10. Clint Bowyer’s final season
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford Mustang Rush/HAAS CNC
Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images
Bowyer, 41, waited until late in the year to announce his decision to make the 2020 Cup Series season his final one as a full-time competitor. But he’ll remain in the sport, moving to the Fox Sports broadcast booth beginning with the 2021 season, joining fellow former driver Jeff Gordon.
Romain Grosjean, Haas F1 Team, and Kevin Magnussen, Haas F1 Team, ride with Tony Stewart
Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
NASCAR had begun making changes to its Cup schedule in recent years but promised a lot of change in 2021 and the sanctioning body delivered with a 36-race schedule that features more road racing, less races on intermediate tracks and its first race since 1970 on dirt. Included in the changes are several new venues – Nashville Superspeedway, Circuit of the Americas, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Road America and Bristol Motor Speedway transformed into a dirt track.
Austin Cindric, Team Penske, Ford Mustang Menards/Richmond
Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
Austin Cindric, who began his racing career in sports cars, earned his first oval track wins in 2020 as the 22-year-old racked up six victories and captured his first Xfinity Series championship. Fellow up-and-comer Sheldon Creed entered the 2020 Truck season without a career win but ended it with five victories and his first series title. Both drivers are remaining in their respective series in 2021.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA Auto Parts, celebrates after winning the Nascar 2020 Cup Championship, Rick Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson
Harold Hinson / NKP / Motorsport Images
While Johnson’s Cup Series career was filled with enormous accomplishments, including a NASCAR record-tying seven championships and 83 wins, his final fulltime season as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Chevrolet was a difficult one. Johnson failed to score a win in his final year or make the playoffs and he even missed a race after testing positive for COVID-19.
Bubba Wallace, 23XI Racing livery
One of the NBA’s legends is taking a stab at NASCAR as Michael Jordan and current Cup driver Denny Hamlin announced in September they would co-own a team beginning in 2021 that would feature Bubba Wallace as a driver of the No. 23 Toyota. Hamlin and Jordan purchased the charter from Germain Racing’s No. 13 team to ensure the new team can participate in every race.
Darrell Wallace Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro
With its hands full with the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR ended up finding itself engulfed in the wave of social justice activism spreading across the country following the death of George Floyd in late May. Wallace, the only full-time African-American driver in NASCAR, called for NASCAR to ban the display of the Confederate flag, which it did in June. Then in late June at
Talladega, a team member found a garage pull-down rope tied as a noose in Wallace’s garage stall. The FBI determined the rope had been tied like that the previous October and no hate crime had been committed. Prior to the Talladega Cup race, Wallace was joined by fellow drivers, team members and NASCAR officials as together they pushed his No. 43 Chevrolet down pit road to place it firmly as the first car on the starting grid.
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NAPA Auto Parts, celebrates after winning the 2020 Nascar Cup Series Championship
Elliott, the 25-year-old son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and currently the Cup Series’ most popular driver, captured his first series championship in a year which was a struggle for Chevrolet teams in general. However, Elliott ended 2020 with a career-best five victories, winning three of the final five races, including the season finale at Phoenix. Elliott seemed generally stunned to come away the year with his first title, especially when Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick combined to win 16 of the 36 races.
Crash of Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford Mustang Koch Industries
Nigel Kinrade / NKP / Motorsport Images
Before the pandemic brought a halt to NASCAR competition in March, the sport was still reeling from the finish of the season-opening Daytona 500, which saw driver Ryan Newman hit the wall, turn upside-down and then struck violently in the driver’s side door by another car. Newman was knocked unconscious and suffered a closed head injury but miraculously was able to walk out of the hospital with his two daughters two days later. He missed three races but was able to the driver’s seat when NASCAR resumed competition in May.
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet Camaro McDonald's
Russell LaBounty / NKP / Motorsport Images
NASCAR was getting rave reviews for its iRacing events during pandemic shutdown but the attention turned negative in April when driver Kyle Larson was seen on a live stream casually using a racial slur while preparing for one of the races. Within two days, Chip Ganassi Racing had fired him and NASCAR had indefinitely suspended him. Larson spent the summer months competing in sprint car races and engaging in several educational diversity programs. He was eventually reinstated by NASCAR and ended the year having been hired by Hendrick Motorsports to drive its No. 5 Chevrolet in the Cup Series beginning with the 2021 season.
A worker cleans areas
The novel coronavirus barely had mention in the news when the 2020 NASCAR season got underway in mid-February. Then on March 8, panic gripped the country as several sports teams began reporting participants testing positive for the respiratory disease. Sports leagues – including NASCAR – began postponing events as states issued shelter-at-home orders and closed restaurants and other businesses. NASCAR President Steve Phelps vowed its three national series would eventually run every race on their respective schedules. After a three-month hiatus they did, albeit with many venue changes and limited fans due to the pandemic. A season – and sport – that looked like it could go under, instead weathered the storm and crowned first-time champions in its three national series under very trying circumstances.