Once again, three drivers have combined to win all but three races this season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Can they continue their dominance into the summer?
Mark Kristl: While Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are talented enough to continue their dominance, it won’t last. Stewart-Haas Racing is too good not to end up in victory lane. Hendrick Motorsports has steadily improved this season. Will Alex Bowman, William Byron or Jimmie Johnson break through for a win? How about Chip Ganassi Racing? Kurt Busch has been incredibly consistent this season, and Kyle Larson will become more aggressive as the playoffs near. Factor in the wild card race at Daytona International Speedway and the dominance of those three will not continue.
Vito Pugliese: Absolutely they can, particularly when you look at the tracks coming up. Joe Gibbs Racing is the gold standard this year so far with the new package, and Truex is showing signs of returning to the juggernaut form of speed everywhere he showed in 2017. That said, whatever obstacles the Chevrolet teams were dealing with the first half of the year have been figured out, and you’ll see a couple of wins out of the Hendrick Motorsports camp soon. Bowman has put together a string of races that should be getting a lot more attention than it has – three straight second-place finishes and a seventh in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Don’t tell anyone, but he’s my pick to win at Michigan International Speedway.
Amy Henderson: Yes and no. Will they contend for wins? Absolutely. But they won’t be the only ones in the mix by any means. Joey Logano has been strong, as has Chase Elliott. Kevin Harvick is going to heat up sometime. Bowman is so close to a win he’s going to be in the conversation. Kurt Busch looks like he’s close. Clint Bowyer looks close. In other words, it’s not like a year ago when nobody else even looked all that competitive. There are several teams capable of crashing the party.
Bryan Gable: It’s unlikely. Several other capable drivers and teams have made gains since the beginning of the season and should start winning with more regularity. Hendrick is the best example; Elliott in particular will be a threat to win most weeks. Logano has come very close to winning several more races and will probably have a few more wins to his name when the playoffs begin. You can never count out Harvick and the No. 4 team, and drivers like Larson and Ryan Blaney just need a little bit of luck on their side. There is a lot of potential to see additional big winners in the next few weeks.
Halfway through the regular season, 31 points separate seven drivers right around the playoff cutoff. Who stands out as having the best shot at securing their spot in the championship battle?
Gable: Larson. The No. 42 team proved during the All-Star Race that when things go right, it can contend for wins. Even with the team’s bad luck and self-inflicted errors, Larson has a higher ceiling than a lot of the other drivers around the playoff bubble, which will give him an advantage. Don’t forget that Michigan is coming up too, and we know Larson can get the job done there.
Henderson: Right now, it’s between Daniel Suarez, Byron, Larson and Erik Jones for the last three spots. I give Johnson an edge over them because he knows how to close races, and if he has a car halfway capable, he’ll get the finishes he needs. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t been consistent enough yet. Larson hasn’t either, but what he has shown is flashes of brilliance that the Roush Fenway Racing drivers haven’t, so he gets the nod.
Kristl: Because Hendrick has steadily improved this season, Johnson and Byron will continue moving up the point standings. Also, Larson has the talent and equipment to win in any race this season, so he may win to make the playoffs.
Pugliese: Larson if he’d stop spinning himself out and removing himself from contention. Ultimately he’ll get in on a race win between now and September, but the driver seems to take too many risks given his relative points position. Perhaps that is a result of the current points and playoff format offering greater reward for the risk, but it’s one that hasn’t really paid much of a dividend yet. Johnson has to sneak in a win here somewhere, but if he doesn’t, he should ride the rising wave of HMS performance the organization has been experiencing lately. The No. 6 team shows flashes of brilliance and then will fade to a mid-teens finish, which isn’t going to cut it as the summer drags on.
For quite some time, the idea has been thrown around to hold an NTT IndyCar Series/Cup companion weekend. Which track would be best suited for it?
Pugliese: Iowa Speedway! We’ve been clamoring for years for a race here, but there’s been some hand-wringing over whether or not it would work, with regards to fans demanding a change or a venue and then not showing up. Well, here’s a no-miss strategy to make sure it’s a success. If not there, Sonoma Raceway would be a perfect companion weekend, with virtually no chance of rain to wash things out or cause a delay, either. With the carousel corner layout back in place for the Cup cars, you wouldn’t need to have multiple track setups. It would be the best of both worlds, as NASCAR on a road course is always a good show. Speaking of road course, Road America would be an option as well, even if it would only be the Xfinity Series, for now.
Henderson: I’d like to see it at someplace like Richmond Raceway, where both series have the potential for a really great show (IndyCar raced at Richmond in the past), or one of the road courses. The problem with the intermediate tracks is that fans are likely to be disappointed by at least one race. I’d love to see this happen, and I’d love for there to be incentives for drivers to compete in both races. Both series are very different, but there’s a lot to like about them both, So yes, please.
Gable: How about Iowa? It is a venue with which IndyCar is familiar, and the Cup Series needs more short-track races. Hosting the first Cup/IndyCar weekend would be a good reason for expanding Iowa’s infrastructure, and it would give the track a unique event in the world of American motorsports. Iowa also has lights, so there would be a lot of flexibility available in terms of scheduling races.
Kristl: Forget Cup — how about pairing up with IndyCar for a companion race with the Gander Outdoors Truck Series at the Raceway on Belle Isle? The Truck Series should scrap its Pocono Raceway race and instead try a street course. It may entice IndyCar fans to follow NASCAR, and it would provide a second road course for the Truck Series schedule. In case NASCAR contemplated trying a street course, what better series to try the course on than the Truck Series? The only challenge would be forcing IndyCar to give up its doubleheader race weekend, but it could always combine the two races into one longer event.
Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick have a stranglehold on the Xfinity Series with a combined eight wins in 11 races, but their seasons are on different trajectories. Which one of the trio is the title favorite at this point?
Kristl: Tyler Reddick. He is the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, he and his Richard Childress Racing team have improved over the course of the season, and when Reddick makes a mistake, he has minimized the damage, so his ability to maximize good finishes is paramount.
Gable: Christopher Bell is the favorite. He may not have won the Xfinity title last year, but Bell and the No. 20 team have a demonstrated history of being able to win races together. Plus, Bell has Jason Ratcliff on the pit box, and his track record of success in the Cup and Xfinity series is very strong.
Henderson: Slight edge to Bell because of the team and manufacturer for which he drives. He’s got the factory support and the money behind him — not that the others don’t, but JGR has an edge in the money and support categories.
Pugliese: Reddick. The defending champion is picking up steam and reeling off races of Lewis Hamilton-esque consistency. Two wins and two seconds in the last six races, and the meat of the season is just around the corner. He rarely makes a mistake and seems to drive well beyond his years as far as maturity goes.As long as he doesn’t get distracted by future plans, he’ll be in good shape come this fall.