Rookie of the year
Lambert: Daniel Hemric
Close call for me here between Hemric and Ryan Preece. We saw AJ Allmendinger give the No. 47 a good ride last season in the All-Star Race, but I’ll go with Hemric thanks to his overall experience in the lower horsepower trucks and Xfinity Series. RCR seemed to make some strides late in the year with speed in Austin Dillon’s cars, maybe that can carry over for Hemric in 2019.
Zimmerly: Daniel Hemric
There are going to be only two legitimate contenders for the rookie crown, Ryan Preece and Daniel Hemric, despite there being a third full time rookie in the field, Matt Tifft. Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports who just has not had the speed to compete with any consistency. Hemric is the obvious pick taking over the #31 turned #8 RCR team, as they are a slightly stronger team then JTG Daughetry overall. I think Preece will run well, and have a couple strong finishes, but Hemric’s body of work will be more impressive through the 2019 campaign.
Who takes the biggest step forward?
Lambert: Erik Jones
I think we all expected a little more from Jones than we’ve gotten so far. His lone win came at Daytona after several ‘big ones.’ It made for a great story, but it’s tough to be too impressed with that one.
Jones definitely had his moments in 2018, but his season was marred with a subpar playoffs which saw him exit early. However, nine top five finishes can’t be ignored. Jones ran towards the front fairly consistently, but wasn’t exactly a threat to lead very often. That could change this season with the new rules package as teams scramble to maximize speed once again.
Can a lurking Jones seal the deal more in 2019? I’m betting so.
Zimmerly: William Byron
The 2018 season was not a failure by any means for the 21 year-old from Charlotte. He jumped in the Hendrick Motorsports #24 (previously #5) that was vacated by Kasey Khane. While that car still is still HMS, it has seemed for the past few years to be the weakest of the four teams. Byron had 4 top 10s in 2018, but also finished 25th or worse twelve times.
Being a rookie in the premier NASCAR series is no easy feat, and Byron hopefully gained a lot of valuable experience to build on heading into 2019. With more laps under his belt, look for Byron to finish more races not on the tow truck, but in the top 10.
Who takes the biggest step backwards?
Lambert: Kurt Busch
This is the easiest answer, but I think it’s the most true. The drop-off from Stewart-Haas to Ganassi is significant, in my opinion. Kurt contended for several wins in 2018, but was only able to seal the deal once. I think he’ll go from a consistent presence in the top 10 to somewhere around a 15th place car.
Zimmerly: Kurt Busch
Another easy pick for me. I considered Ryan Newman going from the #31 RCR Chevrolet to the #6 RFR Ford, but RCR has not been that much further ahead than Roush in terms of consistent speed. Kurt was a factor in several races in 2018, and even looked poised to get into the final 4 before a late crash killed that hope. It seems like Kurt may have been to victory lane for the last time in his career.
Random Bold Prediction
Lambert: The new package won’t fix NASCAR’s domination issue.
The good teams will still be fast. The struggling teams will see a slight bump in performance, but nothing too crazy.
Think back to the All-Star race from 2018 and how difference that race looked. Do you remember how it ended? Kevin Harvick walked away from the field and won. Unless you go full IROC on these teams, the cream is always going to rise to the top. I’m counting on the usual suspects figuring things out by midseason and taking control.
Could we have some new players early? Sure. Could we see some upsets? Absolutely. But by May teams will have their arms around this package. Rodney Childers, Adam Stevens and Cole Pearn will rise to the occasion and dominate races. Watch.
Zimmerly: Jimmie Johnson’s slump will continue
It is almost comical to call this a slump for Johnson. It seems like it has been a lifetime since he won a race, 58 races to be exact. In the history of the sport, 58 is not really that long; Harvick had over 100, Truex almost 70, Gordon had 66. However the level of success that the 43 year old driver has shown in his career is staggering. 16 straight years with a win until 2018 is an impressive feat. Johnson has already made a fairly compelling case to at least be in the conversation of G.O.A.T., if not secured the crown for himself.
However, I think losing Chad Knaus as crew chief is a blow to the success of the #48 team. Coming aboard is Kevin Meendering. He previously served as the crew chief for the JR Motorsports Xfinity #1 Camaro, driven by Elliott Sadler. While Meendering is used to the lower horsepower that the 2019 rules package will feature at many tracks, there will still be growing pains throughout the year.
As Jimmie’s winless streak gets longer and longer, the question that is slowly getting a little louder each week is, “Will Jimmie Johnson ever win again…?”
Lambert: Kyle Busch
Who has the most experience in NASCAR dealing with lower horsepower racing? It’s probably Kyle Busch. If this new package is going to race like the Truck Series, we could see Busch rattle off a ten win season. Intermediate tracks aside, Busch is always one of the best on the short tracks and road courses. It’s tough to find a weakness here and I think NASCAR has played right into Busch’s hands.
Of course the question is, can he get the job done at Miami? He has before and I’m betting he does it again.
Zimmerly: Chase Elliott
Elliott seems to be right on the cusp of greatness in the Cup Series. In 2017, Chase was close to that elusive first victory finishing in the top 5, twelve times. However in 2018, he not only secured his first win at Watkins Glen, but also won at Dover and Kansas. Chase was dominant in the Xfinity series in the 9 full-time for JR Motorsports in 2014 and 2015 finishing 1st and 2nd in points respectively. This lower horsepower package for 2019 should play right into his hand with the success he had in the Xfinity series. I think that Chase is ready to cement himself as a contender week in and week out.