Debate: Which driver will hit the ground running when NASCAR returns to racing?

NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Alex Weaver make their selections for which driver will hit the ground running first when NASCAR gets back to on-track action.

As the 2020 NASCAR season remains on hold with the nation continuing the ongoing fight against coronavirus, it gives drivers, crew chiefs and teams plenty of extra time to either prepare … or sit idly by as their competition puts in the work to get better. Now, NASCAR national series are the big time, so we don’t expect anybody out there to be slacking during this downtime, but it’s inevitable certain people will put in longer hours than others and come out the other side of this stronger — the cream will rise to the top, so to speak.

And when will we find out who has the edge? When we get back to racing at the planned resumption of the season come May at Martinsville Speedway, that is.

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NASCAR.com’s Pat DeCola and Alex Weaver make their selections for which driver will hit the ground running first when NASCAR gets back to on-track action.

DeCOLA: A driver hitting the ground running after a seemingly endless amount of time to prepare for the next moment we’re back on track, which just happens to tentatively be Martinsville Speedway? Buddy, you might as well hand Jimmie Johnson his 10th grandfather clock now.

On top of his foray into substitute teaching, you have to assume Johnson is undoubtedly using this rare downtime to binge-watch Tiger King on Netflix find ways to further his physical fitness, deepen his relationship and game plan over Zoom with crew chief Cliff Daniels and do whatever else are the things that have led to him becoming a seven-time champion.

The reason for Johnson’s success at NASCAR’s highest level over such a prolonged period stems directly from an unmatched internal drive — the exact kind of drive that gets people off the couch during a period like this and onto the pavement for a brisk 20-mile run. It’s that mental motor that will have Johnson poring over any and all data collected from the Cup Series’ first four races and finding the little things that can be exploited for any sort of edge; the wherewithal to recognize this as an opportunity to better himself and his team, albeit remotely, to come right out swinging whenever we get back to racing.

There’s also the mild embarrassment that came along with Jimmie’s haphazard eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut — a dismal 31st-place result — and the slight chance “Seven-Time” hasn’t left his iRacing rig since Sunday, turning lap after lap. You’ve gotta think all that sim time counts for something.

While it might not be a probability, I don’t think it’s out of the question that when we return … Johnson is instantly elite again, and a title contender.

WEAVER: How could you question a driver who is winning on the virtual track, owns an iRacing team and rides his sim rig barefoot isn’t ready to get back to the real track? I have to go with Denny Hamlin.

With a win in the Daytona 500 for the 2020 season, Hamlin is poised for a repeat year of his success in 2019. By this point last season, he already had four top-11 finishes with two of those in the top five. This season, although not as strong of start, Hamlin is still carrying two top-six finishes with one of those being the crown-jewel win.

Hamlin is competitive. Whether it be in pick-up basketball on his home court, a game of golf with Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr or now iRacing, Hamlin likes to win. He has over two decades of sim-racing experience and is now the owner of a team in the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. He has done nothing but drive during the off time.

We watched Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart put together a Championship 4 year in 2019 and many of the NASCAR faithful have deemed him an early championship favorite again for 2020.

While repeating a winning feat is not always easy, Hamlin can already cross that one off of his list for 2020 with the Daytona 500. What’s a little downtime other than more time to prepare? Locked, loaded and ready to deliver – Phoenix Raceway, here comes the No. 11.