Jerry Bonkowski

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.

Bump and Run: Who will win the Cup championship trophy?

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Who do you think will win the Cup championship Sunday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: It just feels like Denny Hamlin‘s year.

Dustin Long: I’m sticking with the pick I made before the playoffs of Denny Hamlin winning the title. Two wins and six top-five finishes in the playoffs shows this team is strong enough to win the title and Hamlin has erased any doubts of him handling the pressure on such a big stage. Come Sunday, NASCAR will celebrate another first-time Cup champion.

Daniel McFadin: Denny Hamlin. His hiccup at Texas aside, it’s felt like momentum’s been on his side this year starting with his Daytona 500 win, propelling him to his best season in nearly a decade. Hamlin just feels at ease this year, no matter what’s thrown at him. His performance on Sunday exemplified that.

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin. If there’s been one hallmark this season, it’s that he’s risen to the occasion when he needed to the most. I just get the feeling that after so many shortcomings in his career, this will finally be the year Hamlin comes through. All three of his challengers are former past champions. Now it’s the Virginia kid’s turn to shine in the Florida sun and earn his long overdue first championship.

Who do you think will win the Xfinity championship Saturday in Miami and why?

Nate Ryan: Christopher Bell. His team has had the most time to prepare and took advantage by leaving its car chief in North Carolina to work on its Toyota for the title.

Dustin Long: A year after finishing second to Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer returns to Miami to capture his first series tittle.

Daniel McFadin: Tyler Reddick. He’s won in every way imaginable this year and usually done it when he didn’t have the best car. The only difference between a potential title this year and last season is that it won’t be a surprise.

Jerry Bonkowski: Sentimentally, I’d like to see Justin Allgaier win. He’s kind of been the Denny Hamlin of the Xfinity Series, having come so close so many times, but never cashing in. But it’ll take a near-miracle for Allgaier to beat Christopher Bell in his Xfinity swan song. So, I’m picking Bell.

What is the more remarkable achievement: Joe Gibbs Racing tying Hendrick Motorsports’ record in the modern era of 18 wins in a season or JGR putting three drivers in the Championship 4 race?

Nate Ryan: Having three-quarters of the championship field in such a treacherous playoff structure might not happen again.

Dustin Long: Winning 18 of 35 races (and five of the nine playoff races) in what is supposed to be the most competitive era of the sport is the more remarkable achievement. JGR doesn’t place three of its drivers in the championship race without that season-long dominance that helped its drivers build playoff points and continue that success in the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: The 18 wins. Putting three drivers in the final is impressive, but it’s not completely a surprise because Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch have been three of the best drivers this year and make up 17 of JGR’s 18 wins. That they were able to reach 18 wins with Erik Jones only winning once is astounding.

Jerry Bonkowski: There wouldn’t be three JGR drivers in the Championship 4 if it wasn’t for their combined 18 wins (includes one win by non-finalist Erik Jones). The latter is obviously the most remarkable achievement.

Bump and Run: Does NASCAR need to make more judgment calls?

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Questions have been raised the past two Cup playoffs races about a driver spinning to create a caution. Does NASCAR need to do anything?

Nate Ryan: Establish some parameters and stick to them. Either everyone needs to know it’s OK to spin intentionally with a flat tire to cause a caution if it didn’t merit an initial yellow from the tower, or NASCAR needs to enforce its own rules on purposeful cautions with extreme prejudice. The best course of action is probably the former (for reasons that Tony Stewart and Kyle Petty have articulated well), but that message should be conveyed subtlely.

Dustin Long: The last thing NASCAR needs is an integrity issue in the playoffs, particularly with one race before the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship fields are set. In that light, it makes sense to do what some might say would be an overreaction and state that any driver that causes a caution that seems suspicious on any level will be dealt a minimum two-lap penalty. The topic at ISM Raceway or in the championship races in Miami can’t be about cautions that alter those races but the racing on the track.

Daniel McFadin: Only if NASCAR can determine the spin wasn’t done in an effort to prevent further damage to the driver’s car and others. Logano and Wallace had tires going down. If they keep going and don’t (allegedly) spin on purpose, it’s possible the tires cause significant damage to their cars, resulting in debris being distributed on the track and possibly damaging other cars.

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR has to remain vigilant and penalize drivers if there is enough reasonable suspicion that the spin was intentional. For example, with Bubba Wallace at Texas, it appeared he indeed had a tire going down. I didn’t see that as an intentional action, but something he couldn’t control. NASCAR did not think it was intentional, too, and as a result did not penalize him. If a driver intentionally spins, or gives the appearance he did so, NASCAR should have a driver pit his car immediately and have its pit officials examine tires to see if indeed there was an issue with the tires that led to the spin.

 

Which driver among those outside a transfer spot — Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott — do you believe has the best chance at ISM Raceway to advance to the championship race?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. Still feels as if it’s his year.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. Not going to bet against him and crew chief Chris Gabehart after all they’ve accomplished this season.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Blaney. While Kyle Busch won the spring race, Blaney led 94 laps, including 44 in the final stage before he was overtaken by Busch and finished third. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Denny Hamlin.

 

What do you make of these playoffs? Joey Logano scored his first top five of the playoffs at Texas but is in position to make it to the championship race, while Denny Hamlin has one win and five top fives and could fail to advance to the title race.

Nate Ryan: They’ve reaffirmed the importance of playoff points in the first two rounds, but also that they still can’t save a driver from a poor finish n the third round.

Dustin Long: Unpredictable. The playoffs have provided a roller-coaster of emotions and storylines. Kyle Busch benefitted from a strong regular season and remains in contention despite an underwhelming playoffs. The Hamlin-Logano storyline has added to the playoffs in the last couple of weeks. Who would have thought that the title race could have the same four drivers as last year?

Daniel McFadin: Chaos! I love it. These playoffs have followed no script you could have predicted before they started. Two playoff drivers got their first wins of the season during the postseason and they’re among the final eight. It’s not like last year where it was assumed the “Big 3” of Busch, Harvick and Truex would make it and they did. While Harvick and Truex are in, there’s genuine tension over whether Busch can do the same. I can’t wait to see how it goes down.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I believe in the sport’s integrity, I admit some fans may be turned off if Logano reaches Miami and Hamlin doesn’t based solely on wins this season or overall performance during the playoffs. And if Logano wins another championship while guys with more wins – Martin Truex Jr. (7 wins), Kevin Harvick (4 wins), Hamlin (5 wins) and/or  Kyle Busch (4 wins) fall short again – the Cinderella storyline can only go so far before it turns off more fans, as well.

Bump and Run: Will Kyle Busch make it to the championship race?

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Has your mind changed on if Kyle Busch will make it to the championship race after another subpar playoff performance?

Nate Ryan: It has in that — for the first time in the playoffs — he doesn’t seem a lead-pipe cinch to reach the title race. Being regular-season champion could afford Busch stumbles in the first two rounds with nary a concern, but the mediocre effort at Martinsville was stunning and leaves him vulnerable. He probably still gets through, but there surely is major focus within the No. 18 camp about buckling down at Texas and Phoenix.

Dustin Long: Not yet but there is some doubt creeping in. This has been a disappointing playoffs for the No. 18 team. Busch ranks last among the eight remaining playoff drivers in stage points scored in the postseason. He ranks last among the eight remaining playoff drivers in total points scored in the postseason. He ranks sixth among the eight remaining playoff drivers in average finish in the postseason. His best finish in the playoffs was second at Richmond, a race Joe Gibbs Racing dominated. Other than that, he’s had only one top-five finish in the playoffs. He’s simply not running better than his competition. Of course, if he can get to Miami, what he’s done in the playoffs doesn’t matters and it’s all about that one race.

Daniel McFadin: He’s on less sturdier ground than he was at the start of the playoffs, but Busch still has Phoenix ahead of him. Having won the last two visits there, he’s still a major threat.

Jerry Bonkowski: I still think Busch will point his way into the championship race, but if he has a bad outing Sunday at Texas, all bets are off that he’s a potential lock to make it to Miami.

Did NASCAR get it right in its punishment of one crew member in the Denny Hamlin-Joey Logano altercation

Nate Ryan: Yes. Crew members never should be allowed to put their hands on opposing teams’ drivers unless in self-defense or to keep their own drivers out of imminent and serious danger. Sunday didn’t meet either threshold.

Dustin Long: Yes. NASCAR needed to penalize the Team Penske crew member for tossing Denny Hamlin to the ground or it would have been a signal to all crew members that it’s OK to do such things to drivers. For all the talk about this being a team sport, the drivers are the show and they should be protected from being assaulted by opposing team members.

Daniel McFadin: I think it’s an adequate punishment that should get the message across to team members not to take it too far when wading into a pit road scuffle like in Martinsville.

Jerry Bonkowski: While Logano’s tire specialist, Dave Nichols Jr., was wrong in taking Denny Hamlin down to the ground, this was a much larger situation of unnecessary chaos between numerous members of both teams. It involved more than just Nichols. I think NASCAR should have penalized even more members from both teams, or at the very least, issued a very heavy financial penalty to both teams – maybe $100,000 each – for being involved in the skirmish and to prevent further similar situations.

 

Who would you take to win the title right now? Martin Truex Jr. or the field?

Nate Ryan:  The head says Truex. The heart says it’s still Denny Hamlin’s year.

Dustin Long: I picked Denny Hamlin at the beginning of the playoffs and will stick with that but Truex is making it harder to do so.

Daniel McFadin: I’m taking the field. My gut still tells me Denny Hamlin is the man to beat right now.

Jerry Bonkowski: While it’s hard to pick against Truex with a series-high seven wins, I’m going with the field – and specifically Denny Hamlin. I still think this is Hamlin’s year (and best chance) to win the championship. And if he falls short, he may ultimately go on to join several other NASCAR greats to never have won even one Cup championship.