Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories this week examining the key storylines as the Cup season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
Although it might feel much longer, it was only three months ago when the NASCAR season began.
But when teams headed to Daytona International Speedway to open the season in February, the focus was not on a virus. The questions entering the Cup season included:
How would the Team Penske driver/crew chief shuffle do?
Would the new Camaro help make Chevrolet teams more competitive?
Could Joe Gibbs Racing continue its dominance?
Car owner Roger Penske surprised many in the sport when his organization announced Jan. 6 that it was changing its driver/crew chief lineup. The move came after all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points and combined to win six races in 2019.
In the four Cup races held before the season was paused, the Team Penske moves continued to make headlines.
Logano and Wolfe won at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Blaney was in position to win at Las Vegas until a call to give up the lead and pit before the final restart. Logano capitalized by staying out and winning. Keselowski has finished 11th or better since placing 36th in the Daytona 500.
“For the most part, you could say you’re kind of starting where we left off,” Wolfe told NBC Sports about resuming the season. “I don’t know if there is any momentum left at this point; that part of it is kind of like starting over. But I think it was good, especially for us with all the changes at Team Penske in the offseason with the driver swaps, that it gave us a chance to kind of see a few different style of racetracks to get the season started and then give us some time to kind of digest it all and understand strengths and weaknesses.”
Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane at Phoenix that he and Wolfe are “a dangerous combination” with their early success and still not being as fast as they want to be.
The three Penske drivers have combined to lead more than 30% of the laps run (315 of 992) this season. No other organization has led more laps. Hendrick Motorsport’s four-driver lineup is next, having led 313 of 992 laps.
Hendrick Motorsports has shown more success this season with the change in the Camaro, which was introduced to improve the manufacturer’s lackluster performance the past two years. And also help Chevrolet get back into the Cup championship race. Chevrolet has not had a Cup team race for the championship in the season finale the past three years.
At Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, giving him his first top-five result since Daytona in July 2019. Alex Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, and Chase Elliott has led more laps than any other driver (186) this season.
“The performance of our cars were pretty good,” Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, told NBC Sports. “Not a huge gap, if any gap to anybody else. That, on our side, was good. The execution of the races wasn’t very good.”
The expectation entering the season was that Joe Gibbs Racing would continue to dominate after winning 19 of 36 points races last year, placing three of its drivers in the championship race and Kyle Busch claiming the Cup title.
The season started well for JGR with Erik Jones winning the crash-marred Busch Clash and Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500, a victory overshadowed by Ryan Newman‘s terrifying last-lap crash and the image less than 48 hours later of him walking out of a Daytona hospital holding hands with his daughters.
After the Daytona successes for JGR, its drivers combined for more finishes of 20th or worse (five) than top 10s (four). Martin Truex Jr., who had 24 top-10 finishes last season, did not score a top-10 result in the season’s first four races.
Kyle Busch finished second at Auto Club and placed third at Phoenix Raceway, which will host the championship race in November for the first time. Even with that result, Busch said more work remained.
“We unloaded and we weren’t very good,” he said after that race. “I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so.”
He later said: “We need to come back here with a better piece.”
Will JGR’s fortunes change this week? Each of the team’s four drivers has at least one Darlington Cup victory.