Monday, February 24, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Splitting a Larger Pie

It was a good weekend for Team Penske and it has drivers leading the NASCAR Cup Series and Supercars championship. NASCAR's Truck Series had its 600th race and everyone wants to beat Kyle Busch. Toyota continues to be handcuffed in LMP1, a class that had only three entries in Austin. The Asian Le Mans Series concluded in Buriram. Robbie Buhl and billionaire hedge fund manage Robert Citrone are working on an IndyCar team that will participate in the two Indianapolis races in May and May is the topic of discussion today. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Splitting a Larger Pie
A little over a week ago, Roger Penske made his first bit of news now that he is in charge of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500: A cash infusion.

Along with a number of facility improvements to bathrooms and adding video boards, the Indianapolis 500 purse will see $2 million injected to the pool of money and, with a purse set at over $15 million, the 2020 Indianapolis 500 will have the largest purse in the 104th editions of the race.

The purse has been a constant topic for the Indianapolis 500 for quite some time. While the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar went through a low period during the split, and even in the years immediately after reunification, one idea to drum up more interest for the race was to increase the purse and make it something notable. Robin Miller has been saying for a long time the Indianapolis 500 winner should get $10 million and it should pay $1 million to start. There are plenty of things wrong with that. For starters, the purse would have to be at least tripled from what it will be in 2020.

While it is great for the Indianapolis 500 to see a purse increase, $2 million is not going to change a lot. That is not a lot of money and it is not going to get the purse much closer to Miller's dream. With $2 million it is not simple what to do with it. It is not enough that everyone will necessarily see an increase, and even if everyone does get a little more it will not be much more. It might help out a few teams and those teams are likely to be the ones already running at the front. If none of the money is going to the one-off teams than will it really make a difference?

There are a couple of ways this $2 million increase can be used:

The $2 million could be just added to what the race winner gets. If that $2 million is just going to be added to the race winner's total, than nothing has really changed. It is a great increase for the race winner but it has not lifted the payout for any of the finishers from second to 33rd.

The $2 million could be spread across the field. That sounds nice but that would only be an additional $60,606.06 deals to each finisher. The winner's cut would only go up to $2,730,135 and that would still only be the third largest winner's share in the history of the event but it would make sure every starter gets over $250,000 and that has not be a case for the last few years.

There could also be a complete shift in how the purse is distributed.

The Indianapolis 500 purse has been rather stagnant for the last 18 years. From 1982 to 2002, the purse went from just north of $2 million to over $10 million. From 2002 to 2007, the purse only went up $640,235. In 2008, the first Indianapolis 500 after reunification, the purse jumped to $14,406,580. It has not been higher since. That same year Scott Dixon became the first Indianapolis 500 to earn more than $2 million for victory when he took home $2,988,065.

Hélio Castroneves won the 2009 race and got $3,048,005 and 11 years later that is the only time the Indianapolis 500 winner has earned more than $3 million.

The last ten Indianapolis 500 winners all earned over $2 million but none of them earned more than Dixon or Castroneves in 2008 and 2009, and five of the winners last decade earned less than $2.5 million. The total pursed dipped to $12,020,065 in 2013 with Tony Kanaan only taking $2,353,355 as the race winner.

While we have seen salaries and winners' share go up in other sports, the Indianapolis 500 dipping in pay compared to 2009 does not look good when everyone else's pockets are getting deeper. It would look good for the Indianapolis 500 if the winner's cut took a big leap. Just adding the $2 million increase to the winner's share would accomplish that but there is a way the winner's share could get larger and see the payout floor increased by over 50%?

What if $5 million was set aside for the race winner and then split the remaining $10 million evenly over the other 32 entries? That means second to 32nd would each get $312,500. That would be great for the 13 entries that made less than $312,500 in the 2019 race. It would not be great for the 19 other entries that made more than $312,500 in 2019. It would be hard to justify 57% of the grid taking a pay decrease but an argument could be made it is for the greater good.

The race would have a tagline to sell. It would likely be the largest payout for a race winner in the world. I can't think of another race that pays $5 million to win. People care about the winner. No one really cares what second place makes. It would seem cruel to us on the inside who follow IndyCar regularly to know the runner-up was making over $400,000 less than what it paid the year before but future purse increases could be used to boast those positions in the top five and top ten.

The good news for IndyCar is it would have raised the floor and the ceiling simultaneously. The little guys would get richer and the richer would get richer. For one year, it would be a notable headline for the series, something to sell, hopefully something that would draw people in and be a marker of greater things to come for 2021 and onward.

Bringing this back to Earth, I do not think Roger Penske is looking to create a tagline. I do not think Roger Penske is going to cut the payout for 57% of the starters. I think Roger Penske is looking to boost the payout for all 33 starters on the grid. Perception is still important to Roger Penske and in year one of him in charge I think he will want to see the record for largest winner's share or at least get it back up to $3 million. From there, the remaining $12 million will be divided to make sure the 2020 runner-up gets more than the 2019 runner-up and the same is true for every position through 33rd.

Penske is a businessman and he knows if everyone is making more money everyone is going to be happy.

Champions From the Weekend
The #26 G-Drive Racing Aurus-Gibson of James French, Romain Rusinov and Léonard Hoogenboom clinched the Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with a runner-up finish at Buriram.

The #2 Nielsen Racing Norma-Nissan of Colin Noble and Anthony Wells clinched the Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a runner-up finish at Buriram.

The #27 HubAuto Corsa Ferrari of Marcos Gomes, Tim Slade and Liam Talbot clinched the Asian Le Mans Series GT championship with a victory at Buriram.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about HubAuto Corsa but did you know...

The #45 Thunderhead Carlin Dallara-Gibson of Ben Barnicoat, Harry Tincknell and Jack Manchester won the 4 Hours of Buriram, the team's second consecutive victory. The #12 ACE1 Villorba Corse Ligier-Nissan of Alessandro Bressan, David Fumanelli and Gabriele Lancieri won in LMP3.

The #1 Rebellion R13 of Gustavo Menezes, Norman Nato and Bruno Senna won the FIA World Endurance Championship's Lone Star Le Mans from Austin, the team's second victory of the season. The #22 United Autosport Oreca-Gibson of Filipe Albuquerque, Philip Hanson and Paul di Resta won in the LMP2 class, the team's second consecutive victory. The #95 Aston Martin of Marco Sørenson and Nikki Thiim won in the GTE-Pro class, the team's second consecutive victory. It should be noted the #51 AF Corse Ferrari of James Calado and Alessandro Pier Guidi had its Shanghai victory reinstated. The #90 TF Sport Aston Martin of Jonathan Adam, Charlie Eastwood and Salih Yoluç won in the GTE-Am class, the team's third victory of the season.

Joey Logano won the NASCAR Cup race from Las Vegas. Chase Briscoe won the Grand National Series race. Kyle Busch won the Truck race.

Jamie Whincup and Scott McLaughlin split the Supercars races from Adelaide.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross Triple Crown race from Arlington with finishes of fifth, first and first. Ken Roczen won the first race of the night.

Coming Up This Weekend
World Superbike opens its season at Phillip Island.
Supercross will be in Atlanta.
Formula E is back in Marrakesh.
NASCAR will be at Fontana.

Friday, February 21, 2020

2020 IndyCar Team Preview: A.J. Foyt Racing

We are getting into the meat of the Chevrolet teams in this portion of the IndyCar team previews and this one will look at A.J. Foyt Racing.

After two seasons with all-Brazilian lineup, the 2020 season will look a little more diverse and see more drivers rotate through the team. Charlie Kimball has been brought in for a full-time seat replacing Matheus Leist. The #14 entry will be split between three drivers. Tony Kanaan will drive the five oval races in what is being celebrated as his final season in IndyCar. Sébastien Bourdais moves to the team and the four-time champion has four races scheduled for 2020. Rounding out the #14 lineup will be a rookie, Dalton Kellett.

2019 A.J. Foyt Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 3rd (Gateway)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 15th (Tony Kanaan) 19th (Matheus Leist)

2020 Drivers:

Charlie Kimball - #4 Novo Nordisk Chevrolet
For the first time since 2010, Kimball did not have a full-time IndyCar ride but he was able to secure a five-race schedule with Carlin.

Kimball's season did start at St. Petersburg and it started on an encouraging note with an eighth place qualifying effort. The day was looking good with Kimball in the top ten but an unscheduled pit stop was required for repairs, knocking him off the lead lap. His next appearance was the Indianapolis 500 and he was the only Carlin car in the race. He started 20th but improved throughout the race and was in the top ten when he was collected in the Graham Rahal-Sébastien Bourdais incident. The damage put Kimball four laps down and he was classified in 25th. Texas made it three consecutive mechanical issues, as a wheel bearing failure ended Kimball's race after 86 laps.

The next race was Pocono and Kimball finished 10th after avoiding all the accidents and the rain. Due to a driver shuffle after Max Chilton decided to step away from ovals and Patricio O'Ward had Red Bull junior team responsibilities in Japan, Kimball added Gateway and Portland to his schedule. Gateway was a forgettable 15th place finish but he went from 21st to tenth at Portland. He went from 20th to 15th in the season finale at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
6.333: Average number of top ten finishes in a season.

6: Seasons with at least one top five finish in a nine-year career.

96: Starts since Kimball's only IndyCar victory at Mid-Ohio in 2013

14.375: Average championship finish in Kimball's eight full seasons in IndyCar.

A lot of races where Kimball qualifies somewhere between 16th and 20th but ends up finishing somewhere between tenth and 13th.

That is kind of Kimball's M.O. In his last eight seasons in IndyCar his average finish has been better than in average starting position. In five of those seasons his average finish was better by at least two positions and in four of those five seasons it was better by at least three positions.

Foyt's cars were horrible at qualifying last year and we did not see many races where one car went from 20th to 11th. It was mostly start 20th and finish 15th or start 22nd and finish 18th. Kimball will have to get better starting positions. There is a big difference starting 17th versus 21st and those four spots could mean three or four more top ten finishes.

Kimball is a smart driver. He might not light up qualifying but he will keep it clean in a race and make sure the car is still running at the checkered flag while making sure the car moves up the running order. He is not going to turn the team into a constant podium contender but he should improve the finishes and at least get the ball rolling in the right direction.

Foyt needs one season where it is not constantly languishing at the back. It cannot be the team where we pencil its cars on one of the final two rows on the grid and then forget about it. It needs to at least be in the mix and that means pushing to advance from the first round of road/street course qualifying and maybe once in a while actually advancing.

I think better days are ahead for this team with Kimball. That does not mean he is going to be in the top ten of the championship. In fact, I think if Kimball can get back to 15th in the championship but has six to eight top ten finishes, has an average starting position below 18.0 and advances from the first round of qualifying at least once or twice that is something the team can be proud about. It would be an incremental gain but one that is desperately needed.

Tony Kanaan - #14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet
The 2019 season was another difficult year for IndyCar's ironman.

After not picking up a top ten finish in the final five races of 2018, Kanaan's 2019 season started with five consecutive finishes outside the top ten and he finished off the lead lap in four of those five races. Cautions almost went his way at St. Petersburg but poor pit stops cost him a shot at a top ten finish. He was 12th at Austin, 18th at Barber, brought out a red flag in qualifying at Long Beach and that put him behind the eight ball for the race, and he qualified 24th and finished 20th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Things improved at the Indianapolis 500, where Kanaan qualified 16th and pulled out a ninth place finish. Things took a downturn at Belle Isle with a 15th in race one and a second race that didn't even make it through turn three on lap one. Texas was not the homecoming A.J. Foyt Racing was hoping for with Kanaan in 16th.

Kanaan would finish off the lead lap in the next four races at Road America, Toronto, Iowa and Mid-Ohio but he was able to pick up a tenth place finish at Iowa. He was eighth at Pocono and his best race was Gateway after holding out as long as he could for his final pit stop. The caution came out before Kanaan could stop, this cycled him from being 14th or 15th to 2nd and ended up third at the checkered flag. His season ended with 12th at Portland and 16th at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
317: Consecutive starts.

377: Career starts, 30 starts behind Mario Andretti for the all-time record.

6,846: Days between the 2001 Belle Isle CART race, the last IndyCar race Kanaan missed, and the 2020 St. Petersburg season opener. That is 18 years, eight months and 27 days.

Tears but in a good way.

This is it for Tony Kanaan's IndyCar career. Five races: Indianapolis, Texas, Richmond, Iowa and Gateway.

It feels right and yet it still feels too soon.

Let's be honest with ourselves, we should not be expecting some type of fairy tale ending. We should be hopeful of a respectful finish to Kanaan's career. Perhaps h gets another top ten finish at Indianapolis and another top ten finish at Texas, Iowa and/or Gateway but we are likely not going to see Kanaan win his second Indianapolis 500. We are not going to see Kanaan close his career with five top five finishes. We are not going to see him win at Richmond or end his career with a victory at Gateway. It is just not likely to happen.

In the four returning races, Kanaan had finishes of ninth at Indianapolis, 16th at Texas, tenth at Iowa and third at Gateway. The third is a little misleading because of the nature of that finish with the timely caution but his average finish was 9.5. At Richmond, he won there in 2008, had four top five finishes in seven starts and averaged a finish of 8.3.

I think we would all be happy if Kanaan gets two or three top ten finishes. He didn't lead a lap in 2019, led 20 laps in 2018, 55 laps in 2017 and 37 laps in 2016. We shouldn't think Kanaan will have one standout race but we should hope Kanaan gets to run every lap, take the checkered flag and get out of the car to applause.

Sébastien Bourdais - #14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet
After winning at St. Petersburg the previous two years it was going to be difficult for Bourdais to keep up that form. The bad news for him is an engine failure ended any hope of a three-peat after 11 laps.

Things were not looking good at Austin and Bourdais qualified 17th but the car got better in the race and the only caution for Felix Rosenqvist's accident lifted him further up the order only for the race to end in a fifth place effort. The momentum of Texas carried over to Barber, where he qualified fifth and finished third.

After two 11th-place finishes at Long Beach and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Bourdais had one of his best Indianapolis 500 starts. He was in contention for a top five finish but contact with Graham Rahal ended that run in turn three and with less than 25 laps to the checkered flag. Things got better at Belle Isle with finishes of 11th and ninth and spring ended with an eighth place finish at Texas.

Bourdais was outside the top ten for most of the day at Road America and was 12th. He was eighth at Toronto, went from 21st to ninth at Iowa and contact with Colton Herta kept Bourdais from getting a top ten at Mid-Ohio but he still charged from behind to finish 11th.

A seventh place finish followed at Pocono and Gateway was his most encouraging race. Bourdais started second but spun exiting turn four while in the top five. He was ninth at Portland and he was fighting a sore neck the entire Laguna Seca weekend and nearly was taken out of the car but he ran the entire weekend, qualified 19th and through pain drove to a seventh place finish.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Bourdais could become the second Frenchman to drive for A.J. Foyt Racing. Frank Perera ran the 2008 finale at Chicagoland for Foyt and finished 15th.

7: Consecutive seasons with a podium finish.

8.5714: Average number of top ten finishes in a season.

5.5714: Average number of top five finishes in a season.

13: Yeas since Bourdais had more than five top five finishes in a season when he had ten top five finishes in the 2007 Champ Car season.

Get strong enough results to remind every team what they are missing.

The combination of Kimball, Kanaan and Bourdais is one of the best Foyt has ever had. These are proven drivers and we know what they are capable of. Bourdais lost his ride at Dale Coyne Racing but he hasn't lost a step. He was still the top driver in that team last year and finished third at Barber. This is a much difference scenario for Bourdais but he should be able to pick the team up and get much better results.

We are hoping Kimball can get Foyt out of the first round of qualifying. Bourdais should get this team out of the first round of qualifying. Bourdais isn't the magic fix and take the team from 20th on the grid into the Fast Six but things should be better and there should be more competitive races.

Bourdais' schedule will be St. Petersburg, Barber, Long Beach and Portland and while that is better than nothing it seems like he would have been a great third option for the team for the Indianapolis 500. He is only going to get four cracks at the 2020 IndyCar season and he might have two or three really strong races, races that make Foyt really contemplate Bourdais getting a full-time opportunity in 2021. A limited number of races does make it harder to standout. One race with a mechanical failure can let all the air out of the balloon.

All Bourdais can do is the best he can and leave an impression on people. He didn't lose his ride at Coyne because of ability. He can still be competitive and I think this is a great chance to show it.

Dalton Kellett - #14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Kellett ran his fourth full season in Indy Lights in 2019 and after three years with Andretti Autosport the Canadian made a move to Juncos Racing.

The season started with a finish off the lead lap at St. Petersburg in tenth and he was eighth in the second race. His next four finishes between Austin and Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course were ninth, ninth, eighth and seventh. He started fourth for the Freedom 100 and he finished fifth, his fourth consecutive top five finish in the event.

At Road America, he had finishes of eighth and seventh with an eighth in the first Toronto race following. In the second Toronto race, Kellett started fourth and with help from some attrition he ended up on the podium in third place.

Mid-Ohio would see finishes of seventh and eighth with a sixth at Gateway. The season would end with finishes of fifth and sixth at Portland and a pair of sixth place finishes at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
126: Road to Indy starts from 2012 to 2019.

0: Road to Indy victories.

8: Road to Indy podium finishes.

16: Road to Indy top five finishes.

Not be as bad as Matheus Leist.

Kellett's season will begin at Austin, he will run the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500 in a third entry for Foyt. He will continue at Belle Isle, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca.

Kellett's track record is not great. Is he a hazard? No. He is not the quickest driver but in his Road to Indy career he was never a dangerous driver. He was not making boneheaded mistake after boneheaded mistake. With all that said, he was still far from being competitive outside of a few Freedom 100s.

Foyt saw Leist have one good year in Indy Lights where he won the Freedom 100, had two other victories but had a handful of poor results on street courses and he was not ready for IndyCar but that didn't stop Foyt from picking a peach that was not yet ripe. Kellett has a lot of junior series experience and he might hold his own in an IndyCar but nothing from his Road to Indy career suggests he will be a competitive IndyCar driver.

There were eight full-time drivers in Indy Lights in 2019. Kellett was seventh of those eight drivers. The average Indy Lights grid size in 2019 was 9.0555 and Kellett's average finish was 7.0.

I don't think this will be a case where Kellett is a danger on track but I do not think he is going to be fighting for many top fifteen finishes. I think he will be just as bad if not worse than Leist. These aren't a few appearances; this will be a 13-race schedule for Kellett. The numbers are going to be comparable. Other than not running the other four ovals he is going to run every track and we are going to have a clear idea where he stands.

It is hard to see Kellett jumping into the car and being able to rub elbows with the veteran drivers on the IndyCar grid when he was not even close to the other rookies in the class of 2020.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 15th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

2020 IndyCar Team Preview: Dale Coyne Racing

The seventh 2020 IndyCar team preview is Dale Coyne Racing and the team is shaking it up.

After having three seasons with Sébastien Bourdais leading the charge the team has let the Frenchman go and sophomore Santino Ferrucci will inherit the team leader role. His new teammate comes from Japan and had years of experience in Europe. Dale Coyne Racing tested this driver last year at Mid-Ohio and he put up impressive speeds, faster than Felipe Nasr, who was testing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

The team not only experienced a driver change. Engineers Craig Hampson and Michael Cannon have left the team to join Arrow McLaren SP and Chip Ganassi Racing respectively.

2019 Dale Coyne Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 3rd (Barber)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 11th (Sébastien Bourdais), 13th (Santino Ferrucci)

2020 Drivers:

Santino Ferrucci - #18 SealMasters Honda
After a handful of cameo appearances in 2018, Ferrucci joined the IndyCar cast in 2019 and his season started with an off in qualifying, dropping him to 23rd on the grid at St. Petersburg but he kept in on the road in the race and with a few passes and some help from cautions he ended up ninth.

At Austin, he qualified 11th but some damage dropped him to 20th. He qualified 10th at Barber but dropped to 15th. He went off in turn one at Long Beach, stalled the car, lost two laps and ended up 21st. In changing conditions in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis he ended up tenth.

Ferrucci started 23rd for his first Indianapolis 500 and moved forward during the race. The final accident took out five cars and Ferrucci made a save in grass to avoid the accident. This put him in contention for a top ten result and he ended up seventh, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year. He was 19th in the first Belle Isle race and strategy in the second race led him to lead 20 laps but he finished tenth. Texas was going to be another top ten finish but with attrition and restarts he ended up finishing fourth.

The team attempted a four-stop race at Road America and it did not work out, leading to a 19th place finish, one-lap down. An 11th at Toronto followed but he stood out at Iowa with aggressive moves early. However, those early moves did not translate to a result, he took the checkered flag in 12th. Another 12th followed at Mid-Ohio. Pococno saw Ferrucci jump into the top ten early and he worked his way to another fourth place finish.

At Gateway, Ferrucci started sixth and went to the front, leading a race-high 97 laps. Victory escaped him when the final caution mixed up the field but he made a charge back up to fourth. His season ended with electrical issues ending his race at Portland and an accident at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
6.2: Ferrucci's average finish in oval races in 2019.

15.5833: Ferrucci's average finish on road and street courses in 2019.

20.64: Points per race in 2019.

2,037: Laps completed in 2019. The only drivers to complete more were Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden. The only other driver to complete over 2,000 laps was Tony Kanaan.

97.4: Percentage of laps completed in 2019

Improve on road and street courses.

As much as Ferrucci was applauded for his oval prowess off the bat, his road and street course form left little to be desired. He did have three top ten finishes on road and street courses but his best finish was ninth at St. Petersburg. He made it out of the first round of qualifying on only three occasions. He started outside the top fifteen on five occasions on road and street courses and he had only two top ten starts over the course of the entire season. All in all, Sébastien Bourdais won the intrateam battle 11-6 in the 17 races and Bourdais won the qualifying battle 11-5.

When 70% of the races are road and street courses you are going to have to get some top ten and top five finishes in those races if you want a great championship finish. After Gateway, everyone had Ferrucci locked in for rookie of the year. He was ninth in the championship, top rookie, two points ahead of Felix Rosenqvist and 44 points ahead of Colton Herta in 14th. The season ended with Rosenqvist in sixth, Herta in seventh and Ferrucci 74 points behind Rosenqvist and 69 points off Herta.

His average finish on road and street courses has to improve by at least five positions. He needs to get at least five top ten finishes on road and street courses and maybe pull out a top five finish. His average starting position has to improve by at least three spots as well from 15.375.

As for ovals, I think his results are a little skewed. While he deserves all the credit for not tearing up equipment and making it through the mess, I am not sure he will be as fortunate the second time around. Three top ten finishes would be a good showing in his second year on ovals.

DCR lost Hampson, who brought the oval results with him when he came in 2017. Coyne is going to lose all its oval pace in 2019 just because Hampson is gone but it is going to take a step back. Add to it Ferrucci has lost Cannon as his lead engineer and Ferrucci no longer has Bourdais to lean on, and he is starting all over in year two. He fell into a good groove for his rookie season. His sophomore season has seen a complete flip of all the pieces around him.

This is going to be a big year for Ferrucci. He has to show he can handle the switch and he cannot let frustration get the best of him. This season is going to be a lot different from 2019 and we are going to get a clearer picture of who Ferrucci come September.

Álex Palou - #55 Dale Coyne Racing w/ Team Goh Honda
Palou spent the 2019 season in Japan in the Super Formula championship and in the GT300 category in the Super GT championship.

His Super Formula campaign began with a retirement at Suzuka but he picked up fastest lap. He rebounded with a sixth at Autopolis after starting 15th but a 13th place finish followed at Sportsland SUGO after qualifying eighth.

At Fuji, Palou took pole position and in a race in a torrential downpour, he drove a flawless race to take his first victory in the series, 13 seconds clear of Sho Tsuboi. Another pole position came at Motegi but Ryō Hirakawa overtook him for the lead just before halfway through the race. Palou would lose two positions during the pit cycle and finish fourth.

He went from eighth to fourth in the penultimate race of the season at Okayama and it kept him alive for the championship at the Suzuka season finale. He was third in the championship on 25 points, four off of championship leader Naoki Yamamoto. The weekend started with Palou picking up his third pole position of the season with Yamamoto starting fifth and other championship rival Nick Cassidy in sixth. Palou was the top of the championship runners for much of the race but a loose cooling wire wrapped around the rear suspension and forced an extra pit stop, ending his championship hopes.

In Super GT, Palou completed for McLaren Customer Racing Team, which Team Goh operated. Seija Ara, 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, was his co-driver. The season started with finishes of 19th, 14th and 13th at Okayama, Fuji and Suzuka. The team skipped the Buriram round and retired from the second Fuji race. The pairing picked up a runner-up finish at Autopolis but finished the season with 12th at Sportsland SUGO but won pole position at Motegi and finished seventh.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Palou was third in the 2019 Super Formula Championship with 26 points, one victory at Fuji and ten points off the champion Nick Cassidy.

3: Palou had three pole positions in Super Formula in 2019, the only driver with multiple pole positions.

36: Palou made 36 starts in the GP3 Series and his one victory cane in the 2015 season finale at Abu Dhabi, where Antonio Fuoco was second and Esteban Ocon was third.

1: Palou had raced at one track on the 2020 IndyCar schedule. He ran at Austin in the 2017 World Series Formula V8 3.5 Series and he had finishes of finish and second. He started on pole position for the second race.

Rookie of the year is always the goal for rookies but I think for Palou he should be shooting for at least splitting the two other rookies from Indy Lights, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay, and shoot for being the best at Dale Coyne Racing.

Palau is coming over with inspiring results in Japan and a memorable test with Coyne at Mid-Ohio, where he was reportedly six-tenths faster than Felipe Nasr, who was driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Everything but Austin is going to be new for Palou. We do not know how he will adapt to ovals but h seemed to enjoy the rookie test at Texas last week. Craig Hampson is gone. Mike Cannon is gone. This is a very different team than the one he tested with last summer. His results may surprise him after how well things went when he first ran with the team.

While Palou was third as a rookie in Super Formula, he did spend a year in Japanese Formula Three. He knew the tracks. He was driving for Nakajima Racing, whose owner is former Formula One driver Satoru Nakajima, but it was a team that had not had great results in recent seasons.

I think Palou could be the shocker and not only be rookie of the year but be top Dale Coyne Racing driver and be 11th to 14th in the championship. I think there are going to be rough days and it will come down to whether or not Palou loses confidence. Based on what he has done in Japan this is not someone who is going to be hanging at the bottom of the time sheets.

This could be a case where Palou gets the better results on the road and street courses and his lack of oval experience will lead to the two DCR drivers being almost level in the championship. Palou's goal should be to be the top DCR finishers more than his teammate and get at least seven top ten finishes.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 15th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

2020 IndyCar Team Preview: Meyer Shank Racing

We have reached our sixth 2020 IndyCar team preview and it is a new full-time team!

After spending the last few years testing the waters Meyer Shank Racing is diving into the deep end and will attempt at 17 races with Jack Harvey. This combination dates back to the 2017 season when Harvey ran for the team in partnership with Andretti Autosport. The team has shown exciting pace in its three part-time seasons and it has high expectations in 2020.

2019 Meyer Shank Racing
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 3rd (Grand Prix of Indianapolis)
Poles: 0
Championship Finish: 21st (Jack Harvey)

Jack Harvey - #60 SiriusXM/AutoNation Honda
In Meyer Shank Racing's first significant crack at the IndyCar calendar, the team started strong at St. Petersburg with a starting position of seventh and a finish of tenth after battling slow pit stops and traffic.

Harvey brought out a red flag in qualifying at Austin, dropping him to a 23rd starting position. The race was not going great but Harvey kept it on the road and with his final pit stop out of the way when the only caution came out, Harvey moved into the top ten when the shuffle occurred. He kept it in the top ten and held on to finish tenth. At Barber, he qualified 12th, and had a good race going but a pit lane speeding penalty cost him. The cautions did time out to keep him in the running for a top ten finish but he needed a late splash of fuel and dropped to 13th. Long Beach was a little tougher for him, as he started 18th and early contact put him in the flowerbed around the fountain, a first but not a first any driver would want. He was able to continue in the race but was three laps down.

The breakout race for the team was Grand Prix of Indianapolis where Harvey qualified third and spent pretty much the entire race in the top five and at one point was challenging Scott Dixon for the lead. Unfortunately for Harvey, pit stops increased the gap Dixon had to him and when the rains came, Simon Pagenaud made his way to the front. The day still ended in a third place finish for Harvey, his first podium finish and the team's first podium finish.

The Indianapolis 500 was a good but not great showing, starting 25th, completing 199 laps and finishing 21st. The team's next race was Road America, which was a little underwhelming with a 15th place finish. Things got back on the right page at Mid-Ohio when Harvey qualified ninth and he finished tenth. Harvey qualified fourth for Portland and this seemed like another promising start but Ryan Hunter-Reay made one error into turn one and got into Harvey, ending his race after 19 laps. In the Laguna Seca finale, Harvey started 24th and finished 19th.

Numbers to Remember:
18.6: Points per race in 2019, better than Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Marcus Ericsson, Zach Veach and Matheus Leist.

5: Harvey made it out of the first round of qualifying on five of nine occasions.

4: Top ten finishes in 2019.

1: Finish better than tenth and that was third in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Be somewhere between 12th and 15th in the championship.

Mike Shank has already said the goal is to finish at least eighth in the championship, advance from the first round of qualifying on every occasion and get at least one podium finish. I think only one of those goals is realistic.

Harvey did an encouraging job in 2019. He had a competitive pace despite being a single-car, part-time team. We have seen plenty of efforts such as Harvey and MSR and been lucky to be 16th in qualifying and finish in the top fifteen in the race. Harvey got top ten results and he earned those results. These weren't fortunate turns of events that led to a top ten finish. He earned his top ten at St. Petersburg and Mid-Ohio and Harvey was legitimately the third best car in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and he was fighting with the leaders at one point.

Harvey has what it takes to piece together a great weekend, get to the Fast Six and run in the top five all race. Can he do that for 16 more weekends? I don't think so. I think he can do it three or four times a year but MSR showed weak points in 2019 and that is fine. This is a team that is still learning IndyCar; it is still growing and getting up to speed. There are going to be weak weekends. There should be weak weekends. It wouldn't look good if a team just rolled up and won eight races and had 15 podium finishes in year one.

Take into consideration that MSR is going to be learning four ovals in 2020 and we really aren't sure what the team is capable of on ovals. It has only run the Indianapolis 500 three times. Those four races could be excruciating for MSR. Those four races could swing the championship result in a negative direction for the team when the road and street course results are encouraging.

Looking at Harvey's results and extrapolating his points per race he would have been around 15th in the championship and that is not great but it would be good for a single-car team, especially a new single-car team. I think eighth is expecting too much but if Harvey was 13th, had one or two podium finishes, four or five top five finishes and seven to nine top ten finishes with three or four Fast Six appearances and seven or eight Fast 12 appearances that would be a respectable first full-time season for MSR and Harvey.

Expanding that to ovals I think Harvey just needs to complete laps. Results will come with completing laps. If he can finish on the lead lap in at least three oval races and can maybe get one top ten finish that will be a good start.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 15th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET

Monday, February 17, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Filling The Gaps – 2020 IndyCar Grid

Twenty laps of the Daytona 500 were completed and rain has forced the remaining 180 laps to be completed on Monday. Rain delayed the Asian Le Mans Series race in Sepang and once the race was started a penalty in the closing minutes for a faulty taillight decided the race. Supercross played in the Floridian sand. A lack of snow hurt Rally Sweden. Formula E returned to Mexico City but on a larger course with no chicanes. IndyCar began testing in Austin and weather did not necessary comply but we have our first glimpse at what lays ahead of the 2020 season. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Filling The Gaps – 2020 IndyCar Grid
The first IndyCar test is in the books and after getting through two days of rain and cold weather we have seen cars on track and have an idea how things are lining up ahead of next month's season opener from St. Petersburg.

Most of the pieces are set but a few are still missing and with the season approaching that means the Indianapolis 500 is closer each day. With seeing a bunch of teams and drivers on track we need to sit down and see how everything is lining up.

Who will be full-time? Who will be part-time? Where could additional rides pop up for the month of May? This is where we try and answer those questions and we will go team-by-team in the process.

Team Penske:
This team led the test with Will Power but neither fellow full-time drivers Josef Newgarden nor Simon Pagenaud were second quickest in the team. That honor went to Scott McLaughlin, who will run the #2 Chevrolet at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and McLaughlin could run more races in 2020. One race McLaughlin will not contest is the Indianapolis, which is where Hélio Castroneves will fill the fourth car looking for his fourth Indianapolis 500 (Three full-time, four Indianapolis 500 entries)

Arrow McLaren SP:
Chevrolet saw a clear number two team pop up at the Austin test. Oliver Askew ended up seventh fastest with Patricio O'Ward in tenth. Combined with the four Penske cars, the two AMSP entries gave Chevrolet six of the top ten spots in testing (Two full-time) (Five full-time, six Indianapolis 500 entries.

The third best Chevrolet team in the test was Carlin. Max Chilton returned but was only 15th fastest. Sérgio Sette Câmara and Felipe Nasr split the #31 Chevrolet but both were outside the top twenty at the test. Nothing has been confirmed for the #31 Chevrolet for race drivers but it is believed Câmara and Nasr will figure into a few races and other drivers could circulate through the team. Chilton will run all the road and street course races and the Indianapolis 500 with the remaining four ovals still open for the #59 Chevrolet (Two full-time) (Seven full-time, eight Indianapolis 500 entries).

Ed Carpenter Racing:
Testing was not as good as Ed Carpenter Racing probably hoped for. Rinus VeeKay was 18th and Conor Daly was 25th. Ed Carpenter will run the ovals in the #20 Chevrolet and Daly will fill out a third entry for the team at Indianapolis (Two full-time, three Indianapolis 500 entries) (Nine full-time, 11 Indianapolis 500 entries).

A.J. Foyt Racing:
New drivers, same part of the timesheet for A.J. Foyt Racing. Charlie Kimball was 23rd, Sébastien Bourdais was 24th and Dalton Kellett was 27th out of 27 drivers. Tony Kanaan will run the #14 Chevrolet at the ovals. Kellett will occupy a third car at Indianapolis (Two full-time, three Indianapolis 500 entries) (11 full-time, 14 Indianapolis 500 entries).

This team was not at the test but plans to have Ben Hanley run St. Petersburg and have an entry at Long Beach, Indianapolis, Texas, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca. No driver has been announced for the other five races (15 Indianapolis 500 entries).

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing:
Though not at the test, D&R will run at road and street courses for the first time since São Paulo 2013. The team will field Sage Karam at St. Petersburg, the two Indianapolis races and Toronto (16 Indianapolis 500 entries, 16 Chevrolets for the Indianapolis 500).

Andretti Autosport:
Alexander Rossi was the top Honda at the Austin test in second with Colton Herta rounding out the top five. Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Zach Veach were 12th, 14th and 17th respectively at the test (16 full-time, 21 Indianapolis 500 entries).

Chip Ganassi Racing:
Scott Dixon was eighth at the test with Felix Rosenqvist in 11th and CGR newcomer Marcus Ericsson in 19th (19 full-time, 24 Indianapolis 500 entries).

Dale Coyne Racing:
Honda had three teams represented in the top ten at Austin but representing DCR was rookie Álex Palou in ninth with Santino Ferrucci in 20th (21 full-time, 26 Indianapolis 500 entries).

Meyer Shank Racing:
Ahead of the MSR's first full-time season, Jack Harvey was 13th at the Austin test (22 full-time, 27 Indianapolis 500 entries).

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:
Rounding out the Honda lineup was RLLR, the team that won two races in 2019 and had two drivers in the top ten of the championship. Graham Rahal was 16th and Takuma Sato was 22nd in the test (24 full-time entries, 29 Indianapolis 500 entries, 13 Hondas for the Indianapolis 500).

We are looking at two-dozen cars at every race and 26 cars for St. Petersburg, which would tie 2008 and 2012 for most St. Petersburg entries. It is ok to feel good with those numbers. We are also five entries away from the magic number of 33 for Indianapolis and that is with Honda down three to the Chevrolets. Where could additional entries come from?

Andretti Autosport is going to have a sixth entry at Indianapolis, whether it is Fernando Alonso or not is another story but that is 30. Dale Coyne Racing has run a third car regularly in recent years and I think it will again. That is 31. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing ran an additional car last year and it is on-and-off. Some years it does, other years it doesn't and the team is talking about filling an additional entry for 2020 so that can be penciled in as the 32nd entry.

Going back to the Chevrolet camp, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing ran two cars last year. I am not sure if running additional races will curb that program but the team had a good relationship with J.R. Hildebrand the last two years. It would not be a surprise if D&R ran two again this year and got the grid to 33 entries.

Will we have enough entries from bumping?

AMSP could run a third car and a third car has been highly discussed. I think we see it. That is 34 entries. Carlin ran three entries last year at Indianapolis. That was a little different circumstance as it added Patricio O'Ward late in the going and O'Ward had the Indy Lights scholarship, which guarantees an Indianapolis 500 entry. After seeing two of three cars miss in 2019, I think Carlin might stick to two entries but if the money is there we cannot rule out the team rolling out a third car and boasting the grid to 35 entries.

Juncos Racing is trying to get back to the Indianapolis 500 and it would be a welcome sight to see that green-team back on track. That could be 36 entries. Clauson-Marshall Racing has been silent since the checkered flag in last year's race, where Pippa Mann finished 16th and completed all 500 miles in the team's first race. The team did run with support from A.J. Foyt Racing and I am not sure if Foyt's third car in-house means it will not be able to have the same relationship with CMR in 2020. If CMR can make it back we could have 37 entries.

I don't think there will be 37 entries because the breakdown above would be 21 Chevrolets and 16 Hondas and that is mostly because of the AMSP switch to Chevrolet. What would have been a 19-18 split in favor of Honda now sees Chevrolet take on the bulk of the entries because of AMSP switching sides. Last year, there were 18 Honda entries and 18 Chevrolet entries. In 2018, Honda had 19 entries to Chevrolet's 16 entries.

I do not think either manufacture is going over 19 entries and because of the shift of AMSP and Chevrolet taking on more teams I am not sure we are going to see as many one-offs as in other years from both manufactures. Chevrolet has to already make up for AMSP and Honda will have fewer teams, which means fewer possibilities for expanding.

The good news is it is the middle of February and we have 29 entries solidly down on paper. Where could more entries come from? I think Chevrolet will go to 19 entries. I think we will see AMSP run a third car, I think the second D&R car will be back and I think Juncos will return.

The problem is the Honda side is much more limited. I think we will see extra entries from Andretti, Coyne and RLLR but that is it. I do not see Ganassi adding a fourth car. I do not see Andretti, Coyne or RLLR adding two additional entries for May. I do not think Meyer Shank Racing will be fielding a two-car program.

That would leave us with 35 entries, which is down one entry from last year, but still a respectable number.

If we want to get into the driver pool, of the 29 Indianapolis 500 entries, 28 have a driver with DragonSpeed the one still undetermined. Fernando Alonso, James Hinchcliffe, Pippa Mann, Spencer Pigot, Oriol Servià, Jordan King, J.R Hildebrand, Sébastien Bourdais, Kyle Kaiser, Matheus Leist, Ben Hanley and Ed Jones are all drivers that were entered for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 with no announced plans for 2020. That is 12 drivers. King, Leist and Jones likely will not be be back but that still leaves nine drivers as possibly entries and this is not including any other drivers who want to make an Indianapolis debut or a return to the Speedway.

I want to end this by saying I am happy with what the grid looks like for the full season and for Indianapolis. I am happy Bourdais, Kanaan and Kellett will be splitting a car. I am happy we could see Nasr and Câmara split a car and a few other drivers could run for Carlin. I am happy DragonSpeed is coming back and we could see Hanley share that entry with at least one other driver, Colin Braun has been the rumored linked to DragonSpeed. I am happy Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will run more than Indianapolis and Karam is the team's driver of choice. I am happy Meyer Shank Racing will be full-time, Daly is getting to run a large majority of the schedule and Team Penske is giving McLaughlin a shot in IndyCar.

Would it be nice if Bourdais, Kanaan, Nasr, Câmara, Daly, Hinchcliffe and Karam were all full-time? Would it be nice if Pigot, Hildebrand and Kaiser were all full-time as well as Gabby Chaves? Of course all those things would make IndyCar greater but we have to be realistic and know 33 full-time entries is not possible. It would be too much of a good thing. IndyCar is not at a point where it could support 33 full-time entries. That many full-time entries would cause many headaches in terms of making sure road and street courses have enough pit and garage spaces, enough spare parts are available and Honda and Chevrolet having enough engines and engineers for that many entries over 17 races.

When taking into everything IndyCar has and though it is not perfect it is pretty damn good.

Champion From the Weekend
Igor Fraga won the Toyota Racing Series championship with two victories at Manfeild's Circuit Chris Amon, including victory in the New Zealand Grand Prix. Tijmen van der Helm won the second race of the weekend

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Igor Fraga and Tijmen van der Helm but did you know....

Mitch Evans won the Mexico City ePrix, leading all 36 laps in the process.

The #45 Thunderhead Carlin Racing Dallara-Gibson of Ben Barnicoat, Harry Tincknell and Jack Manchester won the 4 Hours of Sepang. The #9 Graff Norma-Nissan of David Droux, Eric Trouillet and Sébastien Page won in LMP3. The #88 Team JLOC Lamborghini of Yuya Motojima, Yusaka Shibata and Takashi Kogure won in GT.

Noah Gragson won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Daytona, his first career victory in the series. Grant Enfinger won the Truck race, his first victory in 28 starts.

Elfyn Evans won Rally Sweden, his first victory since the 2017 Wales Rally GB. .

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Tampa Bay, his third victory in 2020 and Tomac has the championship lead.

Coming Up This Weekend
Week two of the NASCAR season from Las Vegas.
The FIA World Endurance Championship makes its first of two stops in the United States at Austin.
Supercars open the 2020 season in Adelaide.
The Asian Le Mans Series seasons conclude at Buriram.
Supercross is in Arlington for a Triple Crown weekend.

Friday, February 14, 2020

2020 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

We have reached the fifth 2020 IndyCar team preview and it is Andretti Autosport and the team is growing this year.

With the absorption of Harding Steinbrenner Racing the four-car fleet has grown to five and when combining the two teams it is two operations that should be happy but not satisfied with 2019 coming together for 2020.

There are no driver changes for 2020 and the combined effort will see Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta lead the way, Ryan Hunter-Reay hoping to remain as one of the team's top fighters and Marco Andretti and Zach Veach both needing a massive turnaround.

2019 Andretti Autosport Review:
Wins: 2 (Long Beach, Road America)
Poles: 2 (Long Beach, Belle Isle I)
Championship Finishes: 3rd (Alexander Rossi), 8th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 16th (Marco Andretti), 18th (Zach Veach)

2019 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Review:
Wins: 2 (Austin, Laguna Seca)
Poles: 3 (Road America, Portland, Laguna Seca)
Championship Finish: 7th (Colton Herta)

Zach Veach - #26 Gainbridge Honda
Veach's sophomore season was an unfortunate step back.

A 14th at St. Petersburg was followed with a 22nd at Austin when Veach went off course at the start after starting ninth. He would start 20th or worse in the next four races and while he drove from 23rd to 12th at Barber and 20th to 12th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he was 17th at Long Beach and he was 19th in the championship entering the Indianapolis 500.

Veach was collateral damage in the final caution of the Indianapolis 500 but he was 29th and had not had a top ten finish through the first six races. Things turned around at Belle Isle but he nearly threw it all away when he spun on the pace lap of the first race. Instead of starting eighth, he was at the back but in the shortened race, Veach used strategy to finish eighth. He qualified third for the second race and came home in eighth again.

He coughed up a top ten finish at Texas when he brushed the barrier, was not a factor at all at Road America and was 13th at Toronto. His only other strong race of the season was seventh at Iowa after starting 20th. Veach's season ended with five consecutive results outside the top ten, three of which were outside the top fifteen, two of which were outside the top twenty and he had only one lead lap finish during that time.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Retirements in 2019 after having zero in 2018.

4: Laps led in 2019 after leading two laps in 2018

6: Lead lap finishes in 2019 after eight in 2018.

8.6: Veach's procreant of laps completed dropped 8.6% in 2019 from 98.4% in 2018 to 89.8% in 2019.

Save his ride.

This is Veach's third year of a three-year-deal. His rookie year was good. He had some rough results but had races where he was competitive and showed he was getting the hang of it. His sophomore season was worse, much worse.

There was not one race in 2019 where you felt Veach was any closer to winning a race than he was in 2018. He started outside the top fifteen in nine races. He finished better than his starting position only seven times. His only lead lap finish on an oval was at Iowa, where he picked up his best finish of seventh.

In a year where Veach should have shown progress he made steps back. Veach was behind Marco Andretti in the championship driving for the same team. People love bashing Marco Andretti. Veach was worse than him. Think about that next time you take a crack-shot at Andretti.

Veach has to make a big leap in 2019. Everything has to be at least doubled. He needs to more than double his number of top ten finishes and his number of top ten starting positions. He definitely needs to double his number of lead lap finishes and he needs to blow up his number of laps led to astronomical proportions compared to four laps led.

While doubling everything Veach also has to do things he has never done before. Winning a race would be great but he needs to get at least one top five finish. He cannot go through three seasons without a top five finish and because this is year three he needs to get at least two or three top five finishes to show the first one was not a fluke.

Veach cannot be the worst Andretti Autosport driver for a second consecutive season. If he is I think Andretti Autosport will let him go unless the Gainbridge money is good enough. The team is taking on a massive five-car effort. Offloading one of those entries after 2020 might be welcomed and if Veach makes it easy for them it would be greatly appreciated.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts/AutoNation Honda
After being vice-champion in 2018, Rossi headed into 2019 with a lot of confidence and high expectations.

The season started with a fifth at St. Petersburg on a good but not great day. Rossi was fighting for a victory in Austin with Will Power but Felix Rosenqvist's accident brought out a caution before either driver could make their final pit stop. Rossi went from second to cycled out of the top ten. He went on to charge to ninth. Another fifth followed at Barber and at Long Beach, Rossi put on a beat down, winning the race by over 20 seconds.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was taken from Rossi before he event took the green flag when Patricio O'Ward ran into the back of him. Rossi spent the first few laps getting repairs and he was out of it. In the Indianapolis 500, Rossi was a man on a mission. He was strong all race and had to overcome re-fueling issues on multiple stops. He made daring pass after daring pass and found himself leading while the Chevrolets could not match Honda's fuel mileage. When the final caution came out the Chevrolets were able to make it without needing an extra stop and it put Rossi against Simon Pagenaud for the final 25 miles. The two traded blows and Rossi did all he could but Pagenaud pulled it out.

The first race was shaping up to be victory for Rossi but a caution before his first stop would cost him the lead. However, Rossi caught a break when the field did not bunch up and instead of dropping from first to tenth, he emerged in second behind Josef Newgarden. The only problem is the damp track off line made any attempted pass suicidal with a lack of grip. Rossi tried to edge through but finished second. He ended that weekend with a fifth place result.

Rossi worked his way to the front at Texas and it seemed like a race that was going to go in his favor but Newgarden's crew nailed the strategy and used cautions to leapfrog Newgarden up to the lead after spending much of the race outside the top five. In the closing laps it was Newgarden vs. Rossi again but Rossi could not make it through and was runner-up again.

Then came Road America, another beat down, another victory by over 20 seconds and this time Rossi led 54 of 55 laps. While hoping to give Rossi the spark needed for a championship push, he followed it with a third at Toronto and a fifth at Mid-Ohio while Newgarden ended in the gravel trap.

Rossi headed to Pocono 16 points behind Newgarden but his race did not last a lap. Contact prior to turn two ended any shot of victory. The crew scrambled for repairs and to get the car out to make up some points but significant ground was lost. It did not help at Gateway when Rossi's crew decided to stretch fuel instead of making one final stop under caution and trying to work his way up in the closing laps. He was unable to stretch the fuel, pitted under green flag conditions and ended up 13th.

A third at Portland slowed the bleeding but he entered Laguna Seca with a lot of ground to make up. The car was not there in the finale to push for the victory and that was needed. He was sixth in the finale and dropped to third in the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Consecutive races without a lap led and seven consecutive starts without a victory.

8: Rossi's longest drought without a lap led in his IndyCar career.

5.5: Average starting position in 2019, Rossi's best average starting position in a single season.

42: Consecutive finsihes. Rossi's most recent retirement was at Texas in 2017.

Win more and win more consistently.

Rossi was a championship-contender for the entire 2019 season but he did not lead a lap over the final seven races of the season. He cannot do that again. Rossi needs to win three to five races to win the championship. He could do it. There isn't a place where Rossi seems out of contention. He has won the 500-mile races on superspeedways. He has won on street courses and road courses. He has won in the wet.

I guess short ovals are one place where he could improve. He has yet to win a short oval but he has had strong runs at Phoenix and Gateway. Iowa is a place where results could be better. Barber is one track that Rossi has openly expressed being one of his least favorites. I think for 2020 to be a championship season he needs to be great at all the places that frustrate him. That is one way we can see growth. If he is succeeding where he otherwise found displeasure than the rest of the field will be in trouble.

The championship was within Rossi's grasp in 2019 but when it came time to step up and take the championship he could not put the results together and that cannot be repeated in 2020. He won two races in 2019 and in each victory the margin of victory was greater than 20 seconds. If you can win races like that you should be able to pull out other races. There were a few races that went against Rossi where he otherwise could have been the winner. Cautions caught him out at Belle Isle and Texas and in turn it allowed Josef Newgarden to take two victories while Rossi settled for runner-up finishes.

That should not repeat in 2020. There are going to be a few races where Rossi is leading and does not have the caution go against him or he will be third and have the caution in his favor.

I think Rossi is going to be back in the championship discussion again and he will go into Laguna Seca with a third consecutive shot at the Astor Cup. I think he needs to go into the finale leading the championship. Rossi has led the championship after only two races in his IndyCar career, both in 2017, after Long Beach and Belle Isle I. I think Rossi needs to lead the championship after at least six or seven races. Ultimately, it does not matter how many races you are leading the championship after but it does matter if you are leading after Laguna Seca. However, in Rossi's case, I think it is important he controls the championship for a little bit in 2020.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
The driver known for mechanical issues coming at the wrong time started his season in such a fashion. Hunter-Reay lost an engine in the season opener at St. Petersburg on lap 20 after starting fifth.

The good news is Hunter-Reay was able to rebound. He was third at Austin after spending almost the entire race in the top five. He was eighth at Barber and fifth at Long Beach. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was lost when James Hinchcliffe spun Hunter-Reay and it dropped Hunter-Reay a lap down. Indianapolis 500 qualifying was not kind to Hunter-Reay. He started 22nd but he worked his way forward in the race. Never a contender for the victory, Hunter-Reay did finish eighth.

He had a good weekend in Detroit with a fourth in race one and he was fifth in race two despite starting 17th and having a tire puncture in the final five laps of that race.

Texas was Hunter-Reay's strongest race and he really should have won it. The only problem is Hunter-Reay was planning for a four-stop strategy but the tire falloff was not as great as expected and other teams were set to make it on three stops. Cautions played into Hunter-Reay's favor and he was able to squeak out a fifth place night when it could have been much worse

Hunter-Reay hit a rough patch at the start of summer, 11th at Road America after using the alternate tire at the wrong time, 16th at Toronto and 17th at Iowa after starting strong but he lost all momentum after the red flag in the middle of the race. He bounced back with a third at Mid-Ohio.

He was one of the five drivers caught up in the opening lap Pocono melee. He was eighth at Gateway after the Sébastien Bourdais caution came after his pit stop and it cost him a shot at a top five finish. He had a brain fade at Portland, missed his breaking point, collided with Jack Harvey and instead of a top five result it was 18th. His season ended with a tenth place finish at Laguna Seca, which came after he stalled on his first pit stop and dropped to 24th.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Podium finishes in 2019, Hunter-Reay's fewest in a season since he had one in 2009..

1: Hunter-Reay led one race in 2019, Texas, where he led 90 laps. It was his fewest races led since 2009 when he did not lead a lap that season.

9.6: Average starting position in 2019. It was only the sixth time Hunter-Reay has had an average starting position below 10.0 in his 16-year IndyCar career.

3: Top five starts in 2019, the second time in three seasons Hunter-Ray had three top five starts in a season.

Get back to where he was at in 2018.

Hunter-Reay ended 2018 fighting to retain the top spot in Andretti Autosport. He might not have matched Rossi's results but Hunter-Reay won two races and got back into the top five of the championship. In 2019, Hunter-Reay wasn't landing any punches.

There were two strong races for Hunter-Reay in 2019: Austin and Texas. Texas was the only one he had a sniff of winning. Outside of Texas, his oval results were uncharacteristically poor and I am afraid we are seeing the inevitable decline already begin for Hunter-Reay.

He is 39 years old. He has not won a race in three of the last four seasons. While he has finished in the top ten of the championship in three consecutive seasons, Hunter-Reay has failed to lead a triple-digit number of laps in four of the last five seasons. He has only one pole position in the last five seasons.

I think Hunter-Reay needs a season where he shows not all is lost. I think that means winning at least one race and being close to fifth in the championship or picking up at least four or five podium finishes in a season and again fighting for the top five in the championship. The grid is getting tougher. It is hard to imagine Hunter-Reay finishing ahead of any of the top seven in the championship from 2019. Based on 2019 championship results Hunter-Reay is third in the Andretti stable and he was eighth overall!

For the last three seasons we have been watching Andretti Autosport slowly transition from being Hunter-Reay's team to being Rossi's team. In 2020, we are going to see it cemented as Rossi and Colton Herta's team and it will likely stay that way for most of this decade.

Colton Herta - #88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Honda
Herta left us with a rookie season to remember.

The season started well with an eighth at St. Petersburg. He qualified fourth at Austin and spent much of the race in third. For the start he was close to Will Power and Alexander Rossi but those two slowly pulled away. Herta was left alone in third, far from challenging the top two but with no pressure from behind. Timing was in his favor. He made his final stop before the Rosenqvist caution and when Power and Rossi were caught out, Herta inherited the lead. Put into the lead of his third career start with 15 laps to go, a mistake would have been understandable but Herta didn't put a wheel wrong. He flew away from the field and became the youngest winner in IndyCar history.

The bad news for Herta is while his rookie season will be remembered for blazing speed it will also be remembered for reliability issues. He lost fuel pressure early at Barber. He brushed the barrier while in the top ten at Long Beach. When James Hinchcliffe got into Ryan Hunter-Reay, Herta was collected and his race ended there. He qualified fifth for his Indianapolis 500 debut and the gearbox broke after three laps. He finally got another finish at Belle Isle but both those results were 12th place finishes after starting in the top five.

Herta needed a great day and he had it at Texas, running in the top five, challenging the big boys of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Rossi and Hunter-Reay but even that race did not end well. Herta and Dixon made contact in turn three while both were fighting for top five results. On a night when Herta should have taken a fifth place finish, he headed home with 18th in the record books.

Needing to a strong summer, Herta opened it with a pole position at Road America. He lost the lead at the start to Rossi but remained at the front. The alternate tire fell away from Herta late in the stint and it cost him some ground but he remained in the top five. The team decided to go back to the alternate tire for his final stint and he started strong but the tires were gone in the closing laps. Herta went from a top five to eighth in the final laps, a good day but not as good as it could have been.

He followed Road America with a seventh at Toronto. Mechanical issues cost him again at Iowa when a half shaft broke while he was in the top ten with less than 30 laps to go. He had an eighth at Mid-Ohio, spun while in the top ten at Pocono and he was ninth at Gateway.

Another pole position came at Portland but again he struggled with tire life at the end of the stint and Dixon and Power pounced. Herta lost some ground but he did manage to finish fourth. The season ended with Herta's best performance, another pole position but this time he went on to lead 83 laps, hold off a challenge from Power and get his second victory of his career at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Top five finishes in 2019, victories at Austin and Laguna Seca and fourth at Portland.

4: Finishes outside the top twenty in 2019, consecutive races from Barber to the Indianapolis 500.

7: Retirements in 2019.

18.8: Average finish on ovals in 2019. He had four finishes outside the top fifteen and a ninth at Gateway.

1,651: Laps completed in 2019, the fewest among the drivers that started every race and fewer than Marcus Ericsson, who missed a race.

Fewer mechanical failures and better oval results.

A lot of people were upset Herta wasn't rookie of the year despite winning two races but when you consider Herta retired from over 40% of the races and had only one more top ten finish than retirements it is kind of surprising he was seventh in the championship. However, if that kind of season can get Herta seventh in the championship, what is possible if the team cleans up its act.

Herta won twice but probably could have had three or four victories. We are going to see Herta win multiple times again and I think 2020 could be a season where Herta is a championship contender. He made a few mistakes in 2019 but most of the poor results were not because of driver error. It the equipment was there, Herta would have easily taken rookie of the year and perhaps challenged for top five in the championship as a rookie.

As a sophomore, I think Herta is going to experience fewer failures and if he can match his extraordinary qualifying record he could position himself to become the youngest champion in IndyCar history.

While the oval results were atrocious, Herta's races were quite encouraging. Texas was a race he could have won and Iowa was a top ten that slipped through his hands. He is going to have at least one or two top five finishes on ovals in 2020 and those will go a long way to an improved championship finish.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete Honda
Andretti returned for his 14th IndyCar season in 2019.

The year started with a 13th at St. Petersburg and a sixth place finish followed at Austin from 20th in the grid, aided a little by a timely pit stop and caution. He would finish 14th, 13th and 13th in the next three races but he qualified tenth for the Indianapolis 500 and in a tribute livery to his grandfather Mario's Indianapolis 500 victory 50 years prior it felt there may be a little Indianapolis magic coming to life in front of our eyes.

Unfortunately, it became clear early in the race the day would not be a fairy tale. Andretti dropped quickly and was pretty much out of the race at lap ten.

He was 16th in the first Belle Isle race but had a strong second race to finish sixth. He got another top ten at Texas. Electrical issues ended his day early at Road America but he rebounded to start seventh at Toronto and finish tenth. It would get tougher from there.

Iowa was difficult and the team parked the car after two-thirds of the race had been completed. He was 15th at Mid-Ohio. Even after five cars were taken out at Pocono, Andretti was two laps down in 15th. He tried to get a three-stop strategy to work at Gateway but the cautions did not go his way. He was able to finish tenth but it could have been better. His season ended with results of 13th at Portland and 14th at Laguna Seca.

Numbers to Remember:
0: Top five starts in 2019.

7: Andretti's best starting position in 2019 was seventh at Toronto.

8: Lead lap finishes in 2019, his fewest in a season since he had five in 2012.

72: Races since Andretti's most recent podium finish, a third at Fontana.

Get back into the top fifteen in the championship, not be the worst Andretti Autosport championship finisher and rediscover oval success.

Andretti is all over of the place. It was not long ago he was a regular in the top ten of the championship but in recent seasons tenth in the championship has appeared to be in another galaxy for Andretti. He picks up a few good results but those are quickly washed out with mediocre days where he is not even mention. It is not that Andretti is tearing up race cars or running off track.

He has just been slow. That is harsh to say but there is no other way to describe it. He started outside the top fifteen in 12 of 17 races in 2019. He had two top ten starts all season.

There is one area where a lot of improvements can be made.

Ovals are another.

People once though ovals were the one place Andretti could pull out some strong results and hoist him a few spots up the championship standings but in recent years his oval performances have been his weak spot.

He has not had a top five finish on an oval since he was third at Fontana in 2015. In the 22 oval races over the previous four seasons, Andretti has four top ten finishes with his best oval finish being seventh at Pocono in 2017, his average finish over those 22 races is 13.5 but he has only nine lead lap finishes in those 22 races. The good news is two of those top ten finishes were last year. The bad news is both were tenth place finishes at Texas and Gateway.

I think Andretti needs one top five finish. He needs at least nine top ten finishes with at least three of those coming on ovals and he should aim for his average finish on ovals being somewhere between 9.0 and 11.5.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 15th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

2020 NASCAR Cup Series Preview

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season will see a handful of changes, most notably, no title sponsor for the series, as NASCAR moves to a new sponsorship model.

Money and sponsors aside, the 2020 season sees changes to the cars and to the calendar. A lower downforce package will be introduced for the short track races and the road courses after less than stellar races on those disciplines in 2019.

Atlanta moves to March, Homestead moves to March, Martinsville will have a night race in May, Pocono will host a doubleheader at the end of June, the Brickyard 400 has moved to Independence Day weekend, there will be two off weeks in August to accommodate the Olympics coverage on NBC, Dover has moved to August and the regular season finale has moved to Daytona the last weekend in August.

Darlington will lead off the playoffs and a first round that includes Richmond and Bristol. The second round will be Las Vegas, Talladega and the Charlotte roval. The semifinal round will be Kansas, Texas and Martinsville. Phoenix will be the season finale.

There have also been changes in many seats on the grid. This preview will look at each driver entered ahead of the Daytona 500, the playoff hopes for each driver and where each driver is most likely to win a race.

Chartered Teams
Quin Houff - #00 Jacob Construction Chevrolet
Team: StarCom Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 33rd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Ever since Justin Haley backed into a victory in the July Daytona race the door is always open for someone the likes of Quin Houff of stealing a victory and if all he needs to do is be in the top 30 than it could happen. It likely will not happen but it could.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Daytona or Talladega with an assist from Mother Nature.

Kurt Busch - #1 Monster Energy/GEARWRENCH Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 13th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Busch should make it but it is the same problem we have seen from him the last few years, good but not great results. He can win a race, pick up some top five finishes and get into the top 16 but it is then a matter of advancing to the round of 12, eight and four. Twelve is possible, eight is tough, four is a stretch.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: All five of Busch's top five finishes in 2019 came on ovals 1.5 miles or larger. He had only four top ten finishes on ovals one-mile or smaller. Five of his last seven victories have come in either June, July or August. Perhaps his best shot at victory is Chicagoland, Kentucky or Michigan.

Brad Keselowski - #2 Discount Tire/AutoTrader/Money Lion/Miller Lite Ford
Team: Team Penske
2019 Championship Finish: 8th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 3rd (2014)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Keselowski is going to make it but he and Team Penske are entering 2020 off a disappointing end to 2019. The team won five of the first 15 races and then won one of the final 21 races. Keselowski had one top five finish in the final seven races and was eliminated at Kansas in the round of 12. He can get one victory but he will need to do a better job of stringing together top five finishes. If he cannot, it will be another round of eight elimination or worse.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Atlanta, Kansas, Martinsville or Talladega. Outside of Martinsville, Keselowksi has not won at a track one-mile or smaller since the September Richmond race in 2014.

Austin Dillon - #3 DOW/Bass Pro Shops/Symbicort Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 21st
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2018)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Unlikely. Dillon was 21st in the championship last year, had zero top five finishes, six top ten finishes and averaged a finish of 19.5 You just need one victory and he did win the Daytona 500 two years ago so anything is possible but if he stumbles over another victory the long-term prospect points to a round of 16 exit.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Daytona or Talladega.

Kevin Harvick - #4 Busch/Jimmy Johns/Mobil 1 Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 3rd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2007)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Harvick has made the final four in five out of the six years of this format. He is going to win multiple races, he is going to advance multiple rounds and with his consistency, how could you rule him out of making the final four again? Now that Phoenix is the finale a lot of people will pencil him down for the championship should be make it that far. Even if the finale was not at Phoenix Harvick would be one of the championship contenders.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Harvick can win anywhere but let's propose somewhere different. Harvick has not won at Richmond since 2013 but he has eight top five finishes at the track since 2014.

Ryan Newman - #6 Wyndham Rewards/Oscar Mayer/Castrol/Koch Industries Ford
Team: Roush-Fenway Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 15th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2008)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Newman made it last year without being that spectacular. Can he make it just by being mildly more consistent than the rest of the field a second year in a row? That is a difficult ask. There are going to be drivers making strides forward and if Newman cannot pick up his game it is hard to see him in the top 16 again.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Four of Newman's last nine top five finishes have come at Daytona and Talladega.

Tyler Reddick - #8 Caterpillar/Avalan Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Rookie (Ineligible/2018 and 2019 NASCAR Grand National Series champion)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 27th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Last year, the Childress cars were 21st and 25th in the championship. Reddick replaces Daniel Hemric and I think this car will finish higher up the championship order but can Reddick take it from 25th into the top 16? That is asking a lot in year one but I think he could be the top RCR driver in the championship and get into the top 20.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: In the second division, Reddick had a good record on 1.5-mile ovals with five of his nine victories coming at 1.5-mile ovals.

Chase Elliott - #9 NAPA Auto Parts/Mountain Dew/Kelley Blue Book/Hooters/UniFirst Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 10th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 14th (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Elliott is there but still so far from glory. Last year, we saw Elliott's ability to pull out a few victories and have strong races, see Kansas where he stuck into the semifinal round. However, when the car was off it was off and he cannot afford that in Chevrolet's first year with the remodeled Camaro bodywork. Consider this: Elliott had one more top five finish and two fewer top ten finishes than Erik Jones in 2019. Now Jones is coming off a victory in the Clash but think about how those two drivers have been perceived for the last four or five months. A lot of people expect more out of Elliott than Jones.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: The kitsch thing to say would be a road course because of his victories at Watkins Glen and the Charlotte roval. It feels like Elliott is knocking on the door for a short track victory.

Aric Almirola - #10 Smithfield/Mobil 1 Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 14th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 4th (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Almirola is a good driver with a team capable of giving him equipment to get him into the playoffs. That is about it. Almirola had six top ten finishes in the first seven races of 2019 and then six top ten finishes in the final 29 races. Maybe he is the surprise driver in the round of eight but most likely he is out in the round of 16 or round of 12 but after looking at his 2019 results, he could be the one driver people are most surprised does not make the playoffs.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Four of his last nine top five finishes have come at Talladega. Nine of his 18 top five finishes have come at tracks one-mile or smaller. So Talladega, Phoenix or Richmond.

Denny Hamlin - #11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 4th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2016, 2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Hamlin saved his career last year but in an emotional season that saw him win the Daytona 500, won at Phoenix to keep his championship hopes alive but at Homestead he ran out of steam in the finale. Hamlin needs to balance his emotions and have more balanced results in the season. After last year it seems certain he will be back in the playoffs and probably make the round of eight again but climbing that mountain to get to the round of four will be tricky.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Hamlin won at Daytona, Texas, Pocono, Bristol, Kansas and Phoenix last year. That is a pretty diverse group of tracks. He is due for a victory in Virginia and knowing how NASCAR works he will win the night race at Martinsville in May.

Ryan Blaney - #12 Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards/Peak/DEX Imaging Ford
Team: Team Penske
2019 Championship Finish: 7th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Blaney should get back there because Team Penske's equipment is good enough to get there but he is clearly third of three cars at the team and he really has not made any ground in becoming one of the top two in the team. That is concerning. He edged out Keselowski in the championship last year and made the round of eight when Keselowski was bounced in the round of 12 but with all the re-sets after drivers are eliminated it really doesn't mean that much. All three drivers underperformed last year but the one thing Keselowski and Joey Logano both have that Blaney doesn't is a championship. Penske will hang on to champions. He does not hang on to championship-less drivers for long.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A short track. Blaney did really well at Martinsville and Bristol last year.

Tyler Dillon - #13 GEICO Chevrolet
Team: Germain Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 24th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 6th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Dillon was 24th in the championship in 2019 with his only top ten finishes being sixth at Daytona, fourth at Daytona and tenth at Talladega. He had only five other finishes in the top fifteen all season. How do you think his prospects are?
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It was kind of spelled out above: Daytona or Talladega.

Clint Bowyer - #14 Rush Truck Centers/Peak/Mobil 1 Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 9th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 4th (2009, 2010)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Doesn't it feel like Bowyer is just a good driver? He can make the top 16 but is there any real hope he can go far or even make the final four? Bowyer has 14 full seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series. He has won a race in only six seasons. He has won a race in only one of the last seven seasons. I think he can make the top 16 but if Bowyer is flirting with the bubble and not making it that would not surprise me.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: You know what is crazy? Bowyer has only one victory at a mile-and-a-half track, the 2012 autumn race at Charlotte. Coincidentally, Bowyer led laps in 12 races last year, five of those were at 1.5-mile ovals. I am not sure Bowyer will win a race this year but what the heck, if does win one it will be at the tracks NASCAR fans hate the most.

Brennan Poole - #15 Spartan Go Chevrolet
Team: Premium Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: Rookie (18th in the NASCAR Truck Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Let's set the odds at 500-1.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Unless NASCAR seriously changes its rules for what is considered an official race Poole wouldn't win a rain-shortened event because Premium Motorsports made it a habit of finishing eight or nine laps down with nothing going wrong for the team in 2019.

Chris Buescher - #17 Fastenal/Fifth Third Bank/SunnyD Ford
Team: Roush-Fenway Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 20th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2018)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Buescher could be the surprise in the top 16 this year. He was the best of the two JTG Daugherty Racing drivers last year. He was competitive in suboptimal equipment. After seeing what Newman did last year in Roush equipment I think Buescher could match that and maybe he is the one sneaking into the playoff field. That is not a guarantee but Buescher seems to be the one driver moving up with a lot of confidence.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: All four of Buescher's top ten finishes in 2019 came at 1.5-mile ovals.

Kyle Busch - #18 M&Ms/Interstate Batteries Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 1st
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Busch is going to make it but it is just a matter of whether or not he can make it back to the final four. After seeing his championship last year, it feels like Busch is in another mindset and the weight of one championship, the weight of the 200-victory mark, the weight of people questioning his ability is gone. Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch are the only active drivers with multiple championships. Busch sits ninth all-time in Cup victories. He has left his mark as one of the all-time best drivers. I feel like Busch has reached a point of clarity and with that comes freedom to succeed effortlessly.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: With two championships I think it is time to get a Daytona 500 victory. He has won the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400 twice. The only other thing missing a victory at the Charlotte roval but the Charlotte roval has been around for five minutes. Busch knows what he wants.

Martin Truex, Jr. - #19 Bass Pro Shops/Auto Owners Insurance/SiriusXM Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 2nd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2016)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Truex will be in there again but the question is whether he can make the final four again. He proved many critics wrong in 2019, making it back to the final four with Gibbs. This year he will have to do it with long-time crew chief Cole Pearn. James Small will take over the main spot on the pit box. He is going to get a few victories but this could be the year where the changes catch up and the season could end in the round of eight.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Like Busch, Harvick and Hamlin, Truex can win anywhere. Yes, he has still not won a restrictor plate race in the Cup Series. It doesn't matter. He could get one.

Erik Jones - #20 DeWalt/Sport Clips/Craftsman/Resers/Stanley Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 16th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 3rd (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Jones should make it. He made it last year but was only hanging around the top ten and not in the top ten. The season ended on a low note and that is why he was 16th in the final championship standings. I think he could be in the top ten of the championship if results go his way.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Jones was strong on the 1.5-mile ovals last year. Joe Gibbs Racing was very good on the 1.5-mile ovals. One of those could go his way.

Matt DiBenedetto - #21 Menards/Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford
Team: Wood Brothers Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 22nd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 9th (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: DiBenedetto has a shot but a long shot. He had a few close calls to victory last season with Leavine Family Racing. The problem is I am not sure the Wood Brothers is a step up. It feels like a lateral move. Consider that Paul Menard finished ahead of DiBenedetto in the championship last year by 78 points but did it with only four top ten finishes. Consider that since the Wood Brothers returned to full-time competition it has championship finishes of 20th, ninth, 19th and 19th. DiBenedetto could make it but it could be another year of him stuck in the middle.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A short track. Most likely Bristol.

Joey Logano - #22 Shell/Pennzoil/AAA Ford
Team: Team Penske
2019 Championship Finish: 5th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2015)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Logano will be there and he will be a round of eight competitor. He does enter 2020 with 21 starts since his most recent victory. In those 21 races, I can only pencil one that probably should have been a victory for Logano and that was Kentucky. He had only four top five finishes in the final 21 races of 2019. Something fell off at Team Penske when summer 2019 hit and the team has to find what it lost quickly in 2019.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Probably Las Vegas or Talladega. Logano is going to win a few races this year. I don't think he is going to be in danger of missing the playoffs for a second time in four years.

William Byron - #24 Axalta/Liberty University/Hertz Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 11th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 21st (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: I think the consensus is Byron will get his first career victory this year. Last year, in his first year with Chad Knaus as crew chief, Byron was built into a playoff driver. The team got points, Byron brought the car home in one piece and he won five pole positions. He only had five top five finishes in 2019 so that is one category he has to greatly improve. Though Byron led in 19 races last year I am not sure there is one Byron should have won. He could win a race but still find himself with a lot of work to do.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Based on Hendrick Motorsports success in 2019, I think Byron could  win a road course race.

Corey LaJoie - #32 Schulter Systems/Keen Parts/ Performance Products/Pala Casino/ Ford
Team: GoFas Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 29th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 18th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: It is not going to happen and LaJoie has done well in the equipment he has. I don't think he is going to end up at Hendrick Motorsports no matter how many notes he writes.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Sadly, only a plate race.

Michael McDowell - #34 Love's Travel Stops Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 27th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Unless McDowell can find some of the Front Row Motorsports magic at Daytona or Talladega or find some of his road course talent, he is not making it.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Daytona, Talladega, Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

David Ragan - #36 Select Blinds Ford
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 30th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2007)
2020 Playoff Prospects: This is a Daytona 500 only entry for Ragan and this Rick Ware Racing car will become the #53 entry after this race.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It is Daytona or bust for Ragan.

Ryan Preece - #37 Kroger ClickList/Bush's Beans Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 26th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 8th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: I don't think Preece can do it. He was 26th in the championship last year, second of the rookie of the year contenders and the 2019 rookie of the year isn't even full-time in NASCAR's second division this year. Preece had three top ten finishes in 2019. He had only four top fifteen finishes and only 11 top twenty finishes in 2019! With those numbers, it is hard seeing him get five top ten finishes in 2020 let alone one victory.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Preece falls in the Daytona or Talladega camp.

John Hunter Nemechek - #38 Speedy Cash/MDS Trucking/CITGARD/Fire Alarm Services Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: Rookie (Ineligible/7th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Not good but after Nemechek was the top Front Row Motorsports finisher in the final three races of 2019 when he substituted for Matt Tifft he has to be feeling good about beating McDowell in the championship and performing better than where FRM is used to finishing.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Plate race or bust.

Cole Custer - #41 Haas Automation Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Rookie (2nd in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Custer is a bubble guy for now. He had a great season in the second division last year but this is a higher level and he will be in the one Stewart-Haas Racing entry that did not make the postseason last year. I think the car is good enough to get there and I think Custer could get it into the top 16. If the season starts well I think Custer could win at a 1.5-mile oval but I can also see growing pains, him being somewhere between 15th and 20th and after Daytona in August ending up on the wrong side of the cut line.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Any 1.5-mile oval and it helps that Stewart-Haas Racing has the cars to get him there.

Kyle Larson - #42 Credit Onc/AdventHealth Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 6th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 7th (2016, 2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Larson should be in and after scoring his best championship finish in 2019 he should be riding a wave of momentum into 2020. Add to that he finally won the Chili Bowl, the biggest race in his world, so everything from here on out should be gravy. Larson can win races but he needs to close some of these suckers out. He got that elusive Cup victory at Dover last year but he needs to put up three or four wins. Larson has everything it takes to be in the final four but he needs to execute.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Darlington. Really Dover and Darlington but Darlington and I guess Homestead. How much of a kick to the crotch would it be if Larson won at Homestead now that it is in March and no longer the season finale? It seems poetically cruel if that would be the case. I think the lower downforce package for short ovals and road courses should benefit Larson.

Bubba Wallace - #43 World Wide Technology/U.S. Air Force/Transportation Impact Chevrolet
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 28th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2018)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Slim. Wallace has one great race a year and we act like it is the start of more to come but it is really the edge of Richard Petty Motorsports' potential.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Somehow he was third at Indianapolis last year so that let that sink in for a moment. If he can finish third there then he could probably back into a victory at five or six tracks. He won't but he could.

Rick Stenhouse, Jr. - #47 Kroger Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 23rd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 7th (2014)
2020 Playoff Prospects: If Stenhouse, Jr. couldn't make it at Roush-Fenway Racing while Newman, scored worst results at Roush than Buescher scored at JTG why should I think Stenhouse could make the playoffs at JTG? The only hope is Stenhouse has a great ability for taking out half the field at Daytona and Talladega and if he does that enough and doesn't get caught in the mess himself he is bound to win again. The good news is he is starting his tenure at JTG on pole position for the Daytona 500. This will likely be his best weekend of the season.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: See above.

Jimmie Johnson - #48 Ally Financial Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 18th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2006, 2013)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Johnson missed the playoffs last year but it seems like a fluke. All the other Hendrick Motorsports cars made it. Johnson was looking good at Daytona in July and then had a July and August from hell. I am not sure if it was the team taking too many chances and changing crew chiefs midseason was not the right move but Johnson's season wasn't disastrous. He was alive until Indianapolis. I think he can get back there. What he does in the playoffs is another story. This is Johnson's final full Cup season. We have seen fairy tale endings before and we have also seen less than exciting exits of big names. I think Johnson makes the playoffs but he is a round of 12 elimination.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Johnson can win anywhere and since we are approaching three years since his last trip to victory lane I think he would take a win anywhere.

Joey Gase - #51 ASC Agri Supply/Page Construction/EFX Corp. Chevrolet
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 23rd (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: About as likely as Rick Ware Racing winning the LMP2 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Hawkseye Downs Raceway... which is not where the Cup Series races.

B.J. McLeod - #52 Rick Ware Racing Ford
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (20th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 19th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: McLeod is going to be running for the Grand National Series championship.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It is not going to happen.

Ross Chastain - #77 AdventHealth Chevrolet
Team: Premium Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (2nd in the NASCAR Truck Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 10th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: No chance because Chastain is running for the Grand National Series championship with Kaulig Racing.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: As of now, Chastain's schedule is Daytona and the Coca-Cola 600 in this car, which will be run in partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing. He is more likely to win at Daytona than Charlotte.

Alex Bowman - #88 Chevrolet Accessories/Axalta/Valvoline/Cincinnati, Inc./Llumar Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 12th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 11th (2019)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Bowman made it last year with a victory at Chicagoland but outside of that he had only six other top five finishes in 2019 and only three top five finishes after that victory. Bowman is good but I am not sure he can be great. He can make the playoffs but a round of eight or final four push seems unlikely in 2020. He can win one race a year, perhaps two, but it does not appear he could put together a three, four or five victory seasons, which is almost necessary to win a championship.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It seems to be a 1.5-mile oval or the Charlotte roval.

Christopher Bell - #95 Procore/Rheem Toyota
Team: Leavine Family Racing
2019 Championship Finish: N/A (3rd in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Bell enters the Cup Series with a lot of expectations and he is bringing a lot of Joe Gibbs Racing resources to Leavine Family Racing. I think he could steal a victory. Even if he doesn't, I think he could sneak into the top 16. It feels like Bell has been ready for the Cup Series for some time. He didn't get a championship at the second division but neither did Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. All those guys have had pretty good Cup careers.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: I could see Bell winning at Bristol. He could win any of the short track races and Joe Gibbs Racing was very strong at short tracks last year in the Cup Series. I know this isn't a Joe Gibbs Racing entry but in 2020 it will feel like it at some points.

Non-Chartered Teams
Justin Haley - #16 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet
Team: Kaulig Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (12th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: This is a Daytona 500-only entry and Haley is running for the championship in the second division.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Look, Haley is the most recent Daytona winner. Did it come because of a fortunate rainstorm? Absolutely, but if it happened once it could happen again. It won't. Haley's qualifying time has locked him into the Daytona 500.

Reed Sorenson - #27 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet
Team: Premium Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: 32nd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2008)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Not going to happen.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Not going to happen. Sorenson could make the Daytona 500 based on his qualifying speed or racing his way in.

Chad Finchum - #49 Garrison Homes Toyota
Team: MBM Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: N/A (26th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: This is not a full-time entry.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A late model race near you. Finchum has to race his way into the Daytona 500.

J.J. Yeley - #54 Rick Ware Racing Ford
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (58th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 10th (2013)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Yeley will be one of many drivers to cycle through Rick Ware Racing entries in 2020.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A dirt race in Arizona. Yeley has to race his way into the Daytona 500.

Brendan Gaughan - #62 Beard Oil/South Point Resort & Casino Chevrolet
Team: Beard Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (Four starts with his best finish being eighth at Talladega)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 11th (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Gaughan will only run four races, the restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: I would go with Talladega. It has more one-time winners than any other track. Gaughan locked himself into the Daytona 500 with his qualifying speed.

Timmy Hill - #66 Racing Toyota
Team: MBM Motorsports
2019 Championship Finish: Ineligible (27th in the NASCAR Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2020 Playoff Prospects: Slim to none.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: His dreams. Hill could make his Daytona 500 on his qualifying time or racing his way into the race on Thursday.

Daniel Suárez - #96 Coca-Cola/CommScope/Toyota Certified Used Vehicles Toyota
Team: Gaunt Brothers Racing
2019 Championship Finish: 17th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 29th (2017)
2020 Playoff Prospects: Suárez heads to his third different team in three years and it is the least-funded of the three teams he has ever been to. Gaunt Brothers Racing has never been full-time and while it had some good days with Parker Kligerman it needs the best of Kligerman's results multiplied by nine to have a prayer of making the playoffs. This team isn't guaranteed in for Daytona and Suárez has to race his way in. He cannot fall back on his qualifying time. Missing this race could make this season much longer. I am not sure this team could get the pieces together to even have Suárez in a position to fall backward into a victory.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It is tough to see him winning anywhere. He just has to hope to be competitive at a handful of places and maybe crack the top 25 in the championship.

Playoff Drivers Predictions
1. Kyle Busch
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Joey Logano
4. Chase Elliott
5. Martin Truex, Jr.
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Kyle Larson
8. Brad Keselowski
9. Erik Jones
10. Ryan Blaney
11. Jimmie Johnson
12. Christopher Bell
13. William Byron
14. Alex Bowman
15. Kurt Busch
16. Clint Bowyer

The Daytona 500 qualifying races will take place on February 13th at 7:00 p.m. ET with the schedule race scheduled to start at 8:45 p.m. ET.

The 62nd Daytona 500 will be at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday February 16th.