By now, the first four races of the NASCAR Cup Series season feel like they took place many moons ago.
Racing, along with all other sports, does not currently exist. Aside from those who have a problem with authority and aren’t practicing social distancing, it’s a lonely time around a country that is all but shut down for business. Books, television, and those board games usually shoved in the back of the closest provide an escape from a reality that can be overwhelming and sad.
Over the weekend, iRacing and NASCAR held its first virtual race. It went off without any significant glitches, aside from Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon not starting the race on time due to technical difficulties. In the end, the battle to the finish included 15-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and another driver, Denny Hamlin, who has been all-in with this venture and spreading the word to whoever will listen.
But a virtual track and virtual cars just weren’t the same, although there’s no denying it provided some entertainment and a shot of normalcy everyone desperately needed. However, two weeks without real racing makes one appreciate those four already run all the more.
With many weeks still ahead before the fifth race of the season is run, and before we forget what has happened in the Cup Series this year, let’s review the headlines.
Joey Logano has won two of the first four races, doing so with new crew chief Paul Wolfe and a new No. 22 team. Ryan Blaney and the Todd Gordon-led No. 12 team have been fast, albeit unlucky in their efforts to drive into victory lane. And for Brad Keselowski, Jeremy Bullins and the No. 2 group, their potential was shown with a strong day in Phoenix.
All of this translates to Roger Penske knowing what he was doing in making these team changes. While Logano has the wins, there should never have been concern that he was going to falter with the experienced Wolfe at the helm.
“I feel like Paul and I and the engineers have really an open line of communication which has been nice to where, hey, if any of us feel like we’re failing in a department, we’re going to say it,” said Logano after his Phoenix win. “I’m good with that. They’re not the most fun conversations, but we’re going to talk about it, whether they think I’m driving the car wrong, something I need in the car, it’s open.
“I think that’s what’s made us strong so far. I think that we kind of set that as the standard to start this relationship is that we need to be open, leave our feelings at the door. It kind of seems like that’s the way it’s been, which is good. A lot of runway ahead of us still to be better.”
For Keselowski, the speed shown in Phoenix needs to become a regular occurrence before he can feel comfortable enough to say he will be a consistent contender. Earning stage points has been hit or miss for this group, and they’ve just quietly been around the top 10 while Logano and Blaney have made plenty of noise thus far.
It’s Blaney who has been the real winner in this whole deal. Gordon is one hell of a crew chief and has the right mental attitude of ‘focus forward and don’t dwell on the negative’ that will rub off on Blaney. The duo very well could have won the first three races had circumstances gone their way, so once the gates open, many victories will come for Blaney.
Camaro came to play
On the topic of being fast, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE has made the argument it’s just that. Six Chevy drivers finished inside the top 10 at Las Vegas. Alex Bowman had a dominating day in Fontana a week after he was on his way to challenging for the win in Vegas. Chase Elliott led the most laps in Phoenix, from the pole, and leads the series with three stage wins in four races.
Chevrolet officials and teams must be breathing a sigh of relief. What’s a dead giveaway of how badly things are going? When a manufacturer rolls out a brand-new race car a year before they are scheduled to change again with the arrival of Next Gen.
At the top of the heap is Elliott at third in the point standings followed by Bowman in fourth and Jimmie Johnson fifth. Chevrolet drivers have led 376 laps thus far and look to be in much, much better shape with their current product than what they had been running the last two years.
“I think the new car is quite a bit better,” said Bowman.
Unfamiliar territory for Joe Gibbs Racing
Two things stand out when you start looking at the opposite end of the spectrum. Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing / Toyota teammates were using the word ‘slow’ to describe their pace after Fontana. After dominating the series last year, it seemed only logical that the company would pick up where they left off.
It is not so much that Gibbs forgot to how to build fast race cars or that they are struggling, but more that everyone else has caught up. Again, Chevrolet rolled out a new car, the changes at Penske are working, and Stewart-Haas Racing continues to plug away with Kevin Harvick leading the overall standings.
Come to think of it, Busch said this could happen.
“Well, yes and no,” said Busch about whether there was any reason to believe JGR couldn’t replicate its 2019 success this year. “I think anybody with the parts that they already currently have can find a better way of doing things, so they’re going to improve, there’s no question. They’ve had all off-season to kind of think about it and work on it.”
NASCAR is nothing but cyclical, and even if the Gibbs teams – removed from Hamlin winning the Daytona – haven’t had the best start to the season, they’ll be back up front before too long.
And for the second part, welcome to the Cup Series, kid.
There will be much more to dig into with the rookie class as this racing hiatus goes on, but for now, here’s something to chew on: the NASCAR Cup Series is hard. Look no further than Cole Custer and Christopher Bell, who drive for organizations that have won a Cup Series championship over the last six years.
Bell, the highly-touted talent from the Toyota Racing camp, is driving a fifth Gibbs car. So equipment can’t be an excuse as the relationship between Leavine Family Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing is akin to what was once Furniture Row/JGR.
But between lousy luck like at Fontana, when debris went through the radiator, and just trying to find his way among much deeper competition, Bell can’t get out of his own way right now.
“Married life has definitely been easier so far,” said Bell a few weeks ago.
Perfect. Because racing is supposed to be hard and it’s going to make the progress and journey forward for Bell and the other equally talented rookies that much more rewarding and fascinating to watch.