Silly season gives way to season-opening Daytona 500

Several drivers landed new rides this season, while the rookie class boasts some dominant drivers looking to take the next step

Legendary team owner Richard Childress, left, talks with Tyler Reddick during qualifying for the Daytona 500. The Cup Series rookie takes over RCR’s No. 8 this season. (John Raoux / AP Photo)

For the first time in years, the NASCAR Cup Series doesn’t enter the season with one of its mainstay drivers having just driven off into the sunset toward retirement.

In the previous three years alone, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth — a combined eight championships and 15 Most Popular Driver awards, of which Dale Jr. has none of the former and all the latter — have all left full-time racing behind.

And while the Cup Series has certainly fallen on hard times, it did get a boost from a few factors over that stretch. Joe Gibbs Racing — led by defending champion Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Busch Clash winner Erik Jones — and Kevin Harvick dominated much of last season, and the emergence of the next wave of stars like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Alex Bowman are all reasons for optimism.

There are also drivers in new rides this season and a crop of rookies who could quickly become a big part of Cup racing going forward. Ahead of Sunday’s Daytona 500, here’s a glimpse at the results of the musical bucket seats that set the stage for 2020.

New rides

17. Chris Buescher, Roush Fenway Racing

The 27-year-old makes the jump from the JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 37 into Roush’s No. 17 for the 2020 season, replacing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. While Roush isn’t the powerhouse it once was, there’s reason for optimism after Ryan Newman made the playoffs last season. Buescher has one career win (Pocono in 2016), but this is surely the biggest opportunity of his career.

21. Matt DiBenedetto, Wood Brothers Racing

There are few cars as iconic as the Wood Brothers’ No. 21, and DiBenedetto is the latest to try and return the series’ oldest team to prominence. The No. 21 didn’t record a top-five finish last season with Paul Menard, who retired from full-time racing following last season, but the 28-year-old DiBenedetto had three and finished 22nd in the series in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 a year ago.

96. Daniel Suarez, Gaunt Brothers Racing

Despite having arguably his best Cup season in his third campaign, Suarez lost his ride at Stewart-Haas Racing after one season. Late last month, he signed on to drive the No. 96 for Gaunt Brothers. The 28-year-old Mexican will be the first full-time driver for GBR after the team fielded a car in 15 of the series’ 36 races last year.

47. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JTG-Daugherty Racing

After eight seasons at Roush without reaching the playoffs, Stenhouse got off to the right start with his new team, JTG-Daugherty Racing, by winning the pole of the season-opening Daytona 500. It is the third pole of the 32-year-old’s career and first since the 2017 spring race at Talladega — also his last win.

New faces

95. Christopher Bell, Leavine Family Racing

The 25-year-old Bell will make his Cup Series debut Sunday in Daytona. He’s been among the Xfinity Series’ top drivers the past two seasons, winning a combined 15 times. He averaged a 4.2-place finish last season and won a series-high eight races in finishing third in the standings (more on the two in front of him below).

41. Cole Custer, Stewart-Haas Racing

With the best racing name this side of “Days of Thunder,” the 22-year-old Custer gets his first full-time shot at the Cup Series with one of NASCAR’s top teams, Stewart-Haas Racing. Custer  got a taste last season, running in three Cup races, but made his biggest impression in the Xfinity Series, winning seven races and finishing runner-up in the standings for the second straight season.

00. Quin Houff, StarCom Racing

Houff, a 22-year-old from Virginia, raced nearly half the Cup schedule last year, appearing in 17 races for Spire Motorsports. Despite never finishing high than 29th, Houff earned a full-time ride with StarCom, replacing Landon Cassill in the No. 00.

John Hunter Nemechek, who was born in Mooresville and is the son of longtime driver Joe Nemechek, will start his first year with a full-time Cup Series ride with his Daytona 500 debut. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP Photo)

38. John Hunter Nemechek, Front Row Racing

The North Carolina native and son of four-time Cup Series race winner Joe Nemechek earned his first full-time ride in NASCAR’s top series for 2020 with Front Row. The 22-year-old Nemechek has three Cup races under his belt from 2019 and will look to build on a seventh-place finish in the Xfinity Series last season.

15. Brennan Poole, Premium Motorsports

Poole, 28, is the oldest of the rookies but will make his Cup Series debut at the Daytona 500. He still has plenty of experience in both the Xfinity and Truck series, and his Premium Motorsports No. 15, driven by Ross Chastain, finished 10th at Daytona last year.

8. Tyler Reddick, Richard Childress Racing

The 24-year-old Reddick won the Xfinity Series for the second straight season and even earned a ninth-place finish at Kansas in one of his two career Cup Series races last year. Reddick now takes over RCR’s No. 8, replacing Daniel Hemric after he drove the car for one season.