Last week we took a look at some of the Strong Starters in the 2019 season. Kyle Busch started out with the best average finish of 7.33 from the Daytona 500 to the Coke Zero 400. He was one of two drivers with a better-than 10th-place average.
When the championship was on the line, he faded 3.22 positions on average, but had enough bonus points with his first-half record that he advanced through the rounds easily and ultimately won the championship. While he slipped overall in the final 18 races, the other three championship contenders surged at the right time and scored averages in the final 18 races of better than 10th.
Martin Truex Jr. had a rocky start to the year. He crashed out of the Daytona 500 to finish 35th. Bookending the first half, he sustained crash damage in the Coke Zero 400 and lost a lap before finishing 22nd. In between those two results, he finished outside of the top 10 on five other occasions, which contributed to an average finish of 11.33.
That average was certainly not bad by most standards, but the team was getting frustrated.
Truex was almost perfect on the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks in 2018 and the team expected to pick up where they left off, but they were just not quite capable of finding Victory Lane until Week 9. Notably, Truex’s first win of 2019 came on a short course – a type of track that had eluded him for the bulk of his career. Truex followed his Richmond win with a 20th at Talladega and the next five weeks seesawed through great and mediocre runs. When he was great, Truex was most often winning.
Truex didn’t really develop consistency until the playoffs began, however. He got the postseason off to a great start with a win on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and then followed it with another short track win at Richmond. He dominated Martinsville in the Round of 8 to be the first driver locked into the Championship 4. Once the finishing results were tallied up, Truex had improved 3.17 positions on average in the second half of the season.
Denny Hamlin was an even better fantasy value at the end of the season. His average finish in the first 18 races was 11.28, but much of that was attributable to a nine-race streak at the start of the year with results of 11th or better. Once the streak was broken, he failed to crack the top 15 in four consecutive races – all with crash damage.
After crashing in the Coke Zero 400, Hamlin took a deep breath and embarked on a six-race, top-five streak to start the second half of the season. In that span, he won at Pocono and Bristol – then became crash prone once again. Hamlin had a few modest runs during the playoffs, but in the last 10 races of the year he added another pair of wins, including a clutch performance at Phoenix to get into the Championship 4.
Hamlin ended the year 3.61 positions better on average than he started.
Kevin Harvick continued the trend of improvements among the eventual Championship 4. His average finish in the first half of the season was a relatively modest 12.28, but he surged in the final 18 to score a 7.78 (+4.50).
Harvick’s improvement came with 16 lead lap finishes in the final 18 races and results of ninth or better in all but three events. There was some concern for this team early on because they went winless through 19 weeks, but he made it look effortless when he crossed under the checkers first at New Hampshire to score his 46th career win.
Three more wins in the closing races has Harvick eyeing the magic No. 50, which would place him 12th on the all-time winners’ list with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
The most improved driver in the final 18 races of the season was hands’ down Matt DiBenedetto. We expected him to pick up where Kasey Kahne left off and start 2019 with a ton of momentum, but those expectations were unmet when he scored an average finish of 22.56.
DiBenedetto actually began to improve just before the halfway point when he finished fourth at Sonoma. That was his first top-10 of the year, but it would not be his last. The No. 95 team drew eighth from the deck at Daytona to close out the first half of the season and they kept their momentum going with four top-10s in the next seven races.
One of these strong runs almost ended in his career-first victory at Bristol when he finished an emotional second to Hamlin – who was actually distraught at having to pass his friend in the closing laps.
DiBenedetto was not able to keep up the top-10 pace, but it seemed like he was in contention nearly every week and ultimately ended the year with an average finish that was a remarkable 8.5 positions better than his start.
Avg. Fin 1st Half
Avg. Fin 2 Half