1. What will the new aerodynamic package look like in real time?
That’s the big question that everyone is asking, but don’t expect the answer to be immediate or definitive. The low horsepower, high downforce package will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a week and a half, but don’t expect what you see there to be what you see all year.
That’s for a couple of reasons. One, the package differs slightly at different tracks, depending on the configuration, and the track configuration will always play a role in the racing. Atlanta’s old, worn pavement is always going to race differently than even a similarly-configured track with newer asphalt.
The big reason, though, is that teams will learn to adapt and that will change how they prepare cars and race on Sunday. Some teams will figure it out early. Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski posted fast times in a recent test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even if they still have that edge next weekend, other teams will figure it out and knock them off the top of the heap. That in itself, after a year where three drivers dominated the races and the airtime talk, could be good for NASCAR, if fans are treated to a variety of winners.
From the testing, as well as last year’s All-Star event, where a similar package was used, the big question still seems to be passing. The cars run closer together, yes, but will they be able to complete passes? On one hand, it’s been increasingly hard for Cup cars to pass each other for the last several seasons, so this is nothing new. Without major aerodynamic changes that would likely take cars even farther away from their stock counterparts than they already are, it’s not going to suddenly change.
Kyle Busch said at the LVMS test that the package takes driver skill away but then likened the racing to a chess match, which seems contradictory. The best drivers have always approached races a little like that chess match, and usually for the better. Dale Earnhardt was a master at that game.
Really, it’s a little like when a manufacturer brings a new car to the table in that the answers won’t be really valid until early summer, if then. In other words, if Atlanta is great, that’s promising, but no guarantee that every week will be like that. On the other hand, if the racing is terrible, there’s time for improvement.
2. Is this the year of the youth movement?
It’s not a question of whether the next generation of drivers is coming because they’re here. NASCAR’s aging driver mix is turning over the reins, but when will the youngsters take hold? 2018 had some bright moments for the young guns but was largely dominated by a small group of wily veterans. Even Cup champ Joey Logano, at 28, has been in the series so long he’s part of the latter group. Chase Elliott broke through and won three races, Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney found Victory Lane, and Kyle Larson made some noise, but by and large, the veterans ruled the roost.
The Cup learning curve is steep, and the older drivers are far from done, but eventually, the young talent is going to start stealing headlines. Will the changing of the guard take off in 2019? Elliott, Blaney and Larson looked strong last year but Blaney and Larson need to back up their solid runs with wins and Elliott ends to keep up the winning ways.
Youngsters needing to make a little noise include Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, William Byron, and to a lesser extent due to his equipment, Bubba Wallace. Byron is the Daytona 500 polesitter but needs to improve on his 23rd-place points finish. Jones has a win and Suarez has looked close. These are NASCAR’s future stars, there’s little question about that. The only questions are how bright they will shine and when they’ll start.
3. Will the quiet veterans make some noise?
While NASCAR veterans reminded the world they’re still on top last year, a few were surprisingly quiet. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was the most notable, but Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman also went winless last season. For Johnson and Hamlin, it was the first season of their careers when they didn’t find Victory Lane at least once.
Between them, these three have 132 Cup wins, and all three won in 2017. Newman seems the most likely to continue his drought simply because his new Roush Fenway team has underperformed in recent years. Newman takes over the ride from Trevor Bayne who was underwhelming as a Cup driver after his dramatic Daytona 500 win.
Hamlin and Johnson, though, have no such reason not to win. Johnson came out swinging and won the preseason Clash at Daytona, but he needs a points win to put the doubts to rest. Three more victories would move Johnson into fourth all-time in the Cup Series, and that’s attainable if he can find his footing. He has the right mindset. Hendrick equipment was the missing piece for Johnson, but a new crew chief may prove just the right medicine.
Hamlin hinted last year that the Joe Gibbs racing stable may not have spread the wealth exactly evenly among its four teams. Jones was the only JGR driver other than Kyle Busch to win a race. Hamlin is four years younger than Johnson, and while his 31 wins have lacked the fanfare of other drivers at times, he’s climbing into Hall of Fame territory even without a title to back them up. He’s in the best equipment in the game. Though JGR’s tendency to put its eggs in one basket may be an obstacle, it should be one Hamlin can overcome. If one of these three is going to put the question of winning to bed this weekend, the smart money is on Hamlin.
4. Whose offseason move was most beneficial?
There were plenty of moves in the offseason to talk about, and all have some benefit. Newman brings a veteran presence to RFR and more knowledge and experience than Bayne had to offer, but for Newman, it’s a lateral move in terms of what he’s getting.
Martin Truex Jr. makes the move to JGR, but his now-defunct Furniture Row team had the same equipment already, so this is also a lateral move, albeit a top-level one. JGR replaces Suarez with a proven winner, but the team has a veteran presence in Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The long-term gain here is negligible for the team, though it should mean more wins for Truex before he retires.
Suarez moves on to Stewart-Haas Racing, which was every bit JGR’s equal last season, and unlike JGR, SHR put every team in Victory Lane last year. If Hamlin’s hinting that all was not equal at JGR has basis, Suarez is in a good position to capitalize on his move. SHR gains a younger driver than Kurt Busch who could be a long-term asset if he proves he can win races.
Busch, meanwhile, hops to Chip Ganassi’s stable. Larson certainly had speed, but overall, the team is a step behind the top organizations. However, Chevrolet as a whole struggled last year, and if that’s in the past, Busch has the opportunity to work with a younger driver to bring out the best in both.
None of the big players left Hendrick Motorsports this season, but the last big move of the season sent Chad Knaus to the No. 24 and Byron while Johnson will work with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering. Knaus put Byron on the pole for the Daytona 500; Johnson responded by taking Meendering to the winner’s circle in the non-points Clash on Sunday. This move is a big deal because Johnson and Knaus were together longer than any of the driver-team pairings above. Johnson has never had another crew chief in the Cup Series before now. Perhaps a little friendly competition will rejuvenate both Johnson and Knaus, and by association, a struggling Hendrick Motorsports
Who will benefit the most from a change of scenery? The early money’s on Johnson, but everyone here has something to prove. Look for them all to try to do that.
5. Can Logano repeat?
Logano showed his tenacity in the playoffs last year, inserting into the championship conversation by executing a bump and run on then-defending champ Truex to win at Martinsville and take a spot at Homestead. It’s not that Logano wasn’t aggressive before, but that move made a statement loud and clear.
Logano certainly has the talent and the equipment to win multiple titles, so it certainly would be no surprise to see him in contention deep into the playoffs, with a definite shot to make the final cut again.
But repeating a title is something else. The last driver to win back-to-back titles was Johnson in 2010 when he capped off his record five-year title run. The other drivers to win two consecutive titles in NASCAR’s top series are Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt (three separate times), Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough (three in a row), Richard Petty (twice), David Pearson, Joe Weatherly and Lee Petty. That group crosses the line from outstanding racecar drivers to legends, some of the very best to ever climb into a racecar. All but Johnson are in the Hall of Fame, and Johnson is a first-ballot lock when he’s eligible. Logano is a talented driver who has taken steps in the Hall of Fame direction, but he’s not there yet, though he has plenty of years left to make his case.
In other words, while he could make another title run this year, the odds, and the sport’s history are against him.