Did You Notice? … If the season ended today, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series would set a dubious playoff record. Only five owners would be eligible to capture the championship, by far the fewest in the sport’s 16-car postseason era.
2019 PLAYOFF TEAMS (IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY)
(Notice, by the way, Jimmie Johnson is off the list. But even if he jumps back into playoff position, as a Hendrick guy it wouldn’t change the number of playoff owners.)
It’s a “cream rising to the top” scenario that jives perfectly with the number of Cup winners this season: just six in 14 races. That’s also a low for this current playoff era and speaks to the difficulty of underdog teams succeeding with the new handling package.
Sure, we’ve seen some good runs this year from Chris Buescher and JTG Daugherty Racing. Ty Dillon has won two stages and been competitive with Germain Racing. David Ragan went into the final Coca-Cola 600 restart with a chance to win on pit strategy. Matt DiBenedetto led the most laps in February’s Daytona 500. But, by and large, these stories end with almost. By September, barring a victory, they’ll all be forgotten in the hubbub of multi-car giants battling it out.
These numbers remind you how special it was for a team like Furniture Row Racing to rise up out of Colorado and win the title with Truex. The best single-car team right now is Paul Menard and the Wood Brothers. He’s 32 points out sitting in 19th place. It remains more difficult than ever for the smaller programs to move up the food chain.
Of course, new money from a new manufacturer could change all that. When Toyota came into the sport in 2007, over a five-year period it upset the balance of power, pushing out backmarkers at Ford and Chevrolet while establishing their own foothold. Team Red Bull, for a time, was a postseason contender and Michael Waltrip Racing also joined the pantheon of competitive teams before Spingate.
It’s why you hear Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports often rumored to be jumping ship if they get the chance. How can they move up in a manufacturer pecking order that makes it seem like we’re racing Formula One? It’s clear the top Ford teams, Penske and SHR, are in the best position for sustained success. Ditto for Hendrick at Chevrolet and JGR at Toyota. They have the most money and first crack at resources. They’re so established it’s borderline impossible for a new owner to come in and compete toe-to-toe without tens of millions of dollars.
So the next step, it seems, if NASCAR can’t fix the monopoly, is to open up the doors to new manufacturers. We’ve heard rumors for years about others stepping through the door. Dodge was a hot and heavy one last year; Honda seems to crop up at times this year. But when will someone actually roll the dice? Can stabilizing TV ratings and an aggressive long-term plan be convincing enough? With new ownership difficult to come by, the best way to jolt the status quo will likely be to pair a hungry manufacturer up with a downtrodden team looking to get back on their feet.
NASCAR leadership has executed their short-term plans well in the post-Brian France era. But toppling the balance of power to allow fresh faces remains one of their biggest long-term challenges.
Did You Notice? … Ross Chastain will now run for the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship? Chastain made the announcement on his Twitter feed today (June 4), confirming the switch beginning at Texas Motor Speedway Friday night.
— Ross Chastain (@RossChastain) June 4, 2019
Maybe Chastain was reading here a few weeks ago about how he’d be second in points if he declared for the Truck Series title in February. Unfortunately, this decision isn’t retroactive. Chastain will start at zero. His Kansas Speedway victory last month, no matter how heartwarming doesn’t count for the playoffs as he wasn’t eligible at the time. (For the record, he’d still be second, just two points behind Grant Enfinger).
Instead, Chastain must start from scratch, 253 points behind Todd Gilliland for the final postseason spot. He certainly won’t make up that deficit with only eight races left to do it.
But if Chastain can just match his first half performance, 329 points would launch him up to around 12th in the standings by the regular season finale. It means all he’ll need is another win to notch a playoff bid and then, all bets are off. And with a limited number of full-time drivers, it’ll be near impossible for Chastain to stay outside the top 20 unless he encounters a series of DNFs.
The knowledge he needs a win should also allow Niece Motorsports to get aggressive. Why not gamble when points don’t matter? They certainly have the speed to win outright but don’t be surprised to see a few strategy ploys. What a special moment for this driver and team if they’re able to shed the underdog label, win a second time and become a true title contender.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- Pocono Raceway should consider running two different courses for its doubleheader in 2020. The first race could be on the original course while the second would be a true road course taking cars through the infield. There’s no question the racetrack does wonders to both draw crowds and accommodate fans. Their unique amenities like a dog park, family-friendly attractions outside the track and affordable ticket prices have offset poor competition. But now’s a bad time to have a bad stretch of races as an independent track with NASCAR re-positioning its schedule. Trying something new may be its last, best hope to keep two races when the schedule rolls over to 2021.
- Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have stood head and shoulders above the pack all season long. But JGR has six wins over the past eight points-paying races while Penske has just one. Even worse, Penske’s Ryan Blaney sits winless, earning just one top-five finish during the last two months. Even Erik Jones at JGR has two of them in the last three weeks. These two teams will yoyo back and forth all season but right now? It’s JGR who has the edge, cemented by Kyle Busch beating Brad Keselowski head-to-head in Sunday’s final laps.