NASCAR Cup Series Expectations Check

NASCAR Cup Series Expectations Check: One-third of the way into the 2020 season is time to do a check on the drivers and whether they're meeting expectations to this point of a unique year.
HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA – JUNE 14: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on June 14, 2020 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series Expectations Check: One-third of the way into the 2020 season is time to do a check on the drivers and whether they’re meeting expectations to this point of a unique year.

As crazy as the 2020 season has been, normalcy is gradually returning to NASCAR. Eight races have been run since the ten-week-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the season to its one-third completion mark. Drivers needed an adjustment period to the post-pandemic era of the sport; no practice, no qualifying, no fans, two races in one weekend, the list goes on and on. As the races continue to roll on by, these adjustments have allowed some drivers to surprise, and caused others to disappoint. With the season at a bit of a junction heading into Talladega, here’s a quick look at which drivers are exceeding expectations, and which drivers are flopping. 

Significantly Exceeding Expectations: Tyler Reddick, John Hunter Nemechek

It’s not too much of a surprise to see two rookies in the highest tier here. After all, the 2020 rookie class has been heralded as one of the strongest in recent memory all season. 

Reddick, coming off of back-to-back Xfinity Series championships, is expected to raise the performance of the No. 8 car following Daniel Hemric’s disappointing run in 2019. How much he is raising it, though, is a surprise. He finished fourth in the most recent race and has run plenty of laps inside the top-ten this season. He’s hung around the playoff cut line and should be there the rest of the way. 

Nemechek, on the other hand, is extremely surprising. With six top-20 finishes already, Nemechek has outperformed all expectations for his Front Row Motorsports car so far, and the more he runs well, the less it appears to be a fluke.

Exceeding Expectations: Bubba Wallace, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell

This category is home to a wide range of drivers. From Hamlin, who was part of the Championship 4 last year, to Wallace and McDowell, who finished outside of the top-25 in 2019, these five are performing past most expectations. 

In addition to the work Wallace is doing off the track in an attempt to bring more racial equality to NASCAR, his on-track performance is impressive. Wallace is keeping his Richard Petty Motorsports car inside the top-20 in the standings and has five top-15 finishes already this year. 

Hamlin, while he is outside of the top-five in points, is the only driver with three wins so far. He was the third driver for Joe Gibbs Racing last year, with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. outperforming him, but he is the team’s main success in an otherwise underwhelming season.

If NASCAR is handing out a bad luck award, it belongs to Elliott. He is managing to stay in second place in the standings, despite multiple incidents costing him dozens of points (Darlington, Bristol, to name a couple). Elliott has only one victory, but his six top-five finishes are a match for the most in the series.

After a pretty poor 2019 season, by almost all standards, Dillon is turning himself, once again, into a playoff contender. Since the return to racing, Dillon has missed out on the top-20 just once. He’s doing a much better job of finishing races this year. As the season develops, the battle between Dillon and teammate Tyler Reddick may end up being for the final playoff spot in addition to the obligatory bragging rights.

Slightly Exceeding Expectations: Part One – Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski

The run on Team Penske drivers begins here, and like the previous category, this is a mix between drivers on top teams and drivers with smaller teams who are competing with the big boys.

Harvick’s biggest lowlight so far is finishing outside of the top-ten in consecutive races. Aside from that, it’s been a perfect season for the No. 4 team, with a pair of wins and nine top-ten finishes already. Harvick has lofty expectations, already though, so even this performance doesn’t warrant being much higher than here. 

The results for Clint Bowyer aren’t necessarily pretty with just three top-tens, but his car is near the front of the field much more often than in 2019. Bowyer has even picked up a couple of stage wins at Darlington and is looking like a threat to make a playoff run.

Kurt Busch’s performance in the Chip Ganassi Chevrolet last year was impressive. He is continuing that this year, keeping himself inside the top-ten in the standings and finishing in the top-ten eight times. It will be interesting to see if Busch is returning to victory lane after his dramatic win at Kentucky last year was followed by a playoff run filled with terrible luck. 

Keselowski has a trend of performing well early in the season, and 2020 is no different. Last year, he was bounced in the Round of 12, but with two wins already and a series-high nine top-ten finishes, time will tell if he can keep it up and repeat his championship success. The early indications look good.

Slightly Exceeding Expectations: Part Two – Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman, Joey Logano

The pole winner for the Daytona 500, Stenhouse, is having a turbulent season. He has just two top-ten finishes at Las Vegas, Charlotte, with both ending with him inside the top-four. While Stenhouse’s status may not be deserving due to his current 21st place standing, his season-low memory is of him wrecking on the first lap in the first race back from the COVID-19 break. Stenhouse is always a bit overaggressive, costing his team, but his overall performance is not something to ignore.

In nine races, Newman sits ahead of Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, and Ty Dillon in the standings. Newman still has a long way to go in terms of a playoff run, but following his horrific wreck at the end of the Daytona 500, just seeing him in a car is impressive. With seven top-20s in nine tries, Newman is doing enough with his car to stay competitive as well. 

Logano has multiple early wins, but with six top-tens in 12 races, his consistency isn’t quite there yet. Due to the multiple wins and nearly 500 laps led, Logano is still slightly putting himself ahead of expectations. He sits third in the standings as of now, after winning two of the season’s first four races. Since the pandemic break, however, Logano is still looking for a return back to victory lane.

Meeting Expectations: Part One – Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto

The ‘Meeting Expectations’ tier is the biggest of any on this list, and it means the jury is still out. Many of these drivers have either endured bad luck or have shown flashes of talent mixed with moments of underachieving. 

Blaney is the most hit-or-miss driver in the field with six top-ten finishes, all of them in the top-five. He still has zero wins. Two horrible days at Phoenix and Bristol is putting a damper on what is otherwise a solid season. Blaney’s season won’t be a success unless the No. 12 sees victory lane.

After picking up his second career win at Auto Club, Bowman is falling off and gradually sliding down the standings. Before the break, Bowman was consistently one of the five fastest cars on the track. It’s been so-so for him ever since, with just two top-tens in the last seven races. Part of that relates to horrible luck, such as his wreck at Bristol, but Hendrick Motorsports as a whole appears a lot less dominant since the return.

Buescher is a big sleeper playoff pick in many eyes coming into the season. It’s looking as though he won’t squeeze into the field of 16 without a victory. Buescher is, however, running pretty consistently with an average finish inside the top-20. Buescher’s third-place Daytona finish is looking a bit less impressive given his recent results. Keep Buescher in mind, though, as his playoffs aren’t totally out of reach.

The Wood Brothers have to be happy with their addition of DiBenedetto so far. He is winning, though he did finish runner-up at Las Vegas. DiBenedetto is keeping the No. 21 car near the front far more often than Paul Menard did over the past couple of years. People are expecting that of him, though, so he stays in the middle for now.

Meeting Expectations: Part Two – Aric Almirola Corey LaJoie, Brennan Poole, Daniel Suarez

After a great 2018 season, Almirola fell flat in 2019 when he failed to make it out of the Round of 16. So far this season, he’s running mediocre for the most part, but he’s carrying momentum after his first top-five finish at Homestead. Almirola seems to be battling teammate Clint Bowyer to keep his seat. Xfinity star Chase Briscoe will likely make a move up next year, and their performances are relatively even so far, which is a storyline to watch.

LaJoie’s name is in the news more in the past week due to the Denny Hamlin Twitter fiasco than it was in all of 2019. He is driving the No. 32 relatively competitively this year and would have been in legitimate contention for the win at Daytona if a couple of things had gone differently. His Martinsville race is also impressive. LaJoie’s GoFas Racing team is showing growth this year.

Poole and Suarez are both in rides that are a bit difficult to judge, as they aren’t necessarily competitive and typically run off the lead lap. Both have average finishes inside the top-30, and Suarez has a nice run at Bristol with a team running it’s first full-time season. 

Slightly Underachieving: Ty Dillon, Quin Houff, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr.

Following the middle-of-the-road category, is the group that is a bit on the wrong side of the line so far. These drivers aren’t incredibly disappointing, but they’re not showing enough to be hopeful for the rest of the season. Two of the drivers, however, are trending in the right direction.

Ty Dillon is always judged based on his performance relative to his brother, Austin Dillon. Last season, the two were relatively close in the standings, despite Austin running in significantly better RCR equipment. This season is feeling a bit off the mark for Ty’s No. 13 team, especially considering, the RCR cars are improving. Keep in mind, Ty drives for an affiliate of RCR, Germain Racing.

Like Poole and Suarez, a category above, Houff is in a non-competitive ride, which makes him a bit tough to judge. Houff sits slightly lower as he has finished in the top-30 just twice and has failed to finish three times. While the StarCom No 00 car has never really been fast, it feels like Landon Cassill was able to get a bit of speed out of it last year. That hasn’t happened yet.

The three-headed (well, four-headed) monster of the Rookie of the Year race includes Bell, whose start to the year was far from ideal. In the first three races, he’s endured two DNFs and a point-deducting penalty. He failed to finish in the top-20 until the second Darlington race, but since then, he has three top-tens and has run much more consistently. Bell is going in the right direction, but he may have already dug himself too deep of a hole.

Truex was able to break his winless streak by winning at Martinsville for the second straight time. After starting the year with four straight finishes of 20th or worse, Truex is turning on the heat with six top-tens in the last eight races. Given JGR expectations, it’s been a bit underwhelming, but the season is beginning to turn around. 

Underachieving: Matt Kenseth, Cole Custer, Erik Jones, Kyle Busch

We are approaching the absolute bottom of the list, but not quite there yet. These drivers are not in nightmare seasons, but their seasons are certainly far from perfect.

With Kenseth taking over the No. 42 from the currently exiled Kyle Larson, his career revival got off to a good start with a top-ten finish at Darlington. He has just one top-15 finish in seven races since. It’s difficult to say that Kenseth is underachieving because when a driver is out of the sport for a year, great finishes are not what people expect, but this is Matt Kenseth. 

In addition to Christopher Bell, and Tyler Reddick, (and now John Hunter Nemechek) Cole Custer is one of the ‘Big Three’ rookies to watch coming into the Cup Series in 2020. Custer isn’t making the most of his Xfinity Series success so far, with only one top-ten and four finishes outside of the top-25. It seems that in most races, the No. 41 is more likely to finish off the lead lap than make a run at a solid finish. Since this is his first year, we’ll keep him fully out of the gutter for now. 

Jones’ situation is becoming an annual occurrence. If the season ended today, he’d miss the playoffs in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment. Jones’ potential replacement is likely, Christopher Bell, who is beginning to up his performance. So, Jones is running out of time to make an impression. He needs to step out of the shadow of JGR’s other three teams if he wants to keep his seat.

Here it is folks, Kyle Busch, and he is way down the list. It’s shocking to see Busch go 12 races without a win, but what is more unexpected is the relatively low number of laps led, and a surprisingly high number of issues with the car. Busch is back into weekly contention but is continuously falling short of a victory.

Significantly Underachieving: William Byron, Ryan Preece

Here’s the bottom. This tier is in reserve for the drivers that are thoroughly disappointing in almost every facet so far this year, which is why it’s such a small category. These two drivers, so far, are opening up doubts about their future.

Coming into the 2020 season, Byron seems to be waiting on the sideline for a huge breakout season. He came close to a couple of wins in 2019 but is not contending yet this year. Aside from a short-lived stage win at Darlington, his season is subpar. His current average finish is lower than both Richard Childress Racing cars, and Chris Buescher. Byron is clinging to a spot toward the back of the playoffs, and if he’s lucky, he’ll hang onto it.

While expectations for Preece aren’t astronomically high, some were hoping that he would show progress toward being a competitive car in year two with JTG Daugherty. Unfortunately, Preece is taking a step back, and his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is overshadowing him. Preece is putting his name in the ‘likely out of a ride’ pool for the 2020 offseason.

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