The Super Bowl might have just ended, but the Super Bowl of motor sports is set to take center stage.
The roar of 40 racecars is finally back. Come Sunday, Feb. 16, the NASCAR Cup Series will take to the high banks of the famed Daytona International Speedway for the Great American Race.
Ever since the checkered flag waved at Homestead-Miami Speedway, champion Kyle Busch has been on Cloud 9. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, though, has never won the sport’s biggest race. Now, he aims to finally break through at Daytona to have his name etched onto the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
“It was just a relief and some excitement, as well as just knowing how much effort it takes,” Busch said of his second Cup Series championship. “You always dream of those moments and being able to accomplish them. Sometimes, when you do accomplish them, it’s a little bit of a shock at first. It’s pretty awesome to take all of that in.”
The championship win in November was an emotional one for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. The organization started the year with the death of cofounder J.D. Gibbs. They won the first event of the year (the Daytona 500) with Denny Hamlin and went on to win a record 19 races throughout the season.
Now, the team’s four drivers will vie for Joe Gibbs Racing’s second straight Daytona 500 win, an accomplishment that certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed.
For Sunday’s race, JTG-Daughterty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will lead the field to the green flag after winning the pole award.
But the 2020 battle will have a major focus on the Rookie of the Year class, as well as the retirement of a future Hall of Famer.
The Rookie Battle
Back-to-back Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick will lead the rookie class in 2020, taking over the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.
The 24-year-old won an astonishing six races in the Triple-A version of NASCAR last year en route to his second straight title. Now, he’s moving to the sport’s premier division with one of the most established teams in the sport.
Christopher Bell, known for his tenacity on the racetrack and ability to compete for wins no matter what vehicle he races, will pilot the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing thanks to an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s expected that Bell will be competing for top 10s most weeks, elevating this to become a prestigious ride.
In 2019, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer had a breakout year, entering Victory Lane an impressive seven times in the Xfinity Series. His performance, though he didn’t win the championship, earned him a promotion to the top tier of the sport. Now, he’ll take over the No. 41 car and attempt to win its first race in nearly two years.
Brennan Poole, John Hunter Nemechek and Quin Houff will also be competing for the Rookie of the Year prize, but will be racing with mid-level teams.
Jimmie Johnson’s Last Ride
Few athletes have achieved the amount of success that NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson has accomplished. Not only has he won 83 races, but he’s earned seven championships, putting him into a category with only two other NASCAR drivers—Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Johnson, 44, announced over the offseason that 2020 will be his final year as a full-time NASCAR driver. The news came as he entered the year in the midst of the longest winless drought of his career, spanning 94 contests.
The legend has driven for the same team, Hendrick Motorsports, throughout his entire career. Though he hasn’t had much success over the past three years, that will not tarnish his legacy.
Johnson is the most dominant driver in modern-day NASCAR, defeating his opponents and making moves in a racecar that few ever do. Former teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that, going into a turn three-wide, while most drivers in the middle lane usually back off, Johnson gassed it and didn’t lose control, actually passing both cars.
Moves like that is how Johnson won five titles in a row from 2006-10. His determination to win is similar to that of four-time champion and the man who helped him land a Cup Series ride, Jeff Gordon.
The two became best friends over the years, with Gordon preparing him for life in the spotlight.
Now, as Johnson rides off into the sunset of his NASCAR career, he is ready to fight for his eighth championship.