It says much for the unpredictability of the NASCAR series that reigning champion Joey Logano is someway down the list of favorites to claim the 2019 championship.
Logano became the seventh different driver to lift the trophy in the last eight seasons by securing the 2018 title with victory at the season-defining Ford Ecoboost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in mid-November.
It is not just the number of different drivers to have enjoyed that success that marks NASCAR out as one of the most unpredictable top-line series in world motorsports. Those seven drivers have driven for five different teams running the cars of four different manufacturers.
All of that means that there are numerous viable winners of the 2019 championship, which gets underway for real with the world famous Daytona 500 on February 17th and ends 36 races later with the Ford Ecoboost 400 on November 17th.
Part of that unpredictability lies in the format. In 2014, NASCAR introduced the “Chase for the Cup” in an attempt to match the excitement generated by the playoff system in other US sports. After 26 races, the top 16 drivers in the standings enter the Chase. There, points are partially reset before being fully reset for each stage from the round-of-12 down the final four-way shootout. Whoever triumphs in the Ford Ecoboost 400 wins the championship.
That means that while regular-season performance is undoubtedly important, it isn’t essential to be right at the top end of the standings going into the Chase. That much was evident last year, when Logano entered the playoffs in sixth, made his way through the early rounds and then secured one of just three victories over the course of the season to win the championship in the defining race.
Since the introduction of the Chase format, only the 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. has actually entered the playoffs with the highest regular-season points haul. Jimmie Johnson won from eighth in the standings in 2016, and Kevin Harvick from sixth in 2015.
Former champions Harvick and Kyle Busch were the two most impressive drivers over the course of last year, securing eight wins apiece, but they were only able to finish third and fourth respectively in the deciding race, behind Truex Jr. and Logano. Their consistently strong pace does, however, make them the early favorites with the American sports betting bookmakers to triumph in 2019.
If there is one uncertainty around both Harvick and the reigning champion Logano, who is a few names further down on the sportsbooks’ pre-season rankings, it is how well the new Ford Mustang package will perform. Last season was the farewell campaign for the Ford Fusion, and one that ended with a series-best 19 wins and a first NASCAR title for the manufacturer since 2004. It may take some time for the Ford teams to get up to speed with the Mustang.
That was certainly the experience the Chevrolet teams had last year in the debut campaign of the new Camaro ZL1. The manufacturer won just four races (to Ford’s 19 and Toyota’s 13) over the course of the year. It was the lowest total for any manufacturer since Toyota’s two wins in 2014.
The potential of the package did, however, become clear in the latter part of the year, particularly in the hands of Chase Elliott. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won three times in the final 14 races, including twice during the playoffs. Only an uncharacteristically messy drive at the penultimate race in Phoenix prevented him from making the final four.
Elliott and Kyle Larson, our pick for last year’s championship, are probably the two fastest drivers in the NASCAR field yet to win the title and the two prime candidates to make 2019 a much better year for Chevrolet.
Truex Jr, who will join Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2019 after his former team Furniture Row Racing folded, is again a favorite, while Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, winner of the 2012 championship, will also hope to mount a challenge.
As expected, William Byron was the better-performing of the two rookies last year, but there is a larger rookie field of five this time around: Daniel Hemric, Matt Tifft, Ryan Preece, Tanner Berryhill and Quin Houff. Of those, Hemric is the early favorite to win rookie-of-the-year honors given his strong campaign in the feeder Xfinity Series last year, although the much younger Tifft also showed well, as did Preece in a part-time schedule.
Our Preview’s 2019 NASCAR Pick & Betting Predictions Verdict
Chase Elliott enjoyed a breakout year last time around, securing his first victories and coming on strong down the final stretch. With a year of experience with the Camaro behind them, his team should be able to put him in a strong position to challenge for the 2019 title.