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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

J.D. Gibbs dies at 49

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J.D. Gibbs, the oldest son of car owner Joe Gibbs, died on Friday from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease, the team announced. J.D. Gibbs was 49.

The family revealed in March 2015 that J.D. Gibbs was suffering from brain-function problems but that doctors had no clear answer for it.

J.D. Gibbs celebrates a win by Denny Hamlin in the 2015 All-Star Race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

J.D. Gibbs was the president of Joe Gibbs Racing at the time, having done a variety of roles, including working on a pit crew with the organization.

“J.D. gains his strength from the fact that he has a personal relationship with the Lord, and I have got to tell you that he’s my hero when I kind of watch him,” Joe Gibbs said in 2015 at Martinsville Speedway. “I don’t know that anybody has ever deal with anything as courageous as J.D. does. He went through a situation with his son Taylor having leukemia at 2, and we fought through that for about three or four years … J.D. through his entire life has probably been the most courageous person that I’ve ever been around or knew.”

J.D. Gibbs was instrumental in helping Denny Hamlin join the organization when Hamlin was racing Late Models. Hamlin’s Xfinity car in last year’s race at Darlington Raceway honored Gibbs. Hamlin’s car was made to look like the car Gibbs drove in four Xfinity races in 1998.

Hamlin has displayed Gibbs name on the side of his car since the 2017 Daytona 500.

After winning the 2016 Daytona 500, Hamlin spoke of J.D. Gibbs: “He’s the guy that took a chance on me. This is the biggest win of my life. He’s not at every race. But to have him here with me today, that’s just how it was supposed to be, wasn’t it?”

In the tweet below from last year, Hamlin explained what J.D. Gibbs meant to him.

J.D. Gibbs was there at Joe Gibbs Racing from the beginning. He was named the organization’s president in 1997 and led the company from 2004-08 when Joe Gibbs returned to coaching in the NFL. Along with Hamlin, the company added Kyle Busch during J.D. Gibbs’ tenure.

Born Jason Dean Gibbs on February 21, 1969, J.D. as he became known, always had an outgoing personality and beaming smile. From 1987-’90, Gibbs played defensive back and quarterback at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

The father of four boys with his wife Melissa – Jackson, Miller, Jason, and Taylor – Taylor was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in 2007 at age 2. At age 5 in 2010, Taylor underwent his final chemotherapy treatment.

Jim France interim NASCAR Chairman and CEO, issued a statement on Gibbs:

“We were privileged to watch J.D. Gibbs grow within the sport, displaying an endearing personality, a keen eye for talent and the strong business acumen that helped grow Joe Gibbs Racing into a preeminent NASCAR team. The NASCAR family has lost a truly special member. On behalf of NASCAR and the France family, I extend my deepest condolences to Joe Gibbs, Pat, Melissa, Coy and the entire Gibbs family.”

Kelly Crandall and Daniel McFadin contributed to this report. 

Milestones Cup drivers could reach in 2019

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NASCAR Cup drivers have many milestones ahead of them in 2019.

Here is a look at some that could be reached this season:

Wins

Jimmie Johnson has 83 victories and is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list. His next victory will tie him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison in fourth. Johnson was winless in 2018, the first time he ran a full Cup season without a victory.

Since winning in his rookie season of 2005, Kyle Busch has never failed to find Victory Lane in the Cup series – a streak of 14 seasons. He’s also had great success in the Xfinity and Truck series. Busch is six total wins away from achieving 200 victories across NASCAR’s top three divisions. Busch has 51 Cup wins, 92 Xfinity wins and 51 Truck wins.

Kevin Harvick is five wins away from joining the exclusive 50-win club that has 13 members. Johnson and Busch are the only active drivers with more than 50 Cup wins.

Hendrick Motorsports looks to extend its streak of consecutive seasons with a Cup win to 34 this year.

Last year Erik Jones and Chase Elliott won, marking three consecutive seasons in which drivers scored career-first victories. That was the longest streak since 2005-2007. The last time at least four consecutive seasons highlighted first-time winners was from 1994-2003.

Top 5s

Jimmie Johnson is seven top fives away from tying Lee Petty for 10th on the all time list with 231.

Kevin Harvick is nine away from achieving 200 top fives.

Top 10s

With four top 10s, Clint Bowyer will become the 37th driver to crack the 200 mark.

Kurt Busch is 20 away from achieving 300 top 10s, which will make him the 21st driver to do so.

Jimmie Johnson has the most top 10s among active drivers with 352 (11th on the all-time list). With nine top 10s he will tie Terry Labonte in 10th.

Kevin Harvick (336) could become the active driver with the most top 10s if he earns 16 more than Johnson.

Poles

Since winning his first pole in the spring Bristol race of 2010, Joey Logano has earned at least one per year. In 2019, he looks to extend his streak to 10 consecutive seasons. Last year, he earned only one pole at Kansas in the fall.

Chase Elliott has won at least one pole in his first three full-time seasons at the Cup level, but he has never earned more than two in a year.

Career Starts

Kurt Busch has 648 starts, which places him currently 23rd on the list. If he makes all the races in 2019 he will pass Dale Earnhardt Sr. and move to 18th on the list.

Kevin Harvick (646), Ryan Newman (620) and Jimmie Johnson (615) also have more than 600 starts.

Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman each have 612 consecutive starts to start the season, which ties them for ninth on the list. If they make nine more consecutive starts they will catch Mark Martin. With 16 more consecutive starts, they will catch Jeff Burton. If both Johnson and Newman make all of the races in 2019, they will end the season tied for sixth with Dale Earnhardt Sr. (648).

Assuming the following drivers make all of the races, this is when they should reach their respective milestones:

500th

Kyle Busch: Feb. 24th at Atlanta
Martin Truex Jr.: Aug. 11 at Michigan
Denny Hamlin: Oct. 6 at Dover
Clint Bowyer: Oct. 13 at Talladega

300th

Michael McDowell: June 9 at Michigan
Aric Almirola: July 21 at New Hampshire

200th

Austin Dillon: March 31 at Texas
Kyle Larson: June 30 at Chicagoland

100th

Ty Dillon: April 28 at Talladega
Erik Jones: Sept. 1 at Darlington
Daniel Suarez: Sept. 21 at Richmond

Here’s what is new in 2019 for Cup teams

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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.

Teams

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)

No. 00 Landon Cassill (57th)

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.

 

Chip Ganassi Racing

No. 1 Kurt Busch (7th)

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.

 

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (8th)

What’s new: Keselowski will have a new spotter after the departure of Joey Meier.

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.

 

Photo: Daniel McFadin

No. 3 Austin Dillon (13th)

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.

 

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (3rd)

What’s new: Harvick will have Hunt Brothers Pizza as a primary sponsor after years of support in the Xfinity Series. He will also have a new Mobile 1 paint scheme.

What’s the same: Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers enter their sixth year together at Stewart-Haas Racing.

 

No. 6 Ryan Newman (17th)

What’s new: Newman replaces Trevor Bayne and Matt Kenseth in the No. 6 Ford after five years with Richard Childress Racing. Scott Graves will be Newman’s crew chief.

What’s the same: The No. 6 team enters the season looking for its first win since 2011.

 

Richard Childress Racing

No. 8 Daniel Hemric (2019 is rookie year)

What’s new: Hemric moves up to Cup after two years with Richard Childress Racing in the Xfinity Series. He steps into what was No. 31 car.

What’s the same: Luke Lambert returns as crew chief for the operation after five years working with Ryan Newman.

 

No. 9 Chase Elliott (6th)

What’s new: Chase Elliott enters the Cup season as the Most Popular Driver for the first time in his career after he earned his first three series wins in 2018.

What’s the same: Will have the same set of three Hendrick teammates for consecutive seasons for the first time in his Cup career.

 

No. 10 Aric Almirola (5th)

What’s new: Enters the season having won a race the previous year for just the second time in his career.

What’s the same: Johnny Klausmeier will crew chief the No. 10 for the second year.

 

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (11th)

What’s new: Will be paired with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who replaces Mike Wheeler after Hamlin went winless for the first time in his Cup career in 2018.

What’s the same: Entering his 14th full-time year with Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s the team’s senior driver by two years over Kyle Busch.

 

No. 12 Ryan Blaney (10th)

What’s new: Blaney enters 2019 as the only Team Penske Cup driver without a championship after Joey Logano won it last year.

What’s the same: His mustache is still better than yours.

 

No. 13 Ty Dillon (27th)

What’s new: Germain Racing is moving its shop to Richard Childress Racing’s campus in Welcome, North Carolina.

What’s the same: Germain remains a member of RCR’s technical alliance.

 

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (12th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced

What’s the same: Bowyer will be paired with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz for a third year.

 

No. 15 Ross Chastain

What’s new: Chastain will moonlight in the Xfinity Series full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing.

What’s the same: Returns to Premium Motorsports full-time in Cup.

 

No. 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (18th)

What’s new: Will have veteran Ryan Newman as his teammate, replacing Trevor Bayne in the No. 6 Ford.

What’s the same: Stenhouse remains winless on non-restrictor plate tracks in his Cup career.

 

No. 18 Kyle Busch (4th)

What’s new: Is scheduled to make his 500th Cup start in the Feb. 24th race at Atlanta. Will have a new teammate in the form of 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr.

What’s the same: Will have Adam Stevens as his crew chief, marking their fifth year together in Cup.

 

(Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. (2nd)

What’s new: Will compete for Joe Gibbs Racing after the closing of Furniture Row Racing. He replaces Daniel Suarez.

What’s the same: Truex is joined at Joe Gibbs Racing by crew chief Cole Pearn.

 

No. 20: Erik Jones (15th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced.

What’s the same: Jones will have Chris Gayle as his crew chief for the third consecutive year.

 

No. 21 Paul Menard (19th)

What’s new: No major changes have been announced

What’s the same: The world is still deprived of a Paul Menard Twitter account.

 

No. 22 Joey Logano (1st)

What’s new: Like every other Ford team, will have to adjust to the new Mustang body after winning the title with the Fusion

What’s the same: Enters his seventh Cup season with Todd Gordon as his crew chief.

 

No. 24 William Byron (23rd)

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.

 

Photo by Daniel McFadin

No. 32 Corey LaJoie (34th)

What’s new: LaJoie, who got married on New Year’s Eve, is set to compete in his first full-time Cup season with Go Fas Racing, replacing Matt DiBenedetto. LaJoie will be paired with crew chief Randy Cox.

What’s the same: Go Fas Racing is still a small operation with 17 employees.

 

No. 34 Michael McDowell (26th)

What’s new: No major changes announced

What’s the same: Front Row Motorsports remains with Ford.

 

No. 36 Matt Tifft (Rookie year)

What’s new: Joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car after multiple seasons in the Xfinity Series. Tifft got engaged over the offseason.

What’s the same: Tifft enters the season with no victories in 102 starts in the Xfinity and Truck Series.

 

No. 37 Chris Buescher (24th)

What’s new: Will have a new teammate in rookie Ryan Preece, who replaces AJ Allmendinger. Allmendinger is now an analyst for NBC Sports.

What’s the same: Winless since he won at Pocono in 2016 with Front Row Motorsports.

 

No. 38 David Ragan (25th)

What’s new: No major changes announced

What’s the same: Enters sixth full-time season with Front Row Motorsports, making him the team’s longest-tenured driver.

 

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

No. 42 Kyle Larson (9th)

What’s new: A new teammate in Kurt Busch, who takes over for Jamie McMurray, who had been Larson’s only teammate in Cup so far.

What’s the same: Larson will compete on dirt whenever he’s allowed to.

 

No. 43 Bubba Wallace (28th)

What’s new: Wallace will be without sponsor Click n’ Close after just one year.

What’s the same: Richard Petty Motorsports remains in a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing.

 

No. 41 Daniel Suarez (21st)

What’s new: Suarez replaces Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing after two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

What’s the same: Suarez and the No. 41 will be sponsored by Arris.

No. 47 Ryan Preece (2019 is rookie year)

What’s new: Preece moves to Cup full-time after two years in Xfinity racing part-time for Joe Gibbs Racing. JTG Daugherty Racing will now receive engines from Hendrick Motorsports.

What’s the same:JTG Daugherty Racing continues a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports.

 

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (14th)

What’s new: Johnson will have a new primary sponsor for the first time in his Cup career with Ally Financial and a new crew chief in Kevin Meendering, who replaces Chad Knaus.

What’s the same: Johnson remains the only active Cup driver with multiple championships.

 

No. 88 Alex Bowman (16th)

What’s new: In his second full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports, Bowman can no longer be mistaken for a rookie. Bowman will sport a new Nationwide paint scheme this season.

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.

 

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