Last year’s Championship 4 showdown at Phoenix Raceway featured Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano … but neither Kyle Busch nor Martin Truex Jr.
It was the first time since 2014, the first instance of the playoff elimination format, that neither driver had a shot at the championship on the final Sunday of the year.
Truex was a near-miss, eliminated after a 22nd-place run at Martinsville (a race he won a year earlier) sealed the fate of his 2020 outcome.
Rowdy? He didn’t even make the Round of 8 after arguably the most frustrating season of his career — one in which he did not win a race until after he was eliminated from the playoffs.
Combined, the two superstar drivers netted just two race victories while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin enjoyed a career year with seven trips to Victory Lane and a pristine 9.3 average finish.
So, what exactly happened, how is the 2021 season shaping up for each of them, and which one has a better shot to return to form? NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and RJ Kraft discuss.
DeCOLA: Considering these two drivers combined for 12 race wins in 2019 and 45 total from 2016-19, it was obviously surprising to see both of these champions come back down to earth a bit in 2020.
Perhaps the more puzzling of the two, Busch’s rut came in defense of his ’19 NASCAR Cup Series championship in the midst of the most dominant stretch of his career. After enjoying two titles and 28 race wins since joining forces with crew chief Adam Stevens in 2015, the pairing couldn’t get things to click consistently in 2020. Given the unprecedented nature of the past season and all-but-nonexistent practice time, it’s conceivable the team could’ve just chalked it up to that, shrugged it off as an anomaly and proceeded business as usual in 2021.
Instead, the team opted to break up arguably the strongest driver/crew chief pairing in the sport and insert Ben Beshore (with just three Cup Series races under his belt, though all with Busch in ’17) into the mix atop the No. 18 pit box. That strikes me as a situation in which JGR identified the issues ailing the team — and let’s be clear here, a win and 20 top-10 finishes is only an “underperformance” based on the high bar Busch had previously set — and made a bold decision in an attempt to right the ship.
Coach Joe Gibbs is a pragmatic leader who simply wouldn’t have made such a stark decision if he thought keeping the Busch/Stevens pairing intact would produce the best possible outcome for ’21.
Busch is also commonly thought of as among — if not the — most supremely talented drivers in NASCAR, so that alone makes me think a bounce-back season is not only likely, but a guaran-damn-tee.
KRAFT: Can I agree that Kyle Busch will bounce back, but believe that Martin Truex Jr. will bounce back with more wins? Because that’s my position. There’s no way these two drivers combine for two wins in a single season in 2021. I just don’t see it. But I do see Truex having the better 2021 for several reasons.
More experience atop the box should be helpful to Truex in 2020. James Small was in his first season as a crew chief and it was far from your typical season, due to the lack of practice time once the season resumed after the COVID-19 stoppage — time that would have served a new pairing well (and that same lack of practice could be an early hindrance to Busch with his new crew chief). The strategy and the calls of when to bring his driver down pit road were all new to him and there were some bumps in the road. The duo found their footing by the summer — notching a win at Martinsville and a late-summer run of eight straight top-four finishes. Truex had one of the best cars in the latter half of the season but couldn’t quite grab another win.
Keeping Truex and Small together makes me think that Coach Gibbs sees things similarly — that this duo is knocking on the door of a big season especially with the speed there in spades with a rules package that will be the same as 2020. The schedule also sets up nicely for Truex with seven road courses on the slate. While Chase Elliott has been the man to beat of late at that type of venue, Truex is far from a pushover at road racing with four wins at Sonoma and Watkins Glen (he was also runner-up to Elliott’s two Watkins Glen wins in 2018-19) and I feel confident in saying that Truex will nab 1-2 wins on road courses in addition to grabbing a few elsewhere.
You know how many wins Truex had with his eventual title-winning crew chief Cole Pearn in their first year together in 2015? The same as he had with Small — one. From there, Truex won four, eight, four and seven races with Pearn in the next four seasons.