Cup Series rookie Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing joins me to make our 2019 playoff predictions — from the 16 playoff drivers to the champion.
Five thoughts after Monday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway…
1. Keselowski a threat?
Ever since the “Big Three” entered the NASCAR lexicon in June, the obvious question has been: Which driver is the fourth? After all, having a four-man championship race requires more than just a Big Three.
Brad Keselowski won the Southern 500 last week, but just one race is nothing to get too excited about when it comes to championship contention. He hadn’t even won all year before Darlington.
But now Keselowski has won two in a row — and two of the biggest races of the season, at that — which makes him a lot harder to ignore entering the playoffs. When you combine Keselowski’s knack for managing the elimination system with his team’s ability to capitalize on opportunities like it has the last two weeks, that could be dangerous even for rivals who have more raw speed.
As we all know, the fastest car doesn’t always win in NASCAR — and the fastest four cars definitely don’t always make it to Homestead. Keselowski suddenly has the fourth-most playoff points (19), and I’d hate to be a driver having to beat him in a must-win situation.
Momentum is real in racing. So I’ve seen enough to pick Keselowski as my fourth playoff driver for Homestead (my complete predictions are in Item No. 5).
2. Unrestricted racing
This may very well have been the last unrestricted Brickyard 400 for the foreseeable future. So it’s fitting it ended with a classic, NASCAR-style finish.
On a restart with three laps to go, Clint Bowyer spun the tires and opened the door for Keselowski to challenge Denny Hamlin for the race lead. Despite Keselowski having fresher tires, he had to use every move in his driver bag of tricks to get by Hamlin as they were coming to the white flag.
What we saw were two drivers going all out and doing everything they could while operating at their peak talent level in order to win. It was the kind of moment that makes NASCAR so special.
But that’s likely going away soon. The All-Star aero package (or whatever your name for it is) was used in the Xfinity race earlier Monday, and you get the feeling most fans would say they preferred that racing over the Brickyard 400 itself.
NASCAR reportedly wants to run that package in up to 14 Cup races next year, and the Brickyard will certainly be one of them. And it works better here than other places.
At the same time, that is going to be tough to swallow. The idea of the Brickyard 400 — even with stages and competition cautions and the like — still has a purity. It’s the best stock car racers on the planet pushing themselves to the absolute limit and forcing their equipment to race on the edge of disaster. The best drivers often win the battle.
That might be the case in the future as well, but it will be more of a coincidence. Pack racing and drafting takes a different skill set, and it doesn’t take the same incredible talent to just run wide open around a 2.5-mile course.
So I’ll miss Cup races like today’s, even if it was boring at times compared to the Xfinity race. Because when it was all said and done, it felt more like real racing than what the future appears to hold.
3. One-day show for the win
Hey, did you notice NASCAR held two races without a single practice or qualifying lap on Monday — and had no problems whatsoever?
No one has dared to start a Cup race without some laps on the track since I can remember (2004 until now), although the weather has always allowed for some on-track activity before the race.
It turned out just fine, though. The drivers and engineers don’t need practice. They honestly don’t even need qualifying.
This proves NASCAR could easily do a one-day show if it wanted to. Show up to a track on a Wednesday night, give teams a 30-minute shakedown practice at 2 p.m., qualify at 4 p.m. and race at 7 p.m. It would be a great event and probably wouldn’t turn out any different if it was a three-day weekend with four hours of practice.
Officials should at least try it a couple times to see if it can work. After Indy, it seems like it would be an easy way to condense the season schedule without actually losing any races.
4. On the outside
As the playoffs begin, we bid farewell to the once-promising seasons of several drivers.
Jamie McMurray had made the playoffs for three straight seasons and everyone figured his consistency would get him back again this year. Instead, he finished the regular season ranked 21st in points and had news of his imminent departure from a full-time ride at Chip Ganassi Racing reported before Monday’s race.
Daniel Suarez, who finished the regular season 20th in the standings, was unable to capitalize on the great speed shown by Joe Gibbs Racing almost all season long. His three teammates made the playoffs while he did not. Meanwhile, reports have Truex replacing Suarez in what is currently the No. 19 car next season.
Then there’s Ryan Newman, who has made the playoffs seven times but was the first driver out this season. His future at Richard Childress Racing is in doubt as well.
Paul Menard couldn’t make the playoffs in his first season at Wood Brothers Racing, although Ryan Blaney did it in the same ride last year. And William Byron missed the playoffs in his rookie year as his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates all got through (albeit taking two of the last three spots).
5. Playoff predictions
I recorded a preseason playoff predictions podcast with Bubba Wallace in January. The results: I got 13 of the 16 drivers (I had Newman, McMurray and Byron instead of Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman and Aric Almirola) and Wallace got 12 correct (he had Newman, McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and himself instead of Almirola, Bowman, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer).
So I’m not exactly that great at predictions, but I’ll try again anyway for the playoffs.
In the first round, it will be Dillon, Bowman, Blaney and Jones getting eliminated.
In Round 2, Johnson’s shot at Championship No. 8 will end, along with Almirola, Kurt Busch and Logano.
When it gets down to the final eight drivers, it will be a shocking elimination for Truex, along with Bowyer, Hamlin and Larson.
Then it will come down to the final four: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Keselowski and Elliott — with Harvick winning his second title over Busch.
It’s time to make playoff predictions for the upcoming NASCAR season, which means picking the 16 drivers and the champion. But it would be boring if I just rambled about the predictions by myself, wouldn’t it? That’s why I invited Rookie of the Year contender Darrell Wallace Jr. to give his picks as well — and tried to find out how many drivers we agreed on.
Common picks (both Jeff and Bubba):
— Martin Truex Jr.
— Kyle Busch
— Denny Hamlin
— Kevin Harvick
— Kyle Larson
— Jimmie Johnson
— Chase Elliott
— Ryan Blaney
— Joey Logano
— Brad Keselowski
— Erik Jones
— Ryan Newman
— Jamie McMurray
— Clint Bowyer
— Kurt Busch
— William Byron
— Bubba Wallace
— Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
— Austin Dillon
Jeff’s championship pick: Kyle Busch
Bubba’s championship pick: Kyle Larson