Autoweek Racing is ringing in the new year with a look back at the best and worst of the 2019 season. Check back throughout the week as Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar all get report cards on the most memorable moments of the most recent season.
NASCAR’S BEST RACE: SELECT THE BEST OVERALL EVENT OF 2019
Mike: OK, Iâm a sucker for the biggies, and thereâs nothing bigger in NASCAR than the Daytona 500. The 2019 Daytona 500 and Denny Hamlinâs narrow overtime win over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch more than lived up to the hype. This race not only featured its share of âBig Onesâ for which the 500 is notorious, but it correctly foreshadowed a dominant season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Matt: The Bristol Night Race proved to be “package proof.” During a season in which NASCAR’s high downforce rules package neutered short track competition, the high banks of Thunder Valley were immune to the ill effects of “these giant-ass spoilers.” Ultimate underdog Matt DiBenedetto passed Erik Jones for the lead with 100 laps to go but was out-dueled in lapped traffic by Denny Hamlin. The entire race was thrilling but the finish was inspiring. DiBenedetto opened the night by entering the driver introductions wearing an Italian Stallion robe as the Rocky Balboa theme played, and he backed up the theme by nearly winning.
Greg: The fall race at Talladega that was started on Sunday and finished on Monday. After a crash that saw Brendan Gaughan flip, Ryan Blaney led the field back to green with three to go. In the wild shuffling that is typical Talladega, Ryan Newman received a push on the outside and was leading on the final lap when a crash broke out behind them heading to the line. Blaney bumped Newman and beat him across the finish line by .007 seconds, the sixth closest finish in NASCAR history.
WORST RACE: WHICH EVENT WAS THE ULTIMATE SNOOZER?
Mike: Martinsville produced two snoozers in 2019, but at least the second race was salvaged by a post-race brawl on pit road between the crews of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. With no fight to break up in March, Brad Keselowskiâs dominant win at Martinsville was a race to forget. He led 446 of the 500 laps, including the final 127. The final margin of victory was just .594 second over Chase Elliott, but this was Keselowskiâs day.
Matt: Typically the opening salvo of NASCAR’s exciting championship month, Martinsville was a total letdown in October. Martin Truex Jr. led all but 36 laps in event that needed a post-race scuffle between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano to provide any sort of everlasting memory. There were so many races that come to mind in 2019: Both Martinsvilles, both Dovers, Fontana, Michigan in the spring and the road course events, but this one was let down by its own legacy of unbelievable moments.
Greg: The fall race at Dover. For a while it looked to be Martin Truexâs race to lose. And lose he did, thanks to a slow pit stop that gave the lead to Kyle Larson. The race had no cautions in the second and final stages and there was only one pass on track for the lead that was right after a restart.
BIGGEST STORY: TOP NEWSMAKER OF 2019
Mike: The dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing was a constant theme in a year that kicked off with the death of JGR president J.D. Gibbs. Gibbs drivers combined to win a modern-era record 19 races, and JGRâs Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished 1-2 in the championship. A third JGR racer â Denny Hamlin â gave the team three drivers in this yearâs Championship 4.
Matt: The high downforce rules package permeated through every underlying topic of the 2019 season. The speedway version, with its 550 horsepower tapered spacer, remains a hotly debated addition, while it’s largely accepted that this version is not compatible with short tracks and road courses. Not a week could go by in 2019 without the industry debating the merits of NASCAR’s new direction as a bridge to its next-generation race car.
Greg: The answer to this one is a tie between the lack of performance of NASCARâs new aero package, which failed to really develop all that much, especially on short tracks, and the development of the next-generation car, which will have a great deal of hype to live up to.
BEST QUOTE/MOST QUOTABLE DRIVER OF 2019
Mike: Not many athletes have websites dedicated to their quotes like Kyle Busch has. When asked at Kansas about driving through too many pit boxes, Bush said, “HahahaâŠ any time you [expletive] say anything, you get your [expletive] [expletive] handed to you.” Thatâs Kyle. And the Cup Series is better because of him.
Matt: The two-time and reigning champion is the most captivating figure to cover in modern-day NASCAR. Every press conference or post-race scrum will have something for headline seekers. He’s never boring and is often some combination of thought-provoking, bombastic or polarizing, and yes, the sport is better off because of it.
Greg: Clint Bowyer. Example, when asked if he was nervous about making the playoffs: “Hell no, this is fun! We are in the playoffs, you know what I mean? Last week we were pooping our pants, man! Now it is real. We have accomplished it and we have a championship to go after. It is as simple as that. Why on earth would you be nervous about this? We have raced for the last month and a half nervous. We are used to it. All these other guys, the pressure is back on them now.”
SAY WHAT?! UNBELIEVABLE MOMENT OF 2019
Mike: Jimmie Johnson failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time after triggering a crash late in the final race of the regular season at Indianapolis. Johnson qualified fifth at Indianapolis and was in a must-win scenario to earn the 16th and final spot of the playoffs. Instead, he got overly aggressive on lap 105 of 160 and triggered the crash that ended his playoff hopes. At seasonâs end, Johnson announced that the 2020 season would be his last in Cup.
Matt: In hindsight, we all probably saw it coming, but the most unbelievable moment to me was the final round of group qualifying in March at Auto Club Speedway. Austin Dillon won the pole with a lap time of 0:00.00 at 0 miles per hour when all 12 drivers who made the final round failed to turn a single lap. A byproduct of the rules package is that drafting determines speed, resulting in no one wanting to be the first driver out. This ultimately forced NASCAR to revert to single-car time trials.
Greg: Jimmie Johnson retiring. Sure, we knew it was coming, it just seemed as though it would never happen. Itâs hard to believe that the seven-time champion wonât be racing for a title in 2021. It makes those of us who were here during his era grateful we were around to see it.
BONEHEAD MOMENT OF 2019
Mike: This one goes to NASCAR leadership after NASCARâs early season attempt at qualifying rounds for oval-track races. Efforts at round qualifying hit a low at Auto Club Speedway in March, were no cars even recorded a timed lap in one of the qualifying rounds. The series returned to single-car qualifying for all oval tracks in May.
Matt: Throughout the season, the front office of NASCAR seemingly decided that they could somehow override the laws of physics if they simply willed it to be so. The decision to continue utilizing group qualifying with the drafting package and telling teams that they can simply “figure it out,” or the stubbornness on defending said package on short tracks and road courses, despite their drivers telling them repeatedly that there was a problem with the racing product. There isn’t enough loop data in the world to supplant what the eye test so clearly showed.
Greg: William Byron trying to crash Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen and failing miserably and damaging his own car.
OVERACHIEVER: WHO DID THE MOST WITH THE LEAST
Mike: Ryan Newman spent another season under the NASAR radar, and once again he qualified for the playoffs. He had just three top-five finishes, but proved once again that he knows how to qualify for the postseason.
Matt: The attribute most frequently applied to Ryan Newman is “harder to pass than a kidney stone” but it should be something concerning his ability to elevate whatever team he drives for. Newman took the Roush Fenway No. 6 to the playoffs with three top-fives and 14 top-10s. He’s a hard-nosed racer who doesn’t give an inch and avoids DNFs like the plague.
Greg: Matt DiBenedetto hands down. His performance at the fall Bristol race proved he belonged in a better car, and hopefully he’ll prove that in the Wood Brothers equipment in 2020.
BIGGEST BUST: DOING THE LEAST WITH THE MOST
Mike: Daniel Hemricâs run at Richard Childress Racing lasted just one season as Hemricâs rookie season ended with just two top-10 finishes and an end-of-season ticket out of the Cup Series. Hemric, who finished 25th in the Cup standings, came into the 2018 season with high hopes after 16 top-five finishes in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2018. Hopefully, this isn’t the last we’ve heard from this driver.
Matt: I don’t want to call Erik Jones a bust, because he has proven to be way too talented at every single level to warrant that label at 23 years old, but it was puzzling to see him struggle juxtaposed against his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, who all made the final four while he finished dead last in the playoffs. With his contract set to expire in 2020, this upcoming season will be hugely important for the future of the Byron Bandit.
Greg: Ryan Blaney won at Talladega to advance in the playoffs but was so hot and cold all season that he was never viewed as a serious contender for the championship, despite being in Team Penske equipment.
BEST WRAP: PAINT SCHEME OF 2019