The 2018 NASCAR Cup season was predicted to be “The Year of the Chevy” by many after an underwhelming end to 2017 in which Jimmie Johnson could not find speed, Kyle Larson was struck by bad luck at the wrong time, and Chase Elliott squandered multiple opportunities to find Victory Lane.
The claimed “Year of the Chevy” has turned out to be the surprising “Year of the Ford”. Going up against the newer Camry and Camaro, Ford has put on a surprising performance through the first 14 races, winning 7 of them. While the obvious improvement from 2017 is Kevin Harvick, other Ford drivers like Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano have enjoyed better results. But is Ford really as dominant as they may seem?
Ford or Stewart-Haas Racing?: Out of the top 11 in points, seven are Ford cars. Six Ford drivers have led upwards of 200 laps this season. But has Ford really took a huge leap forward, or is the Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) team the reason for Ford’s success?
Compared to the opening 14 races of 2017, Kevin Harvick has seen vast improvement in 2018. Clint Bowyer, Martinsville winner and sixth in the standings, sat tenth following the first Pocono race last year. Kurt Busch, seventh in the standings currently, was mired back in 14th last year at this time. Aric Almirola took over for Danica Patrick, and he is 11th in the standings, an enormous jump forward for the #10 car.
SHR has obviously improved with speed and the ability to finish races, but Team Penske’s gains are much smaller. Brad Keselowski had won twice at this time last season and was fifth in the championship; right now, he has no wins, but still is fifth in the points. Joey Logano’s inconsistent start to 2017 put him 11th after 14 races, compared to his third place in the standings this year. And finally, new addition Ryan Blaney is 10th in the standings, compared to 12th for the Wood Brothers last year.
While Penske has enjoyed better consistency in 2018, Keselowski and Logano have rarely challenged for the lead on NASCAR’s conventional ovals. Ryan Blaney has shown bursts of speed at Martinsville, Bristol, and Kansas, but has been struck by wrecks and failures.
Other Ford teams, like Roush Fenway Racing and Wood Brothers Racing, have not started the 2018 season better than they did in 2017. Both teams had won with first-time winners in 2017’s beginning, but both teams are winless this time around.
So, is Ford really the manufacturer to beat? Roger Penske’s cars have not mounted a challenge to Harvick, or the stout Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. SHR’s entire team is pointing upwards, but aside from Richmond and Martinsville, Bowyer, Busch, and Almirola have ran good, but nowhere close to the dominators.
Ford is not that far ahead of its competition, but when Kevin Harvick is lapping up to 10th place on a weekly basis, it sure makes it seem like Ford has a big advantage.
Paul Menard’s Mediocre Start: Wood Brothers Racing’s (WBR) new man behind the wheel, veteran Paul Menard, has not produced spectacular results. Aside from a sixth at the Daytona 500 and a stage win at Talladega, Menard’s best moments have been a ninth at Las Vegas and sixth at Kansas.
WBR has improved little in one area from 2017: reliability. Ryan Blaney’s 2017 stint with the team featured many broken parts, failures, and crashes. This season, Menard has DNF’d three times and incurred a damaged hub at Dover.
Unfortunately, the bigger issue is speed. Menard is mired back in 17th in the standings. In 2017, Blaney took the #21 car to the lead for long stints at Texas and Kansas, eventually winning at Pocono. Menard has been his usual steady self, running 10th-20th, missing out on stage points. The improvement many thought Menard could enjoy is not quite happening. Time is running out for this team to find speed and produce better results.
Hello, Slowman!: Cup veteran Ryan Newman would certainly wish to go back a year in time, where he was 16th in the standings and locked into the playoffs with a Phoenix victory. Now, he is a miserable 22nd in the points, and only has three top tens, two of those coming at Daytona and Talladega.
Glimpses of speed from the #31 team have been short lived. At Atlanta, he led 17 laps from the outside pole, but later hit the wall. In Charlotte, Newman showed okay speed, but had a wheel problem that ended his night. At Fontana and Pocono, top ten starting spots were irrelevant by the race’s first stage completion.
While both Richard Childress Racing cars have struggled for raw pace, Newman has consistently been a step behind his teammate Austin Dillon. This lack of pace combined with some wrecks, including a massive Kansas crash with William Byron, has put the #31 team into a huge hole. The playoffs are a reach unless Newman and crew chief Luke Lambert can hit on something to get them back towards the top 16.
David Ragan’s Consistency: In the past 13 races following the Daytona 500, David Ragan has been running at the end of all of them. In fact, in 11 of those races, Ragan has secured a top-25 finish. At Talladega, Ragan scored 5 stage points and finished an impressive sixth.
Other good finishes for the 38 include a 12th at Bristol, 13th at Kansas, and 16th this past week at Pocono. Ragan, a steady veteran, is giving Front Row Motorsports (FRM) solid races without putting the car in harm’s way. This has slotted him 25th in the standings, less than 100 points out of a playoff spot, and ahead of Chris Buescher, teammate Michael McDowell, and Kasey Kahne.
Speaking of McDowell, the #34 FRM car has also enjoyed success, albeit along with inconsistency. McDowell finished ninth in the Daytona 500 and scored stage points in both stages. Following a tough three week stretch featuring wrecks at Bristol and Talladega, McDowell has placed 22nd, 20th, 18th, and 21st.
Both FRM cars have overperformed at times during the season, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep up as the summer stretch comes along.
Pocono and Michigan Race Dates: Having just finished the first Pocono race, it is crazy to think that only 6 races stand in between the next one. The second Pocono race is on July 29th, a short turnaround. Michigan International Speedway’s two dates are June 10th and August 12th.
Such close dates, especially over the course of a 36-race season, have to hurt attendance. For loyal fans an hour or more away from the racetrack, it can certainly be hard to commit to two trips to the same place in one summer. Further, going back to the exact same track in the matter of six to eight weeks can be a bit stale and repetitive.
Nothing is in store in the 2019 schedule to change this, but if Pocono and/or Michigan still retain two dates after the next deal with the International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports, NASCAR needs to look into creating a bigger gap between the races to aid fans and avoid staleness.
Speaking of Michigan, the FireKeepers Casino 400 will be this Sunday, June 10th, at 7:00pm GMT (2:00 EST) on Premier Sports (FOX).