As the Cup Series approaches its last rest of the season, a few questions remain.
Among them: How to describe what happened in the first 16 races?
The unpredictable quickly comes to mind. Twelve different winners, including four first-time winners, fueled talk that all 16 playoff spots could be filled by winning drivers.
But is “unpredictable” really the right word? Martin Truex Jr. In a January conversation with NBC Sports, he predicted just how tumbling this season could be.
“There will be a lot of crazy storylines going into the beginning of the year,” he said. “There will be a lot of surprises and there will be a lot of guys who have a good week, a bad week, a good week, a bad week, a hit and a miss.
“I just feel like until we find the time and find some sort of baseline of what (the Next Gen car) wants on certain tracks, we will all be looking. We’re all going to bet on what we’re taking to the race track.”
No example best highlights the casual nature of this season as a week. Joey Logano was in May.
He struggled at Dover, crossing the line 29th and four laps behind the leaders. A week later, Logano took pole, led a race-record 107 laps and won at Darlington.
“It’s crazy to walk away from where we were last weekend at Dover where we just finished…qualified in the mid 20s and really ran in the mid 20s and had crashes and all that,” Logano said. after the victory at Darlington. “Then you come back next weekend, get off the truck quickly, put it on pole, lead a few laps, win the stage, the third stage and it’s a big day for us.
“I don’t know, but it just shows what this Next Gen car is like right now, when no one has figured it out yet.”
No team has demonstrated the ability to put together a top 10 streak that has spanned more than five races this season. Last year, four drivers had a top 10 streak of at least five consecutive races, led by William Byronrun of 11 races.
“This is no longer a season defined by 36 races, it is not,” said Chris Geibhart, crew chief. Denny Hamlin, NBC Sports said in May. “It’s defined as getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate.”
2. Trackhouse Racing – Outsider or Favorite?
The total number of Trackhouse wins is equal to that of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this year. Only Hendrick Motorsports – with five wins – has won more races this year than Trackhouse.
So, does that make the team owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull one of the favorites to win the championship? Or is Trackhouse still an outsider because the organization hasn’t competed for a cup title before?
Ty Norris, president of Trackhouse Racing, told MotorMouths on Peacock this week that the organization is trying not to look too far ahead.
“We have two things that we keep talking about,” Norris said. “We have to stay hungry and we have to stay humble. If we start thinking about the playoffs and talking about the playoffs, we will lose sight of the next 10 weeks that we need to continue to prepare for the race.
Also key will be how Chastain runs and whether he continues to upset drivers. Martin Truex Jr. spoke to Chastain at Dover after he crashed while battling Chastain for third. Earlier this month, Chastain had skirmishes with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, among others, at the World Wide Technology Raceway. Hamlin suggested that reckoning was coming.
After that race, Marks told NBC Sports that Chastain didn’t need to change.
“It’s a very, very competitive sport and you fight for every inch,” Marks said. “The thing is, he’s new to the top five, and the established five don’t like having a newcomer in there. I’m super, super proud of him.
“He is very aggressive. That’s what it takes to win races and it will eventually lead him to the NASCAR championship – his aggression is matched by his talent.”
3. Will strategies change during the last 10 races before the playoffs?
One of the exciting things about parity this season is how it can impact the playoffs.
No driver has scored more than 13 playoff points. Twelve riders have at least six playoff points. Last year at this time, there was an 18-point gap between first and fourth place in the playoffs.
With how close the playoff points are, this could result in more riders aiming for stage points, especially on road courses. Before the start of the playoffs, there are three away tracks – Road America (July 3), Indianapolis (July 31) and Watkins Glen (August 21).
On road courses, it is not uncommon for teams to stop before the stage break, giving up stage points in order to prepare for the finish of the race. Will this continue to happen among potential playoff entrants?
Strategic challenges in each of the next 10 races could impact playoff teams depending on how many playoff points they score or miss.
Also, the top 10 in points after the regular season receive playoff points. While the term “points race” is viewed as derogatory by many racing fans, the emphasis on points could lead to more dramatic moments during the next 10 Cup races, starting with the June 26 race at Nashville Superspeedway (5:00 pm ET). , NBC). .
4. Is there a championship favorite?
You’re laughing? Who would it be?
Last year, it was easy to name Martin Truex Jr. as the favorite because he won at the circuits that were supposed to host key playoff races: Phoenix (championship host), Martinsville (host of the final race in the third round) and Darlington (playoff region). -off). opener).
This year the Phoenix saw Chase Briscoe win your first cup race. The Martinsville race, won by William Byron, was a lackluster event that led drivers to call for change before the series returned. With tire tests and organizational tests this summer in Martinsville, changes are likely to be made. Darlington saw Logano knock Byron out of the lead at the end and win.
Of the six points races at the circuits hosting the playoffs this year – not counting Bristol as the spring race was muddy and there will be no playoffs – each time a different winner was determined. Alex Bowman won in Las Vegas, Briscoe in Phoenix, Byron in Martinsville, Ross Chastain in Talladega, Logano in Darlington and Kurt Bush in Kansas.
This year’s playoffs could be a matter of survival in every round.
Pick a favorite? Too difficult now.
5. What can happen in the “Season of Stupidity”?
The key to “Stupid Season” could be Martin Truex Jr., who said he’ll make a decision soon if he’ll return for another season.
On June 29, Truex turns 42 years old. The 2017 Cup champion had a hard time this year. With seven top 10 finishes, he approaches his fewest top 10 finishes in a season since 2014, the last time he missed the playoffs. Truex hasn’t won and hasn’t made it to the playoffs yet.
If he doesn’t return after this season, Joe Gibbs Racing will have several options. Ty Gibbs It would seem like a natural move, although JGR seems to be more interested in keeping the 19-year-old at Xfinity for another season. If Gibbs isn’t promoted, will JGR find someone to drive the No. 19 car for one season before Gibbs moves up, or will it find a high-profile driver who can stay there for years to come?
Joe Gibbs Racing has also yet to announce a sponsor or contract extension. Kyle Bush. After cryptic comments in late April about his status for next year — and a response from a Toyota executive — Bush said little about next year. Apparently, he remains with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stewart-Haas Racing has a chance for next season. Arik Almirola will retire from regular competition after this season. The team has not announced a replacement.
Provided Truex stays with JGR for another year and the team completes the long-awaited deal with Bush, the highest-end vehicle available will be the Almirola.
Four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have signed contracts until at least next season. Team Penske has no free space. Trackhouse Racing President Ty Norris told MotorMouths this week that the team will extend the contract of Daniel Suarez.
Team owner Richard Childress said in March that Tyler Reddick had signed a contract for next year. Team owner Matt Cowlig told NBC Sports this month that he is “torn” on whether to keep changing the team’s second car line-up next year or put one driver in 16th place for the entire season.