Three races in, what team has stood out to you?
Dustin Long: The speed that Jimmie Johnson has shown makes his team team the one stands out the most to me. Rarely was he even close to winning last year. Last weekend at Auto Club, his average running position was 3.6, which was better than every car but winner Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. Johnson ranked sixth in average running position the week before at Las Vegas at 9.68.
Daniel McFadin: Despite the misfortune that’s struck him beyond his control, Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 team. There’s an alternate dimension where he’s finished in the top two in all three races this season. Despite Joey Logano‘s Las Vegas win, Blaney’s proven to be the strongest Penske car so far, which is a big deal for him in a contract year.
Jerry Bonkowski: Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson has had two strong runs in a row, Chase Elliott has been in contention for each of the first three races, Alex Bowman won Fontana and William Byron has also looked good at times. Given that this is Johnson’s last year in Cup, I think there’s an even greater concerted effort company-wide to not only send him out a winner, but if he falls short, one of his teammates will be ready to step up to the plate. I know it’s a long season, but honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see three or maybe all four HMS drivers in the Championship 4 round come mid-November.
Nate Ryan: Alex Bowman. Hendrick also suffices as an answer, but Bowman’s improvement seems quantum. A month ago, he would have been near the top of my list for drivers on the hot seat. Now he seems most likely to be re-signed first among this year’s large crop of free agents.
How much worry should there be with the Toyota camp after the first three races of the season?
Dustin Long: Obviously there’s some concern with Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson’s tweet after the race at Auto Club Speedway agreeing with Kyle Busch that there’s work to do. Let’s see what happens the next few weeks before going into a full panic.
Daniel McFadin: On a scale of 1-10, I’d place their level of worry at a 6. Denny Hamlin has a win and second top 10. Martin Truex Jr. has had winning speed but been the victim of pit road mishaps. It took until race No. 3 for Kyle Busch and Erik Jones to get top 10s. I’d be more worried if Toyota doesn’t have a say in the outcome of this weekend’s race in Phoenix.
Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch almost won at Fontana. Sure, we’d like to see more consistency from Busch or Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones, but again, the season is still very young. Let’s revisit this in about six weeks – when we’re about one-fourth of the way through the season – and then we’ll see if folks will still be crying wolf like some have done already. It’s far too premature to write off the Toyota camp.
Nate Ryan: Not a lot, given that only one race (Las Vegas) is truly indicative of what’s to come the rest of the season. If the Camrys are totally out to lunch at Phoenix, then the warning flag should be raised. But otherwise, the “struggles” of Joe Gibbs Racing are purely relative to the virtually unmatchable success the team posted last year, while also a reminder that NASCAR competition always is cyclical. It still would be a stunner if JGR doesn’t have four playoff cars.
Is Hendrick Motorsports back?
Dustin Long: It’s nice start but it’s only two races. This is a long season. There are still many types of tracks and surfaces the series has yet to race on, so let’s not make declarative statements just yet.
Daniel McFadin: I’m cautiously going to say yes. It’s won four out of six stages so far, won one points race and one of the Daytona 500 qualifying races. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson has finished in the top 10 in each stage (plus he finished second in his 500 qualifying race). Take out his DNF in the 500 for a wreck and he’s on fire. Because asking if Hendrick Motorsports is back is the same as asking if Johnson is. And I think the definitive answer to that will come in Phoenix with the lower downforce package.
Jerry Bonkowski: Maybe not totally back, but certainly well on its way. And as I said in the prior question, if what we’ve seen from the four HMS drivers already continues or gets even better, this will be an organization that will have to be reckoned with. It’s rare that a four-car team can have all its teams be totally outstanding in the same season, but HMS is making its competitors stand up and take notice.
Nate Ryan: It’s early, but the team seems as good as it’s been in five years, and the decision to double down on improving the Camaro (a major spend with a limited ROI) should be viewed as a win for Hendrick and General Motors.