1. Can anyone break the Joe Gibbs Racing-Team Penske stranglehold on the Cup Series?
Last year it was Stewart-Haas Racing, JGR and its satellite Furniture Row Racing stealing the show. Fast forward a year and it’s the same story, team as Penske has taken over the top of the Ford mountain from SHR for the time being. To date, only one other organization, Hendrick Motorsports, has a Cup Series win, and it’s just one, from Chase Elliott.
It’s hard to believe that someone won’t step up, though. SHR could easily have a win or more if not for bad luck, and it could come from any of their four drivers. Ditto Chip Ganassi’s organization, where Kyle Larson has struggled mightily with issues, many not of his own doing, while Kurt Busch has made gains and come close. Lack of speed is not the problem here.
Look for gains from both SHR and the Chevrolet camp this summer. Breakthrough wins from Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez look closer each week, while veterans like Larson, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer just need to get over the hump. We could see three or four different winners, possibly even more given the nature of Daytona International Speedway and the two road courses we’ll see before the playoffs. Remember, Team Penske was barely on the radar at this time a year ago and wound up winning the championship with Joey Logano.
2. Will NASCAR take a win from a top Cup team?
When NASCAR stripped Ross Chastain’s win in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway after his truck was found to be too low in multiple attempts at postrace measurements, the sanctioning body showed that they are serious about the winning car being on the straight and narrow after races. But will we see a Cup winner suffer the same consequences this season?
It’s a bit surprising that there has not been a single inspection failure this year in the Cup or Xfinity series. Perhaps the threat of having a win taken away has kept teams toeing the line very carefully. There has been a lot of positive reaction to last weekend’s ruling from fans who have wanted to see NASCAR take wins for many years.
But there has always been some backlash. Chastain’s win was a popular one, one that likely would have put him in the NGOTS playoffs against the odds. Some fans don’t like that the opportunity was taken away for the time being. Some, it seems, wanted the rule because they thought it would nab teams or driver they didn’t like, but aren’t in favor when it’s a driver they do like. Some have questioned whether Chastain’s was really the first post-race failure, or simply the first one NASCAR was willing to make an example of. After all, it would be easy to rubber stamp a failing car through if NASCAR didn’t want to take a win and nobody would be any the wiser, right?
It’s most likely the former at play here. Losing a win and the trophy, the money, and the playoff points that come with it is a huge penalty. Encumbered wins? Those had little effect over the last couple of years. Yes, Joey Logano missed the playoffs a few years ago after an infraction took the Richmond win took the wind out of his sails, but Harvick was in the title hunt to the end last year despite at least one penalty. NASCAR and the fans took notice of that. It’s likely we’ll see a top finish, if not a win, taken at some point this year.
3. Will Ross Chastain bounce back from a major setback to make the GOTS playoffs?
Chastain’s first 2019 victory of the year at Kansas Speedway was an eye-opener. The first ever for underdog Niece Motorsports, it didn’t count toward a playoff spot for Chastain because he had not declared his intent to run for points in the Truck Series at the time. But it did serve notice that Chastain could win in Niece equipment and his run at Iowa backed that up, despite the ultimate outcome.
With one less race to both win and move into the top 20 in GOTS points, Chastain still faces an uphill battle, but suddenly it looks a little bit more like one he can win. This weekend’s standalone race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (yes, really) may actually be Chastain’s best opportunity, but it’s certainly not his only one. He won’t have to worry about Kyle Busch, and there are few other Cup drivers who dip into trucks in top equipment. He’s racing his peers, and he’s shown he’s easily up to that task. Don’t be surprised to see Chastain in the title hunt when all is said and done, and if he is, don’t be surprised to see him contend. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible.
4. When will silly season heat up?
You sort of get a sense here that we’re really just waiting on the first domino to drop.
One might have, with Nationwide announcing it’ll leave the No. 88 after this year, leaving Hendrick Motorsports to fill a major sponsor void for the second time in two years. It was successful for seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, but it might not fall into place as well for the as-yet unproven Bowman. If Bowman scores the wins he looks like he’s close to, that could help.
Speaking of Johnson, will he announce retirement after 2020? That’s certainly a possibility and puts youngster Noah Gragson in the spotlight as a leading candidate. Then there’s the question of whether Hendrick could pry Larson away from Ganassi instead. Speaking of Ganassi, there’s some reason to believe Busch could be out of the No. 1 next year, possibly moving to sports cars. If that’s the case, will CGR drop to one car for Larson? Does the organization take a chance on a young driver, like Chastain, whom they had signed to an Xfinity deal for this year before sponsorship evaporated?
And that’s just scratching the surface about what could come down. Some drivers are only secure in their rides as long as their sponsors are on board. Other organizations face uncertain futures because there are no sponsors on board. It’s been quiet so far, but there could be a lot brewing, and the first couple of moves could determine the rest.
5. Who will be the next first-time Cup winner?
It’s hard to bet against Bowman, who has been on fire recently. He just needs to close the deal, but he’s not the only driver in the race still needing to get that first trophy. Suarez has shown speed and is starting to show more consistency as well. Though it’s still mostly top-12 or so consistency, it’s a start.
You can’t quite count out Bowman’s teammate William Byron because he’s got Chad Knaus at the helm now, he’s had a couple of poles recently and mixed it up with the top 10 a bit more.
One more possibility: Ryan Preece. Why? Because Daytona and Talladega, that’s why. Preece had an exceptional run in the Daytona 500 and an even better one at Talladega this spring. Superspeedways have produced first-timers on many occasions, so Preece deserves mention.