ONE: Denny Hamlin Can Definitely Contend for a Championship
Considering that he has finished in the top four of the season-ending standings just once in the last eight seasons and went winless in 2018, Denny Hamlin entered the 2019 campaign as a driver not too many pundits would have picked to be racing for a title come Homestead. Yet after his win in the Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing is looking more and more like he could be doing meaningful racing at Homestead a few months from now.
Part of the reason is that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has a completely different look when it comes to parity than it did a year ago. Instead of a Big Three and a scramble to see who would join them (one won by Joey Logano, who eventually won the whole thing), five different drivers have between two and four wins. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. both figure to be among the championship contenders, but there figures to be some fun jostling among the other three drivers to see who joins them, and perhaps with Kevin Harvick as well.
Hamlin’s three victories and JGR equipment suggest he definitely belongs in that picture, as do his 10 top-five finishes — more than any driver currently in a playoff position except Kyle Busch. Working against the No. 11 team is Hamlin’s low number of laps led, which is closer to the bottom of the 16-man field than the top.
The biggest question is whether Hamlin and his bunch can summon their best form when it matters most. Hamlin’s performances over the last 10 races of any season have historically not been much to write home about, including the home stretch of 2018 when he managed just three top 10s and two finishes of 30th or worse. Maybe the best way to characterize his outlook is that Fall Hamlin is probably not going to be around at the end to chase a title, while midseason Denny just might be.
TWO: Erik Jones Has the Hottest Seat in the Cup Series
After finishing second at Pocono, Erik Jones is officially in the hottest stretch of his Cup Series season, with a streak of three straight races fending up third or better. He also seems to be feeling heat of a different kind with Joe Gibbs not willing to commit to him for next season just yet.
Is it fair for the 23-year-old to be worrying about his seat in the No. 20 Toyota for next season? The answer is definitely maybe.
Jones showed modest but definite improvement from his rookie Cup Series season with Furniture Row Racing to last year, his first with JGR. The problem is that he has taken a small step backward in 2019, with no race wins and a slightly worse position (currently 13th) in the points standings.
Compounding that issue is that his team is both a blessing and a curse. Jones’s teammates have found their way to victory lane a total of 11 times, so there’s a natural expectation you should be doing some of the same things in the same equipment. Jones simply hasn’t figured out a way to do that yet, so his backside has to be feeling a bit toasty, particularly with Christopher Bell waiting in the wings.
Gibbs already jettisoned one young driver, Daniel Suarez, when Truex became available at the end of last season. Jones could be headed for the same fate, but he’s also getting ever so close to breaking through, so stay tuned.
THREE: Tempers Flaring in the Midpack and Back Isn’t a Bad Thing
NASCAR would probably love it if the top-two finishers every week had harsh words for each other after the checkered flag, because that’s the kind of drama that helps sell the racing. The reality is that not every finish is cause for hurt feelings, so sometimes the anger is a little further back in the field.
It’s easy to forget that everyone is racing for something even when not in the mix for race wins, which was the case for Bubba Wallace and Suarez at Pocono. Despite coming home 22nd and 24th, respectively, they nonetheless exchanged pleasantries (though not blows) following the Gander RV 400.
If nothing else, it showed that both drivers remain fully engaged despite being winless and unlikely to make the playoffs. Given the way NASCAR coverage focuses on the leaders to the exclusion of the midpack cars much of the time, it also got Wallace and Suarez some attention they were not going to receive otherwise.
It’s the old “any publicity is good publicity” theory in action, so while this isn’t a suggestion that drivers 20th or worse should intentionally pick someone in the same range with whom to air their grievances at the end of an event, it’s also not not hinting at that.
FOUR: Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick, Throw Hail Mary With Crew Chief Change
Drivers talking about how important familiarity and comfort level with their crew chiefs is to their success is something that’s heard on a regular basis. It’s suboptimal to be making a crew chief change when fighting for your playoff life, yet that’s exactly what Hendrick Motorsports is doing by announcing that Cliff Daniels will call the shots for Jimmie Johnson the rest of the way.
Less than a year removed from the dissolution of his legendary partnership with Chad Knaus, Johnson will now attempt to at least mathematically have a shot at his eighth championship while working with his second crew chief of the season. The driver said all the right things when the switch was announced, and you know the move wasn’t made without his blessing — and possibly even at his urging.
The only question that matters now is whether it will work. The No. 48 team feels like a Premier League soccer team struggling to stave off relegation, fighting hard for every points to avoid disaster. It smacks a little bit of desperation as well, but Johnson missing the postseason would be borderline unthinkable, so if ever there was a time to throw caution to the wind and try anything, this is it. It should be fascinating to see how it plays out.
FIVE: Could Watkins Glen Be the Cure for an Ailing Chase Elliott?
After winning at Talladega and following it up with four straight top-five results, Chase Elliott looked as if he might even improve upon his three-win 2018 Cup Series season. Since then, it’s been nothing but misery for the No. 9 team, in the form of a seven-race stretch with no top 10s but three finishes in the 30s, punctuated by wrecking out dead last at Pocono.
Elliott’s legions of fans will ensure he stays relevant, and he’s already locked into the playoffs by virtue of that Talldega victory. But if he wants to be any kind of factor in the title hunt, he needs to get the ship righted pronto.
Good thing for him that the next race is being held at Watkins Glen, where he captured his first career Cup Series win last August. It wasn’t just that Elliott won that day that was so impressive but how he did it, pulling away from Truex as the laps wound down.
Elliott and his team could sure use some of that same magic right about now. A miserable day at Pocono means there’s literally nowhere to go but up.