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Opinion: Pressure Packed Season

Five drivers face an added dose of pressure to perform well during the upcoming NASCAR season, writes Pete Pistone.

Austin Dillon
The Richard Childress Racing team overall did not have a good 2019 season. Neither Dillon nor now departed teammate Daniel Hemric failed to crack the top-20 in the point standings both missing the playoffs. Dillon didn’t post a top-five finish. He won three poles and like Hemric showed speed in qualifying but wasn’t able to translate that to race trim. Enter new crew chief Justin Alexander, who comes back to pair with Dillon, replacing veteran Danny Stockman. Team owner Childress is hoping the shake-up leads to better days for the organization’s flagship No. 3 entry in 2020.

Clint Bowyer
The popular Bowyer ended a long winless drought the previous season when he went to Victory Lane twice, but wasn’t able to back that up in 2019. Bowyer’s performance was symptomatic of the Stewart-Haas Racing team, which saw Kevin Harvick win four times and make the Championship 4 while the rest of the four-car stable didn’t win a race. Bowyer will get a new crew chief in Johnny Klausmeier, who takes over from Mike Bugarawicz now calling the shots for Aric Almirola in the team’s No. 10 entry. Bowyer’s deal with SHR goes through 2020 and this season may determine where the veteran’s career goes in the future.

Erik Jones
The 2019 season wasn’t terrible for Jones it just wasn’t on par with his high-flying Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. Jones did get a win and it came in the prestigious Southern 500 at Darlington to boot. But he made an early exit in the playoffs and ended up 16th overall in the point standings. Most expect JGR to again be the organization to beat in the coming season and there are expectations for Jones and crew chief Chris Gayle to step things up to keep closer pace with running mates Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Kyle Larson
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver ended a winless streak of his own last year and was finally able to get to Victory lane for the first time since the 2017 season. Larson’s playoff run was respectable and he finished the season sixth in the final point standings. But Larson enters the last year of his current deal with CGR and has been rumored as a possible replacement for Jimmie Johnson after the seven-time champion heads to retirement at season’s end. Many thought Larson would have more than the six career Cup wins he’s compiled thus far. The ultra-competitive driver has a chance to silence some of his critics with a season more in line with his four win 2017 campaign.

Jimmie Johnson
It’s odd to say a seven-time champion, 83 Cup race winner and slam dunk future Hall of Famer is under pressure but there is definitely some attached to Johnson this year. He has not found Victory Lane in more than two years and ending his full-time career with at least one more checkered flag has got to be a priority for Johnson. His team showed definite improvement in the season half of last year when Cliff Daniels took over the crew chief duties for the No. 48 ride and Johnson has four top-10 finishes in the last nine races. He’ll need to build on that performance in 2020 to have any chance of ending his illustrious NASCAR tenure on a winning note.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.