Usually, by the time the NASCAR Cup Series comes upon the Fourth of July, it is pretty apparent who the championship favorites are. So often, the summer months are a mere formality, a time of logging laps when the good teams just get better while everyone in the garage pushes through toward fall and the most crucial part of the season.
Usually. But not so this season.
There was a lot of hype pushed upon the Next Gen car as the great equalizer to bring competition closer together, and some of it is proving true. The series’ top organizations are still seeing the most success, but there has been no denying that the car has been a steep learning curve and four months into competition, no-one has scienced it out to their advantage. Of the 12 different winners, only five have been repeats, and no one team is the clear runaway favorite.
“I don’t feel like there’s really been a dominant car in a race all season really that I can think of,” said Chase Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Alan Gustafson.
Hendrick Motorsports and Trackhouse Racing are leading the way for Chevrolet. But the pecking order changes weekly. Toyota teams went from being out to lunch and having a dismal day at Sonoma Raceway, to all six cars looking like the ones to beat at Nashville Superspeedway. Toyota drivers led 253 of 300 laps.
The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. Good one week, way off, the next. There is a bit of unpredictability around who is going to unload at the racetrack fast and competitive and who is not. For Team Penske, it could be argued they are average on most tracks but have excelled on the flatter, shorter tracks.
“It depends on the track,” Joey Logano said of the drivers to beat this season. “There are certain tracks that I feel like we’re really good and there are certain ones we have a little bit of work to do. The same for others. There are teams that I see that are really good on the mile-and-a-halves, and I’m like, ‘Gosh, how do they do that?’ And then some teams are good everywhere. There are a couple of them that you can probably pinpoint which ones those are, so we’ve just got to work on some consistency on all the racetracks right now.”
Eleven drivers have led 200 or more laps through 17 races. The season’s repeat winners have only won twice – Elliott, Ross Chastain, Joey Logano, William Byron and Denny Hamlin. It seems a bit odd this far into the season that the magic number drivers are trying to get to is win No. 3.
A year ago, Kyle Larson had already won four times at this point. Martin Truex Jr. was a three-time winner. Alex Bowman had a pair of wins.
But leaving June this time around, parity among the top teams is alive and well. Truex is still winless. The same goes for Ryan Blaney, who has consistently sat near the top of the championship point standings.
And speaking of points, there is no clear breakaway there, either. It’s not just the racing where things keep changing.
“It definitely seems like there’s not one guy that’s taking off with the season, so it’s wide-open still,” Alex Bowman said going into Nashville race weekend. “Hopefully, when the playoffs swing around, we’re in the best shape possible.”
Elliott, Chastain and Byron are all tied for the most playoff points at 13. Logano and Hamlin have 12. Seven playoff points for Larson, Kurt Busch, and Daniel Suarez come next.
“We’ve seen in previous years guys race up a ton of wins and a ton of playoff points to lean on,” Bowman said. “Typically, they’re the best guys in the playoffs anyways. So, it’s a little bit interesting. But it’s pretty wide-open right now. I think you’re going to have teams get hot and then kind of cool off even between now and the playoffs.
“So much changes with this race car. It’s not like the old car where we’re nitpicking things, making little changes and little developments. We can’t change parts, but it’s big swings as we learn the race car and as teams get the race cars better. It’s big improvements, and I think it’s going to continue to be that way.”
Logic says eventually, a team will hit on it and start to pull away. It is doubtful there won’t be a team or two or three who begin to win three, four and five races. But it’s a nice change of pace that it hasn’t happened yet. And consequently, it’s a nice change of pace that, thus far, the championship field will be a little closer together when things kick off in September.