Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in seven national series races (should have gone seven for seven).
Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch easily. Of the seven races he entered, he won five and placed in the top three in the other two.
Jerry Bonkowski: With two wins and a third-place finish in the West Coast swing, there’s no other choice but Kyle Busch. Other drivers that had a good run include Kurt Busch (fifth-seventh-sixth), Joey Logano (one win, one runner-up and one 10th-place finish) and Kevin Harvick (two fourth-place finishes and a ninth-place).
Who had the worst West Coast Swing?
Nate Ryan:Ryan Preece. After three consecutive finishes outside the top 20 (while his teammate notched three straight top 20s), the outstanding showing at the Daytona 500 must seem much further away than a month ago.
Dustin Long: Those hoping the rule changes would dramatically alter the racing and alter who the best teams would be.
Daniel McFadin: Has anyone seen Ryan Newman? While his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has shown glimpses of improvement, including at Las Vegas, the No. 6 Ford has been missing in action. Newman’s West Coast Swing was made up of finishes of 24th (Vegas), 12th (Phoenix) and 22nd (Auto Club). He has no top 10s through five races.
Jerry Bonkowski: With finishes of 22nd (Las Vegas), 26th (Phoenix) and 30th (Fontana), Bubba Wallace ranks 30th after the West Coast swing. He’s way behind the eight ball after just five races. About the only chance Wallace has to make the playoffs is to get a win in the next 21 races.
If you were seeding the Cup field like the NCAA tournament, who would be your four No. 1 seeds after five races?
Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick.
Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick.
Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch
Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin.
Bigger Chevrolet surprise: That Kurt Busch has four consecutive top 10s or Hendrick Motorsports has no top fives this season?
Nate Ryan: Busch seemed reinvigorated toward the end of last season, and Chip Ganassi Racing made the necessary moves to shore up its performance this season, so while the No. 1’s consistency has been unexpectedly stellar, it’s less of a stunner than Hendrick. It’s been 19 years since the team went five races into a season without a top five. Yes, there’ve been flashes of speed by each driver, but the statistics don’t get any plainer than that. Hendrick will need to show it has made progress by Texas Motor Speedway next week.
Dustin Long: Kurt Busch. I like how this team has performed at the beginning of the season but Busch told me after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway that for all that has gone well for them with finishes, they need to qualify better to gain more stage points. He scored only four stage points during the West Coast races.
Daniel McFadin: Kurt Busch’s remarkable consistency. He entered a car that had just two top fives last year and matched it in the first four races. Last year, Busch didn’t earn his fourth top 10 until he placed second at Talladega in race No. 10. Hendrick is still working itself out of a rut that started two years ago.
Jerry Bonkowski: Tough question. Busch is the most pleasant surprise for Chevy, for sure. But Hendrick Motorsports is the biggest surprise overall – and that’s not a good thing – in the bowtie camp, as all four of its drivers are already more than 100 points behind points leader Kyle Busch after five races and Chase Elliott is the highest-ranked HMS pilot in 12th place.
Ryan: Which teams have mountains to climb after West Coast Swing?
As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.
Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?
Running through a few of them:
–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).
After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.
Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.
Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.
The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.
If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.
All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.
But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.
–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.
“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”
So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.
“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.
“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”
–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.
Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.
“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.
“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”
“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.
If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.
OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).
For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).
It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.
“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”
“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”
That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.
But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …
Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.
In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.
Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).
Two more points seem relevant:
–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.
–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.
Kyle Busch — Had it not been for a speeding penalty in the Cup race at Las Vegas and pit road penalty in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend, he would have swept the West Coast swing, winning all seven national series races.
Kurt Busch — His sixth-place finish marked his fourth consecutive finish of seventh or better.
Cole Custer — Last year, car owner Gene Haas said he needed to see Custer win consistently when there were questions about if Custer was ready to move to the No. 41 Cup car. Custer won Saturday’s Xfinity race with the help of new crew chief Mike Shiplett.
Spire Motorsports — It’s been tough for this new team, which came about after purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter. The team, which has had multiple drivers, has not had a finish better than 30th in the last four races. Sunday, the team placed 36th.
Kevin Harvick rallies to put forth another fourth-place effort
In a sport that is based so much on numbers such as elapsed time, speed and more, Kevin Harvick is becoming a walking, talking advertisement for the science of numerology.
Think about it: not only does Harvick drive the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford Mustang, he now has three fourth-place finishes in the first five races of the 2019 NASCAR Cup season.
Harvick had to work at it in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. He didn’t have the best or fastest car in the field, but constant adjustments by his team on pit road throughout the race kept improving the car, leading to its ultimate fourth-place showing.
“My guys did a great job,” Harvick said. “We didn’t have much that we thought was going well this weekend, but they made the car better and did a great job of keeping us in the game. It raced well and we had a great day on pit road. We overachieved today and I am really proud of everyone on the team for that.”
Harvick acknowledged he didn’t have much late in the race for eventual winner Kyle Busch, runner-up Joey Logano and third-place finisher Brad Keselowski, which is why he was so happy to put forth yet another fourth.
“I didn’t have anything for the Penske cars or the 18 car (Busch),” Harvick said. “They did a great job of racing hard all day and we made a lot out of the West Coast Swing with not very much. We have some work to do but we know you still have to go race. Our Jimmy John’s Ford Mustang was okay today and we got a decent finish.”
Harvick has earned fourth-place finishes at Atlanta, Las Vegas and now Fontana, sandwiched around a ninth-place showing at Phoenix, falling back from a potential top-five finish in the closing laps.
While he’d obviously love to reach victory lane, his fourth-place finishes have helped to keep him right in the middle of the points standings, leaving Fontana in third-place in the rankings, 24 points behind points leader Busch.
“We have done that four weeks in a row but when you come to this West Coast swing you have what you have and we left here with four top-10’s and three top-fives over the first five races.
“I am proud of everybody for that. It isn’t always going to be good. You have to try to figure out how to do things better when they aren’t going very good and our guys have done that.”