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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Formula N: Cup Shaping Up For a Two-Team Duel

NASCAR and Formula 1 have traditionally existed as tours with little to compare either on-track or off. Their competitors brought contrasting backgrounds and styles. Races played out in different manners with each tour. Even the track layouts (ovals vs. circuits) and vocabulary (crash vs. shunt) were worlds apart between the world’s top tour and America’s favorite series. 

May of those differences still remain today. But peel beneath the surface this season, and there are a surprising amount of shared traits to notice between them. 

Last weekend’s races displayed those similarities for all the world to see, complete with two dominant teams competing for race wins that were ultimately shrouded in controversy ahead of a quiet Father’s Day break.

With financial backing and top-tier equipment paramount to success, F1 has long been a tour dominated by its richest and most technologically-advanced teams. That’s proven true as ever in recent years, with Mercedes consistently leading the pack despite intermittent challenges from Scuderia Ferrari and the occasional burst from Red Bull Racing. 

The dominance of the Brackley team has helped spur on one of F1’s greatest streaks of brilliance from Lewis Hamilton, with the Briton securing 56 wins and four titles since the start of 2014. 

In the rare moments when Hamilton falters, teammates Nico Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas have often been the ones to fill his place atop the podium. Mercedes has claimed each of the opening seven races of the 2019 season, continuing a winning streak that dates back to Interlagos in the fall of 2018. 

The only organization that’s proven capable of mounting a consistent charge to challenge Mercedes has been Ferrari. Led by four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, the Prancing Horse have given Mercedes fits inn the weeks where the team isn’t on its best game. 

Such was the case on Sunday, when Vettel shot out from pole and led a chasing Hamilton for the majority of the Canadian Grand Prix. Vettel appeared poised to deliver Ferrari it’s first win since last October’s United States Grand Prix, but a missed corner and controversial five-second penalty from the stewards allowed Hamilton to score another victory despite failing to overtake Vettel on-track. 

Thanks to a few midwestern storms, Sunday’s drama spilled over from the usual F1 fandom to a few NASCAR fans searching for racing after the planned Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race was rained out. Little did those fans know they would see the NASCAR equivalent to F1’s battle on the following evening. 

NASCAR has historically been a series known for parity. Manufacturers and teams occasionally gain an advantage, but few manage to separate themselves from the pack for an extended period of time. In that sense, the 2019 season has been a peculiar one for the Cup Series faithful. 

With the introduction of a new rules package sacrificing horsepower and braking for the sake of drafting and tighter fields, most Cup Series teams and fans entered 2019 unsure of what to expect. 

Through 15 races the diagnosis is still a bit of a mixed bag. Statistics show that there appears to be improved passing within the field, though it doesn’t always pass the eyeball test. Most races see the field closer together, and a few events at tracks like Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway have put on entertaining shows. 

But there have been a few subpar races. Upset drivers in the field have proven to be the biggest detractors of the package, with many yearning for days when they felt like their outcome was determined more by their abilities than track position and aero effects – a complaint similar to one seen in F1 over recent seasons. 

Opinions of the package have varied, but one thing has been certain. Two teams stand well above the pack. 

Joey Logano dominated from pole to claim the win in Monday’s FireKeepers Casino 400, surging past Martin Truex Jr. with ease on the final restart for a comfortable win. Much like in Sunday’s Grand Prix, the race winner was met with controversy after a few competitors claimed Logano had jumped the final restart. But the victory stood, giving the defending champion his second win of 2019. 

The result continued a trend for the 2019 Cup season, giving Team Penske its fifth overall victory with the inclusion of Brad Keselowski’s three triumphs. Roger Penske’s squad has proven to be one of 2019’s dominant teams, but they’re a distant second on the wins list to Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR). 

Led by Kyle Busch’s four wins, JGR has accumulated nine victories in the opening 15 races. Denny Hamlin brought home the biggest race of the year in the Daytona 500 before adding a second, and newcomer Truex Jr. shook off early struggles for three victories in April and May. 

Neither team is operating at peak form — both Erik Jones (JGR) and Ryan Blaney (Penske) remain winless — but the Cup Series’ top two teams have accounted for 14 of 15 race wins heading into the Father’s Day break. JGR’s record is strong enough to make for a playoff resume in the NFL, and Penske’s ability to maximize its opportunities have placed the team an easy second on the pecking order. 

Only Hendrick Motorsports star Chase Elliott has been able to beat the two teams at the time of this writing, claiming a win in at Talladega Superspeedway to secure a guaranteed playoff berth. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch have come close to victory, but have proven unable to thwart the sport’s top teams. 

Had Ferrari been able to capitalize on its early season opportunities, F1 and NASCAR would find themselves in completely similar situations heading into the summer stretch. Event without the Prancing Horse snagging a victory, the comparisons are difficult to ignore. 

Both tours have two clearly-defined top teams, with a small gap separating the pair on the wins list. A couple teams occasionally rise to challenge the dominant duo, but traditionally they fail to overcome the odds. 

There’s still time for the story to change in either tour, the odds are strong that both stories will continue through the end of the year. 

The early burst from Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes has given the organization a 123-point advantage in the constructor’s championship, with both drivers at or near a full race’s advantage on third-place Vettel in the driver’s standings. Barring an injury or meltdown for either driver, those advantages will likely hold through the remainder of the season. 

NASCAR has much less certainty given the unpredictable nature of the fall’s playoffs, but the advantages of winning mean both JGR and Penske are positioned to have heavy odds to make the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 

With five playoff points available for each race win, the quintet of Busch, Logano, Keselowski, Truex and Hamlin have combined for 88 playoff points through 15 races. By comparison the entire rest of the field has earned just 18 potential playoff points, with three of those allotted to drivers out of the current postseason field in brothers Austin (21st) and Ty Dillon (23rd). 

Throw in the top-three points positions of Logano, Busch and Keselowski, good for a boost of regular season bonus points, and JGR and Penske are positioned to enter the playoffs with massive playoff point advantages that could carry them through the postseason to Homestead. 

A strong summer surge from another team could change that, as could a surprise win in the Round of 8 this fall. 

But if something doesn’t change soon, NASCAR fans may want to brace themselves for a 2019 that feels oddly reminiscent of that open wheel tour that usually competes across the pond. 

F1 and NASCAR have their differences. But for at least this season, they appear to be closer in style than ever. 

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About Aaron Bearden

Aaron Bearden
A graduate of Ball State, Aaron rejoins Frontstretch for his second season in 2016 following a successful year that included covering seven races and starting the popular "Two-Headed Monster" column in 2015. Now in his third year of covering motorsports, Aaron serves as an Assistant Editor for Frontstretch while also contributing to other popular sites including Speed51 and The Apex. He encourages you to come say hi when you see him at the track.

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2 comments

  1. Avatar

    How many drivers complained about Logano jumping the restart? I’m curious if NASCAR even reviewed Logano’s restart. I remember Kyle Busch being penalized for jumping a restart from the lead position.