Who…should you be talking about after the race?
Kyle Busch is a two-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, winning the Ford EcoBoost 400 easily ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. with a margin of victory of over four seconds. Truex had a better car, but Busch took the night, and the title, on better pit strategy. Truex stayed out five laps longer than Busch before making his final green-flag stop of the night, and even with a slight tire advantage, lost too much time before making his stop to make a run at Busch. He sliced more than seven seconds off Busch’s lead in the last 40, but ultimately ran out of time, leaving Busch as only the second active driver with more than one title.
Meanwhile, viewers at him barely saw his strong run, but the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver not in the playoff hunt had an excellent race, finishing a solid third behind Busch and Truex. All in all, 2019 was a decent year for Erik Jones, including a win at Darlington and his second career playoff appearance. He still lags behind his JGR teammates, but his numbers should improve with experience.
What…is the takeaway from 2019?
It’s hard to take a ton away from this season, because in many ways this year and next are simply throwaway seasons in terms of the race package. Even if this year’s had worked at every track (and it did work at some of them), it’s only filling space until the next generation car debuts in 2021.
That said, it was a year with more questions than answers for NASCAR. One national series produced a champion who didn’t win a single race, and more importantly, didn’t really produce a championship-caliber season by any measure. Another had a titlist whose playoffs were solid, but not title-run brilliant. The third had a stellar battle between the three most deserving drivers. Only in baseball is one out of three a good number to shoot for.
If 2019 for the Cup Series had to be put into just one word, though, it would be this one: predictable. The same teams won most of the races, and too many races came down to track position on the final caution or pit stop. There’s nothing wrong with teams being dominant; let’s get that clear, but too many races felt like the last chapter had been written long before the checkers.
Where…were the other key players at the end?
Polesitter and active Homestead win leader Denny Hamlin never really made a convincing run at the win, but a mistake in the pits on what should have been his final green flag stop took him out of it completely. A piece of tape, put on to add speed on the final, post-sunset run, obscured too much of the grille opening, causing Hamlin’s car to overheat and forcing another pit stop. He finished on the lead lap in 10th, thanks to fresher tires, but any title hopes were dashed.
Defending race winner Joey Logano wasn’t in the title hunt this year (he did earn the most points, though, so there’s that), but he still finished the season strong, finishing fifth. Logano is gaining a reputation for his consistency, but that wasn’t enough this time.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was surprisingly fast during the daylight hours, driving from 18th to as high as fourth after showing little speed in practice. The No. 48 team couldn’t quite keep up with the changing track, though, and Johnson faded from the top 10 after the final round of stops, finishing 13th.
Veterans David Ragan and Paul Menard, in their final race, got plenty of well-deserved kind words from their competitors Sunday as they prepared for their final race before retirement. Both retire as Cup winners, though on Sunday, Menard finished 17th and Ragan 27th. Each grew into solid competitors in their careers and now launch the next chapter of their lives.
When…was the moment of truth?
Racing is a team sport, and that was never more evident than it was on Sunday. It was strategy and pit work that won—and quite possibly lost—the title. Truex benefited from the only caution of the day caused by an incident after losing a lap in the pits after a bizarre miscue where his crew accidentally switched the right and left front tires on the No. 19. He had dominated to that point. Later, staying on track longer than is teammates also hurt more than it helped.
Hamlin’s pit woes also cost him, and while Kevin Harvick’s team avoided major mishaps, they were unable to gain their driver any advantage.
While the importance of pit stops and strategy have diminished in recent years, this week’s Cup finale was a reminder that races are still won and lost in the pits.
Why…should you be paying attention this offseason?
Before the race, NASCAR Vice President Steve Phelps addressed the media to give updates on the next-generation racecar, the 2021 schedule and the state of the sport in general.
The good news: NASCAR may not stand pat on the current package at all tracks next year. While it worked on the intermediates, particularly at night (who’d a thunk?), it was less than stellar on the short tracks and milers. NASCAR is looking to change that next year, in what’s basically a lame-duck season for the current car, and that’s definitely a good thing.
NASCAR has a huge opportunity for 2021. With a new car, engine package, schedule and television deal in the works, it’s the perfect time to revamp the championship system as well, to one that actually rewards both winning and year-long consistency without unnecessary handouts, but dollars to donuts it won’t happen.
The sanctioning body has the chance to fix a lot of things in the next year, to begin 2021 on what could amount to a clean slate in a lot of ways. Can they? Will they?
How…long until the next race?
As of Monday, it’s 90 days and counting until the 2020 Daytona 500. Race fans, have a happy holiday season and a restful and safe offseason. See you on the flip side.