Who… should you be talking about so far?
Kyle Busch is certainly making himself the early title favorite for 2019. With a series-leading three wins so far, Busch has a solid 20-point buffer over second place in points and an eye-popping average finish of 3.9. Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin are the only drivers to finish on the lead lap in every race so far this year. Brad Keselowski has led more laps than Busch this season, but that’s about the only category anyone tops the No. 18 driver in.
So, does that make Busch the odds-on favorite to take it all at Homestead? Not so fast.
For one thing, no matter how good of a season a driver has, all it takes is one bad move by anyone in the field at Homestead to dash his hopes. But that aside, last year’s champion Joey Logano didn’t even hit the radar until late in the playoffs. In short, Busch is making a great case for himself, but it’s still much too early to be calling the title for anyone just yet.
If there’s a driver who’s turned heads despite not winning in 2019, Kyle’s older brother Kurt Busch has done just that. After parting ways with Stewart-Haas Racing and moving to Chip Ganassi’s organization for 2019, the elder Busch has wasted no time in elevating the No. 1 team. A year ago after nine races, Jamie McMurray had a 20th-place average finish, just one top 10 and sat 24th in points. Busch is seventh in points with three top fives, six top 10s and an 8.9 average finish. That’s a huge turnaround in a short time period for the team.
Has it come at a cost, though? Busch’s teammate, Kyle Larson, has struggled in 2019, and the Ganassi organization has never put two cars in Victory Lane in the same year. But much of Larson’s slow start comes from bad luck, including two DNFs for crashes in the last three races. Busch seems headed for a win this season, and there’s not yet any reason to think that can’t elevate Larson as well.
What… is the takeaway from this season so far?
While it certainly hasn’t been perfect, there have been some good races so far in 2019. It hasn’t been the best racing you’ve ever seen, but it has been far from the worst as well. NASCAR is moving in a better direction. but is it enough?
Not yet, it isn’t. Cars still have too much aerodynamic grip and not enough reliance on mechanical grip, coupled with not enough throttle response. In short, passing is still too hard.
Not that it should be easy, but a good driver in a faster car should be able to pass a good driver in a slower car, and that’s still not the case often enough. It shouldn’t be easy, but it should be doable. Recently at Richmond, the third-fastest car won the race because two faster cars couldn’t complete a pass. If that was because one driver was vastly superior, that’s one thing, but that isn’t necessarily always the case.
What NASCAR needs to do is to look more closely at the cars from the days when a faster car could pass a slower one if the driver was capable, and see what can be incorporated here. It probably starts with ride height, but also includes tires, gears, suspensions and many other factors. Some probably aren’t an option today, like bias-ply tires, but others certainly are. With a new racecar already in development, the time to do this is right now.
Where… do we go from here?
On that note, NASCAR is trying a couple of changes for the All-Star race again this year, though nothing as drastic as last season. Cars will feature changes to the splitter and ductwork this time around. Will there be measurable differences in the racing? That’s hard to say because the race format doesn’t play out as a 400-500-mile race might, but using that race is a smart way to try things because it does give a better glimpse of what will happen under race conditions than test sessions will.
Many drivers would like to see the splitter go the way of the dinosaur, so whether a new style will improve things or be lipstick on a pig is definitely up for debate. The ductwork changes make engine cooling more efficient, which could allow down the road for engines to be sealed and reused throughout the season to a high degree. That cuts costs, but it isn’t so good for racing because there needs to be less predictability and more attrition, neither of which this change will likely bring.
When… has been the moment of truth so far?
As it has been for years, possibly forever, the best racing we’ve seen this year has been on the short tracks. Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond have given fans the best races of the season. Fans wanting more short tracks when the track contracts are up certainly have plenty of leverage in the racing department, because we’ve seen three great battles this year, and they’ve all been on track shorter than one mile.
Yes, even Martinsville was more exciting than any intermediate track could hope to be because someone was passing somebody every single lap. You don’t see that everywhere, though it does happen more than you see on TV.
What NASCAR really needs to do, though, is spread the short-track races out more. Next year’s schedule is only a slight improvement, moving Martinsville to a Saturday night in May. What’s missing is a couple of old-fashioned short-track showdowns under the summer sun in July and August. It’s fantastic to see all three of the under one-mile set in the playoffs next year, the summer doldrums needs some serious spicing up. A couple of hot Sunday afternoons with hot short-track tempers would put some real heat back in the season
Why… should you be paying attention?
The biggest changes – the seventh generation racecar and an opportunity to truly rework the schedule – are still a couple of years away. But they’re worth following because if NASCAR gets them right, they could change the game. The sanctioning body is in a position where it can’t afford to get them wrong.
Neither is without challenges. Making a racecar that looks more like the street version will sit well with fans, but it won’t race like a stock car of 30 years ago. Street cars are too aerodynamic for that. Still, will NASCAR listen to the calls to raise the cars and create mechanical grip? And if not, is it something they can come back from?
As for the schedule, without cooperation from track owners (and by that, of course, I mean from the Smith family and Speedway Motorsports Inc.), how much change can really be made? SMI has taken races from short tracks in favor of 1.5-milers for years and has made it clear in the past it will bring a lawsuit if it doesn’t get its way. NASCAR has caved to SMI too often to change that course easily. Taking a date apiece from privately-owned Dover and Pocono only opens up a couple of weeks and neither of those tracks deserves to lose two races.
Also, how many Cup-ready short tracks are out there? Yeah, not many.
How many short tracks have the money to install SAFER barriers (and NASCAR should never, ever allow a race at a track without them other than the truck race at Eldora only because that’s already done) and pay massive sanctioning fees if the TV contract isn’t bringing them the revenue it currently is? It’s not like there are 10 new tracks out there scrambling for Cup dates. Real change in the schedule is not a guarantee.
How… are the main players shaking out for the playoffs?
Joe Gibbs Racing, mainly Busch, leads the pack so far in 2019. In nine races, JGR has six wins, with three for Busch, two for Hamlin and one for Martin Truex Jr. Only Erik Jones has yet to find his mojo this year. Of the three, Busch looks to be JGR’s best bet. He’s the team’s top dog, and whether that means the first choice of everything is up for debate. Hamlin has been strong but has never quite been able to close the championship deal, and Truex is third fiddle to them, though even the third fiddle is the envy of a lot of others.
Team Penske has the other three wins in 2019, with one for Logano and two for Keselowski. Both are champions who know how to work the playoffs. Ryan Blaney is also right there in the mix, and it certainly looks to be only a matter of time until he wins as well. This organization’s advantage is how well all three teams work together toward a common goal. They also glean information from veteran Paul Menard and Wood Brothers Racing, giving them more strength in numbers. Logano showed last year why they can’t be counted out, ever.
Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t off to quite the hot start it was a year ago, but it’s not far behind, either. Winless in 2019, SHR still has four drivers in the top 12 in points, with Kevin Harvick showing strong in fourth, the highest-placed winless driver. Clint Bowyer had a better car than Truex at Richmond but couldn’t make a move. Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez don’t quite look ready to win, but they don’t look far off either. Like Team Penske, this is an organization that can absolutely put every driver in the playoffs on wins.
Chip Ganassi Racing was winless in 2018 and so far in 2019 has not yet broken that streak. But it’s hard to count either Larson or Busch out anywhere, particularly Busch. Look for one to make the playoffs on wins, but for both to be in the top 16 when the title run starts. And don’t be surprised if one of them, particularly Busch, is still in it at Homestead.
Hendrick Motorsports right now looks like a two and two split for the playoffs. Expect Chase Elliott to win his way in and Jimmie Johnson to get in on points, though he’s looking more and more capable of winning with every passing week. Alex Bowman and William Byron need to grow a bit more before they’re seen as contenders this early in the season and that’s fine. They have a lot of learning to do, but they have plenty of time to do it and put HMS in an even better position in the years to come.
Richard Childress Racing should be able to put Austin Dillon in the playoffs on points. He’s shown some improvement this year. A win is another animal. Daniel Hemric is a rookie and shouldn’t be expected to make a playoff run this year. Too much pressure on an inexperienced driver to make the postseason or win his first year out won’t do him any favors, and RCR hasn’t shown they can contend for a title recently. Getting Dillon in and making the second round would be a good season for the team by any measure.
Roush Fenway Racing has shown signs of life since bringing Ryan Newman on board this year, and he’s consistent enough to squeeze in on points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doesn’t have that consistency on his side, but he’s shown enough prowess at Talladega and Daytona that he could sneak a win in at either one and make the postseason that way. Like RCR, RFR should be well satisfied this year if it can put at least one driver in the playoffs and make it past the first round, or at least look like it belongs in the first three races.