Halfway next time by with return to DIS

Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway marks the halfway point in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Race No. 18 takes teams back to where the season began in February. Only nine races remain in the regular season.

It’s a good time to stop and take stock of what’s transpired thus far.

Talk of the 2019 aero/rules package has often overshadowed the competition on the race track. That’s not unusual. It’s simply more noticeable in today’s social-media driven world.

While the aero changes haven’t been to everyone’s liking, that’s hardly any different from seasons past.

Because there are different packages for different tracks, it’s natural that it would be a topic of discussion as the season progressed.

Overall, it seems to have improved the product on the track. But it’s clear that the platform works better at some tracks, under some conditions (night vs. day races for example), than others.

The number of teams winning races hasn’t changed all that much, only the teams themselves. Three organizations (Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports) have produced this year’s race winners – all seven of them.

A year ago? Five organizations, four if you aligned the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing with JGR, which most did, and six different winners.

Who wins first in ‘19, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson or a team from the Stewart-Haas Racing stable?

The odds would seem to favor SHR, which fields four Cup teams. Drivers Kevin Harvick (8), Clint Bowyer (2) and Aric Almirola (1) combined for 11 victories last season; the organization is 0-for-68 so far in ’19.

 Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) heads to Daytona trailed by a 76-race winless streak. He did win the season-opening Advance Auto Parts Clash at DIS, a non-points event.

NASCAR’s tougher post-race penalty move hasn’t cost any Cup drivers a win, although two drivers in other series have been disqualified when their entries failed post-race inspection.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Ross Chastain was stripped of the victory at Iowa while Christopher Bell lost his third-place finish in the Xfinity Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Single-car qualifying returned in early May after months of issues with the multi-car process. At Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) in March, none of the 12 final-round participants completed an official qualifying lap before time expired. In April, officials reduced the time of each qualifying round to five minutes.

Sweeps: Denny Hamlin led a Joe Gibbs Racing/Toyota sweep in the season-opening Daytona 500 as Kyle Busch and Erik Jones finished second and third respectively;

Team Penske finished 1-2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with defending series champion Joey Logano winning over teammate Brad Keselowski in a battle of Fords;

Busch and Martin Truex went 1-2 at ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., then reversed their order at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway when Truex scored the victory;

Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman finished 1-2 in the Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

First-time winners: Bowman became the 192nd driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series race with his first career victory June 30 at Chicagoland. It’s the fourth consecutive season the series has seen at least one new Cup winner. Austin Hill (NGOTS) and Michael Annett (Xfinity) earned their first NASCAR series wins as well, both at Daytona in February.

Equally notable: Christopher Bell gave Toyota its first win with the Supra in the Xfinity Series at Atlanta; Keselowski’s victory the same weekend was No. 1 for the Ford Mustang in Cup competition.

Kyle Busch hit a couple of milestones during the first half of the ’19 season – his became the winningest driver in the Truck series when he scored win No. 52 at Atlanta; his Cup victory at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.) gave him 200 wins across NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Truck).

A fourth and final win for Schrader

Sunday, June 2, 1991 – Hendrick Motorsports driver Ken Schrader led the final 78 laps to collect the win in the Budweiser 500 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway. It was the second win of the season for the driver of the No. 25 Kodiak Chevrolet and the fourth of his career. It would also be his final NASCAR Cup Series win.

All four of Schrader’s NASCAR Cup victories came with team owner Rick Hendrick. Schrader won at Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta as well as Dover.

Schrader, who had 763 career starts before leaving NASCAR after the 2013 season, made more than 550 more starts following his final win.

Schrader’s win came when Dover still hosted 500-mile races and when the track was still asphalt. The track’s two annual NASCAR Cup races weren’t cut to 400 laps until the fall race of ’97. The asphalt surface was replaced with concrete in 1995.

The Budweiser 500 was the first NASCAR Cup start for future champion Bobby Labonte. He finished 34th in the family-owned No. 14 Slim Jim Oldsmobile.

Michael Waltrip started on the pole for the first time in his premier series career in the Budweiser 500; he eventually fell out and finished 32nd due to engine trouble.

The race was the final premier series start for Tommy Ellis, who had been filling in for Geoff Bodine in the No. 97 Flossie Johnson “owned” entry. Bodine returned to the driver’s seat the following week but it was several more weeks before the car featured its original No. 11 on the sides and top. The changes had come about after a penalty was levied against Junior Johnson and the veteran team owner had been suspended by NASCAR.

Rules package passes Charlotte test

Wrapping up Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway:

A four-wide pass for the lead on the backstretch with less than five laps remaining is something you don’t see very often in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, at Charlotte Motor Speedway or anywhere else for that matter.

But that’s what happened during Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 when Martin Truex Jr. jumped to the inside of Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and David Ragan on the backstretch to grab the lead and eventually the win.

It was that kind of race. It was entertaining, pretty much from start to finish.

And that’s a big deal.

There’s been a lot of talk about how bad the racing has been in NASCAR, what officials should be doing to make it better and why the sport isn’t as popular as it was at one time.

But Sunday’s race at CMS showed that the 2019 rules package, developed specifically for the 1.5-mile tracks on the Cup schedule, is moving the series in the right direction.

It’s not the entire answer and honestly, with teams continuing to develop setups and finding new ways to improve performance, there never will be a “perfect” set of rules.

The ’19 package has provided better racing though, and that’s not just based on the Charlotte race. Go back a couple of weeks to Kansas, another 1.5-mile track. A good, competitive race. The mile-and-a-half at Texas? Not a lot of lead changes there, but it was an improvement with lots of movement throughout the field.

It’s not a perfect package for every layout, perhaps not even for every 1.5-mile track, but with teams still learning how to work within the box, it’s definitely an improvement.

“It’s still difficult in traffic,” Truex Jr., said after winning for the third time this season. “They drive awful in traffic, to be honest, and I don’t know how we fix that.”

Maybe, though, there’s nothing that needs fixing for a change. Based on Sunday’s race, I’d say there are a fair amount of folks who feel that way, too.

When Truex Jr., won the race for the second time Sunday evening, he joined a talented group of drivers who have multiple victories in the crown jewel event.

A talented group but a growing one as well. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex Jr., became the 14th driver to win at least twice in the series’ longest event.

Three-time series champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Darrell Waltrip holds the most 600 wins, scoring five during his career. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports) has four while Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon Buddy Baker, David Pearson and Kasey Kahne won the 600 on three occasions.

Two-time winners include Richard Petty, Fred Lorenzen, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Neil Bonnett and Jim Paschal.

Truex Jr., is the third driver to win three times this year, joining JGR teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski. Combined with Denny Hamlin’s two victories, JGR drivers have won eight of this year’s 13 points races.

Career win No. 22 for Truex Jr., places him in a three-way tie with Hall of Famer Terry Labonte and Team Penske driver Joey Logano at No. 35 on NASCAR’s all-time win list. Next up with 23 career wins is Ricky Rudd.

Crew chief Cole Pearn now has 20 Cup wins after 156 races and a little less than four and a half seasons with Truex Jr. That’s similar to the success of Ray Evernham, who got to 20 wins with Jeff Gordon in little more than four seasons and 124 starts. Chad Knaus reached 20 wins with Jimmie Johnson in barely four years.

It took Dale Inman less than three full seasons to accumulate 20 wins with Richard Petty in the early 1960s, hitting win No. 20 in their 105th start together.

According to seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, “There were three or four big items that were different on our car this week than we’ve been running all year long, so we’re very happy about that.”

Johnson finished eighth Sunday and called it “a good night.” Although he led no laps, he ran anywhere from eighth to 15th much of the race and was inside the top 10 after falling back as far as 17th early in the final stage.

“We’re just trying to go from good to great and that isn’t easy,” Johnson said.

All four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10 – Chase Elliott led 43 laps and finished fourth while Alex Bowman, Johnson and pole winner William Byron finished seventh through ninth, respectively.

It’s the first time this season the organization has had all four teams finish inside the top 10 and the third consecutive race at least three have managed the feat.

Johnson: Midseason move key to season

Jimmie Johnson’s 2019 paint scheme for the May 26th running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson says he’s a patient person, but he admits it’s getting tougher as the weeks roll on and the months begin to stack up and when you stop to catch your breath you suddenly realize an entire third of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has come and gone.

“Over my career I’ve been able to … just let things work themselves out,” Johnson, 43, said Tuesday during a paint scheme unveil of his No. 48 Chevrolet for the May 26th Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“There are two factors leading to my impatience now. One is I haven’t won in a couple of years and two is, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in a couple of years. My contract’s up in 2020 and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”

It’s an honest conversation but an unusual one just the same.

The backdrop behind Johnson is impressive and when you look over his shoulder you see his name again and again and again.

Listed on the wall inside the Hendrick Motorsports team center are the races and winner’s names of every HMS points victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. All 253 of them.

Legendary races at legendary tracks are separated from the others. The Daytona 500, Darlington’s Southern 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Eighty-three of the victories belong to the El Cajon, Calif., native, including a dozen of those “crown jewel” races.

But we’re not taking about NASCAR’s grand slam at the moment. We’re talking about last Saturday night’s race at Kansas. And not winning. And why Johnson isn’t and what he and his team are doing about it.

The season is hustling by and the sport’s only active seven-time champion finished sixth at Kanas just days ago. It’s been 71 races since his last victory.

For much of his career, a sixth-place finish would hardly seem noteworthy for Johnson. But the fact that it’s his second-best result of the 12 races run thus far says much.

“It’s flying by quick and we haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that.

“If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. For me, right now this middle portion of the season is the key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”

His Hendrick teammates are making headway and garnering attention – Chase Elliott won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last month to secure a spot in the playoffs and Alex Bowman is riding a career-best string of three consecutive runner-up finishes.

Meanwhile Johnson and William Byron have shown some improvement but less speed and consistency.

As for Kansas, Johnson said his team knew as soon as the No. 48 was unloaded “that we were down on speed to our teammates.”

“We made some (decisions) to race better and try not to pay attention about single-car speed a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track,” he said.

“So Friday we’re trying not to overreact, we’re just hoping that it would race better. Then when I got in the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us, I was like ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ We didn’t have the raw speed and didn’t have the better car in traffic.

“I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. Once (I voiced) my displeasure in the car, he made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome on pit road, those guys rallied around, we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth.

“We know what’s making speed within our company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car … with our philosophy.”

Johnson will be going after a fifth win in the Cup series all-star race, slated for Saturday night at CMS, as well as fifth win in the 600.

“Winning on either weekend would be really special and significant for us on the 48 car,” he said. “My All-Star wins mean a ton to me and obviously that big cash prize that’s out there (the winner’s purse is $1 million) is very tempting.

“The 600 is such a test of driver and machine, strategy … the challenge we have to face I guess ultimately in the 600 is just insane. Those victories mean a ton to me. It’s hard to believe I’ve won as many as I have.”

As part of the NASCAR Salutes initiative held in conjunction with the race, Johnson will carry the name of Army Sgt. Richard Donlan on his during the Coca-Cola 600.

The announcement was part of Tuesday’s paint scheme reveal for the All-sponsored Chevrolet.

“It’s just such an honor,” Johnson said. “Times like this put it all in perspective. … Our sport just does an amazing job of being active and involved. I’m one of 40 lucky drivers that get to carry a name on the car and to honor that fallen soldier.”