For the seventh time of the 2019 season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stars are back at it. This time, they head back west a bit to take on the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (3 p.m. ET/FOX/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the last intermediate track on the schedule until May 11.
Here are the top storylines surrounding the race itself.
We’ve talked about this ad nauseum lately but it’s been widely considered that this new aero package for the Cup Series in 2019 has been a big fat flop. The racing hasn’t been significantly better like originally planned, and in the case for last week, it was actually worse.
Each week though, has been a different excuse. Atlanta wasn’t the “true” rules package. Vegas was “too hot” and saw too much green flag racing. Fontana, saw too many green flag laps again as well as had an aged surface like in Atlanta. Both Phoenix and Martinsville didn’t have the tapered spacer nor the aero ducts but they did have more downforce. Those two races were actually worse than ever.
Well, the final excuse was that the cars couldn’t be developed until they got back east. See, with three consecutive races on the west coast, the teams couldn’t use their shops back in North Carolina to fix what they have most recently learned.
Texas would be the next true test they say. Take all the notes from the west coast swing and adjust them to the new aero package for Texas.
A wider track that was newly paved in the last few years should produce better racing right? Well, in theory it should, but what have we seen so far to give us any inkling that there will be?
If Texas is a flop, then we have to chalk up this package for what it is – a minor fix.
Through the first six weeks of racing only two teams have reached victory lane so far. Both Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have won three races a piece in 2019. In fact, if you go back to last season, they’ve combined to win eight straight races and nine of the last 10.
They also will have the cars to beat on Sunday too.
JGR has won two of the last three spring races, all by Kyle Busch himself, while Penske Joey Logano also won in 2014. The only driver to win the spring race since 2013 not of Penske or Ganassi was Jimmie Johnson in 2015 and again in 2017. With how Johnson is running now, don’t expect him to win this weekend.
Busch, has six top six finishes in as many tries in 2019 to go along with six top five finishes in his last nine Texas starts overall. He’s the defending race winner at that.
Denny Hamlin has three consecutive top five finishes on the season and hasn’t finished worse than 11th all year. In Texas, Hamlin has led 77 laps over the last three starts including a third place run in Nov. 2017.
Martin Truex Jr. has five top eight finishes in-a-row on the season to go along with seven top 10 finishes in his last eight Texas starts too.
Even Erik Jones has been quick in Texas. He has three straight top 10 finishes including fourth place runs in both races a year ago.
What about Penske?
Brad Keselowski has four top three finishes in his last five starts on the season and five top six finishes in his last nine Texas starts.
Joey Logano has four top 10 finishes in six tries this season as well as six consecutive top seven finishes in Texas on top of 10 in his last 12 starts on the Denton Country track overall.
Ryan Blaney found his groove with three straight top five finishes on the year and three straight top six finishes in Texas including a runner-up last fall.
With how these cars are running over the past 10 overall races as well as how strong they’ve been at Texas, care to pick against them?
Stewart Haas Racing Close
If anyone is going to beat Penske or JGR on Sunday, look no further than SHR. Last weekend in Martinsville, all four cars finished in the top 10. Combine that with JGR and Penske, and all three organizations put nine cars in the top 10 of the finishing order.
Kevin Harvick has five straight top 10 finishes on the year including three of which being fourth place runs in general. He’s also won two of the last three races at Texas and was second in the race that he didn’t win. Overall, Harvick has nine straight top 10 finishes on the 1.5-mile track including six of which being in the top three.
Aric Almirola is the next best option. He has five consecutive top 10 finishes this year and finished eighth in the fall race at Texas last season.
Clint Bowyer enters with speed, too much of it in Martinsville, but success in Texas. He finished ninth in the fall race last year and has three top three starting spots in his last four Texas races.
Daniel Suarez finished 10th last week and has two straight top 13 finishes now on the season.
Is Jimmie Johnson’s Reign Officially Over?
Are we just ignoring the obvious now, is this it for Jimmie Johnson? He’s had two of his worst seasons ever over the last two years in the sport and is off to another bad start in 2019.
He led 558 laps in 2015. That was the least amount of laps led for him since leading 547 total circuits in 2005. A year later, he only led 737 laps for the season. He’d kill for a season like that now.
In 2017 and 2018, he only led 217 and 40 laps respectively. He’s led more laps in single races in the past than what he led in those 72 races combined. So far through six races in 2019, he’s led only four laps.
Over his last 78 starts, he has six total top five finishes, four in 2017 and just two last year. He had at least 11 top five finishes in a single season in every year since 2003 prior. His average finish in 2017 was 16.8. Last year, it was 16.7. To start off this year, it’s 16.8.
The last two years, Johnson had 11 top 10 finishes in each. He had 20+ in all of his prior seasons with the exception of one (16 in 2016).
But, with a new rules package for 2019 as well as a new crew chief, we all thought that maybe old seven-time could turn things around again. After all, he won the season opening Clash at Daytona.
But, it’s been an overall struggle still. After finishing two laps down in 24th at statistically one of his best tracks last weekend in Martinsville, is it time to say this is who Johnson is now?
He’s won nine times in his career in Martinsville. He had 24 top 10 finishes heading into 2017. That was HIS track. But, his last five finishes there now are 15th, 12th, 15th, 12th and 24th respectively.
If he can’t perform at Texas this weekend, a track that he’s scored seven wins and 21 top 10 finishes in 31 tries, then where can he?
From 2012 through the spring race that he won in 2017 in Texas, Johnson had nine top six finishes in 11 tries. Among those nine were six wins and a runner-up.
But, in his three starts since, Johnson has brought his No. 48 Chevrolet home 27th, 35th and 15th respectively.
Maybe this is the new Johnson.
Sunday will tell us a lot.