

–  After a decade with Roush Fenway Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. begins the 2020s with his first season at JTG Daugherty Racing driving the No. 47 Chevrolet. Teammate Ryan Preece will drive the No. 37. Stenhouse will have Brian Pattie as his crew chief. Preece will work with Trent Owens.

Chris Buescher left JTG Daugherty Racing to return to Roush and race the No. 17 Ford, which was vacated by Stenhouse. Buescher will be paired with crew chief Luke Lambert.

Christopher Bell moves up from the Xfinity Series to drive Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota along with crew chief Jason Ratcliff. Harrison Burton replaces Bell in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car. 

Tyler Reddick was promoted by Richard Childress Racing to drive its No. 8 Cup car after winning the last two Xfinity Series titles. He moves up with crew chief Randall Burnett. Reddick replaces Daniel Hemric, who will drive a part-time Xfinity schedule for JR Motorsports.

Cole Custer and Mike Shiplett after their first win together in 2019. (Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images)

– Cole Custer and crew chief Mike Shiplett were promoted by Stewart-Haas Racing to take over its No. 41 Cup car, taking the place of Daniel Suarez. Suarez has not announced his plans for this season. SHR has not announced plans for its Xfinity program in 2020.

SHR also paired crew chief Mike Bugarewicz with Aric Almirola on the No. 10 and John Klausmeier with Clint Bowyer on the No. 14.

– Rookie John Hunter Nemechek takes over Front Row Motorsports’ No. 38 Ford, which was driven by the now retired David Ragan. Nemechek is paired with Seth Barbour at crew chief.

– Rookie Brennan Poole will drive for Premium Motorsports full-time in the No. 15 car. 

– After making 17 Cup starts in 2019, Quin Houff will race full-time in StarCom Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet.

Joey Gase and J.J. Yeley will race full-time for Rick Ware Racing.

Martin Truex Jr. will have a new crew chief after the surprise resignation of Cole Pearn. The No. 19 team will be led by James Small.

Team Penske shook up its crew chief lineup for this year. Paul Wolfe will now work with Joey Logano, Jeremy Bullins is paired with Brad Keselowski and Todd Gordon is paired with Ryan Blaney.

Bubba Wallace also has a new crew chief. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is reunited with Jerry Baxter, who he worked with in the Truck Series.

– Ryan Sparks joins Go Fas Racing after 13 years with Richard Childress Racing, primarily as an engineer, and will serve as crew chief for Corey LaJoie in the No. 32, replacing Randy Cox.

A Post-Jimmie Johnson World

Jimmie Johnson announced soon after the 2019 season finale that 2020 would be his final full-time Cup season.

That means the storyline of who will replace him in the No. 48 will simmer underneath the surface for much of the season. Who could succeed the seven-time champion?

Kyle Larson is entering the final season of his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Erik Jones is racing on a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing

Matt DiBenedetto is under a one-year deal with the Wood Brothers.

More possible candidates could include Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and others.

Building for the Future

Ford provided one of the biggest storylines of the offseason when it announced that Hailie Deegan was joining the manufacturer as a development driver after a few years spent in the Toyota pipeline.

Deegan will compete full-time in ARCA Menards Series with DGR-Crosley.

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.