As the Cup Series heads into its final off-weekend of the season, several questions remain.
Among those: How to describe what has happened in the first 16 races?
Unpredictable comes to mind quickly. Twelve different winners — including four first-time winners — have energized talk that all 16 playoff spots could be filled by drivers with a victory.
But is unpredictable really the right word? Martin Truex Jr. forecasted in January how topsy-turvy this season could be in a conversation with NBC Sports.
“There’s going to be a lot of crazy storylines early in the year,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of surprises, and there’s going to be a lot of guys that have a good week, bad week, good week, bad week, hit and miss.
“I just feel like until we get some time under our belt and find kind of a baseline of what (the Next Gen car) wants at certain tracks, we’re all going to be searching. We’re all going to be taking gambles on what we’re taking to the racetrack setup-wise.”
No example best highlights the hit-and-miss nature of this season as a week Joey Logano had in May.
He struggled at Dover, crossing the finish line 29th and four laps behind the leaders. A week later, Logano won the pole, led a race-high 107 laps and won at Darlington.
“It’s crazy to go from where we were last weekend in Dover, where we were just off … qualified mid-20s and really run mid-20s and get into wrecks and all that,” Logano said after his Darlington victory. “Then you come back the next weekend, fast off the truck, put it on the pole, lead a bunch of laps, win a stage, third another stage, and it’s a big day for us.
“I don’t know, but it just goes to show kind of what this Next Gen car is right now where no one really has it quite figured out yet.”
No team has shown the ability to put together a streak of top-10 finishes lasting more than five races this season. Last year, four drivers had top-10 streaks of at least five races in a row, led by William Byron’s 11-race run.
“It’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not,” Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, told NBC Sports in May. “It’s defined as getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate.”
2. Is Trackhouse Racing an underdog or favorite?
Trackhouse drivers Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain each entered the season without a Cup victory. Now, Chastain has two wins; Suarez has one.
Trackhouse’s win total equals what Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have each done this year. Only Hendrick Motorsports — with five victories — has won more races than Trackhouse this year.
So, does that make the team owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull among the favorites to win the championship? Or does Trackhouse remain an underdog because the organization has not competed for a Cup title before?
Ty Norris, president of Trackhouse Racing, said this week on MotorMouths on Peacock that the organization is careful not to look too far ahead.
“We have two things that we continue to say,” Norris said. “We’ve got to stay hungry, and we’ve got to stay humble. If we start thinking playoffs and talking playoffs, we’re going to lose sight of these next 10 weeks that we need to sort of continue to prepare for a run.”
Also key will be how Chastain runs, and if he continues to upset drivers. Martin Truex Jr. talked to Chastain at Dover after he wrecked while battling Chastain for third place. Chastain had run-ins with Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott, among others earlier this month at World Wide Technology Raceway. Hamlin suggested payback was coming.
Marks told NBC Sports after that race that Chastain doesn’t need to change.
“This is a very, very competitive sport, and you fight for every single inch,” Marks said. “The thing is that he’s a newcomer in the top five and the established top-five guys don’t like that there’s a newcomer there. I’m super, super proud of him.
“He’s very aggressive. That’s what is required in winning races, and ultimately it’s going to get him to where he’s going to be a NASCAR champion — his aggression matched with his talent.”
3. Will strategies change during the final 10 races before the playoffs?
One of the fascinating elements about the parity this season is how it could impact the playoffs.
No driver has more than 13 playoff points. Twelve drivers have at least six playoff points. Last year at this time, there was an 18-point gap between first and fourth in playoff points scored.
With how close playoff points are, it could lead to more drivers going for stage points, especially at the road courses. Three road courses remain until the playoffs begin — Road America (July 3), Indianapolis (July 31) and Watkins Glen (Aug. 21).
It’s not uncommon at road courses for teams to pit before a stage break, giving up on stage points to set themselves for the race’s finish. Will that still happen among potential playoff competitors?
Strategy calls throughout each of the next 10 races could have an impact for teams in the playoffs based on how many playoff points they gain or fail to do so.
Also, the top 10 in points after the regular season receive playoff points. While the term points racing is viewed as having a derogatory connotation by many race fans, the focus on points could lead to more dramatic moments during the next 10 Cup races, starting with the June 26 race at Nashville Superspeedway (5 p.m. ET, NBC).
4. Is there a championship favorite?
Are you kidding? Who would it be?
Last year, it was easy to list Martin Truex Jr. as a favorite because he won at tracks that would host key playoff races: Phoenix (host of championship race), Martinsville (host of final race in the third round) and Darlington (playoff opener).
This year, Phoenix saw Chase Briscoe win his first Cup race. The Martinsville race, won by William Byron, was a lackluster event that led drivers to call for changes before the series returns. With a tire test and an organizational test this summer at Martinsville, changes likely will be made. Darlington saw Logano bump Byron out of the lead at the end to win.
Of the six points races at tracks that will host a playoff race this year — not including Bristol since the spring race was on dirt and the playoff race will not be — there was a different winner each time. Alex Bowman won at Las Vegas, Briscoe at Phoenix, Byron at Martinsville, Ross Chastain at Talladega, Logano at Darlington and Kurt Busch at Kansas.
This year’s playoffs could be a matter of just surviving to each round.
Pick a favorite? Too challenging now.
5. What could happen in Silly Season?
The key to Silly Season could be Martin Truex Jr., who has said that he’ll make a decision soon on if he’ll return for another season.
Truex turns 42 on June 29. The 2017 Cup champion has struggled this year. With seven top-10 finishes, he’s on pace for his fewest top 10s in a season since 2014 — the last time he missed the playoffs. Truex does not have a win and has yet to secure a playoff spot.
Should he not return after this season, Joe Gibbs Racing will have multiple options. Ty Gibbs would seem to be a natural move to make although JGR seems more intent on having the 19-year-old remain in Xfinity another season. If Gibbs is not elevated, does JGR find someone to drive the No. 19 car for one season before Gibbs moves up, or does it go after a high quality driver that can be there for years to come?
Joe Gibbs Racing also has yet to announce a sponsor and contract extension for Kyle Busch. Since cryptic comments in late April about his status for next year — and a Toyota executive’s response — Busch has said little about next year. Signs point to him remaining at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stewart-Haas Racing has an opening for next season. Aric Almirola will retire from full-time competition after this season. The team has not announced a replacement.
Provided Truex stays another year at JGR and the team complete’s Busch’s long-awaited deal, the highest profile ride available would be Almirola’s.
Hendrick Motorsports has its four drivers signed through at least next season. Team Penske doesn’t have an opening. Trackhouse Racing President Ty Norris said this week on MotorMouths that the team will sign Daniel Suarez to a contract extension.
Team owner Richard Childress said in March that Tyler Reddick is under contract for next year. Team owner Matt Kaulig told NBC Sports this month that he’s “torn” on if to continue to have a rotating driver lineup in the team’s second car next year or put one driver in the No. 16 for the full season.