There are winners and losers in every form of competition. But NASCAR and all other forms of racing can be particularly harsh in the regard. Consider that in this weekend’s Super Bowl there will, of course, be a winner, but at the same time, there will only be one loser. In racing’s Super Bowl(Daytona 500), however, there will only be one driver and team that take the checkered flag in first place leaving 39 others with the realization that, on that day at least, they were losers.
After all, in the words of the great philosopher Ricky Bobby, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
But in reality, of course, NASCAR doesn’t actually live by Rick Bobby’s standards. Drivers and teams can in fact count particular days or even a season as a good one even without a trophy or checkered flag to show for their efforts. Consider that four drivers who did not win a race during the 2019 season still managed to earn a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs. So in that sense, they were winners. In other words, success can be a relative and somewhat subjective thing in racing.
Looking back through last year’s final standings, there are some drivers and teams who at least seem to have the potential to step forward in 2020. That is not to say there is a guarantee that those listed below will win a race or even make the Playoff cut. However, these drivers along with their teams will show an improvement in the coming season.
Aric Almirola: Even though he did in fact make the first round of the NASCAR Playoffs in 2019, it would seem fair to say that this is a driver who took at least a small step backwards last season. As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that three of the four teams under the Stewart-Haas Racing umbrella took steps backward last year as only the No. 4 operation for driver Kevin Harvick found its way to victory lane after having all four of the SHR cars to score at least one win and make the Playoffs in 2018.
Almirola showed excellent progress in his career during his first season with SHR back in 2018 by scoring the most top-5 and top-10 finishes in his career with 4 and 17 respectively. He also scored a win late in the season at Talladega Super Speedway and ultimately finished 5th in the final series standings. However, that momentum did not carry over to 2019 as the 35-year-old driver managed 3 top-5s and 12 top-10s in an effort that landed him in the Playoffs but failed to produce a victory.
During the recent off-season, Stewart-Haas Racing opted to exchange crew chiefs between Almirola’s No. 10 and Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 teams. While change does not always result in success, the positioning of Mike Burgarewicz atop the pit box for Almirola could provide a boost for both the driver and the team.
Further, Almirola’s contract with SHR runs out at the end of this season. How many times have we seen a driver perform much better with the possibility of being out of a ride hanging over them? That’s not to say Almirola hasn’t been giving it his best but a little extra motivation never hurts, right?
With the bar from 2019 set at no wins and 12 top-10 finishes, Aric Almirola will perform better in 2020.
Austin Dillon: It seems unusual to say that a former winner of two of NASCAR’s crown jewel races should be looking to improve in the upcoming season but that’s exactly where Austin Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing team find themselves heading into 2020. Much like Almirola’s situation above, Dillon’s RCR organization is coming off of a season in which it took a significant step backwards.
In 2018, RCR won the Daytona 500 with Dillon and amassed a total of 17 top-10 finishes between its two drivers(Dillon & Ryan Newman). Last year the team only accounted for a total of 8 top-10s between Dillon and Daniel Hemric.
The elevation of two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick to the NASCAR Cup Series will lift this entire organization. As a result, Dillon’s No. 3 team will see improvement as well as Reddick’s No. 8 ride. And more, Justin Alexander has returned to serve as Dillon’s crew chief for the 2020 season. It was he who called the shots for both of the 29-year-old driver’s Cup Series wins.
After scoring no top-5 and only six top-10 finishes in 2019, Austin Dillon will move forward in the upcoming season with better results.
Ryan Preece: Like Dillon, here is another driver who will have a new teammate in the upcoming season. But more than that, this is a driver who now has a year of NASCAR Cup Series experience under his belt.
After achieving great success in Modified racing, Preece took a huge gamble on himself by essentially renting an Xfinity Series ride for four races in 2017 with Joe Gibbs Racing. That gamble paid off in a major way as the young driver parlayed his success into a half-season of Xfinity starts with JGR the following year. Two wins on NASCAR’s second series were the result of his time with that organization.
Preece was a rookie on the NASCAR Cup Series in 2019 with JTG-Daugherty Racing. In his first campaign, he earned a top-5 finish at Talladega and a total of three top-10s including an 8th place result in the season-opening Daytona 500.
The addition of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will benefit the organization as a whole and Preece in particular. But more so, Preece is a very talented driver who will primarily benefit from the experience he gained last season. As a result, he will show improvement in 2020 with more top-15 and top-10 finishes throughout the upcoming campaign.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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