Eighteen races down, 18 races to go. The 2019 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway kicks off the second half of NASCAR’s 36-race schedule, one of the longest in sports (February through November). Technically, just eight races remain in the regular season before the 10-race playoff kicks in to crown the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
It’s fitting the series starts off this stretch at a 1.5-mile oval, the main focus of the sport’s new handling package designed to increase passing and excitement. Thus far, the package has kicked off to mixed reviews. Some races, particularly the ones at night (Kansas and Charlotte, to name a few) have produced the desired results with limited horsepower. But other events, like Fontana and Michigan, saw little change as aerodynamics continue to give the leader an unfair advantage out front. The bad races are just a repeat of 2018’s single-file action with an added downer that the cars look (and run) markedly slower.
It’s also been a lopsided start competition-wise with Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske head and shoulders above the pack. They’ve won a whopping 83 percent of the races (15 for 18) and appear to have the top contenders for this year’s Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are battling for top dog at JGR, Truex surging as of late as he adjusts after moving over from now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski and 2018 Cup champion Joey Logano are humming along over at Penske, the only Ford team to win this year. Denny Hamlin, this year’s Daytona 500 winner, serves as a dark horse pick over at JGR.
At least the season has taken a slight turn toward parity during the last two weeks. Alex Bowman won the first race of his NASCAR Cup career at Chicagoland Speedway, delivering for a Hendrick Motorsports team still a half-step behind Ford and Toyota. Then, last weekend, Justin Haley produced perhaps the biggest upset in modern NASCAR history, winning in a bizarre weather-shortened Daytona finish. The full-time Xfinity Series driver won in just his third career Cup start, driving for a new team in Spire Motorsports that hadn’t even finished a race onthe lead lap.
Haley’s shock added extra disappointment to sluggish starts elsewhere. Who would have guessed Spire would have a win before the entire four-car team at Stewart-Haas Racing? It’s the latest Kevin Harvick has gone winless in his six-year tenure driving SHR’s No. 4 Ford. He’s still a lock for the playoffs, at least while Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez are all sitting on the postseason bubble. Almirola leveling off is a bit of a head scratcher, failing to build on his 2018 Round of 8 campaign while rumors of Bowyer’s job security for 2020 are gaining steam.
On the crew chief front, Chris Gabehart has worked wonders with Hamlin, the duo winning twice after Hamlin was 0-for-the entire 2018 season. Chad Knaus has also done a nice job upping William Byron’s output in his sophomore year. Byron’s three poles are tied for the series lead although he has yet to earn a Cup Series win. He’s got the nod post-divorce as Kevin Meendering has been less successful with seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson; his winless drought has now reached a once-unthinkable 77 Cup starts.
But the year’s big disappointments come from two teams otherwise dominating the Cup circuit. Ryan Blaney has hit everything but the kitchen sink, bad luck sinking his Team Penske effort and keeping him winless on the year. Erik Jones has also been about two steps behind his JGR teammates; he has as many top 5s (four) as Busch or Truex have wins. Another eight races without a victory could mean missing the playoffs and potentially losing his job to Christopher Bell.
Through it all, NASCAR has persevered, showing signs a decade-long bleed of fan attendance, TV ratings and revenue might finally be slowing to a crawl. FOX’s TV audience actually ticked up a few percentage points this year while a pending merger between NASCAR and track arm ISC should strengthen finances. More changes, from a 2021 schedule shakeup to wooing manufacturers, are just a few short months away. The new leadership team of President Steve Phelps and CEO Jim France have worked wonders to reestablish confidence in the sport’s direction.
Can NASCAR keep the momentum up in the second half? We’re about to find out.
Quaker State 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Justin Haley
In Haley's own words, "I didn't do anything." But his victory at Daytona meant everything for both the 20-year-old’s burgeoning NASCAR career and the small team he drove for in Spire Motorsports. Haley’s first lap led in his third Cup Series start came under caution, crew chief Peter Sospenzo choosing to keep his underdog No. 77 car on the racetrack with bad weather roaming in the distance. Suddenly, just as officials were ready to go back green after the day’s major wreck a lightning strike forced a 30-minute red flag delay.
Soon after, the rains came and the cars never took to the track again after the race was already postponed from Saturday night because of weather. Haley was crowned the official winner and Spire, owned by a sports and entertainment agency, had its reported $6 million charter investment pay off in only 18 starts.
Who's at the Back: Austin Dillon
One moment, Dillon sped off turn 4 as the race leader with the laps winding down at Daytona. The next? His block of Clint Bowyer sparked the day’s Big One, an ugly wreck in turn 1 that wiped out half the 40-car field and left Dillon a near certainty to miss the NASCAR playoffs.
It’s the third DNF for Dillon in the last six races, all for wrecks and left him 77 points behind Ryan Newman for the final playoff spot. Sitting 22nd in the season standings, Dillon has too many drivers to leapfrog and will need a Hail Mary-style win to sneak in the field.
One piece of NASCAR’s Silly Season puzzle was put to rest Friday when Paul Menard indicated he’d be back with the Wood Brothers next season. Menard, currently in his second year with the team, is just 20th in the season standings with no top-5 finishes. That’s a definite underachievement considering the strength of the Team Penske alliance. But the 38-year-old Menard said simply, “I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that’s all.”
Kyle Busch won Best Driver this week at the 2019 edition of the ESPYs. Busch beat out Lewis Hamilton of Formula One, Scott Dixon of IndyCar and the NHRA’s Steve Torrence to win the honor. So far this year, Busch has a dozen wins in NASCAR’s top three divisions including an impressive five-for-five in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Stewart Friesen could face heavy penalties this week after his truck was confiscated prior to Thursday’s first practice. A "firewall issue" kept Friesen from using his primary No. 52 truck, causing officials to confiscate it for further inspection. The Halmar team did bounce back nicely, finishing a strong second in the race that night.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The best NASCAR finish for Spire Motorsports in 17 starts before Haley pulled off his upset victory.
Cup starts for Ty Dillon before earning his first top-5 finish, a fourth in Sunday’s race at Daytona.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martin Truex Jr. isn’t the sexy pick but he’s clearly the most reliable one at Kentucky. Truex is going for his third straight win at the track; he’s led 326 laps in two dominating victories in 2017 and ’18. An eighth-place qualifying effort Friday night keeps the No. 19 Toyota near the front and in position for Truex to establish himself as an early contender.
Not content with Truex? Try your hand with JGR teammate Kyle Busch. Busch has two wins, seven top-10 finishes and no run worse than 12th in eight Kentucky starts, winning as recently as 2015. That’s about as dependable as you can get at any racetrack.
Kurt Busch isn’t typically a good qualifier these days so when he pulls off a top-5 effort, you should take notice. While Kentucky Speedway isn’t one of the strongest tracks on his career resume, the elder Busch has been running far better there as of late. Three of his five career top-10 Kentucky finishes have come within the last four years; he also led 45 laps last year en route to a sixth-place finish. Busch is still steaming over a last-second call to pit that cost him a win last weekend at Daytona and should be extra motivated to put the bad luck behind him.
Pole sitter Daniel Suarez hasn’t done anything special at Kentucky; his two runs of 18th and 15th barely register on the radar screen. But keep in mind Suarez’s only other pole position, at Pocono last July, resulted in a career-best second-place result. Track position will be crucial at a recently-repaved Kentucky and Suarez, on the edge of the playoff picture, needs to get aggressive to stay there. Expect a solid run.
David Ragan isn’t as impressive here as he would be at, say, Daytona last weekend. But an 18th-place run at this track last season shows how his Front Row Motorsports team keeps improving on intermediates. Ragan has four straight top-25 efforts with three different Cup teams here and should be a cheap option in daily fantasy formats.
It’s been a season to forget — and then some — for Bubba Wallace at Richard Petty Motorsports. A 27th-place run at Kentucky last year also doesn’t inspire too much confidence. But keep in mind it was an 11th-place performance in the 2017 edition of this race that earned Wallace full-time consideration at RPM. It might be worth the risk to see if he pulls off a repeat performance.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. is the 7/2 favorite entering this race considering his recent history at Kentucky. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are not too far behind with reasonable 9/2 odds. Want a dark horse? Pole sitter Daniel Suarez is sitting at 50/1 in some casinos.
What I Think
Normalcy returns to the top levels of NASCAR after a weird few weeks of upsets. Martin Truex Jr. earns his third straight Cup victory at Kentucky with Kurt Busch running a strong second.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.