NASCAR & Auto Racing

2019 NASCAR predictions: Most improved, dark horses ... and the Cup champion is ...

Feel what it is like to go 170mph with Brendan Marks

Marks took three adrenaline pumping laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway during a ride with the NASCAR Racing Experience.
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Marks took three adrenaline pumping laps around Charlotte Motor Speedway during a ride with the NASCAR Racing Experience.

So, there’s a reason we call these things “predictions” rather than “prophecies.”

In last season’s iteration — and boy, is it entertaining/embarrassing to look back at those — I forecast a fair number of things wrong. Not only did Kyle Larson not win the Daytona 500 or the NASCAR Cup Series championship... but he didn’t win a single race.

Better luck next year.

So without wasting time, here are your 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season predictions:

Daytona 500 Winner: We’ve gotten to the point where the Daytona 500, even with all its fanfare and anticipation, just isn’t representative of the rest of the NASCAR season. The past two winners, Austin Dillon in 2018 and Kurt Busch the year before, didn’t win another race all season and quickly bowed out of the playoffs. It’s about time we get back on a track with a more deserving winner, someone who can actually use that win as momentum for the rest of the season. Hendrick Motorsports always runs well at the 500, including when Alex Bowman won the pole last year, and it will be hungry to prove its down 2018 was a fluky season. About time its golden boy gets his first crown jewel. Prediction: Chase Elliott

Rookie of the Year: Last year’s competition came down to Charlotte-native William Byron and Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ first full-time African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1971. Wallace’s emotional runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 was a better story than any Byron had last year, but Byron was much more consistent as the season went on (although neither was much of a factor). This year’s class might not even be as intriguing, with the only real candidates being: Daniel Hemric (Richard Childress Racing), Matt Tifft (Front Row Motorsports), and Ryan Preece (JTG Daughterty Racing). This award feels fairly procured this year, as none of the three stand to make much of an impact, but there’s a clear favorite among them on the basis of his equipment, if nothing else. Prediction: Daniel Hemric

Most Improved: Picking Elliott here last year made complete sense — a young driver on a resource-rich team going into his third season — and he followed through on that promise. Elliott’s breakout season was exactly what many in the industry expected from him, but that’s also fair to say of a number of other promising young drivers. This year, there’s another in a similar situation to Elliott — and one of his good friends, coincidentally — who has that opportunity. A big team (Penske) flush with resources, which won the Cup title last year, and that driver has already shown glimpses of greatness. Time for him to put it all together in 2019, and finally roll off a few wins like Elliott did this year. Prediction: Ryan Blaney

Dark horse contender: There’s a number of qualified candidates here — Aric Almirola, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and a few others — but none are as in-their-prime as my pick, Kyle Larson. Larson won four races in 2017 before a disastrous engine failure in the playoffs prematurely ended his breakout campaign, and then last season he was unable to get back to Victory Lane. That said, he did finish in second place an unbelievable six times, proving he’s still on the cusp of something greater. If even half those situations had gone the other way, we’d be talking about Larson as a legit championship contender. This year, he very well might be. Prediction: Kyle Larson

Championship 4 at Homestead: Arguably the toughest prediction of them all, especially when you consider the top-heavy power structure in NASCAR. Realistically, there’s only a handful of guys who are going to be in this situation, so it makes sense to parse through them.

Kyle Busch is currently the best driver in NASCAR, even if some fans won’t like to hear that, and he’s also made every final since 2015. Kevin Harvick has also made every championship race but one since 2014 — it’s fairly safe to count both of those guys in. Then you have Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Elliott, Keselowski and maybe few others vying for the final two spots. Logano deserves one of them coming off his first Cup Series championship, and you can whittle it down to Truex or Elliott for the final one. At that point, even though I believe Truex is the superior driver at this point in their careers, give me Elliott. Why? Truex might struggle at first adjusting to his new life at Joe Gibbs Racing, and Elliott is the undisputed top man for a Hendrick Motorsports team that isn’t accustomed to losing. Prediction: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott

2019 Cup Series Champion: Now for the biggie.

If the above was our championship four, you’d have four amazing storylines to follow. Logano, obviously, would be going for back-to-back titles, which hasn’t been done since Jimmie Johnson won five straight in the mid-2000s. Elliott would be making his first championship appearance and attempting to complete his coronation as NASCAR’s new young star. Then there’s Busch, arguably the best driver of his generation but who has struggled to win the big one, a la Peyton Manning in the NFL. And last but certainly not least, Harvick, the wise elder statesman hoping for a second title to cap his Hall of Fame career.

So who to go for? I’d rule Elliott out first just on the basis on inexperience, although he hasn’t been bad at Homestead in three career trips. Next I’d count out Logano — back-to-back titles isn’t something that comes easily, and even though Truex came close this year, we all saw how that turned out. Which brings it back to Harvick and Busch (again). In that circumstance, I’m riding with who I believe is more willing to do whatever it takes to win their second championship. After three straight years of coming up short, Busch will finally put the full season together and win his second NASCAR Cup Series title. Prediction: Kyle Busch

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.

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