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).

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.