Did You Notice? … How the sport’s upper class has thinned out over the course of the past two seasons in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series? This year, the Big Three has become the Big Two ownership groups as Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have combined to win 15 out of 16 Cup events.
Their success has trimmed considerably the total number of drivers reaching victory lane. 16 races into the year, we only have six MENCS winners for a second straight season in a playoff system designed to reward victories. The dominance also comes despite NASCAR’s push for parity in the form of a new, lower horsepower handling package created to keep the cars closer together. The hope was it would allow more teams to become competitive, creating more upsets and a diverse playoff field.
Instead, we’ve seen the opposite. In both 2018 and 2019, the sport has endured the fewest number of winners through 16 races since way back in 1978, when there were five. Here’s a closer look at the numbers during NASCAR’s playoff era.
CUP SERIES WINNERS THROUGH 16 RACES
2003 (First year pre-Chase): 13
It’s notable the most winners during that stretch remains 13 in 2003, the year before any postseason system was introduced. But as recently as 2016, we had a dozen winners through 16 races in what became one of the most competitive playoff battles the sport has seen.
What’s led to all the changes? Certainly, when it comes to Toyota they’ve placed all their eggs in the basket of JGR. At this point, virtually all resources go toward making not only their prized four-car team successful but a strong fleet of development drivers in the sport’s lower series.
Penske, meanwhile has benefitted from Ford’s resurgence and the boost from four-car Stewart-Haas Racing joining their ranks. They also boast a trio of the sport’s best drivers entering their prime in Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.
Their surge has coincided with a precipitous decline of Chevrolet and their new Camaro. Hendrick Motorsports has won just once this year as the Bowtie Brigade continues to struggle. The manufacturer with the most full-time cars in the field has fallen to a clear third in the pecking order.
But the bottom line is this lack of parity, long-term, is not good for the sport at the top of the ticket. NASCAR and the teams need to find a way to even out the competitive balance across the board.
Did You Notice? … There’s a reason Kyle Busch is going crazy over Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland? Ross Chastain’s victory at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway last weekend means he’ll almost certainly be one of the eight drivers included in the playoffs. (Chastain is less than 40 points from cracking the top 20).
Once Chastain is eligible, Gilliland will be knocked out and Burton sits on the bubble, 31 points ahead of his teammate and GMS Racing’s Sheldon Creed. A late-season surge by Creed makes it conceivable both of KBM’s full-time drivers will miss the postseason for the first time since expanding prior to 2016.
There’s been a lot of criticism Busch has been too hard on his young drivers. I agree that public criticism to the degree “they ain’t doing sh*t” isn’t the right way to approach Burton and Gilliland. But there’s a reason for him to be upset comparing how this duo has done versus the other drivers jumping in his part-time rides.
- Busch himself has won five times in five starts driving the No. 51. He’s certainly in another stratosphere in both experience and superstardom but it proves that these trucks can win.
- Greg Biffle won in his first NASCAR race back since November 2016, running the KBM No. 51 at Texas Motor Speedway.
- Christian Eckes has started from the pole in both his races running the No. 51. He was running inside the top five at Gateway until being spun out on the white-flag lap.
- Chandler Smith, at just 16 years old and with two Truck Series starts under his belt with KBM, finished inside the top 10 with two different trucks (the Nos. 51 and 46). Smith also won the pole at Iowa Speedway and was in contention to win a stage there before radio problems; he still recovered to run eighth. The average finish of 6.0 is light years ahead of both Burton and Gilliland (11.0 and 11.6, respectively).
- The average finish for Burton and Gilliland is comparable to Noah Gragson’s first full-time season in 2017 (11.6). But they lag behind both Christopher Bell and William Byron, drivers who won 13 races in three seasons combined behind the wheel.
- Burton and Gilliland, combined have led 43 laps all season. Both Smith and Eckes have surpassed that number in only two starts.
A crew chief change for Gilliland before Texas Motor Speedway made it clear Busch is getting impatient. These may be sons of famous drivers, a legacy that helps their quest to stay in the seat but time is beginning to run out.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Kudos to Matt DiBenedetto, whose fourth-place Sonoma Raceway finish was the best of his NASCAR career. But the feel-good story obscures an uncomfortable truth about the No. 95 team. Despite some solid runs gone sour at Daytona and Talladega, DiBenedetto’s average finish is just 23.2 through 16 races. That’s a tick lower than the three drivers before him, a trio that included Michael McDowell, Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith. When you add in the focus Toyota has put on this satellite program, it’s a finish DiBenedetto badly needed looking ahead to 2020 – even if he’s had some awful luck. Sonoma’s just the second top-15 run DiBenedetto’s had all season. (To be fair, Kahne had zero through this point in 2018).
- 2019 is now officially the longest Kevin Harvick has gone without a victory to start a year with Stewart-Haas Racing. The last time he had this bad a drought? His 2012 season at Richard Childress Racing, a year that ended with a November win at ISM Raceway. That happened as the story broke he would be leaving for SHR at the end of his contract….
- FOX should be commended for how it handled the last few weeks of Darrell Waltrip’s tenure. It got a little over-the-top by Sonoma, I admit, with tributes from just about the entire field and then some. But at the same time, isn’t that the Waltrip brand? Too many thank yous are a whole lot better than too few. Most importantly, it took the focus off the last few years of criticism and reminded everyone how important this man was to the growth of the sport – both as a driver and analyst. I also like the decision not to replace Waltrip, creating a firm contrast in coverage with NBC who has at least four main booth personalities and a cavalcade of additional studio analysts.