Jerry Bonkowski

Bump and Run: West Coast swing takeaways

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What are your takeaways from the West Coast swing?

Nate Ryan: Hendrick Motorsports is back. Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano are a winning combination. Joe Gibbs Racing needs to regroup but isn’t out of the ballgame by any stretch.

Dustin Long: How Goodyear’s ability to bring a tire that wears more is changing the game. Hendrick Motorsports’ performance. The speed of Martin Truex Jr.’s car and how he’ll be a factor once he avoids the various issues that plagued him. Harrison Burton’s performance in Xfinity, which included a win and three top fives during this swing.

Daniel McFadin: Despite Ford and Joey Logano winning two of the three races, it doesn’t feel like any team or manufacturer has an outright advantage over everyone else. The races at Phoenix and Auto Club had a distinct energy to them that they’ve lacked in general over the years. The season has a some momentum behind it, let’s hope it stays on track in Atlanta.

Jerry Bonkowski: First, we’re seeing Chevrolet teams starting to shake off the struggles of the new Camaro at Daytona and Las Vegas and are coming back to prominence quickly if Fontana and Phoenix are any indication. Second, Ford continues to show its mastery over Toyota and Chevy. This could be a huge season for Fords if the current trend continues. Lastly, Toyota is uncharacteristically struggling with little consistency between teams (other than perhaps Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin). 

 

Who scores their first career Cup win next: Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer or someone else?

Nate Ryan: William Byron.

Dustin Long: Matt DiBenedetto. He will give the Wood Brothers their 100th Cup victory.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. While DiBenedetto is the most experienced in Cup of the group, Byron has more time in quality equipment, from the Truck Series up through Cup. DiBenedetto hasn’t shown us a complete race in the No. 21 yet as he re-calibrates his talent and knowledge to what he has to work with.

Jerry Bonkowski: This is a tough question because all of the drivers listed have the ability, they just need some luck. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be Tyler Reddick. Even though he had a disappointing outing at Phoenix, he still has been the best-performing rookie in Cup this season and has even outshined his veteran teammate, Austin Dillon, at times. 

Do you think anyone will beat Kyle Busch to collect any of the bounties in the Truck Series this weekend at Atlanta?

Nate Ryan: No. Kyle Busch knows best when he says Kyle Larson is his main threat at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week later.

Dustin Long: No. Kyle Busch wins this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: My heart says yes, but my gut says no. Chase Elliott will be the primary challenger, but this will be his first Truck Series start since 2017. Meanwhile, Busch has won in five of his 11 Truck Series starts at Atlanta since 2005. Regardless, this is the most excited I’ve been for a Truck Series race not held on dirt or a road course since … let me get back to you on that.

Jerry Bonkowski: Unless Busch wrecks or suffers mechanical problems, I don’t believe anyone takes the bounty in Atlanta. Rather, I believe Kyle Larson has the best chance to do so the following week in Miami.

Bump and Run: Which team has stood out?

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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.

Bump and Run: What should be done with the Clash?

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What should be done to the Busch Clash: Eliminate it, change the format or keep it the same?

Nate Ryan: A new format is needed because (as Kurt Busch wisely noted) when an exhibition race billed as no-holds-barred devolves into an exercise of analytics and strategy, something is amiss. Either shorten it to a trophy dash-style distance as it originally was intended. Or turn it into a series of heat races, or better yet the first in a series of heat races over several days to eliminate the unnecessary down time and re-emphasize the qualifying races in Speedweeks.

Dustin Long: If there’s still a value in the event — and I have some questions about that — then the race should be at least 35-40 laps. It’s still short but it’s long enough that handling can play a role in the race. If you don’t want handling to be a factor than go shorter.

Daniel McFadin: Simple: make it shorter. 75 laps is too long and in no way does the event feel like an intense shootout. Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Chase Elliott‘s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, explained why for much of the race the Chevrolet teams were in their own group lagging behind the Ford and Toyotas. He said there was no reason to race then. Turn up the heat by turning down the lap total. And as Kurt Busch suggested, throw in cash rewards at certain lap intervals (which was done in the early days of the Busch Clash). 

Jerry Bonkowski: After 41 years, I think the Clash has run its course. As we saw Sunday, it almost always and needlessly destroys a number of good cars and doesn’t really serve a true purpose in that the winner – or anyone else in the race – gets little more than a trophy and cash for winning. They receive no points, no automatic berth in the Daytona 500 or anything else. What I would like to see is the Clash be eliminated and see the Duels take more prominence.

Name a driver who failed to make the Cup playoffs last year that you think will make the playoffs this year and why.

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson. Even if he doesn’t win, crew chief Cliff Daniels already has safeguarded the No. 48 against missing on points, and it just won’t seem right if the seven-time champion doesn’t have at least a shot at going out with an eighth title.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued with the combination of Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert at Roush Fenway Racing. The organization needs to take a step forward but these two can help lead that charge.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going with Jimmie Johnson. He and Cliff Daniels showed enough progress late last year that I believe they’ll have no problem making the playoffs in Johnson’s final full-time season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson will make the playoffs in his last season as a full-time Cup driver. After missing the playoffs last season, my sense is that Johnson, his team and all of Hendrick Motorsports will do everything they can to get the No. 48 into this year’s playoffs.

What do you think is the biggest change entering this season?

Nate Ryan: The schedule. The first warning will come next week as teams head directly to the West Coast instead of getting their usual breather of a short hop to Atlanta. Homestead-Miami Speedway will be another significant signpost next month, and the need for acclimation will continue to ratchet up (Indianapolis in July; two consecutive weeks off in midsummer) until the final 11 weeks, which will force completely new approaches with a new regular-season finale, two fresh cutoff races and a first-time championship at Phoenix.

Dustin Long: The schedule. For all the reasons listed by others here.

Daniel McFadin: The playoff schedule. It’s teed up by the regular season finale at Daytona and then we get a playoff run that includes: Darlington, Richmond, a little track called Bristol, the Roval, Talladega, a penultimate race at Martinsville and then the finale at Phoenix. If not for the third round featuring consecutive races on 1.5-mile tracks, I’d say that’s the best playoff lineup you could ask for.

Jerry Bonkowski: Not having one series entitlement sponsor for the first time since Winston came into the sport in 1971, followed by Nextel, Sprint and Monster Energy between 2004 and last season is the biggest change in my mind. Instead, there will be four sponsors who will share segments of this year’s season, while the overall series will be simply called the NASCAR Cup Series.

 

Who is your favorite for Cup Rookie of the Year?

Nate Ryan: He won’t be regarded as the favorite, but Tyler Reddick would be my pick.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell to win a close battle.

Daniel McFadin: My gut tells me Cole Custer. I have more confidence in Custer competing for an organization like Stewart-Haas Racing right now than Tyler Reddick at Richard Childress Racing or Christopher Bell at Leavine Family Racing, a satellite of Joe Gibbs Racing. SHR’s Cup operation is just stronger right now than the other two.

Jerry Bonkowski: This is a tough one. All three of the top rookies – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell – are worthy candidates. Reddick won six Xfinity races last season for Richard Childress Racing, but stepping up to the Cup Series is another story: RCR went winless in Cup last season, won just one race in 2018 and has only three total Cup wins since 2014. Reddick – and RCR – will have to take their game up several notches if Reddick is to win Rookie of the Year honors.

Bump and Run: Debating driver of the year for Cup, Xfinity, Trucks

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Who is your driver of the year in Cup?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Starting with his second Daytona 500 victory, he put together the best start-to-finish season of his career. Kyle Busch is a worthy champion, but many of the big moments in the 2019 season will be remembered as Hamlin’s.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. While his playoffs were underwhelming, he came through to triumph in Miami to win the championship. The title capped a season where he won the regular-season crown, captured five wins, scored 17 top-five finishes, had a series-high 27 top-10 finishes, won a series-best 12 stages and led a series-high 1,582 laps.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr. He won the most races (seven), the most races in the playoffs (three) and fought back to a second-place finish in Miami after his bizarre pit road miscue with his tires. While he didn’t win a title, he did pad the numbers he’s accumulated over the last four years, including his series-leading 23 wins (edging Kyle Busch by one).

Jerry Bonkowski: Sure, he struggled far too much, especially in the second half of the season, but when you win the regular season championship and the overall championship, it’s hard to vote against Kyle Busch.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Xfinity?

Nate Ryan: Tyler Reddick. Not because of his championship but the way that he did it. Becoming the first to win consecutive titles with different teams spoke volumes. 

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He had the most wins (eight), most laps led (2,003), most stage victories (22) and most top-two finishes (13).

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. I almost went with Cole Custer, who went from winning one race last year to seven this season. But Reddick showed you can win a championship and still vastly improve the next season, and he did it with a different team.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m going to go against the grain and pick Christopher Bell over two-time champ Tyler Reddick. I felt Bell was slightly more consistent, plus he had more wins than Reddick. Cole Custer had a very good season as well, but I think in the whole big scheme of things, my driver of the year was Bell.

 

Who is your driver of the year in Trucks?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch. In his incessant drive for perfection, this season (albeit heavily truncated) might be the closest he ever gets.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. Five wins in five starts. Led 575 laps, which was better than any other driver in the series except Ross Chastain. Busch ended with a 1.0 average finish. ‘Nuff said.

Daniel McFadin: Ross Chastain. He got a late start on the points race after he switched his declaration from Xfinity to Trucks after eight races has passed. Then he went on to make it to the Championship 4 despite not winning a playoff race.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though he came up a little short for a second straight championship, I’m picking Brett Moffitt. He was strong down the stretch, led all drivers in top fives (13) and was tied for most wins (4) with Austin Hill among series regulars.

Bump and Run: How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win?

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How many Cup championships will Kyle Busch win in his career?

Nate Ryan: He says he wants five, and I think he’s young enough to get there and has the chops to make Championship 4 consistently. It’s impossible to predict how many, though, because of the one-race showdown — as his 2019 title (which he won despite not having the best car) underscores. As long as he keeps putting the No. 18 in position, he should win at least one and probably two more before he turns 40.

Dustin Long: Three. This winner-take-all format just makes it so difficult for anyone to collect several series titles in a row. In the future, the gold standard for drivers will be three titles and Busch will get there.

Daniel McFadin: I think Busch can at least get to four titles before it’s all said and done. Repeating in this format is hard, he’s the first to do it in six years. But given that Busch has been in the Championship 4 in all but one year under the elimination format is evidence enough for me that if anyone can get more than two it’s him.

Jerry Bonkowski: At 34 years old and having won two titles in the last five years, I think it’s very possible Busch can win another two, maybe even three more championships in his career. Even though he’s now raced full-time in Cup for 15 years, he is so competitive that I don’t see him retiring for at least another 10 years. There’s lots of championship opportunities to be had in that period of time.

What will you most remember about the Cup championship race years from now?

Nate Ryan: The fastest car didn’t win because its pit crew put the tires on the wrong side. And the next strongest contender to the champion took itself out of the running because it asked a team member to do something extraordinarily difficult during the 12-second frenzy of the season’s most critical pit stop.

Dustin Long: The mistake by Martin Truex’s team with the tires and how sedate Kyle Busch’s demeanor seemed to be after he won his second series title. After being declared an underdog by many and ending a 21-race winless streak, one expected Rowdy to celebrate in a manner that would have included a bit more directed to those doubters.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire mishap. In almost 25 years of watching and six years of covering NASCAR I can’t remember that happening in a race. For something so fluky to hamper Truex’s championship chances is remarkable. It proves anything can happen in a winner-take-all race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was one of the calmest, most relaxed times I’ve ever seen Kyle Busch. He knew what was on the line and went out and simply did it. He didn’t get overly aggressive or tried to overdrive his car. He merely was patient, waited for the right opportunity, grabbed it for the taking at the right time and sailed on into the history books. One other thing: while the other three Championship 4 drivers and crew chiefs constantly talked about why they deserved to be the champs in interviews during the week leading up to the race, Busch and Adam Stevens were fairly quiet, didn’t fret about the 21-race winless streak and let their actions ultimately do the talking for them that needed to be done. That’s the way to do it.

Who wins a championship first: Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman or William Byron?

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as next year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Think Toyota’s advantage carries over to next year with many other teams more focused on preparing for the NextGen car in 2021. Hamlin will finally get his moment as a champion.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a tossup between Hamlin and Elliott. Aside from Hamlin’s winless season in 2018, he and Elliott at this point feel like the only drivers who can put together consistent seasons worthy of a championship. Elliott’s steadily improved over the last three years, winning six times, while Hamlin just produced his best year in a decade. My gut says Hamlin.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be the hardest question we’ve had all year because it could just as easily be phrased “who among these drivers will never win a championship?” You may be surprised at my answer, but I’m going with William Byron. I think another year or two with Chad Knaus and he’ll be ready to be considered a true championship contender. I’m less optimistic that any of the others will win a title any time soon.