(Via LAT Photographic/autoweek.com)
Finally, the 2019 NASCAR season is upon us. The Great American Race is this Sunday. Now, while the offseason is the shortest of any sport, that doesn't mean that we haven't had some intriguing storylines building for this season. Here are some narratives to watch out for in 2019.
Can the Big Three continue their dominance?
There's 36 races in every NASCAR season. In 2018, Kevin Harvick (8 wins), Kyle Busch (8 wins), and Martin Truex Jr (4 wins) combined to win 20 of them. The three of them, along with Joey Logano, made it to the Final Round of the Chase last season. When the new season begins, will the Big Three continue dominating?
Prediction: No. Busch and MTJ are teammates now, so it's hard to imagine they'll be going all out competing for wins. Except for Busch, he'll probably wreck every other driver on his team to move up to 3rd or something.
Will Jimmie Johnson bounce back?
Jimmie Johnson is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Despite that, his 2018 season was (and it hurts me as a huge Johnson fan to say this) terrible. Firstly, he didn't win a single race, despite coming very close at the Roval. He barely snuck into the Chase. He set career lows in wins, laps led, top 5s, and top 10s. Not only that, he lost his Crew Chief, Chad Knaus, and the iconic Lowe's sponsorship, both after a historic run of seven Cup Series titles, including five in a row. Think of it like if Bill Belichick stopped coaching Tom Brady. It's that severe. Is there any hope for Jimmie, at all?
Prediction: Sadly, it looks like Jimmie’s best days are behind him. Am I saying he'll never win another race? No. But he's past his prime and going downhill. Unfortunately, we won't see #8. God, I hope I'm wrong.
How will drivers on new teams do?
Unlike other sports, the NASCAR offseason featured plenty of people changing teams. Just this offseason, we watched Martin Truex Jr go from Furniture Row Racing and the 78 (RIP) to Joe Gibbs Racing and the 19 due to Truex being unable to keep Furniture Row in business despite winning it all in 2017 and coming up just short of repeating in 2018. He replaced Daniel Suarez, leaving JGR and the 19 to instead go to Stewart-Haas Racing at the 41. Suarez replaced Kurt Busch, who finally got it in him to leave Stewart-Haas for the greener pastures of Ganassi and the 1. Outside of that, Daniel Hemric took over the 31 from Ryan Newman (how moved to the 6 for Roush Fenway Racing) and Richard Childress immediately repainted it to the 8. This means the 3 car and the 8 car will be teammates. Finally, Matt DiBenedetto gets the 95 for Leavine Family Racing to replace the retiring Kasey Kahne.
Prediction: MTJ and Kurt Busch will be doing good with their new teams because they're good drivers. DiBenedetto leaving the 32 and Go Fas Racing to the 95 probably won't help him because he just isn't that good. Newman is too old to do a lot with his new team after 17 years in the Cup Series full-time. Suarez has shown flashes but hasn't materialized in anything so far with JGR, so a change of scenery could help him out. Hemric is interesting. It brings me to my next narrative:
Who will win Rookie of the Year?
Hemric is one of five declared candidates for Cup Series Rookie of the Year. Over seven seasons in the Truck Series and Grand National Series, he's racked up 38 top 5s and 69 top 10s, as well as five poles, despite never recording a win. As mentioned, Hemric is driving the 8 car. Next is Tanner Berryhill. Unlike Hemric, Berryhill never raced Trucks. He did race in the Grand National series, last running full-time back in 2014. He recorded 0 top 5s, 0 top 10s, 0 poles, and never finished higher than 17. He didn't even qualify for four races that season. However, he's only 25, so he's still young enough to make his mark in the Cup. He'll be driving the 97 for Obaika Racing. After him is Quin Houff. Only 21 years old, Houff has yet to get a full-time ride in any Series. He has shown potential though. At only 19, he finished 12th at Iowa in the Grand National Series. He ran five races in the ARCA Series over two seasons and recorded tow top 10s, with a high finish of sixth at Charlotte. He'll be in the 77 for Spire Motorsports. Fourth is Ryan Preece. Preece ran part-time in the Grand National Series from 2014-15 and again from 2017-18. His 2016 season was a little underwhelming, recording one top 10 in 33 races, with his highest finish being 10th and six DNFs. In 2017 though? He showed he could be ready for the Cup. Running only four races, he recorded a win, a pole, four top fives, and four top tens. He didn't start lower than sixth. In the cup, he'll be in the 47 for JTG Daugherty Racing. Finally, there's Matt Tifft. Tifft spent two seasons part-time in the Grand National Series before spending two seasons full-time. In those races, he's won two poles, nine top 5s, and 38 top 10s, despite not winning any races. He also ran part-time Trucks for three seasons, recording a top 5 and nine top 10s, but also no wins. In the Cup Series, he'll be driving in the 36 car for Front Row Motorsports.
Prediction: I understand he'll likely be the popular pick, but I have to go with Daniel Hemric here. Yeah, he's older than everyone else in the running, being 28, but he has more experience than all of the other candidates. No, he doesn't have a win in any NASCAR-sanctioned series, but that doesn't detract from the otherwise sheer dominance he's had so far in his career.
And there are my predictions. I'll revisit them after the season to see how I did.