Six burning questions for 2018, including the surprise of the NASCAR Cup season


By Brendan Marks - The Charlotte Observer



Sometimes, the numbers just speak to you.

We’re currently six races through the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season. In a circuit that features 36 points races a year, that’s a sixth of the season over and done.

And as such, we have — you guessed it — six burning questions for the rest of this season. Let ‘em rip:

1. Who is the favorite to win the 2018 championship now?

Although he hasn’t won a race yet — mind you, it’s coming soon — Kyle Busch has to be your early favorite. That’ll draw groans from NASCAR fans at large who prefer the feel-good story of Martin Truex Jr. or the savviness of Kevin Harvick, but it’s the truth. The man has three second-place finishes in six races, so he’s bound to start turning those silvers into golds. One of the other veterans (or even a young gun, but more on them later) could leap up to pass Busch, but he’s atop the power rankings for the time being.

2. Who has been the surprise of the season so far, and can they keep it up?

This one’s probably the easiest to answer, but it’s no single driver — it’s Stewart-Haas’ entire team. Everyone, from Harvick to Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, and even Kurt Busch, has been good this season. Harvick leads the pack with three wins, then Bowyer with his surprise victory in Martinsville, but the others are right there, too. Almirola was half a lap away from winning the Daytona 500, for crying out loud. Saying all four will make the playoffs is probably a bit of a stretch, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented or at this point, even all that surprising. It remains to be seen whether they’ll continue their early-season dominance once the new Chevy teams kick into gear, but they don’t seem poised for any sort of drop-off.

3. What happened to that so-called youth movement?

Yeah, what did happen? Truth be told, nothing. Those media members who were so quick to anoint NASCAR’s up-and-coming drivers as this season’s championship favorites were — well, to be polite, jumping the gun. There’s an entire generation of early-20’s drivers who will be around for a good long while. They’ll notch Top 5’s and Top 10’s. They’ll win, eventually. Heck, the odds are good at least one of them will win a championship before their careers are done. But that’s a ways away. If six races have taught us anything, it’s bet on the veterans.

4. Will Chase Elliott finally win a race this season?

Hopefully, and that comes not as an Elliott fan but an overall fan of the sport. Harvick told me a few weeks ago that when Elliott does finally take his first checkered flag in the Cup Series, it’ll be not only a crowning day for him, but for the sport. Brad Keselowski said something along those same lines before the season began. And it’s true — Elliott is the kind of legacy driver (albeit still young) that could energize fans if he starts winning. But that’s a big if. Texas is one of his best tracks, so Elliott has a chance this weekend. Otherwise, look to Dover, Michigan or Chicago … or next year.

5. Is Jimmie Johnson’s reign over at last?

Not hardly. Look, has Johnson struggled to begin the 2018 season? Without a doubt. And being the competitor he is, he’d tell you as much himself. His best finish so far was ninth at Fontana, and since coming in 27th at Atlanta in the second race, he’s been in the Top 15 every week. He’s still figuring out this new car, but give the man some time. Also, he’s working with half a new team. You don’t get to be a seven-time Cup Series champ without a few tricks up your sleeve. He will adapt, get it together, get back to consistently riding in the Top 5 and Top 10, and make the playoffs. Would anyone really be that surprised if he won three or four races by the end of this year?

Actually OK. Now, nobody is going to say they’d rather not have those three at the track every weekend (especially NASCAR’s marketing execs), but the sport is actually carrying on alright. The veterans have been doing their usual thing, and despite a lack of winning to date, the younger drivers are still drawing new fans. Harvick’s three straight wins, Bowyer’s emotional afternoon in Martinsville, even Bubba Wallace finishing second at the Daytona 500 and sobbing to the media about it — it’s been enough to satiate fans. Plus, it helps that Earnhardt’s sticking around the track as a broadcaster. Now if someone can convince him to pull a Michael Jordan and temporarily unretire …

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By Brendan Marks

The Charlotte Observer