Justin Haley joined Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne as modern-era drivers to win in their first three starts in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Which of those drivers’ career will Haley’s most likely resemble?
Adam Cheek: Jamie McMurray. He has enough talent to not be a relative bust like Bayne, but he’s middle of the road here. McMurray’s specialty was plate tracks, but Haley has more versatility (he ran well and won at World Wide Raceway at Gateway, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and Texas Motor Speedway) than that. Maybe not consistent contender level like Kevin Harvick, but he’s a solid driver and should have a pretty successful career.
Wesley Coburn: Somewhere between McMurray and Bayne. He’ll be a solid contender at the superspeedways and road courses, and then in the 10-15 range for most of his career while keeping his equipment in one piece.
Mark Kristl: Haley will end up somewhere between Harvick and McMurray. Haley won three NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series races and advanced to the Championship 4 in 2018, so he has shown talent. Because he is only 20 years old, he has plenty of time to improve as a driver. At this point, he is content racing for Kaulig Racing and wants to win a race with them, though I’m certain he thoroughly enjoyed his win at Daytona International Speedway. Will he end up as successful as Harvick? He hasn’t displayed contending speed at every race, but he definitely has started off better than McMurray.
Amy Henderson: It’s hard to say, because we don’t know what kind of equipment Haley is going to wind up in when he progresses to Cup full time. He’s got talent, but so much depends on where he winds up; it’s hard to predict. My guess is somewhere similar to McMurray, if he’s in similar cars. He can win some races for sure, but I haven’t seen anything out of him that suggests he’ll be Hall of Fame caliber like Harvick.
Blocking was a hot topic again last week at Daytona. Are drivers better served with the I’m-not-lifting mindset?
Kristl: That mindset is a double-edged sword. If you wreck your teammate by not lifting, there’s a lengthy conversation afterward. If it’s the closing laps of the race, everyone understands you’re chasing the win. At the end of the day, the mindset will be policed by the drivers themselves. To boot, the damaged vehicle policy will affect drivers as they seek friends. If they have a bad reputation for blocking, they may not have any friends left, and that will be detrimental to their race-winning chances.
Henderson: Here’s what’s overlooked in this question: the cars’ lack of throttle response. It’s slightly better with the tapered spacer than the restrictor plate, but the problem is that if you don’t lift, you run somebody over and probably cause a large crash. On the other hand, if you do lift, you get run over and probably end up in a large crash — or if nobody hits you, you lose a ton of track position, and possibly even the draft, depending on where you were running. The real problem is that cars are running wide open all the way around the track, so a lift makes you look like you’re tied to a stump and the pack is so close together everyone just piles into the wreck. This is an issue that needs to be addressed with the cars before we talk about the drivers.
Cheek: At this juncture, yes. Racing hard is important and lifting in situations where it’s necessary is critical, but if you lift a lot in general you’re going to get run over — especially at Daytona, where the cars are wide open for entire laps. The situation that sparked this debate – Brad Keselowski/William Byron – was just a racing deal; Keselowski had a run with some fast cars behind him. Lifting would more than likely have created a mess, and fortunately Byron was able to save the car. The I’m-not-lifting mentality is probably the way to go, especially at superspeedways.
Coburn: I don’t know. You’ve got to be aggressive enough to be in position to win on the one hand and smart enough not to put yourself in a bad situation on the other.
With no wildcard races remaining before the Cup playoffs, which driver below the cut line has the best chance of winning their way in?
Henderson: We’ve seen some very good runs from Daniel Suarez; and he can win a race. He lacks consistency, or he’d be higher in points, but he’s also shown flashes of brilliance. Erik Jones may have an edge in equipment, but Suarez has had some strong runs, and he’s looked at times like a win is coming.
Coburn: Jones. With how dominant Joe Gibbs Racing has been this season, it’s just a matter of time until the No. 20 gets into Victory Lane again.
Kristl: Because of the domination by Team Penske, JGR and Hendrick Motorsports, I’m not certain any driver below the playoff cut line will win. Stewart-Haas Racing’s struggles are starting to worry me, Jones seems to have regressed this season, Richard Childress Racing has not had race-winning speed, etc.
Cheek: Jones. I had difficulty choosing between him and Suarez, as they’ve both been incredibly consistent, but Jones’ three teammates already have at least two wins each, and the success of JGR (as opposed to SHR’s frustration) should propel him to a win soon.
With the impressive results Ross Chastain has posted to this point in 2019, where do you see him driving next year?
Coburn: While Chip Ganassi Racing in Cup would make the most sense, and Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series the most practical, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Chastain snags a top ride in either Xfinity or Cup as a big team decides to shake things up out of the blue, creating a whole mess of Silly Season dominoes. I don’t really think that’s likely, but it would be a good storyline to cover in the back half of a Cup season that’s been lacking in excitement.
Cheek: Kaulig. While a solid Cup ride is on the way for the Watermelon Man, Kaulig expressed interest in funding for a second full-time car, and Chastain getting the win for them at Daytona was important for him and the team. We already know what he can do in not even the best equipment, so Kaulig would be a further step up and another landmark on a path to a solid Cup team.
Henderson: I can see a couple of scenarios. Kaulig has expressed a desire to get Chastain in a car full time in Xfinity, and that’s a team where he could flourish. But that’s dependent on funding, so it may not be a done deal. The other Xfinity team he’d be a fit for is JR Motorsports’ No. 9, which has run a handful of different drivers this year. Noah Gragson hasn’t set the world on fire, and there’s going to be a Cup ride at Hendrick available in the next year or two (you might have heard of it; the No. 48? It’s won a title or seven). On the other hand, Chip Ganassi wanted Chastain in the fold this year — and had him until the sponsor imploded. It’s been strongly hinted that Kurt Busch may be out of the No. 1 next year, and with no official pipeline, Ganassi could do a lot worse than Chastain. If none of those pan out, Chastain would be a great driver for a midpack smaller team looking to improve. I’d love to see him in a car like the No. 13 for Germain Racing (though Ty Dillon‘s Pop-Pop bought him that ride, so he’s not getting replaced, even by a driver who could beat him).
Kristl: Chastain will drive for Kaulig next season. It wants him, he took it to victory lane, Haley likes him, Nutrien Ag has sponsored him, etc. If the team can secure funding, possibly with some of his Cup Series sponsors, Chastain would be an instant championship contender in the Xfinity Series next season.