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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.

William Byron checks off painful box on offseason to-do list

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Like many of his fellow NASCAR Cup peers, William Byron has used the off-season to get things done before heading to Daytona in a few weeks.

But while it had to be done, we have a hunch Byron wasn’t exactly looking forward to what he had to do Thursday morning: having his wisdom teeth pulled.

The 21-year-old Byron, who enters his sophomore season in NASCAR Cup with Hendrick Motorsports this season, took to Twitter on his way home after undergoing the painful procedure.

Check out Byron’s tweet, as well as some of the replies from several very empathetic followers:

 

Five intriguing changes for NASCAR in 2019

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The 2019 NASCAR season is one of significant change.

From a multitude of drivers and crew chiefs switching teams to a brand new rules package in the Cup Series, the NASCAR we’ll see in action in February will be a far cry from what we saw in November.

 

Which changes have us the most eager to get the season underway in 31 days?

Same Team, Different Car

How long will it take before Chad Knaus accidentally visits the wrong hauler during a race weekend?

It seems like a plausible scenario given that NASCAR’s most successful crew chief of the 21st Century is working on a car not driven by Jimmie Johnson for the first time since 2001.

2019 sees Knaus instead shepherding the sophomore effort of fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron in the No. 24 Chevrolet.

Meanwhile, Johnson and the No. 48 team will head to Speedweeks in Daytona with Kevin Meendering as its crew chief. After three years working with Elliott Sadler in Xfinity, Meendering gets his first shot in Cup with a seven-time champion near the end of his career.

It truly is a brave new world.

Old School Sonoma

A Cup Series road course will see a major change to its circuit this year.

No, Watkins Glen is not going to run “the Boot.” But Sonoma Raceway is bringing back “the Carousel.”

Almost lost in the hoopla of the inaugural race weekend on the Charlotte Roval last year was a press conference announcing the course alteration for Sonoma’s June 21-23 Cup race weekend.

The move, made to commemorate the track’s 50th anniversary, returns the track to its original 12-turn, 2.52-mile layout.

Cup races used “the Carousel” until 1998, but that was on a 1.99-mile layout. IndyCar also raced on “the Carousel.”

You can see the revised layout below.

 

Graphic courtesy Sonoma Raceway.

 

Ryan Preece

In the Cup Series’ rookie class for 2019, Ryan Preece stands out in a significant area.

He’s actually won a NASCAR race.

While Matt Tifft, Daniel Hemric and Tanner Berryhill have never visited victory lane, the new driver for JTG Daugherty Racing enters this season with two Xfinity Series wins. Both came on short tracks at Iowa and Bristol Motor Speedway.

MORE: Ryan Preece turns the page on his career

Those two oval wins are more than the number earned by the driver he replaces in the No. 47 Chevrolet. AJ Allmendinger ended 2018 with three NASCAR wins, but all came on road courses.

Preece hasn’t competed in Cup since he ran five races in the series in 2015, but it will be interesting to see what the 28-year-old can muster in a rookie campaign that coincides with the introduction of a rules package intended to create closer racing.

Restrictor Plates-ish

The 2019 rules package – complete with a tapered spacer – will make its superspeedway debut with the season’s first visit to Talladega Superspeedway in April.

This is significant because it will be the first NASCAR race on a superspeedway without a restrictor plate since 1988.

While the tapered spacer is meant to serve the same, but more efficient purpose of the restrictor plate, we won’t know how it performs until the series visits Alabama. Taking into account how Stewart-Haas Racing dominated at Talladega last October, it will be interesting to see what kind of race unfolds.

Fewer Cup-backed cars in Xfinity

The Xfinity Series will have a little bit less competition in 2019.

A full field will now consist of 38 cars, down from 40. But the series will also have less of a Cup Series influence.

There will be two less Cup-backed teams in the series with Roush Fenway Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing shutting down their Xfinity operations. Roush fielded two cars in 2018 with the No. 16 and No. 60 while Ganassi was set to field Ross Chastain in the No. 42.

Richard Childress Racing will not have just one full-time driver in the series with Tyler Reddick in the No. 2 Chevrolet. They’re expected to field a second car with the No. 21.

Just two years ago RCR fielded as many as five cars throughout the season.

MORE: Five Can’t Miss NASCAR Cup Races in 2019 Beyond the Daytona 500

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Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports dominate Lionel’s best-selling diecasts for 2018

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2018 was a really good year for Hendrick Motorsports — on the diecast market.

Lionel Racing revealed Tuesday that despite having its fewest Cup wins in 25 years, Hendrick Motorsports dominated its top 10 best-selling diecasts last year.

Anchored by five Chase Elliott diecasts, HMS claimed the top eight spots.

Elliott, who scored Hendrick’s only three Cups wins and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver, tops the list with his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet.

All three of Elliott’s race win diecasts are on the list, with his first career Cup win at Watkins Glen coming in at No. 2.

Hendrick is represented by all four of its drivers on the list with Jimmie Johnson, William Byron and Alex Bowman each having one diecast in the top 10.

Kyle Larson‘s No. 42 Credit One Chevrolet is eighth and Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Busch Beer Ford is 10th.

Here’s the full list:

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JR Motorsports announces driver, crew chief lineup

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JR Motorsports announced Monday the driver, crew chief lineup for its four Xfinity Series entries this season, including two returning drivers.

The entries include the full-time efforts of veterans Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett, in addition to rookie driver Noah Gragson.

Alllgaier, the senior driver with the team at four years, will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet under the direction of crew chief Jason Burdett, who has led the team since 2015.

At 32, Allgaier is the oldest driver at JRM. He’s older than Annett by 18 days.

Annett is back in the No. 5 Chevrolet for his third season with the team. He is paired with crew chief Travis Mack, who took over crew chief duties on the No. 5 for 13 of the last 14 races in 2018.

Gragson makes the move to the Xfinity Series after two seasons in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Gragson will step into the No. 1 Chevrolet to replace Elliott Sadler who stepped away from full-time racing after 2018. Gragson will have crew chief Dave Elenz and the crew that worked with champion Tyler Reddick in 2018 on the No. 9 team.

The No. 9 team will be a multi-driver effort this season anchored by eight races with Zane Smith in the cockpit. The team will be led by first-time crew chief Taylor Moyer. Moyer joins JRM after four years with Hendrick Motorsports as a race engineer for Kasey Kahne and William Byron.

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