Several key drivers will steer new cars
NASCAR is (very nearly almost) back, so we’re breaking down the biggest storylines going into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway, where chaos is all but guaranteed, with just 25 of the 40 drivers still racing at the end last year.
With 35 races following the “Super Bowl of NASCAR” in the nine-month season, there are a lot of questions that will hopefully get answered sooner than later.
1. Will the Big 3 still dominate?
For the majority of the 2018 season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. controlled the narrative with so many wins they were dubbed the Big 3. Harvick and Busch racked up eight checkered flags each while Truex had four. Although all three made it to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Joey Logano ended up winning it all with his third victory of the season.
But those three won so much the season got boring after a while, so will they carry that momentum into a new year? They might not dominate in the same way, but they’ll certainly have a few wins each by November.
2. When will Jimmie Johnson finally end his winless streak?
The seven-time Cup Series champ is undeniably one of the best drivers on the track, but the 2018 season was his first in 17 years as a full-time driver without a trip to victory lane. The 43-year-old has 83 wins, but his last was in June 2017 at Dover International Speedway. 2018 wasn’t a great year for him, Hendrick Motorsports — Chase Elliott was the team’s only driver to get to victory lane — or Chevrolet drivers overall.
Johnson managed to make the playoffs last season. He might not get so lucky this time. However, he has a new crew chief after Chad Knaus and Johnson broke up at the end of the 2018 season after 17 years.
Knaus is now with William Byron and the No. 24 team, while Johnson’s new crew chief is Kevin Meendering, who worked with Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series. HMS was looking to shake things up with this change, and it might be what both Johnson and Knaus need to get back to winning.
Other notable winless drivers from last season were Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.
3. How will three key drivers fare on their new teams?
There are several key drivers competing for different teams this season. 2017 Cup Series champ Martin Truex Jr. moved to Joe Gibbs Racing, along with crew chief Cole Pearn, after Furniture Row Racing closed up shop in a grim turn of events at the end of last season. The successful driver-crew chief duo remain together behind the wheel of a Toyota, the No. 19, and shouldn’t miss a step, especially since FRR previously had an alliance with JGR. Not much has actually changed for Truex, outside of sponsorship and the number on the side of the car, so he should be just fine.
Kurt Busch left Stewart-Haas Racing and is driving the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, moving from Ford to Chevrolet. Busch found success and speed with SHR and his teammates, winning six races since 2014, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Now he has only one teammate, Kyle Larson, and is with a manufacturer that struggled last season, particularly against the Fords. It will be interesting to see how he handles this shift and if he can win a race or two this season.
Replacing Busch at SHR in the No. 41 Ford is Daniel Suárez, who was replaced by Truex at JGR. Suárez is a young and talented driver — he was the 2016 Xfinity Series champion — but he’s still looking for his first Cup checkered flag. In his first two Cup Series seasons, the now-27-year-old driver won his first pole in 2018 at Pocono Raceway, and his best career finish was second in that same race. Perhaps he’ll find some chemistry with his new teammates on the track, plus a missing piece that kept him out of victory lane.
4. Which driver will be the first to get disqualified?
Harsher punishments are coming for NASCAR teams bending the rules, also known as cheating. Unlike previous seasons with fines, suspensions and loss of points for winning cars that failed postrace inspections, teams will (finally) be straight-up disqualified, and the runner-up will be declared the winner. That is particularly notable because while drivers couldn’t use a win in an illegal car to qualify for or advance through the playoffs, it would still count toward their overall win totals. Not anymore.
NASCAR will also do the inspections at the track instead of days later with subsequent announcements altering the implications moving forward. So with 36 races this season, the sport’s new rule is bound to come into play at some point.
5. When will we have our first NASCAR feud?
Drivers get upset with each other for so many reasons, ranging from petty comments to actual racing issues.
Last year just days before the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin kicked off the feuding by claiming that 70 percent of NASCAR drivers are illegally using Adderall. Naturally, that “offended most everybody in the garage,” Kevin Harvick said.
So at that rate, it shouldn’t take too long for a few guys to be angry with each other, especially since the season starts at a typically chaotic track like Daytona.
6. How long will drivers complain about NASCAR’s new rules package?
NASCAR’s new rules for 2019 impact the front splitter, rear spoiler and horsepower and are designed to reduce horsepower and add more downforce. It should slow the cars, keep them racing in packs more often and make it more challenging to pass. It could, however, be argued that this is manufactured competition, and after testing last week, some drivers are already frustrated with it.
Not one to hide his opinion, Kyle Busch thinks it has “taken the driver skill away from the drivers,” and anyone “can go out and run wide open there,” according to longtime NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck.
So is this going to be something drivers will complain about all season or will they get used to it at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the first 2019 race where they’ll use this package, or not long after?
Jimmie Johnson has 83 Cup wins but none since the Dover race June 4, 2017.