Status quo — Martin Truex Jr.’s victory in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 gave Joe Gibbs Racing its eighth win in 13 points races. JGR and Team Penske — the top two teams in the series — went 1-2-3 with Truex (JGR), Joey Logano (Penske) and Kyle Busch (JGR).
Hendrick Motorsports — Placed all four cars in the top 10 for the first time since Texas in April 2016. Chase Elliott was fourth, Alex Bowman placed seventh, Jimmie Johnson was eighth and William Byron finished ninth. This was Bowman’s fourth consecutive top-10 finish, the longest streak of his career.
Corey LaJoie — Finished 12th. That was his second finish of 12th or better in the past four points races for Go Fas Racing.
Those who don’t like the status quo — Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have won 12 of the first 13 points races of the season. When will someone keep both organizations from victory lane again?
Joe Gibbs Racing — The cars of Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr. and affiliate Matt DiBenedetto had tire issues that sent them into the wall. A Goodyear executive said that officials found that the tires went down as a result of over deflection from low pressures and high loads. The issues came a day after JGR drivers Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones also had tire issues in the Xfinity race.
Denny Hamlin — Placed 17th in the Coca-Cola 600. He’s finished 16th or worse in each of the last four points races.
Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?
Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.
Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.
Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.
No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.
The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.
Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.
Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.
LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.
The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.
The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.
— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)
— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.
— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).
— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.
— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.
3. So far so good on inspection
This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.
So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.
That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.
In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.
NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.
4. One or the other
Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.
They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.
The 2019 NASCAR season is now within view as we have entered the month of January.
That means a lot of highly anticipated changes in the sport will be visible on track.
Before we get to what to expect from each team specifically, here’s what Cup teams will be dealing with in 2019.
Inspired by what was used in the 2018 All-Star Race, the new rules package will feature a tapered spacer to control the engines instead of a restrictor plate. Teams will have 550 horsepower at tracks 1.33 miles and larger and 750 horsepower at tracks shorter than 1.33 miles.
Some crew chiefs, including Cole Pearn, have said the new package could result in racing that resembles what is seen in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
One team that will not be present this year is Furniture Row Racing, which ceased operations on its No. 78 Toyota after 2018 due to a lack of sponsorship.
Rick Ware Racing will field two cars with two charters. It has not announced drivers for either car.
Spire Sports + Entertainment will field the No. 77 with a charter purchased from Furniture Row Racing. A driver has not been announced.
Obaika Racing will field rookie Tanner Berryhill in the No. 97 in its first full-time season.
(Drivers are listed in order of their car number with where they finished in the points last year)
What’s new: Cassill is slated to compete full-time for StarCom Racing, which bought a charter from Richard Childress Racing. Cassill, with 29 starts, is the only driver with more than seven for the team.
What’s the same: StarCom will again compete with a Chevrolet model in its second full season of competition.
What’s new: Kurt Busch moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to replace Jamie McMurray, who drove the No. 1 for nine years. McMurray will be an analyst for Fox Sports. CGR will be the sixth team Busch has competed for in Cup.
What’s the same: Matt McCall is back to crew chief the No. 1 after four years with McMurray.
What’s the same: Crew chief Paul Wolfe and Keselowski enter their ninth season together. With the separation of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, that makes Wolfe and Keselowski the longest-tenured driver/crew chief pairing in the series.
What’s new: Dillon will have Danny Stockman Jr. as his crew chief, replacing Justin Alexander. Stockman is Dillon’s fourth crew chief in six full-time seasons in Cup. Dillon won a Xfinity and Truck Series title Stockman. Dillon will also have a new teammate in Daniel Hemric.
What’s the same: Dillon’s scheme for the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona will be a tribute to Dale Earnhardt’s scheme in the 1998 All-Star Race.
What’s new: Will enter his sophomore season under the guidance of Chad Knaus, the most successful active crew chief in NASCAR. This will be Byron’s first season in NASCAR without rookie stripes after previously competing in Xfinity and the Truck Series for just one season each.
What’s the same: Jeff Gordon is still the last (and only) driver to win in the No. 24.
What’s the same: Greg Ives returns as Bowman’s crew chief on the No. 88 Chevrolet.
No. 95 Matt DiBenedetto (29th)
What’s new: DiBenedetto replaced Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing after two years at Go Fas Racing. LFR will compete under the Toyota banner after being a Chevrolet team. Mike Wheeler will crew chief the No. 95.
What’s the same: 2019 will be LFR’s fourth full-time season in Cup. The team is winless since it first went Cup racing in 2011.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned in NASCAR, never say never. ‘Cause that’s a long time,” St. Hilaire said.
Thursday saw LaJoie, now 27, finally get to share “probably the best Christmas gift I’ve ever had.”
A week before he’s set to get married, LaJoie was announced as the next driver of the No. 32 Ford, a car previously driven by Matt DiBenedetto.
It’s the first time in LaJoie’s Cup career that he’s known in December that he’ll have a ride in February.
The new ride comes with other perks he’s never had in his last two years of Cup racing.
“A paycheck is good,” LaJoie said, referencing the 32 starts he made in 2017 with the now-defunct BK Racing.
“Engines that don’t blow up are good,” LaJoie said of his 23 starts in 2018 with TriStar Motorsports, where he had seven DNFs, five for expired engines.
But most importantly, LaJoie is set to be in the car for every points race for the first time. Not even his father can claim a full Cup season on his resume.
“Being in the car every week is going to be huge,” LaJoie said. “To work with the same group of guys, week in and week out where you can actually prepare, watch film, studying notes and then actually go from the first race of the year back for the second time is going to be huge. I think there’s nothing but positives here.”
That’s not an understatement for LaJoie.
Four years ago, he was a “development” driver (air quotes added by LaJoie) for Richard Petty Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“I was taking a different path. I just had to pay the bills,” LaJoie said. “They gave me a T-shirt and a backpack and paid me 40 grand a year and sat me on the couch for two years. They couldn’t find me any sponsorship. They put me in that (Biagi-DenBeste Racing) car. I tried to do too much. I didn’t realize the gap from a 15th-place car to a fifth-place car is as big as it is. Anytime up to that point in my career if we were 15th it was because I wasn’t driving it right or I wasn’t driving it hard enough.
“Knowing when to take a 15th-place car and finish 14th or 13th after a couple of guys wreck, I had to learn the hard way. I was lucky enough people saw the talent even when I was wrecking cars or putting myself in bad positions.”
LaJoie is also three years’ removed from being paid $500 to fly to the West Coast to be a crew chief on a K&N West team. He actually produced two wins in the series with David Mayhew, with one coming at Sonoma Raceway.
But Sundays were hard for the third-generation driver.
“There was times where Sunday nights where I was wondering what I was doing, if I should go back and start welding seats or go be a crew chief,” LaJoie said.
A path to the latter was provided at one point by one of the most successful crew chiefs in Cup history.
“Chad Knaus called me probably … four years ago now, wanting to stick me over and be a car chief (at JR Motorsports) working through that system,” LaJoie said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not ready to give up the driving thing yet.’ And it’s just worked out with different partners. I’ve surrounded myself with good people, and (it) ultimately gets me hooked up with Archie, and now we’re really going to make something happen here next year.”
And what happens after 2019 for an owner who wanted nothing to do with his new driver eight years ago?
St. Hilaire is taking it one year at a time.
“Everybody in our business we have a one-year deal, and I always say, ‘Let’s make sure we like each other,’ ” St. Hilaire said. “I do it in my regular businesses, because if it’s after one year and he doesn’t like me and I don’t like him or somebody doesn’t like anybody, I don’t want to drag anybody through a two- or three-year deal. Hopefully it’s many years, but at this point let’s try it and make sure we like it and move forward from there.”
For LaJoie, it will be his first full-time ride in NASCAR since 2012 in the K&N East.
“I need to be careful,” he said. “I might make a career of this thing before long.”