March Madness, typically reserved for the NCAA Tournament, was supposed to trickle down to NASCAR last weekend. Martinsville Speedway’s short track is typically an automatic for the most exciting action you'll see all year; just last fall, Joey Logano pulled the bump-and-run on Martin Truex Jr. in a championship-defining moment. But heading to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, stock car madness has nothing to do with actual racing. Instead, it's the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series off-track buzz that's got fans and garage insiders paying attention.
Distractions will happen when Brad Keselowski pulled a fast one on the field, leading 446 of 500 laps Sunday to produce the fewest Martinsville lead changes since 1967 (three). A rare case of short track monotony, however, got buried by 48 hours of major NASCAR news. The week has since been dominated by new qualifying rules combined with a 2020 schedule shakeup designed to address fan and driver concerns of stagnation.
Suddenly, next year's postseason has a brand-new look. Bristol's iconic night race is now part of the playoff schedule along with Darlington Raceway's Southern 500. The championship finale has been moved nearly 3,000 miles, from Homestead-Miami Speedway to Phoenix. The sport's regular season is now bookended by Daytona International Speedway. And Pocono Raceway now will have an experimental NASCAR doubleheader, condensing their two race weekends into one. (I offer a full breakdown of the changes here).
In the meantime, the sport aggressively addressed a qualifying fiasco from Auto Club Speedway. New rules were designed to force cars off pit road and prevent cars from failing to turn a hot lap on track. The old system failed miserably in California two weeks ago; nobody went out for the final round in time, causing Austin Dillon to win the pole by default based on his second round effort. (His official speed was 0.000 mph).
To their credit, NASCAR is showing consistently this season they're willing to address issues head on. Qualifying and schedule concerns have been at or near the top of the list for fans, drivers and teams. Top officials, led by NASCAR President Steve Phelps on down have attempted to come up with solutions instead of hiding down a rabbit hole.
But this past week was also a tough lesson: simply coming up with a solution doesn’t mean you've hit a home run. Controversy reigned supreme in Friday's Texas qualifying; Clint Bowyer went off after feeling like Ryan Newman blocked his effort on pit lane. (Bowyer wound up 25th on the grid).
"It's sad. Those people up there paid a lot of money to watch a qualifying session... people go out and try and do their best. But your best is only good enough if the guy in front of you does a good job," Bowyer said. "It's not qualifying. Whatever. Learn from your mistakes. We've got to figure something else out. It doesn't work. You just can't keep trying it. Wait until a wreck happens on pit road."
Bowyer wouldn't outwardly say "single-car qualifying" as a solution; NASCAR aggressively poo-poohed the idea as a fix earlier this week. But it might be the only solution they have to solve an awkward drafting situation under this new package. Speeds are artificially inflated as a result while pit road maneuvering to be the right guy in line remains out of control.
And that brings us to the elephant in the room: the sport's new handling package. Heading into Texas this weekend, the racing has been underwhelming and passing difficult at virtually every type of track. A boost in TV ratings has been balanced by mounting criticism over horsepower issues, handling issues and the continued advantage of clean air up front.
A 2020 schedule shakeup certainly drums up interest in the meantime. But switching up the tracks if the racing stays bad only puts lipstick on a pig. The main question two months into the season remains unanswered. NASCAR, for all its solutions, has put together a clunker of a 2019 package. Will they actually stop and fix it in season so the competition starts improving before the Gen-7 rollout in 2021?
If not, all the schedule sizzle and qualifying tweaks will mean little to the long-term health of the sport. You don't travel to a venue, no matter how exciting if what you’re going to see there won’t keep you entertained.
The off-track buzz is nice, for sure. But the on-track product is where NASCAR needs to focus next. It's great they’re willing to work on solutions but they're quickly learning the first throw of the dart doesn't hit the bullseye. There's years of innovation and creativity to catch up on.
Hopefully, as the season progresses, practice will make perfect. Further revisions by dedicated leadership are needed to get the sport back in mint condition.
O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Team Penske
Keselowski's dominant Martinsville performance was the latest in a string of Penske victories. He and teammate Logano have won three of six Cup races to date; teammate Ryan Blaney has also flashed speed, leading 150 laps.
Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing (Kyle Busch in particular) are running neck-and-neck with the Penske group. But this three-car outfit is the most consistent within its ranks from top to bottom.
Who's at the Back: Erik Jones
The third year has not been the charm for this Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver. His trio of teammates have won two of the last four championships, two of the last three Daytona 500s and already sit in strong playoff position. Jones? He’s gone four straight races without a top-10 finish, including an awkward Martinsville flat tire where Jones had to limp to the pits under green.
That 30th-place result leaves Jones on the postseason bubble early in 2019. And it also leaves him potentially vulnerable long-term with Christopher Bell anxiously awaiting a 2020 promotion to Cup from Toyota.
The 2020 schedule announcement is still being digested by fans. Besides the changes mentioned above, prominent racetracks like Indianapolis Motor Speedway are switching dates. The sport hopes a move to July 4th weekend reinvigorates what used to be a crown jewel race on the schedule. Other tracks with regular season switches include Atlanta Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, whose lone Cup date moves from the playoffs to March. ISM Raceway in Phoenix now serves as the championship finale for 2020 and beyond.
NASCAR's new qualifying rules are focused on getting the cars on the racetrack. Any car in group qualifying who intentionally blocks pit road to prevent another car from leaving can now have their time disallowed. And any driver who does not take time in any round will automatically start the race from the rear.
Greg Biffle is making a return to NASCAR competition. The 49-year-old former full-time racer in the Cup, Xfinity and Truck series will drive Kyle Busch's No. 51 Toyota at Texas Motor Speedway in June. Biffle, who hasn’t run in NASCAR since the 2016 Homestead Cup finale, practiced in the truck on Thursday to get his feet wet and prepare for the start.
Leavine Family Racing is looking to expand to a two-car NASCAR operation by 2020. The team, which switched to Toyota this season after hiring Matt DiBenedetto, is one of just five full-time Camrys on the Cup circuit. Owner Leavine also revealed in an interview with SportsMap.com he had a deal with Daniel Suarez last season that ultimately fell through. Suarez wound up signing with Stewart-Haas Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Kyle Busch's worst finish in any of NASCAR's top three series this year. Busch is the only driver with top-10 finishes in every Cup race this season.
Laps led by Brad Keselowski so far this season. He led 705 laps in all 36 races back in 2017.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to bet against Fall winner Kevin Harvick here in the Lone Star State. Harvick has run first, second and first in his last three TMS starts while qualifying no worse than third during that stretch. Sure, he starts a distant 23rd this weekend but that’s all the more reason to pick him up in daily fantasy. Can you say bonus points?
Martin Truex Jr., like Harvick, is winless in 2019 and due for a trip to Victory Lane. His new Joe Gibbs Racing team has been consistent, just a shade below winning speed but Texas offers a prime opportunity. He’s earned top-10 finishes in seven of his last eight starts at this 1.5-mile oval and is still seeking his first career win here.
Jimmie Johnson starts from the pole, limiting his ability for max points. It's also hard to see him winning after a Victory Lane drought that’s reached nearly two years. But Johnson does have seven career wins at TMS, more than any NASCAR driver and once won five of seven starts at the track. So if there's any magic in race trim, and Johnson can keep the No. 48 Chevrolet in clean air... you never know?
If there's a place where the struggling Erik Jones can get back on track, it's TMS. He earned two top-5 finishes there last year (fourth twice) and led 64 laps last spring after earning the pole. His average finish of 10.4 in five career starts is promising in terms of consistency.
At some point, Daniel Hemric has to put together a full race, right? The rookie qualified seventh at Texas and had top-5 speed at Atlanta earlier this season before tire problems derailed his effort. The rookie has been hampered by tough luck since moving to Cup but has solid history at Texas; he was third in the Xfinity Series spring race here last year.
Bubba Wallace is emerging from a season-opening slump that saw his No. 43 mired in midpack or worse every weekend. A 17th at Martinsville was his best run of the season and now, Wallace heads to a Texas track where he finished eighth last spring. A similar run is possible Sunday under the right circumstances.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch remains the favorite after a strong start to 2019. He’s got 23/10 odds to win Sunday’s race, followed by Brad Keselowski at 13/4.
What I Think
Hendrick Motorsports had the speed in qualifying but I think it's Stewart-Haas Racing in race trim. Expect Kevin Harvick to win his first race of 2019.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.