Six races into NASCAR’s 2018 season, the sport is still searching for its signature storyline. Sure, Austin Dillon’s last-lap Daytona 500 win was historic, a connection to the sport’s proud past in Dale Earnhardt’s former No. 3.
But Dillon hasn’t so much as led a lap since Daytona. Second-place finisher Bubba Wallace also has disappeared from view while veteran Kevin Harvick stomped the competition with three straight wins. Lowe’s leaving the sport and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson then drowned out an uplifting Martinsville victory by Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer.
What is it going to take for NASCAR to move the needle during this next stretch of racing that runs from now through June? Here are six people, places and things that could jump-start a sport in need of a battery charge.
Since February’s season opener at Daytona it seems everyone in the Cup Series is playing nice. The last five races have had the fewest cautions during that stretch of the season (4.8) since 1979. And that’s with NASCAR’s mandated stage breaks, giving you an automatic two per event. Even Martinsville’s short track got in the act, producing just four yellow flags. That’s the lowest for any race there since 1978.
Bristol’s bullring lies ahead next weekend, meaning cars should get back to beating and banging on each other. It’s not that NASCAR needs wrecks to be successful; they need cars to be able to rub fenders a bit. The lack of contact makes this sport on television appear a whole lot easier than the reality.
2. Chase Elliott
Chase, the sport’s likely successor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Most Popular Driver, has yet to win at the Cup level. That’s despite an impressive 23 top-five finishes in 83 career MENCS starts. The breakthrough could come as quickly as Texas this weekend (where he’s never run outside the top 10) but time is slowly ticking away. How much longer before people start looking at that zero and say Elliott is a disappointment?
3. Young Guns
Bubba Wallace, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Elliott and other twentysomethings have been marginalized since the start of 2018. The trio of drivers that has won since Daytona are all 37 or older with years of NASCAR experience. These new faces? The ones this sport was trying to market? They’ve faded into the background by comparison.
Now is the time for the extra off week to reset a disappointing start. Blaney and Erik Jones could break through the next two weeks, at Texas and Bristol, to still make 2018 the year of a youth movement.
NASCAR’s best race this season was easily the Daytona 500. Talladega doesn’t bring as much fanfare with it but the race is paired with a plate package that works with these cars. Fans now know it’s one of the few times all season an underdog like Landon Cassill or Matt DiBenedetto can run near the front of the pack. Plate races, despite their devastating wrecks bring the unpredictability that put people in the seats and watching on television.
5. Kyle Busch
What’s that saying about second place being the first loser? Busch has been runner-up three times in the last four races despite leading 224 laps during that stretch. He’s frustrated with Kevin Harvick’s dominance and Toyota being a step behind the Ford Fusions thus far. Will that translate into NASCAR’s resident villain pulling a must-see moment on or off the racetrack? The temper is still there despite the maturity we’ve seen in recent years. No one wants to wish bad luck on anyone but the sport could use a Busch bashing and the automatic driver drama/rivalry that spawns with it.
6. Monster Energy
The will they or won’t they question of whether Monster renews its title sponsorship past 2018 is hurting the sport. If you’re in love with the direction NASCAR is headed, renewal should be a no-brainer, right? With Lowe’s leaving Johnson, the sport is in desperate need of positive sponsorship news and Monster realigning behind the brand would finally give the marketing team a true victory to trumpet.
We’ll see if any of these storylines can start turning the page in a positive way for NASCAR this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
22nd O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Clint Bowyer
He may not have seen his Kansas Jayhawks win the national championship but for Bowyer, Martinsville proved a nice consolation prize. He led 215 of the final 216 laps to win his first NASCAR Cup race since Charlotte in October 2012. Can Bowyer now turn that momentum into an extended playoff run this fall? His Stewart-Haas Racing contract ends after the 2018 season so future employment might depend on it.
Who’s at the Back: Bubba Wallace
A big story to begin the 2018 season, NASCAR’s first full-time African-American driver since 1971 is struggling. He’s had no finish better than 20th since Daytona and ended Martinsville an ugly 34th. Fellow rookie William Byron is blowing past him on the racetrack and did I mention the No. 43 team is still seeking some primary sponsorship? Wallace is working hard but the results have yet to translate in the final rundown.
The 2019 Cup Series schedule was released this week to little fanfare. After multiple changes to the 2018 slate NASCAR chose to keep the racing status quo, from event order to number of off weeks. The same 10 races will be in the playoffs after the season begins Feb. 17, 2019 with the Daytona 500.
Tony Stewart has finally settled a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of Kevin Ward Jr. The out-of-court settlement ends an over three-year ordeal that began when Stewart hit and killed Ward on the racetrack at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. The 20-year-old Ward had exited his racecar after a wreck and walked toward Stewart to express his anger over the incident. The Ward family claimed Stewart swerved at him in an attempt at intimidation; however, a grand jury chose not to indict the driver on criminal charges.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers out of seven for Ford’s Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing who would make the NASCAR playoffs if the season ended today.
Chevys combined that would make the NASCAR playoffs if the season ended today. That’s despite the fact 18 new Camaros were entered at Martinsville, easily the highest number among the sport’s three manufacturers.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to steer clear of Kevin Harvick at intermediates right now. The November Texas winner has gone 2-for-3 to start the season at these types of racetracks and passed eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. for the victory last season. Both cars, which have combined for wins in four of 2018’s six races, should be running up front again on Sunday.
Looking for a bit of a dark-horse pick? Brad Keselowski might work. He has top-six finishes in five of the last seven races at TMS and nearly won the fall race there in 2015.
Erik Jones has had a bit of a soft landing at the No. 20 Toyota this season. But an uneventful season could tick up in a big way at Texas. Jones was 10th in the fall running the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota and has four career wins there in other series. The No. 20 also was fourth with Kenseth in the fall race and has a history of running strong at these types of tracks. With Bristol coming next week, a track Jones could be favored for his first career win expect Texas to serve as a warmup.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will want to hit the reset button after an ugly start to 2018. Texas could be the place to build a foundation. The Roush Fenway Racing driver was 14th and 12th last year as part of four straight top-16 finishes at the racetrack.
We haven’t heard much from Kasey Kahne this year in his new, underfunded ride at the No. 95. But Kahne has three top-11 finishes in the last four Texas races and the car he drives was 21st with Michael McDowell in the fall. If there’s a guy who can overcome the disadvantages small teams face at these types of speedways, it’s him.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick has the best odds at the Vegas Sportsbooks with a range that averages out to about 3/1. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are behind them with odds that range from 4/1 to 6/1.
What I Think
Harvick and Truex make plenty of sense. But I feel like Busch will come back from Easter break with a vengeance. Look for Busch to break through and finally score his first MENCS victory of 2018.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)