How will Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus fare in their new endeavors next season?
The final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season these last few years at Homestead-Miami Speedway has become a bit of a gala event on the calendar. Not only is it the day four teams have been building toward since rolling into Daytona International Speedway in February, it’s also marked ends of eras in NASCAR. 2015 saw the last scheduled race in the career of Jeff Gordon, 2016 was the end of the line for Tony Stewart as a driver, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped out of a Cup car for the final time in 2017.
This year will be it for Matt Kenseth (or so it’s said), but with all due respect to the 2003 champion and the other drivers the last few years, the last race for the combination of Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus might eclipse everything else in terms of impact in the sport.
There’s only been one other pairing even on Johnson-Knaus’ level: Richard Petty-Dale Inman. But that was a completely different time; Inman had a much different role on the team than Knaus does.
What’s more is that the Petty relationship ended in controversy after Petty won at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1983, but was found to have both a large engine and left-side tires on the right side. After the season, Petty announced he was leaving his own team to go to drive for Mike Curb, while Inman went to Billy Hagan’s race team to be on the pit box for Terry Labonte. This one is (probably) not going to end like that, with Knaus still working under the same roof as new No. 48 crew chief Jeff Meendering.
Both sides are coming out of this split with something to prove. For Johnson, it’s that he really is that good. A constant knock against the seven-time champion is that he was somehow a simple bystander, the guy who shut up and did whatever Knaus told him to do. That’s not really the case. But if he can bring an eighth title home with Meendering, nobody can really say anything about that again.
Meanwhile, Knaus is going to have almost carte blanche to transform the No. 24 team into his idea of a championship-winning crew. He has the driver for it; we know William Byron has talent, and he should improve next season with a better crew chief and a year under his belt. If Knaus can get an eighth championship with Byron, he would tie Inman’s record; he won his eighth with Labonte just a year into their relationship.
Regardless of what the future will hold for both, their legacy of contending in the Cup Series almost from day one and of a near-10-year run of absolute domination is secure. It’s not another driver retirement, but it really is an end of an era at Homestead this year.
What will Matt DiBenedetto do in good equipment next year?
In kind of a surprising outcome, Matt DiBenedetto has gone from having nothing for next year as recently as a month ago, to being in position to win races and contend for a playoff berth next season.
The California driver’s career has been a roller coaster ride at this point. Breaking in part-time in the XFINITY Series in 2009 and 2010 for Joe Gibbs Racing, DiBenedetto didn’t really impress that much for his level of equipment and left the team after seven starts. DiBenedetto finished fourth in K&N Pro Series East points in 2011, but he only had a handful of XFINITY start-and-park rides in 2012 and 2013.
2014 saw DiBenedetto racing in all but seven of the XFINITY Series races, starting the year by parking for Curtis Key and started running full races in the second half of the season. DiBenedetto then moved up to racing full-time in Cup starting in 2015 with BK Racing, then in 2017 moving on to Go FAS Racing, his current home.
It’s hard to tell how good of a driver DiBenedetto is in some ways; he’s never been in great equipment outside of his stint at JGR as a teenager. But there have been some signs. He keeps what he has pretty clean and he doesn’t cause many cautions at all. He finished sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway, which will more than likely go down as the best finish in BK Racing history.
Leavine Family Racing isn’t exactly a stronghold, but it should dramatically improve if this alliance with JGR and Toyota will bring the same level of support that the outgoing Furniture Row Racing/JGR relationship did. DiBenedetto’s shot with the team should be a major story to follow in 2019 and beyond.
Will Regan Smith find his way back into a Cup ride full-time next year?
Super-substitute driver, Regan Smith, will stick with the No. 95 team for the balance of the season, after Kasey Kahne revealed this week that he hasn’t been cleared to return to the Cup Series at any point this season.
Smith has been comfortable in his role of being a pit road reporter for Fox Sports these past couple of years, but he’s been pretty impressive in the No. 95 this past month. In five races, Smith has an average finish of 19.8, better than Kahne’s 22.8 in the same equipment. And that’s without much notice or a lot of seat time the past couple of years, especially in the past year.
In fact, with Kahne in the car, the team had two top-15 finishes: fourth at Daytona in July and 15th at Bristol in August. Smith has already equaled that number with a 12th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a 15th at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL.
There are a number of seats opening up this off-season on the back end of the grid; Front Row Motorsports only tends to sign its drivers to one-year deals, the No. 32 Ford is open and there’s a possibility teams such as Richard Petty Motorsports could expand.
Smith has talent — holding-off-Carl-Edwards-at-Darlington-Raceway-with-worn-tires levels of talent — and this opportunity has brought his name back into the free agent market. It would not be shocking at all if some of those teams might be inquiring about Smith these next couple of months.
When will NASCAR move Talladega Superspeedway out of the playoffs?
Talladega really should not have a playoff race.
Racing in general is full of a lot of variables — luck, teamwork, chemistry, skill, track conditions, etc. But Talladega really emphasizes the luck portion of the equation to the point where the racing there under the current playoff format has led to shenanigans at times.
What’s more, however, is that this is a race where any car that can keep up in the draft can win. The No. 43 has done a whole lot of nothing this season outside of losing its brakes at Pocono Raceway, but Darrell Wallace Jr. was at least able to wheel the thing to second in the Daytona 500. Chris Buescher’s lone top-10 finishes were fifth-place results in both Daytona races.
So, well, why not make it the last race before the playoffs? It’s such a great idea I can’t believe NASCAR didn’t do it when Brad Keselowski first suggested it. Anybody can win and get in, unlike at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or in the past, Richmond Raceway. If you have to go into Talladega hanging onto a playoff spot in a 16-driver field, you probably shouldn’t be in the playoffs.
So what happens to Indianapolis? Have that be the kickoff race, followed by Las Vegas and then Richmond as the Round of 16 cut-off race. Dover International Speedway stays as the first race in the Round of 12, with Kansas Speedway, and end the round of 12 at the ROVAL. Not only is the start of the NASCAR playoffs now at both the most prestigious track on the calendar and a huge TV market for the sport, but the Round of 12 cut-off is also now at an actually exciting racetrack.
Then swap ISM Raceway and Martinsville Speedway in the Round of 8, and that’s three cut-off races at three great racetracks without any need for a complete wildcard like Talladega, one that routinely takes drivers out of the race no matter what game plan with which they come into the race.