Friday, 04 January 2019 00:00

Russell Parker Column: 2019 NASCAR Season Preview

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Russell Parker breaks down the start to the 2019 NASCAR season. Russell Parker breaks down the start to the 2019 NASCAR season. Russell Parker - The Richmond Observer.

The 2018 NASCAR season was one of the best seasons in a long time. The season ended with Joey Logano hoisting the championship trophy which, unless you were a diehard fan, no one expected.

The stories told throughout season about Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr, aka “The Big Three”, dominated the rest of the field every week. Unfortunately, we also saw a championship team close its doors, and it was the first season without a Gordon, Earnhardt, or Stewart behind the wheel, names that are etched in stone.  

However, the young guns of today made their mark with the likes of Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon and Erik Jones at the forefront. And let’s not forget the changeup of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s configuration to the Roval, which made for some exciting racing. Oh, and “Slide job!” - Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 2019 season has a lot of hype coming into it and a lot of high expectations. With a new rules package coming into play, Ford changing from the Fusion to the Mustang, teams and drivers moving to new homes, the 41 weeks of racing will surely have something exciting to bring to the table from all three national series (which includes a new title sponsor for the Truck Series).

And it all begins and ends in Florida starting on Feb. 10 with the exhibition race, The Clash at Daytona, and finishing Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This article will be a preview of some of the drivers to keep an eye on with early predictions on where they will end their season in 2019, as well as a preview and predictions of the first 10 races of the season. So, let’s start those engines and begin the pace laps. NASCAR is almost back.

Drivers to watch out for: 

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing 

Furniture Row Racing ran its final race at the closing of the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With a valiant effort to ride into the sunset with a championship trophy, the Denver, Colo., based team came up short of that dream.

Truex will have to move past the emotions and start fresh with a new team. Replacing Daniel Suarez in the No. 19, Truex will have to prove that he can still wheel a car just as good as he has ever been able to. With the alliance that Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row had, it should come off as a no brainer that Truex won’t lose a step. He will also be teammates with Kyle Busch, another championship team, Denny Hamlin, and Erik Jones, which could see both positives and negatives for a driver who just left a one-car team.

Prediction: Truex will be among the Championship 4 once again for the third year in a row. His consistency has been stellar for the past two seasons with 12 combined wins, 39 top-fives, and an average finish of 10.05. Truex was perhaps third among “The Big Three”, but with the full backing of JGR, he will keep his name in conversation as 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing 

Whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that the Las Vegas native can get the job done week in and week out. Busch is always a favorite at any track on any level of racing. Busch does not hesitate to express his opinion or his emotions, and he’s not afraid to bump you out of the way on the track.

Chase Elliott may have won the Most Popular Driver Award, but if you ask folks who is the first active driver to come to mind, it is going to be Busch more often than not. In 2018, Busch went out to dominate and he did just that with eight wins, 22 top-fivess, and an average finish of 8.3. Also a part of The Big Three, Busch could argue that he led that pack all season.

Prediction: Busch will not only make it to Homestead-Miami in 2019, but he will be Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion. The black hat of the sport will be on a mission to avenge his fourth-place finish in the standings in 2018. Winning the title again would make him the first and only driver to win two championships under the current playoff format, and Busch loves to be first in everything.

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports 

The Most Popular Driver Award has been named to either an Earnhardt or an Elliott since 1991, and Chase Elliott will most likely continue to hold that case to be true until his retirement. But the Georgia native is not thinking about retirement or winning the Most Popular Driver Award until the end of time.

The son of former champion Bill Elliott is looking to grab a series title of his own in 2019. Coming off his best season yet in 2018 with three wins, Elliott has perhaps been the most improved driver of the season. Since his rookie season in 2016, Elliott has had a rocky start to his Cup career, but the 2018 season saw a surge midway in the season and ever since his victory at Watkins Glen, he has been at the forefront of conversations in the world of sports.

Prediction: The Championship 4 will be as far as Elliott goes in 2019, and that is going to be a huge deal. However, going up against the likes of Busch and Truex Jr., the battle will be difficult for the inexperienced 23-year-old and every driver who has went on to win a championship has had a rough ending to their season. For Elliott to have this happen early on his career, he will be on his way to future titles a lot sooner than later.

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports 

Many wonder if 2019 will be “Seven Times’” final season, or perhaps he may have an eighth championship in mind for this year. Johnson has won a race every year since his rookie season began in 2002. But that streak ended in 2018 coming up with a winless season and posting just 11 top-tens and 40 laps led, a major drop from his Championship 2017 season which saw three wins and four top-fives.

On top of the performance issues, the No. 48 team parted ways with its longtime and iconic sponsor, Lowe’s, which had been with the team since 2001 and has been with Johnson through every victory and championship.

Prediction: Johnson will win the Daytona 500. Through all the bad luck the No. 48 driver has seen in the past few years at the super speedway, he will overcome that and start his season with one big victory, and he will find himself going as far as the Round of 12 in the Playoffs.

Hendrick Motorsports has shifted its focus to developing its younger talent. Johnson is the only veteran driver left and there is no doubt he has shifted himself to be a mentor to the likes of Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron. 

Johnson will not retire in 2019 as others have suggested. At least not yet. He is only three years away from hitting 20 years of racing in Cup full time. He will continue to stay on the track and help develop his teammates further to ensure that HMS stays in NASCAR as one of the top teams in the sport.

Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing

The final third of The Big Three went to victory lane eight times in 2018 and put on a clinic with each of those victories, totaling 1,990 laps led, which is roughly 20 percent of the entire season. Harvick was the favorite to win the championship last year, and he is again according to the odds in Las Vegas. 

The Bakersfield, Calif., native will have to believe in his confidence to be a two-time champion. It is obvious why Jimmy John’s is the sponsor of the No. 4 car, because it is freaky fast. There will be many races in 2019 that will read that slogan on the rear bumper as he continues with business as usual.

Prediction: Harvick will be the final piece of the Championship 4 puzzle in 2019. Harvick will snag the most victories of the season, as well totaling at least 10 victories. Ford has also changed bodies from the Fusion to the Mustang, which could be the only factor that keeps Harvick from having a dominant season if the teams do not get a grasp on their handling much like we saw those in the Chevy camp struggle with the new Camaros in 2018. But even so, Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, will figure it out first.

Races to watch in the first 10 races 

Daytona 500, Feb. 17 

The Super Bowl of stock car racing is always the most anticipated race of the season, but this year could be a big race. Joe Gibbs Racing will have a powerhouse of four drivers this year and all can run up front and dominated, but with the new Ford Mustangs hitting the track in the first points race of the season, they could help give Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing an edge, or they could flop depending on how they handle.

Expect these three teams to dominate early in the race, but don’t think they have it in the bag. This is Daytona after all, where the big one almost always pops up, and neither of these teams like each other. Expect to see some dicey moves. Since Johnson is the predicted winner of this race, he, Elliott, and the rest of the Hendrick team will likely run close to the front waiting for the right moment to make their move as pack racing is a multi-car effort.

Martinsville, March 24 

While ISM Raceway will be the first short track on the schedule, Martinsville will be the first to show traditional short track racing. The last race back in September ended with Logano and Truex Jr. battling for the win and for a guaranteed shot at the Championship.

This spring race will probably not be as impactful as the fall race, but it can be the setup that gives some drivers their best chance to make the playoffs. Every driver has his strengths and many of them will say short track is their best.

Truex, Logano, Busch and Brad Keselowski will be your favorites to win this race, but don’t count out Elliott who has made impressive moves on this track in the past with a pair of top-tens from last year and top-fives two years ago.

Richmond, April 13 

This race typically sees a lot of big moves and lead changes and a variety of winners. While Busch had swept both races in 2018, there have been 10 different winners since the 2018 spring race. The three-quarter mile track has always been known for its fast speed short track action and that mix can be a favorite for many drivers, but Busch has been impressive here so from a prediction standpoint, it is hard to bet against him.

Predicting the winners of the Clash and the first 10 races of the 2019 regular season 

The Clash at Daytona (non-points race): Denny Hamlin

  • Daytona: Jimmie Johnson
  • Atlanta: Kevin Harvick
  • Las Vegas: Kyle Busch
  • ISM (Phoenix): Kevin Harvick
  • Auto Club (Fontana): Kyle Larson
  • Martinsville: Chase Elliott
  • Texas: Kevin Harvick
  • Bristol: Kyle Busch
  • Richmond: Kyle Busch
  •  Talladega: Brad Keselowski
  • Last modified on Saturday, 05 January 2019 00:40

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