If fans’ main gripe with NASCAR in recent years is that it’s too predictable, this year is providing some relief. There are some unexpected storylines floating around out there that weren’t predicted prior to the start of the season.
With the year just past the halfway mark, the stories are still unfolding, and what could happen is anyone’s guess … and that’s part of the appeal.
While the ending has yet to be written on most, here are a few surprises that have popped up in 2019.
1. Underdogs in title contention…
If you think the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been a bit predictable over the last couple of seasons, check out the Truck Series’ current playoff picture, because it’s definitely worth a look.
Ross Chastain leads the pack with three wins (though one will not count for playoff points as it came before he declared eligibility in the series). He had a fourth victory taken away for a post-race height violation. In just a fraction of the regular season, Chastain has taken Niece Motorsports from an also-ran small team without a victory in the series to a serious championship contender.
And he’s not the only one currently in the title hunt. Tyler Ankrum has David Gilliland’s team in the playoff picture as well with just two races to go in the regular season after missing three races because he wasn’t old enough to run them. Austin Hill isn’t, perhaps, as much of an underdog as Chastain; his Hattori Racing Enterprises team is the defending series champion after an unlikely title run last year with Brett Moffitt. However, HRE is still a small team in comparison to some for the series top competitors.
That’s kind of remarkable. For the second year in a row, a smaller, underfunded team could very well wrest the title away from everyone else. And in Chastain’s case, it wouldn’t even be that big of a surprise because of his performance already this season.
If you’re tired of the big teams dominating the Cup Series, here’s a title race to root for.
2. … at the expense of the series’ richest team
Meanwhile, with two races to go, Kyle Busch Motorsports, the Joe Gibbs-backed power team, is currently on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Harrison Burton is currently fifth in points, but with just eight spots available and five drivers in on wins, that’s not enough. Point leader Grant Enfinger is winless this year, and along with teammate Matt Crafton and Stewart Friesen, holds one of the final three spots currently available on points. With just two races to decide the field, Burton and teammate Todd Gilliland need to win to secure a place. They can, of course, still shake things up. But time grows very short for the series’ biggest team to salvage the playoffs.
Thorsport Racing, the four-car organization that’s been a perennial contender as well, has three trucks currently in the playoffs, but only one of the organization’s drivers (Johnny Sauter) has a win. Enfinger and Crafton are likely to get in on points but have not been able to close the deal. Like Burton, Ben Rhodes is in great points position, but without a win, will miss the title hunt anyway. Again, this series is not the same as its national touring counterparts when it comes to who’s winning and that’s great for the sport.
3. Kids these days
It’s safe to say that NASCAR’s youth movement is alive and well. And honestly, it’s pretty fun to watch unfold. In the Cup Series, this year’s win total for drivers 40 and over is just two, half the number owned by the under-30 crowd. While that leaves the lion’s share of wins somewhere in the middle, a look at the playoff picture as it stands features seven drivers under 30, nearly half the field, with just four at age 40 or older. That’s unlikely to change much, because next on the list is Jimmie Johnson, but if he points in, he’ll oust either Ryan Newman or Clint Bowyer, who fall in his age bracket.
There’s a lot of promise there. With a stacked talent pool in both Xfinity and Trucks, if the racing isn’t top-notch, you won’t be able to blame it on a lack of talent in the races. While watching a favorite driver move on is never easy for race fans, the good news is that there are a lot of worthy drivers coming along to root for.
4. And an old guy
On the flip side of the youth coin, how about the triumphant return of a nearly 50-year-old veteran to competition? Sure, it was only for one race, but Greg Biffle showed he still has what it takes to win, carting home the Truck Series trophy from Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year.
It’s pretty unlikely that Biffle is going to land a full-time ride. His Cup ship has sailed, and veterans are less common in Xfinity and Trucks than they used to be.
Biffle’s win, though, was good for the sport because it was fun. It was unlikely, and it was fun, for both the driver and race fans who have rooted for him over the years. It’s a small reminder that sometimes, you can go home again, though the road is bumpier than it was years before. Was it significant? In the scheme of things, no. Does that matter? Not a whit. Sometimes the story doesn’t have to mean anything more than a good time.
5. Same old, same old… sort of
OK, so the Cup Series has been a bit predictable. But the winner’s circle has been less so recently. While it might seem like a smear of lipstick on a pig since the organizations involved are, in fact, completely predictable, the last eight Cup races have seen eight different winners. After just five different winners in the first 13 races, things have gotten more interesting at the front of the field. There were only seven different winners through this point last year.
The downside in Cup is that the winners are exactly who you’d expect and from teams you’d expect, with the very notable exception of Justin Haley and Spire Motorsports at Daytona, and maybe, to a much lesser extent, Alex Bowman. (Haley and Bowman were back-to-back first-time winners this month.)
In Xfinity, there hasn’t been a repeat winner in four weeks. Given that three drivers have dominated much of the year, along with interloper Kyle Busch, the fact that two drivers scored their first 2019 wins in that series in the last month is a break from what we’ve seen much of the year.
In Trucks, other than Busch, the only driver to win more than twice is Chastain, and it’s hard not to enjoy his success because of his team’s underdog status.
So, while it’s hard to argue that the closer to the top series you get, the easier it is to predict the winning team, it’s been a little more interesting this year. There’s a little irony in that perhaps the most popular win if it happened, would come from none other than Johnson, as he’s become an underdog as of late.
Another driver who could sneak one in is Matt DiBenedetto, another driver whose victory would be immensely popular.
There are still a few good stories left to tell this year.