Talk about domination.
It’s an astonishing figure, as the 2018 Cup series has the fewest number of winners (six overall) since 1996.
It would be normal to ask: Are Harvick, Busch and Truex the three most talented drivers in the garage? And is there a lack of talent?
This isn’t a question of disrespect but more questioning how this trio has stunk up the show.
Look at the drivers who have left full-time Cup racing in the past five years — Jeff Gordon (93 career victories), Tony Stewart (49), Mark Martin (40), Matt Kenseth (39), Carl Edwards (28), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (26), Bobby Labonte (21), Jeff Burton (21), Greg Biffle (19) — and it could be viewed that there is a lack of depth or at least a mix of talent and experience.
Harvick and Busch won their titles against many of the drivers that the young ones replaced, so it’s not like one can say their winning ways have come as a result of those who retired.
But the drivers who have replaced some of the former stars have not found that consistent strength.
The new generation includes past Xfinity Series champions Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Daniel Suarez and William Byron, as well as Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman. Those drivers combined for 90 wins in the two NASCAR national development series but so far have combined for just nine wins (Larson 5, Austin Dillon 2, Buescher 1, Blaney 1) among them in Cup.
“It has definitely gone down,” said Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion who is among the winless this year when reacting to the question about whether there are fewer potential race winners.
“Nobody has come in and replaced Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., Matt Kenseth — those are five really big talents that just haven’t been replaced.”
Keselowski knows Kenseth is back, but with a struggling team at Roush Fenway. And given more thought, he likely would have added Edwards.
The question is: Do these younger drivers have the talent but not the experience?
“It’s hard to say,” Keselowksi said. “Right now, their resumes certainly don’t compare to the five drivers they replaced, and I think they would say that, too.”
Jones sees it as a mix. He looks at the number of years in the series — Harvick (18 years), Busch (14 years) and Truex (13 years) — plus he sees how long those drivers have been with their crew chiefs. Of the eight driver-crew chief combinations that have been together since 2015, all three are in that category. “When you have that much experience, not only in one car, but at these tracks as well for that long, it definitely gives you an advantage,” Jones said. “But they’ve also got great teams behind them too, you know?
“Obviously, all three of those guys have crew chiefs who have worked with them for a few years now and are very successful with them and just have a good chemistry together and their teams are on it, as well. They don’t make mistakes throughout the weekend and they qualify well, stay up front, so it’s a whole mixed bag.”
Harvick sees a difference and believes the younger drivers just don’t have as much experience racing for wins against the Cup veterans, a result of NASCAR limiting the number of races Cup drivers can compete in the Xfinity Series.
“You’re seeing the experience of the drivers, you’re seeing the experience of the teams and you’re seeing that combination and you wind up with the best drivers with the best teams and the best cars,” Harvick said.
“A lot of this is a product of a development system that is a little bit broken. We dumbed down the Xfinity Series by kicking everybody out. You’re seeing the repercussions of that with the Xfinity guys when they get here, coming here and they aren’t winning like they should be. There’s a lot of things [they need to learn], the details of that top-5 and winning races on this side is hard to find.”
Steve Letarte, the former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief and now an NBC analyst, says it is a product of drivers not getting enough time in the Xfinity Series rather than whom they compete against.
“I believe the business model is pushing drivers to Cup faster than, in my opinion, they should go,” Letarte said. “When was the last time someone spent more than a year in the Xfinity level?”
Letarte looks at Joey Logano, who barely had any Xfinity experience and then struggled four years in Cup.
Or he can look at the driver he worked with when that driver was a rookie in 1993.
“Jeff Gordon? Do you know how many cars I had to cut apart to put in the trailer? A lot,” Letarte said. “Those guys are winning because they are driving great equipment and they’re very talented.
“Do I think William Byron is equal to Kevin Harvick currently in this snapshot right now? No. Could he be? Who knows? That’s why he is in that car.”
Letarte doesn’t view the lack of winners as a bad thing — as a former competitor, he prefers to celebrate the excellence in the performance.
Dillon, in his fifth year in Cup with two wins including the 2018 Daytona 500, disputed any notion of a lack of talent.
“Those guys are greats,” Dillon said about the big three. ‘They’re Hall of Famers. In the top series of NASCAR, all the drivers are great. They’ve got an edge right now and they’re the ones that are finishing with the edge.
“They’re the ones taking it to the next level. They’re on top of their game and we’ve got to figure out how to beat them, but I think every driver in the Cup series is great, truthfully.”
The Harvick-Busch-Truex dominance might not end soon because right now they have the best setups for their driver talents and building on their already well-proven notebooks.
“Experience is very important — not only for the driver, but for the driver and team combination,” Truex said. “I can’t tell you how much we look back at past notes and things we’ve done over the years in the past, and it’s one of those things where it’s like every time you come back to a race track, you play off of what you did there last time and the last few times.”
So are they the most talented?
“They are very talented,” Keselowski said. “I would say that if I look at the top 10-15 drivers, year over year, they are all pretty close. I think there is a reason why they are all there. I think talent definitely makes a difference in Cup, but it is a balance right now. It isn’t all talent.
Right now, few would doubt they drive the best cars.
“There is a decent mix of talent versus engineering and cars, etcetera, in the sport right now,” Keselowski said. “It is the ingredients of a cake. It isn’t all flour or all sugar.
“I think that the mix is constantly changing. I would say right now that they are three of the best drivers … in three of the best cars in the sport right now. That makes for a lethal combination.”