NASCAR: The Mid-Season Shakedown Part 1

The Mid-Season Shakedown
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - MAY 26: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty Patriotic Chevrolet, and Aric Almirola, driver of the #10 Smithfield Ford, lead the field to the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Following Sunday’s Coca Cola 600, we are officially halfway through the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. To mark the occasion, we brought a few NASCAR guys together to answer 13 questions from the first 13 races of the year in the Mid-Season Shakedown.

Join LWOS’ Connor Ferguson as well as guests Trevor Maeder and Jacob Blair as they break down the first half of the regular season.

What are your thoughts on the 2019 aero-package so far?

Trevor – You are going to be disappointed if you expect every race to be the most exciting race you’ve ever seen. There are going to be some boring races, not every race is meant to be exciting. No rule package will ever make that happen. However, I do feel that the 2019 package has been more good than bad. Sure, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville were snoozers, but those races have been snoozers in the past regardless of the rule package. Meanwhile, the races at Texas, Kansas and Charlotte were the most exciting regular season races I’ve seen at those tracks in quite some time.

 

Jacob – From the beginning of the season I knew it was going to take some time for everyone to get a grasp on the new aero package. That was evident early in the season as Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing seemed to have a better idea of what the package needed than everyone else. The two teams have won 12 of the 13 races this season; Chase Elliott being the only other driver to earn a checkered flag.

I feel that early stranglehold by Gibbs and Penske gave the package a bad first impression. Now that Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports seem to have a better handle on the package, the racing has improved the past several weeks. In regards to the overall racing, it has been much better. The key to that is, even though drivers complain about the difficulty in passing, the cars are able to run much closer before having a major issue with the dreaded aero push.

 

Connor – I was very skeptical of the new package from the start of the season. Putting less driver ability into cars as well as lower speeds everywhere was a big turnoff for me before even seeing the cars on the track. Running wide open at every mile-and-a-half course seemed like something that wouldn’t be interesting to watch.

Boy, was that off. These last three weeks have once again reminded me and hopefully a lot more of the NASCAR community not to judge a book by its cover. Hopefully the Gen 7 car coming in 2021 is can bring as much of the excitement as the past three races have.


The most entertaining race of the season has been?

Trevor-I’m going to cheat and choose the All-Star Race. I know it’s not technically a regular-season race, but man, it was exciting. I am not old enough to remember too many exciting All-Star Races and I’ve been one an advocate of relocating the race, but this year’s race silenced some of those opinions. The Open alone was enough for this race to consider earning this honor, but the main event did not disappoint. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano took turns controlling the race, but it was Kyle Larson who persevered in an exciting finish to become $1 million richer. Not to mention this race gave us one of the best fighting moments in NASCAR history; Clint Bowyer vs. Ryan Newman.

 

Jacob – Maybe it was because it was night and temperatures were in the 50s, but Kansas Speedway and the Digital Ally 400 gave us the best race of the season so far. Referring back to the first question, this was the first race where the new aero package shined. There were 23 lead changes in this race compared to only 13 in the spring race at Kansas in 2018. The key to why this race provided such excitement is no one driver dominated. Kevin Harvick looked at though he would, but strategy and mistakes forced him to drive through the field multiple times. Alex Bowman strung together the longest continuous run at the point, leading 50 laps. Other than Harvick stringing a few runs leading for more than 30 laps at a time, drivers couldn’t lead for more the 20 laps. Then there was the fact that the bigger names were not the only ones going after the wins. Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and even Chris Buescher looked as though they had cars able to contend for the win. Late in the race, Alex Bowman looked as though he was headed for his first career win, but Brad Keselowski came from nowhere to battle Bowman and eventually take the win at the end.

 

Connor – I was told not to pick the same answer as Trevor and Jacob so I improvised with this one and chose the Open that preceded the All-Star Race as the most exciting race of the year. But seriously, each of the races at Charlotte was beyond entertaining as far as this year has gone and it has made the new package extremely worthwhile.


Which driver do you feel has been the most dominant?

Trevor-Kyle Busch and not just because he’s the points leader. Busch has 12 top ten finishes in 13 starts. His only miss was a 30th place finish at Kansas Speedway. Busch’s 2019 statline through three races reads like this: 3 wins, 7 top threes, 7 top fives and 12 top tens. Busch has also led at least one lap in all but two races (Atlanta and Martinsville and has led 684 laps, second only to Brad Keselowski. Busch is also the only driver to finish on the lead lap in 12 of the 13 races. Dominant starts to the season is nothing new to Busch, but this has been his most successful start to a season in his entire career.

 

Jacob – This one’s easy and it’s Kyle Busch. He has three wins, which is tied with Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski for the most. Although, the wins are not what makes him so dominant, it is how many races he looks like he has a chance to win. Go back to last week at Charlotte, he led 79 laps and finished third. At Richmond he led 101 laps and finished 8th. At Texas, he led 66 laps before settling for 10th. Go back to the Daytona 500 and he had an opportunity to win that one as well. Kyle Busch’s dominance stems from the amount of races where at some point it looks as though the race is over and he will simply run away from the field. This is racing, so handling changes or he catches a bad break, but if he keeps running like he is, Busch will visit victory lane more than anyone else this season.

 

Connor – Obviously three drivers are tied at the top of the standings with three wins in Busch, Keselowski, and of course Martin Truex Jr. Only one of those drivers has had to adjust to a new team this season, and it’s finally hit pay dirt. Throw out the first eight races of the season, and the No. 19 has won three out of five races. I’d project to see some more dominance from Truex Jr. this season as the year goes on, and if he doesn’t enter the Playoffs with the most playoff points in the series it will be an upset.

What driver has been the most pleasant surprise to you.

Trevor-I have to admit that I wrote Denny Hamlin off at the end of last year. He struggled throughout 2018 and I thought maybe it was almost time he gets replaced with Christopher Bell. Hamlin has flipped the script in 2019 so far. His Daytona 500 victory was sensational and did wonders to his hall of fame candidacy. Hamlin then proved his win at Daytona was not a fluke and backed it up with a win at Texas. Hamlin has actually struggled as of late with his four worst finishes of the season coming in the last four races, but Hamlin is locked into the playoffs regardless of how the rest of the regular season goes. I honestly expected him to miss the playoffs when the season began.

 

Jacob – Stewart-Haas Racing sent Kurt Busch packing in 2018 and he found a home, on a one-year deal, with Chip Ganassi Racing replacing Jamie McMurray. In 2018, McMurray only mustered two top fives, eight top tens, nine laps led and an average finish of 18.9 on his way to a 20th place finish in the final standings. We are 13 races into the 2019 season and Kurt Busch has already bettered that stat line. He has three top fives, eight top tens, 31 laps led and an average finish of 10.2. Only Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott have a better finishing average than Kurt Busch. He has been faster than his teammate, Kyle Larson, and has been a threat to win more frequently than I thought he would at the beginning of the season.

 

Connor – The biggest surprise for me has been Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman. He hasn’t earned a win yet, but as of late he has repeatedly put himself in the right places to get one. I didn’t expect him to pick up the success so early in the season, but after seeing what he has done lately, I’d be surprised to see him miss out on the playoffs even if he doesn’t capture a regular season win.


Who has been the most disappointing driver to you so far?

Trevor-Sticking with Joe Gibbs Racing here. I had high hopes for Erik Jones when the season began. He showed signs of promise in 2018 and picked up his first career win at Daytona. I was so high on Jones at the beginning of the year that I picked him to make the championship four. He started the season with a strong third-place finish at Daytona and has three top-five finishes on the season, but he also has three finishes outside of the top 25 and is currently on the outside looking in on the playoffs. He has the talent and equipment to turn things around and become a championship contender, but he needs to do so soon.

 

Jacob – Although many of Kyle Larson’s poor finishes arguably are attributed to bad luck, the fact Larson is winless in 2019 points paying races is concerning. It looked as though an All-Star Race triumph would give him some momentum, but failed to finish after crashing out of the Coca-Cola 600. Larson needs to start putting up bigger numbers in his sixth full-time season. The racing world keeps waiting for Larson to explode into a powerhouse driver that is always a threat to win and it hasn’t happened yet. This season is cause for concern as he has only one top five and four top tens. Larson has crashed out of four races and has only led in two races this year; he led 142 laps at Atlanta and one at Talladega. I thought Larson would be a title contender when the year started. Instead he is fighting for one of the last spots in the playoffs.

 

Connor – I’m going to stick with a surprise here and mention a driver that is a fan favorite no matter where he’s finishing in Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace. Wallace is currently 29th in the series standings, leaps and bounds behind both power rookies in Daniel Hemric and William Byron. I’m honestly surprised to see Wallace’s season going so poorly. He’s won in the lower series. He’s made lemonade in cars that barely bring enough ice to compete with. It just hasn’t been his year so far, and things need to start turning around, otherwise RPM’s future might be in big trouble.


Which winless driver is most likely to be the next to win?

Trevor-Kevin Harvick had five wins in the first 13 races last season. Now expecting him to do the same thing this year would have far-fetched, but Harvick has only gone winless in the first 13 races of the season just twice since 2010 (2012 and 2017). It’s not like Harvick has been struggling to contend for wins either. Although he’s led a significantly fewer amount of laps this year (282) than he had at this time last year (720). He’s had multiple opportunities to win races, but has failed to capitalize either due to costly penalties, pit road miscues or just bad luck. I think Harvick will turn his luck around soon, much like he did in 2017 and become a serious championship threat come playoff time.

 

Jacob – Earlier I discussed the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske and the next new winner will come from one of those camps. Ryan Blaney will no longer be the only Penske driver to not have a win within the next few weeks. Similar to Larson, Blaney has had some bad luck with two DNF’s. Although, when he has a fast car he has taken advantage of it logging four top fives. Blaney has led 359 laps this season, which is sixth in that category and everyone above him has a win. He has held the point in eight of the 13 races this season. Blaney’s first career win came at Pocono in 2017, so Blaney could find victory lane sooner than later.

 

Connor – Kyle Larson has been one of the biggest surprises of the season in my opinion. After being Chevrolet’s front runner last season, he has yet to find a win in a regular season race this year. Larson garnered some momentum with the All-Star Race victory, and even won the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars event at Lawrenceberg on Memorial Day on Monday. It seems like he’s making it work in everything he touches. Now he’s just got to put on a show when it counts. The Elk Grove, California native has won five races in his cup series career – three of them have come at Michigan, where the cup series will race in a few weeks. Bet big money on Larson winning there.

*****

Thanks for tuning in to Part 1 of the Mid-Season Shakedown. Part 2 can be found below.

NASCAR: The Mid-Season Shakedown Part 2

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