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NASCAR experiencing seasons of change

Jeff Birchfield • Dec 11, 2019 at 7:42 PM

NASCAR silly season has extended into the offseason in 2019.

The announcement three weeks ago that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was retiring from full-time competition at the end of 2020 wasn’t all that surprising. The news on Monday that Cole Pearn would be stepping down as crew chief on the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to spend more time with family was unexpected.

For the first time, NASCAR will have multiple sponsors of its premier series, now simply known as the Cup Series. Locally, Bristol Motor Speedway continues to do well in that regard with Cheddar’s Scratch Restaurants through a partnership with Alsco now the sponsor of the April Xfinity Series race.

Veteran journeymen Paul Menard and David Ragan retired at the end of the 2019 season, while Matt Tifft was released from Front Row Motorsports. The rookie class coming in with two-time defending Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer appears to be the strongest in years, maybe the best since Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Kenny Wallace in 1993 or Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Harry Gant and Joe Millikan in 1979.

Although it promises to be a year of change in 2020, Kyle Busch has to be looked at as the early favorite to repeat as series champion.

Once again, his toughest competition could come within the Joe Gibbs Racing organization with teammate Denny Hamlin. It will be interesting to see how Truex will do without Pearn. They combined for 24 wins over the past five seasons, and Truex had just two wins before the pairing.

Erik Jones in the other Gibbs car won the Southern 500 and his stock appears to be rising.

Team Penske, which did not have a driver in the championship battle at Homestead, returns the strong lineup of former champions Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with Ryan Blaney. It would be surprising not to see one of them in the championship race in 2020.

One of the more interesting lineups is at Ganassi Racing, where former series champion Kurt Busch elevated the overall performance of the team. Kyle Larson came on strong the second half of the year. The question is whether Ganassi can improve enough in 2020 to keep Larson or will he bolt to either the No. 48 Hendrick ride vacated by Johnson or possibly Stewart-Haas Racing.

How much longer Kevin Harvick races is a question at Stewart-Haas. The former series champion is 44, the same age as Johnson. One major difference is Harvick’s performance has never been better than the last two seasons.

The rest of the lineup with Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and the rookie Custer will be under pressure to be more on par with Harvick.

Hendrick Motorsports showed flashes of getting back on track with Chase Elliott clearly the best road racer in the series right now. Elected NMPA Most Popular Driver for the second straight year, Elliott looks to go from playoff driver to a true championship contender.

Alex Bowman won his first race in 2019 and William Byron captured five poles, second only to six for Harvick. Byron got stronger as the year went on and it would appear he’s a likely candidate to become a first-time winner in 2020.

While there are plenty of other changes with Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and JTG Daugherty Racing, the major storyline revolves around Johnson and his last attempt at a record-breaking eighth NASCAR Cup Series title.

The odds are certainly stacked against him, but after missing the playoffs for the first time in his career, many look for Johnson to come back with a renewed focus in 2020. The common thought among former racers is he’s a good bet to win 2-3 races and end his full-time career on a high note.