We’ve seen the same guys turn into victory lane over the last few years in the NASCAR Cup Series. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and so on and so forth.
Guys like Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Aric Almirola have stolen a race or two, but outside of Chase Elliott, we really haven’t seen any new blood truly break out and turn into a consistent contender.
Will that change in 2019? If it does, here are three guys that could do it.
Byron and crew chief Chad Knaus have the most important ingredient already in the holster — speed. Byron landed five poles in 2019 and led 233 laps throughout the year. But Knaus knew the situation he was in. He opted to points race by utilizing stage points, which ended up costing Byron a shot to run for a few wins. His ultimate goal of making the NASCAR playoffs was met, however.
Now it’s time for Byron and Knaus to get more aggressive on the track. They’ve already got the speed and shouldn’t have too many issues making the field of 16. Can they find victory lane in 2020? Thinking back, Byron could have easily contented for wins at Sonoma, the Roval and Pocono.
Hendrick Motorsports as a whole found speed in 2019. Alex Bowman won his first race, while Chase Elliott carried the flag for the organization. There’s no reason Byron can’t split that duty with Elliott this season, asserting himself as a top contender in the sport for years to come.
Would it surprise anyone to see Byron become the top threat out of the Hendrick camp in 2020? Perhaps mildly, but Byron was just as good as Elliott was down the stretch last season. His second place run at Martinsville really stands out as a moment of maturity.
I’m expecting a couple of wins for the No. 24 in 2020.
It had to be somewhat tough for Erik Jones to stand to the side and watch three of his teammates battle for the championship in Miami. Jones’ 2019 playoffs were a complete disaster, ending with three finishes of 36th or worse in the first round.
But that wasn’t an indicator of the speed Jones showed throughout the year.
Jones was strong on the intermediates in 2019, pushing through to find victory lane in perhaps NASCAR’s toughest race of the year, the Southern 500 at Darlington. It was a huge moment for Jones, finally getting the best of his teammates. It backed up strong runs at Kansas, Chicago, Texas and Pocono to give the No. 20 team a crown jewel payoff.
He finished the 2019 season strong with a third place finish in Miami, once again showing speed that could have won the race if a couple of thing had fallen his way.
Jones held off a push from Christopher Bell to keep his seat for 2020, but the pressure hasn’t vanished just yet. Bell is in the NASCAR Cup Series now with Leavine Family Racing, but will eventually move over to the Joe Gibbs Racing flagship team — that’s just a matter of time.
It’s up to Erik Jones to make sure Bell isn’t taking his seat, because it’s tough to imagine Truex, Busch or Hamlin going anywhere. And quite frankly, if you’re driving for Gibbs, you’re expected to dominate races and win multiple times. It’s time for Jones to do that.
The good news? The ingredients seem to be there for him to do that.
Speaking of Bell, it’s going to be fascinating to see how he performs in a Joe Gibbs Racing satellite operation. He’ll replace Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 95 entry for Leavine Family Racing, while DiBenedetto moves over to the Wood Brothers.
Bell is bringing veteran crew chief Jason Ratcliff with him, keeping together a duo that dominated the Xfinity Series for two seasons. Gibbs was adamant that he wanted Bell racing in one of JGR’s four main entries, but that deal didn’t get done as noted above. You would assume Bell and Ratcliff would get the most up to date cars from the JGR fleet now, unlike what Mike Wheeler and DiBenedetto got last season.
Wheeler was on record after the near miss at Bristol, noting how they were operating with year old chassis. If you do see a bump in performance with this team in 2019, keep that nugget in mind.
Bell should shine on the short tracks in 2020, which is where he did a lot of damage in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Bristol, Richmond and Phoenix were his playgrounds for the last two seasons. With 750 horsepower still to work with at those tracks, Bell’s outstanding talent should be able to shine.
Considering what Dibenedetto did at Bristol in August, I’m guessing Bell is able to contend for at least one win, maybe two in 2020.