ThatsRacin

Midseason NASCAR superlatives: Best race? Worst wreck? Biggest surprise?

With four wins in the first 14 races of this NASCAR season, Kyle Busch has been the top Cup Series driver.
With four wins in the first 14 races of this NASCAR season, Kyle Busch has been the top Cup Series driver. AP

We are now more than halfway through the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, and the leaderboard is beginning to crystallize. We know which drivers are good week in and week out, and we know which drivers might already have seen their best shot at winning evaporate.

So with that said, let’s hand out some midseason superlatives. Not every contender makes this list, nor does every also-ran, but here are the moments and people who have defined the first half of the 2019 season:

Best Driver: This one’s fairly easy, right? Several drivers have picked up wins, but one of them leads the pack. More than just his season-high four victories, he finished second in the Daytona 500 and has three third-place finishes. He’s the best driver on the best team in the Cup Series, and he’s well-positioned to make his fifth consecutive championship race. Of all the choices to make on this list, this is the easiest. Winner: Kyle Busch

Biggest Storyline: You could reasonably go with any number of topics here, from Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination, to the struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing, to Hendrick Motorsports’ recent comeback. But instead, there’s been one thing hanging over every race this year — the new aerodynamic rules package. NASCAR dramatically altered its rules package for 2019, intentionally slowing down cars with the hopes of creating closer racing and easier passing, especially for the lead. That hasn’t exactly played out, but it has been the single most-significant on-track change (and storyline) this year. Winner: 2019 rules package

Worst Wreck: Unfortunately, there have been a number of rough ones this year. The Daytona 500 sported its annual “Big One,” which took out seemingly half the field. Chris Buescher went for a few nasty spins at Talladega, and Ryan Preece and B.J. McLeod somehow collided on pit road at Atlanta. But the worst wreck of the year, and the one that even alarmed those within NASCAR, was when Kyle Larson got airborne at Talladega. NASCAR’s current safety rules are designed specifically to keep cars from lifting off the track, as those can often be the most harmful accidents. Larson’s is tough to grimace through, even considering he was playing golf later that week. Winner: Kyle Larson at Talladega

Biggest Surprise: We knew that the new rules package would upend NASCAR’s hierarchy to some degree, but did we expect this sort of turnaround? Last year, the Cup Series largely belonged to the “Big 3” of veteran drivers: Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick. This year? Busch and Truex have combined for seven victories in the first 14 races, with JGR teammate Denny Hamlin winning twice. Between Gibbs’ nine wins and Team Penske’s four, those two teams have completely swallowed their Cup Series competition — and it’s hard to believe anyone saw that coming. Winner: Gibbs and Penske domination

Biggest Disappointment: On the flip side of Gibbs and Penske owning the first half of 2019, there naturally are also the teams that have slipped somewhat. None of those are more obvious than Stewart-Haas Racing, which incredibly has failed to win this season. By this time last season, Harvick and Clint Bowyer had both won, and Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch would go on to do so by season’s end. That Harvick still hasn’t made it to Victory Lane this season is truly shocking. He will before year’s end, but nobody could have envisioned it would take so long back in February. Winner: SHR, specifically Kevin Harvick

Best Race: Is it a cop-out to pick the Daytona 500? Probably. Same goes for the All-Star Race. Other than that, there’s a fair amount of races you can just gloss over: Atlanta, Las Vegas, Martinsville... Really, things didn’t really start getting good until Kansas, when the rules package finally linked up with the right kinds of tracks. The Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May was the perfect example of that. You had close racing throughout, a number of wrecks, multiple leaders, and a thrilling final few laps that featured four-wide (!!) racing — what more could NASCAR fans have hoped for? Winner: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

This week’s NASCAR race at Michigan: What you need to know.

Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400.

Distance: 200 laps, or 400 miles.

Where: Michigan International Speedway, a 2-mile, moderate-banked D-shaped oval in Brooklyn, Mich.

When: 2 p.m., Sunday.

TV: FS1.

Radio: MRN.

Last year’s winner: Clint Bowyer.

Also this week: LTi Printing 250, Xfinity Series, Michigan International Speedway, 1:30 p.m., Saturday, FS1.

Worth mentioning: Last year’s race was shortened for rain, leaving Bowyer as the winner for leading when the race was called.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Kyle Busch: People talk about competitive fire, but nobody rebounds from a narrow loss like Busch, who did so again at Pocono after just coming up short in Charlotte.

Chase Elliott: He’s carrying the banner for both Chevy and Hendrick Motorsports right now, and five straight Top 5s means he’s due another win in short order.

NOT

Jimmie Johnson: Hendrick as a whole continues to improve, but somehow Johnson isn’t seeing the constant improvement his teammates are. He’s now just outside the playoff bubble after coming in 19th at Pocono.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: His Top 5 at Charlotte could’ve been a springboard, but instead he ended up outside the Top 30 at Pocono — not how you want to capitalize on your only momentum thus far in 2019.

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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