With NASCAR off this weekend for Easter, we’re altering our weekly Power Rankings to focus on the best performing organizations in Cup through the first nine races of the season.
Here’s our picks:
1. Joe Gibbs Racing (40 points): Has won six of the first nine races, including the Daytona 500. Plus, they have the series-leading driver (Kyle Busch, three wins). If JGR continues to have the same success in the next nine races, it could make for a very, very long season for many other organizations.
2. Team Penske (36 points): The only other Cup organization to win a race (two by Brad Keselowski and one by Joey Logano). Organization has been competitive in almost every other race it hasn’t won. The only driver lacking is Ryan Blaney, who has yet to reach victory lane, but whose performance has also picked up in recent races.
3. Stewart-Haas Racing (32 points):Team that is best of the rest behind JGR and Penske. All four drivers have had strong performances at times, but inconsistency and pit road incidents have kept SHR from breaking through with its first win of the season. Could that winless streak finally end at Talladega?
4. Chip Ganassi Racing (26 points):The top Chevrolet team but still well behind the top organizations. If it wasn’t for Kurt Busch and his strong performance (three top fives and six top 10s) in his first season at CGR, this organization would be ranked significantly lower. And what has happened to Kyle Larson? He’s off to one of the worst starts of his career.
5. Hendrick Motorsports (23 points): What’s happened to the once titans of NASCAR? It almost seems like the same struggle virus that has infected Jimmie Johnson has spread to his teammates. Has shown signs of progress but plenty of work still remains.
6. Roush Fenway Racing (22 points):Ryan Newman is starting to hit his stride with his new team, including a pair of season-best ninth-place finishes at Bristol and Richmond, plus four other top-15 showings. But what about teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? He’s shown promise at times, but with just one top 10, how does the second quarter of the season bode for him?
7. Richard Childress Racing (17 points):Has shown speed at times but results haven’t always followed. Austin Dillon has the team’s only two top-10 finishes. Daniel Hemric has struggled in his rookie season, with a best finish so far of 18th.
8. JTG Daugherty Racing (9 points): Has shown improvement from last year. Chris Buescher has made some positive gains and Ryan Preece has looked good at times in his first season with the organization. But inconsistency continues to be a problem. What’s the answer?
(tie) 9. Wood Brothers Racing (6 points): Things are starting to come into their own for the single-car team (with an affiliation with Team Penske). Paul Menard has back-to-back top 10 finishes in his two most recent races (Bristol and Richmond) and is up to 16th in the Cup standings. If playoffs started today, Menard would be in.
(tie) 9. Germain Racing (6 points): Ty Dillon has had some solid performances for this one-car team, including a sixth-place finish at Daytona and three other top-15 finishes. But like JTG Daugherty, inconsistency remains an issue that needs to be addressed.
Other organizations receiving votes: Front Row Motorsports (5 points), Richard Petty Motorsports (2 points), Leavine Family Racing (1 point).
Friday 5: Will 2021 Cup schedule add more short tracks, road courses?
With the 2020 Cup schedule receiving positive reviews from many fans, the expectations for the 2021 schedule grow bigger.
While there will be talk of ending the season sooner, whether any tracks lose dates and if doubleheaders will be used more often, just as big of a question will be where the short track and road course events come from that fans want to see more of in the future?
Iowa Speedway could be an option. And there’s plenty of talk about Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. But are there others that are feasible and could make the upgrades necessary to host NASCAR’s top series?
What about road courses? Would Indianapolis Motor Speedway be better off holding its Cup race on the road course? Or would it make sense to put a Cup race at Mid-Ohio or Road America or Canadian Tire Motorsports Park?
There’s excitement with the 2020 schedule because NASCAR mixed up the races among the same tracks. That’s all NASCAR could do because the five-year sanctioning agreements with tracks go through the 2020 season. After that year, NASCAR has the ability to make more radical changes to the schedule.
Denny Hamlin says that as NASCAR looks at revamping the schedule, one thing must remain constant.
“I love the idea of more short track racing for sure,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “I just want to make sure that the tracks are investing the proper money to make sure their facilities are good.”
In other words, make sure there are premier facilities for the premier series in NASCAR.
“It’s hard to sell this is big time if it doesn’t appear that way,” he said.
2. Will Texas be a true indication of the top teams?
Now that teams have had a little time to take what they learned from the West Coast swing and work on their cars, will the gap between Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing to the rest of the field shrink?
NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton suggests on this week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan that some teams could close the margin.
“I heard Clint Bowyer make a comment on the West Coast swing and he’s like, ‘Look we know we’ve got to get better, but it’s going to be hard to do it now. There’s things that we can’t evolve in our cars, there’s not enough time,’ ” Burton said. “So I think potentially that Texas is a place where you can see not just Stewart-Haas Racing but other teams improve as well. … They learned at Vegas. They learned at Atlanta. They learned at (Auto Club), and I think you’ll see teams pop up.”
Among the teams to watch this weekend:
Will this be the weekend Stewart-Haas Racing scores its first victory of the season. The organization has had at least one car finish in the top five in each race since the Daytona 500.
Hendrick Motorsports has not had a car finish better than ninth at Atlanta (1.5-mile track), Las Vegas (1.5) and Auto Club Speedway (2-mile track) this season. Can that organization get a car into the top five at Texas?
Richard Childress Racing has shown speed — Austin Dillon won the pole at Auto Club Speedway and started fourth at Las Vegas — but can that translate into stronger runs? Dillon finished 20th Las Vegas and overcame illness to finish 10th at Auto Club.
JTG Daugherty Racing’s Chris Buescher placed ninth at Atlanta, 18th at Las Vegas and 16th at Auto Club Speedway. That’s been a good start for that organization but how much better can it be?
“We spent a lot more time, a lot of resources and at JTG getting everything ready to hit the ground running to make sure we were prepared for this season,” he said. “It worked out really good to start. We’ve got to stay ahead of it. I promise, nobody is sitting idle at this point. We’re still trying to figure out how to make our cars better each and every week.”
Now, if a car fails to record a lap in a round of qualifying because the team waited too long, the car will start at the back of the field.
With the draft still a factor, will the rule make much of a difference this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway?
“I don’t think it will be much different from what we’ve seen in the past,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports about what he expects qualifying to look like today. “I don’t know that it will be such a detriment to be the first car out because I think Turn 1 and 2, they are so quirky in the sense that it’s really one lane. I don’t know if you will want to be back in the pack or so.
“I think (Turns) 3 and 4 will be … more wide open and you’ve got all the grip you need so you want to be behind someone. I’m not sure you want to be behind someone in (Turns) 1 and 2. It’s such a flat corner. It really depends on whether that (traction compound) works the way we think.
“My general feeling is that teams will overreact and make sure we leave extra early, and then there will be an opportunity for us, the guys that really push the limit will get the pole, the ones that decide to lay back.”
4. Back behind the wheel
Greg Biffle, who last competed in Cup in 2016, ran 14 laps Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway in Kyle Busch’s truck. Biffle did this as preparation for the June 7 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race he’ll compete in for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He and Busch had talked for a while about doing this.
As of now, it’s a one-race opportunity.
“I could be talked into some more,” said Biffle, a former Truck and Xfinity series champion.
While he might consider running more Truck races, he’ll need to fit it into his schedule of racing.
He will compete in the SVRA vintage and historic event this weekend at Road Atlanta and a couple of others this season. He also will take part in four off-road competitions with his UTV sand drag.
He’ll also drive in the 24 Hours of Lemons race April 27-28 at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Those are races with cars that have been bought and track-prepared for $500 or less (not including safety equipment, brakes and wheels/tires).
“The last 24-hour race I did was the Rolex 24 in Daytona (in 2005 where his team finished 15th overall), so this will be a lot of fun,” Biffle said. “I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but it just sounded like a lot of fun.”
5. Racing for a bonus
The top four finishers in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway will qualify for the first Dash 4 Cash event the following weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The highest finishing eligible driver in a Dash 4 Cash race wins a $100,000 bonus. The four Dash 4 Cash races will be Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover. Also, any driver that collects points in the Cup series is not eligible to compete in Dash 4 Cash races.
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.
Chris Buescher was fastest in Saturday’s first Cup practice session at ISM Raceway, posting a top speed of 137.973 mph around the 1-mile track.
He recorded 28 laps in the session.
“Phoenix is a tough place for me, so I can’t thank this team enough for putting in the work to come here and unload with something that’s been fast,” Buescher told Fox Sports 1. “We’ve got speed in this thing. The long run is showing pretty good as well. Got to make it last a little bit longer. We’re hitting our 10th lap and starting to tail off more than we want to.”
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver will start 22nd in Sunday’s race. His teammate, rookie Ryan Preece, was 31st fastest in the session at 134.933 mph.