NASCAR is (very nearly almost) back, so we’re breaking down the biggest storylines going into the 2019 Cup Series season. The season-opening Daytona 500 is Sunday, Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway, where chaos is all but guaranteed with just 25 of 40 drivers still racing at the end last year.
But 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. And even though 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. 43-year-old Johnson has 83 wins, but his last was in June of 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 still managed to make the playoffs last season, despite not winning a race. But he might not get so lucky this time. However, he has a new crew chief this year after he and Chad Knaus 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 previously 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 a different team 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 now 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. But now, he only has 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 still win a race or two this season.
Replacing Busch with 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 Series checkered flag. In his first two Cup Series season, 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. Who’s looking to have a breakout year?
Chase Elliott arguably already broke out. He earned his first three Cup Series wins last in 2018 and was named most popular driver, taking over for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had the title for 15 years before retiring in 2017. But he could really hit his stride and steal even more wins this season – and fans are certainly hoping he does.
Ryan Blaney had one win in 2017 and one in 2018, and he seems poised for a multi-win season this year. Should Ford maintain the speed it had last season – plus working with experienced teammates in 2012 champ Brad Keselowski and defending champ Joey Logano – he’s ready to take more than one checkered flag in 2019.
Other drivers to keep an eye on are Daniel Suárez, Erik Jones – who got his first Cup Series win last summer at Daytona in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., who finished second in the 2018 Daytona 500 in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. And if Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet bounce back this season, Alex Bowman or William Byron could find a win or two.
Kyle Larson already had a breakout year in 2017, winning four races and looking unstoppable. But after a winless 2018, he’ll be searching for a way to get back to Victory Lane as one of the most skilled drivers on the track.
5. 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 post-race inspections, teams will (finally) be straight-up disqualified, and the runner-up will be declared the winner. That last part 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.
6. When will we have our first NASCAR feud?
As we detail in our regular in-season series, NASCAR Feud of the Week, 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 mad at each other – especially since the season starts at a typically chaotic track like Daytona.
7. 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 an 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?
To be continued…