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Melillo’s Mind – Making the case for (or against) possible winners in 2019

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series - Pennzoil Oil 400
Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Pennzoil Ford, poses with the winner sticker in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil Oil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: 360628Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Joey Logano, driving the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, became the third different winner in 2019 with his win on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Logano held off his teammate, Brad Keselowski, to win the Pennzoil 400 driving the Pennzoil Ford Mustang.

One week earlier, Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford, visited victory lane in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Besides the two Team Penske teammates, Denny Hamlin is the only other winner through three races in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign, taking the checkers in the Daytona 500 driving the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Hamlin, Keselowski, and Logano are all but locked into the 2019 MENCS playoffs that will start in September, but who else will join them?

The 16 drivers that make up the playoffs will consist of race winners, and if there aren’t enough race winners to fill out the grid, then the rest of the field is filled out by the highest in points.

Simple enough, a win pretty much guarantees a seat at the table, but who else will join the three that have made it so far?

Check out my “way too early assessment” of each full-time driver, and their chances of finding victory lane this season below.

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Kyle Busch celebrates in victory lane at Pocono Raceway in August 2018. Photo: Dante Ricci / TRE

GOING TO WIN

No. 4 Kevin Harvick: One of the “Big 3” in the 2018 season, and one of the Championship Four drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, Harvick has already shown strength up front. Harvick sits fourth in the Drivers Standings, with two stage wins, two Top 5’s, and 133 laps led so far. No doubt that Harvick is going to win this season, if not multiple times.

No. 18 Kyle Busch: The younger Busch already has three wins in the 2019 season, but in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series. That aside, his Cup numbers aren’t too shabby either. Sitting third in the Drivers Standings with a stage win, two Top 5’s, Top 10’s in every race, and 50 laps led, it’s only a matter of time before the second of the “Big 3” finds victory lane.

No. 19 Martin Truex, Jr.: The third of the “Big 3” might not have as big of a case as the other two so far, but make no mistake – Truex, Jr. is already showing no signs of slowing down at his new home at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex, Jr. finished second at Atlanta, coming up short in the closing laps after attempting to navigate lapped traffic. Truex, Jr. has a Top 5, two Top 10’s, and four laps led, and sits ninth in the Drivers Standings. Expect Truex, Jr. and his crew chief, Cole Pearn, to make their way back to the top.

No. 42 Kyle Larson: Larson went winless in the 2018 season. That’s the last time I’m going to reference that this year, because Larson has already shown that it is behind him. Larson has the most laps led on the 2019 season at 142, and sits sixth in the Drivers Standings. Larson has one playoff point, but only one Top 10 finish in 2019, but that doesn’t make a difference. Larson is fast out of the gate, and is poised to capture many victories in 2019, as long as he doesn’t continue to lose them on pit road.

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Chase Elliott celebrates victory at Kansas Speedway in October 2018. Photo: Dante Ricci / TRE

POISED TO WIN

No. 1 Kurt Busch: Now stabled over at Chip Ganassi Racing, the elder Busch has already shown promise in the 2019 season. Sitting eighth in points, with two Top 5’s and 24 laps led, Busch has speed, but he also has strategy, and it could be a winning combination this season.

No. 9 Chase Elliott: Three wins in the 2018 campaign, and Elliott almost felt like a Championship Four contender before the series got to Daytona. Three races in, and it’s been a lackluster start for the fourth year driver. Only one Top 10 effort so far, the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable is struggling to find speed, but I can only imagine it can’t stay this bad forever. I think Elliott could find victory lane at least one time this season.

No. 10 Aric Almirola: Coming off a very successful 2018 season, including a win at Talladega, Almirola is looking for more in the 2019 season. Two Top 10’s and 36 laps led so far, Almirola might be able to capitalize where he faltered last season, and close out the deal more than give it away. Almirola could be the big sleeper this season once again.

No. 12 Ryan Blaney: Blaney’s two teammates are already in the win column, so why not the third Penske driver? Blaney has shown plenty of speed so far, collecting a stage win and leading 54 laps, but he hasn’t been able to finish where he’s run, with all his finishes outside the Top 10 so far. Blaney is 15th in points, but don’t expect him to stay that low for long.

No. 14 Clint Bowyer: Winner of two races in 2018, Bowyer hasn’t shown the same speed that he did last season to this point in 2019. Sitting 13th in the Drivers Standings with a Top 5 finish, Bowyer and his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates are still forces to be reckoned with, but none of them have been in winner’s circle just yet. Bowyer can get it done again in 2019, but will he?

No. 17 Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: A two-time winner at the highest level, and a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, Stenhouse, Jr. and his team look more ready than ever to find victory again this season. Stenhouse, Jr. sits 11th in the standings with a Top 10 and 22 laps led, but it has been more impressive to watch his fight in the top portion of the field. He may not be making many friends out there right now, but if he keeps running as hard as he is, and finds his way back to victory lane, the competition just might give him a little more respect out on the track.

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Jimmie Johnson celebrates victory in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona Int’l Speedway in February 2019. Photo: Matt Courson / TRE

LONGSHOTS

No. 3 Austin Dillon: The 2018 Daytona 500 winner, the older Dillon showed a lot of speed at Las Vegas this past weekend. After a pit road miscue, Dillon found himself in the back of the pack, and never recovered back to the front. I think Dillon can win, but it has to be the perfect scenario in which he has both speed and luck, and so far, it hasn’t worked out that way.

No. 20 Erik Jones: The 2018 July Daytona winner, Jones has shown speed before at many venues, but only has struck gold once. Jones drives some of the best equipment in the garage, but has never truly been in a winning drive at the Cup level sans his victory last season at Daytona. Jones is capable of winning, and this may be a decisive year for him with Christopher Bell lurking in the Xfinity Series.

No. 24 William Byron: Byron is a longshot because of one person on his team – Chad Knaus. Knaus is a seven-time championship winning crew chief with Jimmie Johnson, and now heads the No. 24 machine driven by Byron. Byron has a lot of untapped potential, and with Knaus, could wind up being the next great pairing. That is not guaranteed, but it still gives Byron a longshot chance at winning in the 2019 season.

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson: Johnson is a seven-time champion, with 83 wins in his career. He hasn’t forgotten how to do it, he’s just in a little bit of a slump. Johnson won the year-opening exhibition race in the Clash at Daytona, but has been sub par since. Given the right conditions, Johnson can and will succeed, as he has done in the past so many times before. That being said, Johnson is a longshot to find his way back into victory lane, but I think it is plausible that it can happen.

2019 Las Vegas 41 Daniel Suarez
Daniel Suarez at Las Vegas in March 2019. Photo: Chris Madrid / TRE

 

WILL BE WINLESS

No. 41 Daniel Suarez: Suarez comes into the 2019 in a new situation, at Stewart-Haas Racing, in a ride that won every year that it’s been running with Kurt Busch. Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, has yet to win, even after two full seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup Series. Suarez will show speed this season, I am sure of that, but I don’t think it will translate in to a trophy day in the 2019 season.

No. 95 Matt DiBenedetto: A wonderful surprise in the 2019 Daytona 500, DiBenedetto led the most laps and looked to be a contender until a wreck took him out of contention. Since the 500, DiBenedetto and his new team, Leavine Family Racing, has been quiet. DiBenedetto hasn’t shown the same speed as his Toyota Racing teammates have shown, and that’s not a surprise by any stance. It would have been a great story to watch the No. 95 take the place of Furniture Row Racing, but it’s much more than just becoming an affiliated team. I do think that the team and driver will both experience their best career season this year, but I don’t see it including a victory.

Former Cup Series winners, No. 6 Ryan Newman and No. 21 Paul Menard: The two Ford drivers Newman and Menard both find themselves in similar positions, as Ford drivers not on “Top Tier” programs. Newman and Roush-Fenway Racing are progressing, and Menard and The Wood Brothers are still in good equipment as well, but I don’t think either driver will visit victory lane in 2019.

Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year contenders, No. 8 Daniel Hemric and No. 47 Ryan Preece: It is a tough sport to win in, and both of these drivers know how hard it can be. Hemric never won in the other two NASCAR National Series divisions, and Preece gave up running full time to get into a ride that could win, capitalizing twice. Now both ROTY candidates are as fierce as the rest, but inexperience will prove to be their downfall, as neither will taste victory quite yet. Give it a few years.

The rest of the Chevrolet Camp, No. 13 Ty Dillon, No. 37 Chris Buescher, No. 43 Bubba Wallace, No. 88 Alex Bowman: Let’s face it, the Chevy camp just isn’t doing good, and hasn’t been since the new Camaro debuted last year. Only four wins in 39 points paying race, Chevrolet hasn’t shown the ability to step it up outside of Chase Elliott’s three wins last year and Kyle Larson’s speed so far in 2019. I think the trend will continue, and Ty Dillon, Buescher, Wallace, and Bowman will struggle for relevance in the 2019 season.

Front Row Motorsports, No. 34 Michael McDowell, No. 36 Matt Tifft, No. 38 David Ragan: The Ford team is undoubtedly still looking for speed on a week to week basis, and although this team has won twice in its existence, I don’t think any of the three drivers will find luck in the 2019 season. McDowell had a great run at Daytona, but after deciding to not push Joey Logano in the closing laps, I think that will come back to haunt him at some point when he might have a good chance to win a plate race. Ragan is a proven winner like Menard and Newman, but I don’t see him winning either. Tifft, another Sunoco ROTY like Preece and Hemric, is maybe at a disadvantage to the other two, and thus at an even bigger disadvantage to find a win this season.

The rest of the full-time, chartered field, No. 15 Ross Chastain, No. 32 Corey Lajoie, No. 51 Cody Ware, No. 00 Landon Cassill, No. 52 Rick Ware Racing, No. 77 Spire Motorsports: These cars and drivers are definitely in a better position than they were one year ago, with the new Aero Package bringing the field closer together, it’s slightly more likely that they could win, but it’s just not in the cards for 2019. Too many variables would need to align to give any of these cars or drivers a chance to win. I don’t think any of these cars or drivers come to the track expecting to win either, but it would be cool to see nonetheless.

Justin Melillo View All

Columnist / Reporter / Photographer / Webmaster for TheRacingExperts.com

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