Heading into the 2018 iteration of the playoffs, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick had a whopping 50 bonus points apiece while Martin Truex Jr. had a healthy 35 points in third place. Brad Keselowski was a distant fourth (19 points), with Clint Bowyer (15), Kurt Busch (14) and Joey Logano (14) further back.
No one else in the playoff field had double digit scores. And while Kyle Busch (Phoenix) won in the Round of 8 to secure his spot in the Championship 4, Truex’s regular season bonus points haul helped ensure he had what was an ultimately doomed shot at a back to back title. Harvick was in the same boat after receiving a points penalty following Texas despite winning the race.
This time around, Kyle Busch will have a nice points bump over second place courtesy of the 15 bonus points for leading the points at the conclusion of the regular season. The next six or seven drivers will be relatively close in bonus points, and that should add spice to what is already likely to be a tasty final stage as the field is cut from eight to four drivers. This will be, believe it or not, the sixth year of the winner-take-all final race format, and in each of the first five years we’ve had a different winner: Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Jimmie Johnson (2016), Truex (2017) and Logano (2018). Will there be a sixth new name added in 2019?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
The Regular Season Finale
Next up, and for the second year in succession, it’s the regular season series finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This will be the 26th Cup race at a venue that started out with great fanfare all the way back in 1994, when Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in front of a packed house. In the years since, with the racing often bitterly disappointing, the crowds have ebbed away and the luster of racing at perhaps the most famous track in the world has been tarnished to a significant degree.
This time last year, a red hot Keselowski won the race – the middle win of three victories in a row. The Michigan native then failed to win in the final nine races, fading to an eighth place overall finish in the season standings.
Johnson has the most overall wins with four, and boy, what wouldn’t he give for a fifth win at the Brickyard to vault himself into the playoffs. Kyle Busch has a pair of victories, while five other active drivers have a win apiece. Veteran Harvick has the best average finish (9.4 over 18 races), while Kyle Busch has led the most laps (324 to Johnson’s 302.) And with one last chance at bonus points on the table, don’t be surprised to see some unorthodox stage strategy this weekend.
One to Go in IndyCar
The math is simple for Josef Newgarden: Finish fourth or higher in the final race of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series at Laguna Seca and he will become champion for a second time in his eight full open wheel seasons.
Newgarden has led the points after 15 of the 16 rounds heading into the season finale and has the most wins (four), the most laps led (490 – the next closest is Simon Pagenaud with 267) and the best average finish (5.5.) And with a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi, 42 markers over Pagenaud and an 85-point advantage over Scott Dixon, the cards are stacked in favor of the 28-year-old Team Penske driver as he looks to win his second championship in three seasons.
But after four straight seasons ending the year at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California’s picturesque wine country, the challenge facing Newgarden, Rossi, Pagenaud and Dixon will be a little different as the IndyCar series returns to Laguna Seca. The 2.238-mile road course close to Monterey hosted the season finale from 1989 to 1996 and held races for over 20 years (1983-2004). It should be an excellent venue over the next three years for the IndyCar season finale. As we saw in 2015 when Dixon overhauled a 47-point deficit to win the championship on what was a statistical points tie — Dixon’s three wins trumped Juan Pablo Montoya’s two — anything can happen in the final race.
Charles Leclerc picks up first F1 victory
It was a bittersweet maiden Formula One victory at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps for Charles Leclerc after coming agonizingly close on two previous occasions this season already. The day prior, F2 driver Anthoine Hubert,was killed in a horrific wreck exiting the Eau Rouge corner, and Leclerc dedicated his first win not to mention Ferrari’s first in the 2019 season to his longtime friend.
“It’s not easy for any driver to jump into a top team, let alone Ferrari,” the reigning champion Lewis Hamilton said in the post-race press conference. “And then to continuously from race one, outperform, out-qualify and out-drive a four-time world champion is not easy to do.”
Hamilton, chasing a sixth series title and a fifth in six years, finished a solid second at Spa, a good result on a rare dominant weekend for Ferrari, and holds a whopping 65-point lead over his teammate Valtteri Bottas in second place.
But the British champion is keenly aware of the rising threat of the young Ferrari wheelman: “So, there’s a lot more greatness to come from him and I’m looking forward to seeing his growth and racing alongside him.”
And finally, this week, I wanted to take a brief moment to thank very sincerely all the talented writers who have filled in for me these past four months following the birth of our first son, Theo, in May. After 12 years of writing a weekly column on racing, it has been a fun few months just being a fan again, and I have enjoyed just watching races for the sake of it without trying to extract overall themes or ideas for columns. And yes, for many of those races I’ve had my hands full with our new arrival. Here’s hoping he likes watching races with Dad when he’s old enough to really know what’s going on. And who knows, maybe there’s a go-kart in his future.