All right everyone, let’s take a breath:
We made it...
Sunday’s thrilling Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which Martin Truex Jr. won with a daring four-wide pass with four laps to go, was the 13th NASCAR Cup Series race of the year. That means we’re officially halfway through the regular season, with just 13 races left before we head to Las Vegas for the first round of the playoffs.
With that said, it makes sense to take stock of where drivers stand at the midway point. Some have been pleasant surprises; others not so much. There’s still a clear No. 1, but for how much longer? We’ll see.
Ranking the 10 best Cup Series drivers thus far in 2019:
10. Clint Bowyer (zero wins, four Top 5s): Like the rest of Stewart-Haas Racing, Bowyer hasn’t completely figured things out yet this season. The new rules package has arguably hurt SHR more than any other team, as it’s far off the pace from last year. Bowyer has had his moments, highlighted by a runner-up finish at Texas, but he’ll need more consistency the second half of the season to be a playoff threat.
9. Alex Bowman (zero wins, three Top 5s): Call this recency bias, but there’s no avoiding the tear Bowman has been on. Really, all of Hendrick Motorsports has been. Bowman’s stretch of three consecutive second-place finishes came to an end at Charlotte, but he still scored a top-10 finish to keep momentum heading in the right direction. At this rate, we’ll soon see the No. 88 back in Victory Lane for the first time since 2015.
8. Kevin Harvick (zero wins, five Top 5s): Harvick is one of the best drivers out there, but Stewart-Haas is clearly still finding the gray area with the current aerodynamic package. Harvick has been much more consistent than Bowyer or his other teammates, but that consistency has only been around the Top 5 — not competing for race wins.
7. Kurt Busch (zero wins, three Top 5s): He nearly beat brother Kyle at Bristol for what would have been his first win, but instead had to settle for second. Kurt Busch has overperformed since moving to Chip Ganassi Racing this offseason, even outdoing new teammate and budding star Kyle Larson. You could make the argument he’s been the second-best Chevy driver all year. Charlotte was his worst race of the year, so he’ll look to rebound this week at Pocono, where he’s won three times before.
6. Denny Hamlin (two wins, six Top 5s): Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win was momentous, especially after not getting to Victory Lane all of last year. That he was able to double up on wins at Texas, though, is what made clear that season-opening victory was no fluke. Hamlin has been outside the Top 10 the last four weeks, but given Joe Gibbs Racing’s success recently, he should be able to right the ship and win again before the playoffs begin.
5. Chase Elliott (one win, five Top 5s): Your best Chevy driver this year, ladies and gentlemen, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Elliott had a chance to snag his first crown jewel race at Charlotte, but instead ended up with his fourth straight Top 5. Elliott is already Hendrick’s top dog, and he’ll win again before the season’s up. The only question is if he can win when it matters most, late in October and into November.
4. Brad Keselowski (three wins, five Top 5s): Like always, Keselowski is hanging around the championship discussion. He’s one of just three drivers with three wins this season, and yet it feels like he’s flying far under the radar due to his inconsistency. When the No. 2 is good, it’s really good. The issue is making it so that’s the case every weekend.
3. Joey Logano (one win, seven Top 5s): Logano easily could’ve won his second race of the season at Charlotte on Sunday, but instead got stuck behind Ryan Newman and others while Truex charged ahead of him. Truthfully, it feels like the reigning Cup Series champ should have more wins than he does now. He’s been second three times now, only for someone or something to cost him the victory each time. Logano always picks up his pace in the playoffs, though, so count on corrections being made by summer’s end.
2. Martin Truex Jr. (three wins, five Top 5s): Three wins in five weeks is darn impressive, especially for someone still in his first season with a new team. But Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn are one of the most synced-up pairs in the Cup garage, and they’re becoming a legitimate threat to win every week. Pearn said after Sunday’s the race that the team is still adjusting to the new rules package — for everyone else’s sake, they’d better not.
1. Kyle Busch (three wins, seven Top 5s): Who else would it have been? Busch is the best driver in NASCAR right now and one of the best all-time. Outside of Kansas earlier in May, he’s finished in the Top 10 in every race. While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Truex has picked it up recently, Busch has slowed somewhat — but there’s no reason to be concerned. By the time the playoffs begin, look for Busch to still be atop the points standings and in the driver’s seat for a championship berth.
This week’s NASCAR race at Pocono: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pocono 400.
Distance: 160 laps, or 400 miles.
Where: Pocono Raceway, a 2.5-mile asphalt triangle in Long Pond, Pa.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Also this week: Pocono Green 250 Recycled by J.P. Mascaro & Sons, Xfinity Series, Pocono Raceway, 1 p.m., Saturday, FS1.
Worth mentioning: In light of the recent news that NASCAR is acquiring track operator International Speedway Corp., Pocono is one of three Cup Series tracks not owned by ISC or Concord-based Speedway Motorsports.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Martin Truex Jr.: His third win in five weeks proves he’s still the same championship contender from the last few seasons.
Chase Elliott: Hendrick Motorsports just keeps getting better and better, and with four straight Top 5s, Elliott is the biggest beneficiary.
Kevin Harvick: A year after winning eight races, he still doesn’t have a victory through a third of the 2019 season. Harvick’s last winless season was in 2009 with Richard Childress Racing.
Erik Jones: A blown tire sent him into the wall early at Charlotte, ending his day and dropping him back to 17th in the points standings.