18 questions entering final 18 Cup races of the season

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Tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App) marks the beginning of the second half of the Cup season. So here are 18 questions for the final 18 Cup races of the season.

1. Will Jimmie Johnson win another race?

The Dover doubleheader is coming up on the schedule (Aug. 22 and 23) and that was the site of his last Cup win in 2017. Heading into tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway, Johnson’s winless streak is 112 races. His best finish this year is third at Bristol and the series will be back there in September in the playoffs.

2. Who will drive the No. 48 car in 2021?

There’s plenty of interest in this high-profile ride that has a full-season sponsor already in place. Will car owner Rick Hendrick go with an established star or pick a younger driver with plenty of potential? What Hendrick decides could greatly impact the upcoming Silly Season.

3. What will Silly Season be like?

Before the season, this was viewed as a year where Silly Season could overshadow most of what happens on the track. Ryan Blaney signed a contract extension with Team Penske in May. Alex Bowman signed a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports in May.

Among the drivers without announced rides for next season are Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto and Kyle Larson, who remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April.

Stewart-Haas is a wonderful organization,” Bowyer said this week. “I want to be there. I want to retire there, and I love the opportunity and the people behind it.”

Said Jones, who is battling for a playoff spott, this week: “I’ve had a really good relationship with (Joe Gibbs Racing) for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that.”

4. Will Ryan Blaney’s luck change?

He led 150 laps last weekend at Texas, won the first two stages but didn’t win the race when a caution came out at the wrong time. He finished seventh. He ranks third in laps led this season but has one Cup win. He could have a few more wins. Instead, those are playoff points lost. Will that hurt him later in the year?

5. Who is next to surprise?

Rookie Cole Custer scored a stunning win at Kentucky. Austin Dillon followed it up last weekend at Texas with the help of some decision-making at RCR’s command center. Both were outside a playoff spot before they won. Now they are in the playoffs. This marks the first time since 2017 that a driver outside a playoff spot won a race.

In 2014 and 2016, a record three drivers outside a playoff spot won a Cup race. Could there be a third such winner this year? Among those outside a playoff spot entering tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway are William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher.

6. Will Kyle Busch make it to the championship race a sixth year in a row?

One of the most intriguing elements this season has been Kyle Busch failing to win in the first half of the Cup season. He hasn’t even won a stage. He has no playoff points. He had the most playoffs points at the halfway mark of the season each of the past two years.

Busch has talked about the struggles at Joe Gibbs Racing this season and how the lack of practice has made it more difficult to fix the issues. With NASCAR announcing this week that it will go the rest of the season without practice and qualifying, Busch’s task has become more difficult.

7. What drivers in last year’s playoff could miss it this year?

Kyle Larson will since he’s not in the series. William Byron enters Kansas two points out of what would be the final playoff spot. Erik Jones enters Kansas outside a playoff spot. As does Ryan Newman, who missed three races because of his head injury suffered in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. He has a waiver and would make the playoffs should he win a race. Newman is too far back in points to make the playoffs that way.

8. Which will be more of a wildcard race: Daytona road course or Daytona oval?

Oh boy.

Drivers will have no practice before running the road course for the first time in Cup cars (same for Xfinity and Trucks). And the Daytona oval race is the final regular-season race, so desperation to make the playoffs will be high.

Both races in August could prove quite interesting.

9. Who will win rookie of the year?

Cole Custer has a win and is in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick has a rookie-high six top-10 finishes, including three in a row. Christopher Bell is showing signs of progress after a rotten start to the season. John Hunter Nemechek has had a few highlights this season.

This will be worth watching as the season progresses. Some are suggesting this could be among the best rookie crop in years.

10. How will NASCAR change the starting lineup draw?

With no qualifying, the random draw will remain. Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials were looking at changes to the draw once the playoffs begin. NASCAR has yet to announce its plans in this matter.

11. Martinsville moves to the final race before the championship. What type of chaos could be seen there?

Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff race saw Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano scuffle after the race. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. was upset with Logano for his bump-and-run to win. In 2017, Hamlin and Chase Elliott had a heated exchange after Hamlin’s contract wrecked Elliott late. In 2015, Matt Kenseth wrecked Logano in retaliation for an incident earlier in the playoffs at Kansas.

Now, Martinsville is the last race before the championship field is set? Safe to say plenty of tempers will be on display that day.

12. How big will the crowds be at upcoming races?

There will be no fans allowed tonight at Kansas. Next week’s race at New Hampshire can have up to 19,000. The following weekend features the Cup doubleheader at Michigan before no fans. The races at Daytona — both on the road course and oval — will have fans but no total has been announced. Nothing has been announced for the playoffs. Among the playoffs tracks is Bristol Motor Speedway, which hosted an estimated 20-25,000 for the All-Star Race earlier this month.

13. What happens if a playoff driver tests positive for COVID-19 in the playoffs?

NASCAR gave Jimmie Johnson a waiver when he missed Indianapolis for testing positive for COVID-19, but what happens if a playoff driver has to miss one or two races in a round? Will that driver be allowed to advance to the next round and just make one more driver advancing than scheduled?

14. How high a stack of pennies will Corey LaJoie have at the end of the season?

Corey LaJoie’s mantra is stacking pennies, meaning a little progress can grow into greater success over time.

He had seven top-20 finishes last year for Go Fas Racing. LaJoie already has six top-20 finishes this season. He’s stacked plenty of pennies so far.

15. Will Matt Kenseth be back after this season?

Kenseth was coy about that when asked about his future recently, saying he was focused on improved finishes. He has had four top-20 finishes in the last five races heading into Kansas. With the number of drivers available for next season, Chip Ganassi Racing could have many options.

16. Is this Kevin Harvick’s year to win a second Cup title?

He has had a fantastic season with four wins, a series-high 11 top-five finishes, including five in a row, and a series-best 15 top 10s. He’s finished in the top 10 in 83.3% of the races. Remarkable. So far so good.

17. Or is this Denny Hamlin’s year?

The Daytona 500 winner is tied with Harvick for most wins this year with four. Hamlin had a four-race streak of top-five finishes, including two wins, before struggles the past three weeks. Heading into Kansas, Hamlin has not finished better than 12th the past three races. Still, he has nine top-five finishes and 10 top 10s this year.

18. What about 2021?

NASCAR is working on a 2021 schedule. No date has been set on an announcement.

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