Everything is Different, But Not in the Same Way
Remember back to your high school science class (or college courses, if you majored in something science-related in college)? You undoubtedly learned about the scientific method, and how the best way to figure out if a change in one variable led to a desired outcome was to keep all other variables the same.
In NASCAR? Not so much. The 2019 Monster Energy Cup Series rules package changed a whole bunch of things on the cars, and they aren’t even all consistent from track-to-track. Add in the face that even, say, 1.5-mile tracks are much different compared to each other — Las Vegas isn’t identical to Charlotte, for instance — and no science teacher would approve of the way stock car racing has gone about tinkering in the name of more exciting racing.
If that wasn’t enough, there’s definitely such a thing as small sample size, so if you didn’t like the action at Las Vegas, just hold tight, because it’s quite likely things will be different in a few weeks at Auto Club Speedway, the next event where both the tapered spacers and aero ducts are in full effect.
How will they be different? That’s the really fascinating part because until the green flag drops in California, no one will know for sure. Lots of people, including the drivers and their teams, thought there might be tightly packed cars drafting at Vegas, and that didn’t happen. The new rules package didn’t have much of an obvious effect on the cars except to make them slower. Whoever best figures out how the rules package will affect them at each track will have a leg up on the competition, and right now, one team seems to have answers the others don’t.
Team Penske is Acing the Early Tests
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Brad Keselowski got hot down the stretch last season, and Joey Logano, of course, got even hotter in the playoffs and won the whole thing. But again, with so much different for the 2019 season, and the Ford camp getting the new Mustang body to boot, there was no guarantee that momentum would carry over.
If anything, it’s actually picked up a bit through the first three races of the Cup Series season. Logano didn’t get the push he needed to win the Daytona 500, but he was in it all the way until the end. Keselowski claimed victory at Atlanta, and now the defending series champ has visited Victory Lane as well.
Yes, Ryan Blaney so far has an average finish of 25th — in keeping with this week’s academic theme, we did the math — but it’s rare for every member of any sports team to be performing all at their best at once.
Team Penske is clearly a step ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing, which wasn’t the case for most of last season. Kevin Harvick has led a lot of laps but hasn’t dominated the early going like he did in 2018, and the next best Ford has actually been … Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? The points say so, anyway.
Joe Gibbs Racing is also right there, with all four drivers in the top nine in points and a Denny Hamlin Daytona 500 triumph to celebrate. But right now, Penske is getting the top marks, all the more impressive in a season of uncertainty.
Hendrick Motorsports Could Use a Cheat Sheet
The speed shown by the Hendrick Motorsports cars prior to the Daytona 500 was one of the feel good stories of the latter part of the preseason. Jimmie Johnson won the Clash in his spiffy new purple-hued car, William Byron won the pole, and all of his teammates turned in fast qualifying times too.
Fast forward a few weeks and none of the four Hendrick cars are in the top 10 in points, combining for just two top-10 finishes in three races. Johnson started ninth at Las Vegas but didn’t even finish on the lead lap. Even with the new rules package, the team looks a little lost.
The silver linings are obvious: There’s a lot of season left, and with the aforementioned curveballs getting thrown at the garage each week, there might be some tracks where HMS finds something they haven’t for more than a year now. Chase Elliott might be able to will and drive himself to victories like he did once last summer came around.
It’s a bummer we even have to discuss that, though. Hendrick right now is like the anti-Penske, not great for the most part under the old rules and not looking revitalized by the new ones either. One subpar season in 2018 could be chalked up to a bunch of change and the new Camaro. If it becomes two, that’s a trend, one that would mean the team is no longer at the head of the class.
Young Drivers Still Need to Hit the Books
One of the more noticeable and interesting things about the still young season is the fact that, FOX in particular, and NASCAR in general have backed way off on promoting the sport’s “Young Guns.” It’s understandable considering they pushed the up and coming talent so heavily last season only to see them combine to win just five of 36 races: three by Elliott, one by Erik Jones and one by Blaney, and that last one required a very fortuitous wreck of two older drivers on the final lap to pull off. (As a side note, not one of the Young Gun wins came during the FOX portion of the season, so … yeah.)
Defining a “young” driver is always a matter of opinion, but if we for the sake of argument say it’s any Cup Series regular under the age of 27, there are nine running for Cup Series points right now, or roughly a quarter of the field. That means to even pull their weight as a group, they should win about nine races combined per season.
It’s way too early to draw any conclusions, and maybe the tapered spacers and ducts will prove to be the great equalizer in a year when a bunch of different drivers get wins. Youth might finally be served, and the torch might start to be passed.
We’re 0-for-3 for the young guys so far, though. Paging Christopher Bell …
Kyle Larson and the No. 42 Team Are in Self-imposed Detention
If you knew without looking that Kyle Larson has led the most laps through three weeks, then congrats, you have really paid attention to the first three races. If you also knew that Larson has led almost 50 laps more by himself than all four members of Joe Gibbs Racing, then you really need to be texting someone at FOX or NBC for a job right now.
It’s true. Coming off a frustrating and winless 2018, Larson and his No. 42 bunch have come out looking like the most formidable Chevrolet entry in the garage, if only they could stay out of their own way. After getting caught in the wreckage-filled nightmare of Daytona, they’ve been dealing with self-inflicted wounds ever since.
At Atlanta, it was a pit road speeding penalty that did them in when it appeared the No. 42 may have had a chance to win. Then in Vegas, the pits proved to be their undoing again, this time because of the controversial but correct-by-the-rulebook call that a crew member touching a hand to the ground while leaning over the wall constitutes too many men servicing a car.
The good news for Larson fans is that he hasn’t finished worse than 12th despite the gaffes, and if those constitute bad days, watch out when this team finally puts it all together. Oh, and California is coming up soon, a place where Larson has been pretty darn good the last two races. Plus, hey, Brad Keselowski still believes in him, so we probably should too.