It’s hard to believe that more than half the 2020 season now has been completed as we head to the White Mountains and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. While we have completed 19 races this year, I guess you could say it’s been done in the most unconven-tional of ways. In the midst of the most unusual time of most of our lives, it’s a true testament to our sport that we have been able to do it.

After the first four races of the year, our sport – similar to most other things – came to a halt for about two months. We resumed action in mid-May, setting the tone for other professional sports to follow. There have been only sporadic instances of fans – including 1,000 military guests at our Dixie Vodka 400 NASCAR Cup Series race – but even without that, we have provided a sense of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal period.

The fact that we were the first major sport to make its return, allowed us to appeal to an entirely new audience. And we have been able to do that, revealing to an entire country how exciting our sport can be – regardless of whether there are fans or not. We have also shown the world how our sport can rally around a cause and create a bond, even among competitors on the track.

The times we are in has forced us to have to deviate from many of the normal routines at track. The most notable is the elimination of practice sessions and qualifying, which won’t return for the remainder of 2020. Although the absence of both makes it harder to gauge certain aspects of a track, every driver and team is on equal footing.

The following are a few of the key on-track storylines that have stood out to me through 19 races:

Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin Combine for Nearly Half the Wins– Through 19 races, it is clear that Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are the tandem to beat as we have just seven races remaining in the regular season. Harvick is leading the way in points and has secured four victories on the year. Hamlin, although fourth in the points standings, has amassed a series-high five wins, including the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway back on June 14. Perhaps even more importantly, Harvick and Hamlin and amassed 22 and 28 playoff points, respectively, which will play a huge role once the playoffs commence in Darlington on September 6. Both drivers were a part of the Championship 4 at our track last November and fell short of their ultimate goal. I know they would like nothing more than to be competing for a title in Phoenix on November 8. This is especially true of Hamlin, who is still seeking his first career championship, probably the best driver never to have won a title.

Year of the Rookie – Before the season started, this year’s rookie class was heralded as one of the top such groups in quite some time, one which included two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick as well as 2017 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champion Christopher Bell. Thus far, it has been Cole Custer who has made the biggest impact amongst this group. His win at Kentucky made him the first rookie to win a Cup Series race since 2016 and one of only 20 rookies to emerge victorious in a race since 1974. As a result, Custer has secured his spot in the Cup Series Playoffs. Reddick is hovering right around the cut-line for a spot in the Playoffs, as his performance has included a second-place finish at Texas a couple of weeks ago. Having two drivers among the 16-driver Playoff field would highlight the young talent that is being nurtured in our sport.

Team Penske Looking Strong – Many teams have had a driver stand out and win races. No team, however, has had each of it drivers notch victories like Team Penske. Brad Keselowski (2), Joey Logano (2) and Ryan Blaney (1) all have won races in 2020. In fact, Keselowski and Logano join Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin as the only drivers with more than one win to their credit. All three Penske drivers currently sit amongst the top six in the points standings as well. They will all be forces to be reckon with once the playoffs commence.

Defending Champion Without a Win – Through 19 races there have been 10 different race winners. The one driver who is not included in that group of 10 is defending champion Kyle Busch. While he is in a good spot to make the Playoffs with a ninth-place standing in points, he has won only one stage this year and as a result has accrued only one playoff point, which could make his bid for consecutive titles a tough one. He has come back before, though, and I certainly would not count him out.

7-time Champion Farewell – When Jimmie Johnson announced his retirement prior to the season, I’m sure he did not envision it unfolding this way. For someone who has relished the interaction with the fans, it’s a shame that he has not been able to celebrate this final full-time year the way he would have liked. He missed one race due to COVID-19, but still is within striking distance of making the playoff field with some solid finishes over the final seven races of the year. I guarantee he would like nothing more than to go out with a chance to compete for an unprecedented eighth championship. Regardless, he will be remembered for those seven titles and will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.

This Week’s Racing Schedule – New Hampshire Motor Speedway    

Sunday, August 2

- NASCAR Cup Series Foxwood Resorts Casino 301 3:00 pm, NBCSN

*All races will air on Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

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