Welcome to Part 2 of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Mid-Season Shakedown. If your here without reading part 1, you can click the link here to see it.
Who is most likely to be the next to pick up their first career win?
Trevor-Someone had to pick against Alex Bowman, so I’ll do it and say it will be his teammate William Byron. Byron currently sits 15th in points and has won two poles at two of the sport’s biggest races; the Daytona 500 and Coca Cola 600. He had a car capable of winning the Daytona 500 prior to be caught up in one of the big ones, he’s also shown short race speed at times this season. I think Byron will eventually benefit from having one of NASCAR’s greatest crew chiefs; Chad Knaus at his disposal and that Knaus will put Byron in a situation to capture his first career win. Maybe even this week at Pocono where Byron ran really well at last season.
Jacob – Someone had to pick against Alex Bowman and I let someone else be that person. Bowman is excruciatingly close to his first career win. Some say you have to lose some before you can get that win. Kyle Larson went through that pain, as did Chase Elliott. Bowman could already have three wins this season, so he definitely has lost some. Bowman has led in the last four races, with three seconds and a seventh. He is the hottest driver on the circuit without a win in 2019 and will be the next to pick up his first career win, if not simply the next driver to win.
Connor – If you think Alex Bowman isn’t going to be the next driver to pick up his first victory, then you’ve got an unpopular opinion. Mired with three-straight second-place finishes going into Charlotte, the No. 88 has shown it can be right there. The question has become when and not if.
Which driver currently in the playoffs do you think is most likely to miss?
Trevor-Daniel Suarez has yet to breakthrough. The third-year driver from Monterrey, Mexico currently sits 13th in points, 25 points ahead of the cutline. Suarez has four top tens but just one top five on the season and he’s struggled as of lately finishing outside of the top ten in each of his last five races. He currently sits ahead of Kyle Larson and Erik Jones in the points standings and I think both drivers will turn things around in the second half of the season and pass Suarez. Throw in the possibility of a wild-card winner and Suarez could end up on the outside looking in on the playoffs for the third year in a row.
Jacob – Take a gander at the current standings and two things stand out. Aric Almirola, currently sits in 12th, and everyone above him seems safe. Everyone 13th or worse are in a close fight for the last four spots in the playoffs. The fight for those spots is between seven drivers separated by 31 points. We are at the point in the season where bad days are hard to come back from. Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson, William Byron and Kyle Larson are the four currently in. Of those, Jimmie Johnson will find himself outside the top sixteen. Johnson hasn’t shown the speed all season and has raced smart to be where he is now. Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, William Byron and even Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have shown more speed. These young drivers will start putting up some big finishes, and some will grab a win. A surprise winner at Sonoma, Daytona or Watkins Glen would make things even tougher and Johnson’s current performance won’t be enough.
Connor – When I originally looked at this, I had trouble finding a driver who I thought really didn’t have what it takes to qualify for the playoffs this year. Frankly, I think that’s because the current field could very well be the field that we see make the playoffs at the end of the season. Though if someone was going to be knocked out, I think I’d have to take Suarez. Drivers behind him have been so close to notching wins that would qualify them for the postseason, and I haven’t seen Suarez in that position yet this year. Anything can happen and I’m sure it’s going to be in a wild way, if this format has shown us anything in the past few seasons.
Which driver currently out of the playoffs do you think will find their way in?
Trevor-Erik Jones is going to be the popular pick, but I’m going to reach and say Ricky Stenhouse. His numbers might not be impressive this season, but he has had strong runs only to have thwarted by accidents or misfortune. Either of his doing or someone else. Two years ago, Stenhouse made the playoffs courtesy of a pair superspeedway victories. He’s been one of the fastest cars at Daytona the past few years and I don’t think it will be any different this year. He’s also statistically strong at Bristol and could be a threat to win there if he shakes off the bad luck he’s had.
Jacob – Erik Jones is with Joe Gibbs Racing and they seem to have the best handle on the new rules package. Erik Jones is fast, has been in good situations and hasn’t posted the finishes his performance shows. Jones is another driver the racing world is waiting on to figure it out and become a start. I remember watching Jones on the short track asphalt late model world and saying he would be a NASCAR star, given the right opportunity. He has the right opportunity with Gibbs and should get the woes figured out. He is only two points outside the 16th points position and has the pace to move up and comfortably slot himself in the playoffs.
Connor – This is another tough question (thanks a lot, Trevor). I didn’t want to pick Jones since he’s only two points out and he’s coming off an early finish in the Coca Cola 600. He’d be in right now even if he finished just a few spots higher at Charlotte. Though, there is one name that sticks out to me that could play the wildcard in the playoffs this season: Austin Dillon. The grandson of Richard Childress has shown in the past that he has the ability to win the big races, even when he may not have the fastest car out there. It’s almost like he has the clutch gene figured out. I think Dillon will find a race at some point in the next 13 races that he blows everyone away once again. If he doesn’t? He’s only 27 points outside of the cutoff, so making a wildcard spot is not out of the question.
What upcoming regular season race are you the most excited about?
Trevor-The first eight cup races at Kentucky have been pretty dull. The new aero-package was designed specifically to enhance racing at tracks like Kentucky. We have seen entertaining races at Atlanta, Texas, Kansas and Charlotte. All tracks that are similar to Kentucky. The new package should lead to an emphasis on drafting and provide exciting restarts and racing similar to what we saw in the Coca Cola 600 last week. The only time I’ve ever been excited for a Kentucky race has been the inaugural cup race, that will change this year when the new package hits the track on July 13th.
Jacob – Recent races at the likes of Kansas and Charlotte have given the new aero package promise and Michigan will give the package a chance to shine. This is the second track two-miles in length the series has visited in 2019. The first one at Fontana the teams where still chasing the new aero package. Now that teams are starting to get it figured out, Michigan will be a blast. Is eight-wide out of the realm of possibility on the restarts? I don’t think so. The only concern for Michigan is has the racetrack widened out enough since the 2012 repave. If it has, this race has the ingredients to be one of the wildest races of the season.
Connor – The-mile-and-a-half courses are definitely something to look forward to, but I am excited to see what happens when the series heads to Sonoma and Watkins Glen. We haven’t seen these cars on a road course yet and, as we know, the road courses can yield surprise winners and really fun finishes.
What’s your boldest prediction for the second half of the regular season?
Trevor- Don’t listen to Jacob. Jimmie Johnson’s winless streak will come to an end. The seven-time champion has gone 72 races since his last victory. By far, the longest drought of his career. Johnson struggled last season. There’s no way to get around that and he struggled to start this season, but a part of that could be contributed to Hendrick’s struggle to adapt to the new aero package as well as being forced to adjust to not Chad Knaus’ manning his pit box for the first time in his career. Johnson has one top five, six top tens and has only finished outside the top 25 once this season and had two top fives, five top tens this time last year, but had finished outside of the top 25 three times. Hendrick has started to show a lot more speed lately and Johnson has had recent success at just about every upcoming track. I refuse to bet against arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history and you shouldn’t either. If Tiger Woods can win another Masters, Jimmie Johnson can win another race. It’s just a matter of when and where.
Jacob – Stewart-Haas has not won a race yet this season. That is not something I would have predicted at the start of the season, even in a bold prediction style question like this one. Although after the first half of the season, Stewart-Haas racing will roll into the playoffs winless. All four of their drivers, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez will make the playoffs, but all four will have a zero in the win column. Bowyer has got close a couple times, but hasn’t made much noise since his strong third place run at Richmond. Harvick is the one that has been the closest for the organization this season, but each time he has a winning car, the 4-crew loses the handle on the car or makes a mistake. Almirola and Suarez have shown the speed to run strong, but not to contend for wins. It is hard to imagine none of these four getting a win before the playoffs, but based on what we have seen it sure is possible.
Connor – I could’ve gone a different way with this and picked something way out there – instead I’ll just say that I think each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers has a win by the end of the season. Right now, it’s just Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega, however the team across the way as shown it has the speed to contend this year. They certainly look like the best of the Chevrolets in this new package, and there is too much talent in that group to not at the very least see Johnson and William Byron go to victory lane.
Do-Over: Who is your championship four?
Trevor-My beginning of the season pick was Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano. I am going to stick with two and swap two of them. I’ll stick with Elliott and Logano and say they will be joined by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. Kyle Busch is the favorite to win the regular season title and pick up the 15 playoff points that come with it and we’ve seen how important those points are come playoff time. Logano has shown that he will do whatever it takes to make it to Homestead, Elliott runs well at basically all of the playoff tracks and could easily snag a win at Texas or Phoenix if he gets that far and this just feels like a year where Brad Keselowski is going to turn it on late in the season and make a deep run.
Jacob – My championship four at the start of the season was bold. My four included Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones. I thought the younger drivers that have been at the top level for a few years were going to start a new generation of dominance. I was wrong, really wrong. Instead, the big names of the last several years have dominated 2019. Although we have seen drivers get momentum late in the regular season, and make deep playoff runs. That is why I am sticking with some of my original championship four. Chase Elliott will continue to run well and Kyle Larson will figure it out and make the championship four. For my mid-season change, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. will join the other two. Busch has been too good this season and Truex seems to have adjusted to being at Joe Gibbs Racing as he has won three of the last five races.
Connor – With the Championship 4, I think it is important to keep an eye on playoff points, because that is the only thing that is going to get drivers into the final round if they aren’t red hot during that semifinal round. With that being said I’ll take each of the guys with three wins – Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and especially Martin Truex Jr. For the fourth pick, I would definitely go to a driver that would be gathering momentum at the end of the year. I think Chase Elliott (currently third in classic points standings) fits the bill.
Your 2019 championship pick after 13 races is _____?
Trevor-The popular pick is going to be Kyle Busch, but the beauty of the playoffs and the one-race championship is that the best driver does not always win the title. Brad Keselowski has not been as consistent as Busch, but he’s won just as many races. The Michigan native always has fast cars come playoff time only to be cursed by bad luck. The good news for him is that winning races cancels out bad luck/inconsistency. I think if Keselowski gets to Homestead, he will win the championship. Of my championship four, Keselowski has the third best career average finish at Homestead behind Elliott and Logano but that number is skewed because he struggled there early on. He has finishes of sixth, third, third, seventh and fifth in five of his last six starts at Miami.
Jacob – In terms of the championship race at Homestead I throw out statistics. In dirt racing terms, Homestead is a trophy dash, a 267-lap trophy dash. The best driver doesn’t always win and the driver that is historically the best at that track doesn’t always prove it. Kyle Busch only has one championship in 2015, and a controversial one at that. Busch is a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and it is now time for him to focus on being one of the best to ever sit behind the wheel of a race car. He has been too good in 2019 to not win the championship and similar to Martin Truex Jr. in 2017, others may challenge, but Busch has too much speed.
Connor – Kyle Busch has been too good this season to not be at the head of the table in this conversation. He showed at Charlotte how discontent he was with a car that was running top 10 through most of the night. Busch is quite used to having speed this year as is Joe Gibbs Racing as a team. He’ll have the same speed at Homestead and I think it’s Busch’s race to lose.