Indeed, Sunday’s FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway marks the conclusion of the West Coast Swing. Moreover, Round 4 of NASCAR’s 2020 Cup Series season likely serves as a preview of a much anticipated on-track package.
Certainly, NASCAR unveils its high horsepower, low downforce package after a year absence for short tracks and road courses. In this case, Phoenix’s spring race may serve as a glimpse into the season finale in November.
Each week, The Podium Finish’s panelists, Ashley Hobbs, Chrissi Luttrell, Cody Shoppe, Isabelle Beecy, Kobe Lambeth, Matteo Marcheschi, Matt Sisoler, Sean Folsom, Stephen Conley, Terra Jones, and yours truly will share their thoughts on the latest happenings in NASCAR. This weekend, we analyze Jimmie Johnson’s resurgence and NASCAR’s next breakthrough racer.
While it’s three races into 2020, is it safe to say that Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team are back to their frontrunning ways in the NASCAR Cup Series?
Shoppe : It is too early to tell if the Jimmie Johnson of old will make a return in this farewell season. So far in 2020 we have certainly seen an uptick in performance by that team as well as HMS as a whole. I don’t think there is anyone in the industry that wouldn’t like to see the 48 win another race! I think we will see Johnson win again this year but I’m holding off on any predictions of final four appearance.
Folsom : So far in this season it looks like Hendrick Motorsports is heading in the right direction. I would love to see Jimmie win one or even a few races before he retires, but It is a little early to tell if he will do that yet this season.
Beecy : I think they’re starting to get their momentum in the right direction. It’s a little too early to say whether they’ll keep it up. But so far, their mojo is on the upward trend. I think they’ll try to keep it up though since it’s his last full-time season.
Lambeth : Based on the first few races of the 2020 season, it appears that Hendrick Motorsports is heading in the right direction, in terms of performance. All four cars have been fast and competitive. After experiencing the most frustrating stretch of his career, Jimmie Johnson is showing some signs of his old competitive nature.
The No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE has displayed a decent amount of speed so far. It would be a special ending to Johnson’s historic NASCAR career if he is able to fight for a record eighth Cup Series championship. I predict that his final season as a full-time Cup driver will be a memorable one. In fact, Johnson likely returns to victory lane and up front more often battling for wins.
Conley : Johnson said after Fontana that he was disappointed in a 7th place finish, that means they are moving in the right direction. But, overall. I think Hendrick Motorsports is well on the path to being back and it looks like Bowman may lead them.
Luttrell : Though the past couple years have proven to be challenging for Hendrick Motorsports, it seems this season is finally the turning point. The cars are fast, drivers aggressive, and hungry for success. Jimmie Johnson seems to be leading the pack as far as confidence and drive.
On the track you can see him holding nothing back when it comes to getting to the front, in qualifying, practice, and on race day. It has become apparent that Jimmie got his “groove” back. And I have no doubt in my mind that his final season will turn out to be one of his best. My early bold prediction? Look for Jimmie in the Final Four this year.
Considering Alex Bowman’s journey in NASCAR, which “unknown” racer will likely breakthrough in the coming years?
Sisoler : I would say Matt DiBenedetto or Ross Chastain, although the former seems to have arrived with the Wood Brothers and the latter with Kaulig Racing/Roush Fenway Racing while Newman is hurt.
Tyler Reddick ran impressively well at Fontana for stretches of that race, so he could be someone to watch. I agree with Matteo about Grey Gaulding. But if we’re talking Cup, I think Corey LaJoie is one step away from getting into a top-level ride. And he could very well find himself in that type of equipment come 2021. Also, Ryan Preece has impressed for JTG Daugherty as well.
Tiongson : I would agree with Hobbs that we may see racers join NASCAR from the eSports realm. It’s a possibility I asked Tyler Reddick earlier this year. However, in terms of on track talents who may be relative unknowns, John Hunter Nemechek has breakout star written all over him.
He’s with a team that’s worked ardently with leading the midpack and he’s doing a lot with so little. Considering that he’s epitomized the racer who’s survived many crises, if he can put together consistent, solid results, he’ll get the call for a quality drive one day.
Hobbs : It’s almost impossible to answer because who knows who else will come forth in the coming years. I mean, look at William Byron; he got his start in racing via video games! With eSports becoming more and more popular, I bet a whole list of “unknown racers” come from there in a few years.
Marcheschi : I’ve had my eyes on Gray Gaulding. His story is similar to Bowman’s, with origins at BK Racing. What caught my attention most recently was his 2019 XFINITY Series campaign, driving the number 08 for SS Greenlight.
While he didn’t run up front, and wouldn’t be expected to in his equipment, he stuck out in another way. He completed every single race of the 2019 XFINITY Series season. He was the only driver to finish all 33 races. Consequently, he scored a 13th-place finish in the standings, the first driver outside of the playoffs. Moreover, he also ran the most miles of any of his competitors throughout the season.
What’s most astonishing about Gaulding’s case is that 2019 was the first season since 2014 that he ran the full schedule of any NASCAR Series. While sponsorship woes have forced him out of a ride for 2020, his 2019 campaign showed that he is more than serviceable, and will bring your car home clean. Given more experience, he has potential to become a star.
Jones : I’m going to say Corey LaJoie. While he has been in the Cup Series for five years now (this being his second full-time season), he has done a great job gaining attention. After all, he painted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on the ROVAL “turtle.” Also, he’s raced unique paint schemes with Go Fas Racing. Notably, he partnered with Samaritan’s Feet, so on and so forth.
With this, he isn’t “unknown.” But in terms of being in the top-10 and winning on the regular, this still needs to happen. He mentioned on his podcast, something along the lines of knowing he needs to stand out off the track to get noticed on track. I hope with the upcoming contract years of many drivers, he will get a chance to prove himself in an upper-tier team.
That’s two exciting laps chipping our teeth around the action-packed Phoenix Raceway. Now, let’s review last Sunday’s action from Fontana with our race and points reports!
Escaping the escape room, Ashley Hobbs zooms by as she’s “Crunching the Numbers: FanShield 500” at Phoenix style!
Last but not least, here’s our picks for today’s FanShield 500 at Phoenix!
Beecy : I’m going with Kevin Harvick this week. He’s been doing well over the long runs in practice and he’s done well here in the past with nine wins at this track.
Conley : Many drivers have said the new 750 short track package will revert back to 2018. With that, I would expect the old ways and results come back to Phoenix and Kevin Harvick should find his way back to Victory Lane.
Folsom : With multiple wins at Phoenix, I see him making his way to the front and winning this weekend.
Jones : How can you not pick Kevin Harvick at Phoenix? With nine wins and 23-top 10s at the 1-mile track, and the new short track package, I have no doubt we’ll see the SHR driver dominate on Sunday.
Lambeth : As long as he remains active and competitive, I refuse to bet against Kevin Harvick at Phoenix Raceway. In my eyes, he is the king of the desert!
Shoppe : I’m going with Kevin Harvick.
Sisoler : Last year, I often overlooked the driver known as “The Closer”. Not this time. Phoenix has been one of Harvick’s best tracks, if not his best, throughout his career. Expect, as broadcast legend Ken Squier would say, “Car Number 4”, to take the checkered flag in Race Number 4 of 2020!
TPF Stats : It’s hard to argue with the driver who has won 4 of the past 6 races.
Hobbs : He’s had a nice countdown since 2016; and as the defending race winner, I look for Rowdy to keep his streak strong in the desert.
Marcheschi : With Hendrick’s newfound speed, it’s hard to deny that Chase Elliott will be quick. He has no issue qualifying, having started seventh or better in every race except his Phoenix debut. He’s had a few issues finishing races, but has scored stage points at every stage end except one. It’s time for Elliott to put together a complete race at Phoenix, scoring his first win of 2020.
Tiongson : Those who know me realize I never go with the main picks. So I’m going in a different route by choosing Kurt Busch, a man who knows his way around Phoenix.
Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway!
We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Sunday’s race and who is your favorite to win? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!
Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week! We hope to see you at the races in 2020.
The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.
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