With nine races in the books – a quarter of the way through the full season — and an off weekend ahead, it seems like an opportune moment to take stock on the season so far with some quick hot takes.
First things first, two teams have sprung to the forefront: JGR has won six of the nine races with Team Penske accounting for the remaining three races. Remarkably, Kevin Harvick still hasn’t won a race this year, but you have to feel that’s coming soon. Hendrick Motorsports has struggled mightily by comparison picking up just two top-five finishes and seven top-10’s across the four-car outfit (36 total starts).
Chase Elliott sits highest in the standings in 10th, Jimmie Johnson is 13th with Alex Bowman and William Byron 20th and 21st, respectively. And it’s fair to say after all the hype, the 2019 package has not lived up to the (maybe too high) expectations; if anything it’s been something of a disappointment. Qualifying has been shambolic, even with the in-season rule changing, and you have to feel this whole area is, to put it politely, a work in progress in 2019. In the positive column, the 2020 schedule looks solid with some interesting changes and switch ups on the table for next year.
Next up, we head to three playoff tracks; Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway, before we get to the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race at Charlotte Motor Speedway which is also a playoff venue, just in a very different configuration.
I’m giving the season a B- grade thus far, with some optimism tempered by room for improvement.
Truex Checks Off Win No. 1
In 2013, Matt Kenseth’s first season for Joe Gibbs Racing, the wily veteran won an impressive seven races for his new team; Martin Truex Jr. would undoubtedly settle for a similar total in 2019 in his first season for JGR.
“It means a lot to break through, especially here at Richmond,” Truex said of his Saturday night success. “The short track win–everybody kept asking me when it was going to happen.”
And while the inaugural victory for his new team in just the ninth race is no doubt satisfying, snapping a 0-80 streak at short tracks makes the win even sweeter. After an eight-win, championship season in 2017, Truex followed it up last year with four wins, 20 top fives, 1016 laps led on the way to a second-place finish in the overall standings. Expectations are similar in 2019 and now with the benefit of a win and a playoff place in the bank, Truex can take a breath, and focus on securing as many bonus points as he possibly can before the final ten races begin.
One early area Truex can improve is in qualifying. In the last two years, he had an average starting spot of 6.8 (2017) and 9.9 (2018) while in 2019 he’s averaging 15.1 with four starts in the 20s. All told, though, it’s been a pretty seamless transition for Truex. Don’t be surprised to see his win count start to mount at a decent clip as the weather heats up.
Another week, another 1-2 for Mercedes, as Lewis Hamilton added another Grand Prix to his already overstuffed trophy case. The team has begun the season in dominant fashion; the first time a team has started 1-2 in the first three races since Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese achieved the same feat for Williams in 1992 some 27 years ago.
Mansell would go on to win the next two races making it five straight to open the season, and what was at the time a record nine wins in total, as he cruised to the title with five full races to spare. In the marquee 1000th race for Formula One at the Shanghai International Circuit this past Sunday, Hamilton dove ahead of his teammate and polesitter Valtteri Bottas into the first corner, put the hammer down, and led every lap on the way to a second straight victory, and the 75th of his career.
Hamilton’s lead over fourth place Sebastian Vettel is already at 31 points, 29 ahead of Max Verstappen who sits third, but just six ahead of Bottas, who already has a victory in 2019 in the season opener in Australia. Next up, after a break for Easter, the F1 circus heads to the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan. This will be the fourth race at the circuit, with Hamilton the defending race champion. Daniel Ricciardo won in 2017 with Nico Rosberg winning in his championship season of 2016.
A week from Easter, we head to the treacherous high banks of Talladega Superspeedway for the first of two annual visits. This will be 100th Cup race at the famed circuit, and as always, even the smartest prognosticators cannot begin to predict who’ll be celebrating in Victory Lane on Sunday (April 28).
In many ways that’s what makes ‘Dega such a compelling race afternoon, even if it does take control out of the drivers’ hands. This time last year Joey Logano picked up the victory while in the fall event, Aric Almirola took the checkered flag. Brad Keselowski leads the way with the most wins (five) amongst active drivers, while Team Penske teammate Logano has three. Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer both have a pair of wins. This season marks the 50th anniversary of racing at Talladega, a testament to the track’s longevity and importance. Here’s to the next half century on the high banks, starting the weekend after next.
Rossi Lays Down a Marker
For the second straight year, Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi put on a master class at the Long Beach Grand Prix, leading 80 of the 85 laps, the sixth win of his 54-race open wheel career.
Rossi had put down a marker in qualifying, taking pole position by over a quarter of second – a huge advantage over a field that has been tightly bunched in 2019. This time last year, Rossi had a dominant afternoon, leading 71 of 85 laps, kick starting his run all the way to the championship race. At the end of 2018, Rossi’s race was essentially over before the first corner of the race after he slammed into the rear of his Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti, forcing him to pit early.
Rossi fought back to a hard earned seventh-place finish. But his day was done before he even made it through the first lap. Don’t be surprised, then, to see Rossi figure prominently all year long and perhaps this year he can go one better and snag that elusive first IndyCar title.