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Pressure can provoke people in different ways. For some, it leads to a quiet, Zen-like focus. And yet for others, it forces them to come out of their corner ready to fight.
Which side are you on?
Better yet, which personality traits will NASCAR fans see from the drivers under the most pressure in 2019?
NASCAR.com’s George Winkler and RJ Kraft debate which drivers are likely to feel the most heat this year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
WINKLER: The clock is still ticking as we wait for Brad Keselowski to win his second Monster Energy Series title and cement his status among the elite. And now that teammate Joey Logano is coming off his championship season, there’s more pressure on the No. 2 team to follow suit. Keselowski clicked in a three-race win streak in 2018 that stretched into the first week of the playoffs, but then the bottom dropped out at the Charlotte road course (31st) and, of all places, Talladega (27th). As a result, Keselowski failed to make the Championship 4 for the second time in the past three seasons, and that’s not something we expected to see from someone who had three or more victories in each of those years. Entering his age-35 season, it’s time for Keselowski to re-establish his dominance deep into the playoffs.
KRAFT: Solid point there on Keselowski’s early postseason exit, and that is going to guide my selections as well. The 2018 season had to be disappointing for Denny Hamlin on a number of levels — his worst finish in the standings (11th) in a full season since 2007, an exit in the Round of 16 of the playoffs and a winless campaign for the first time in his Cup career. He has a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart with longtime team member Mike Wheeler shifting over to Leavine Family Racing and the No. 95 operation. Since making it to the Championship 4 in this format’s first year in 2014, Hamlin has not gotten back there in the past four years and hasn’t been able to shed the “most accomplished driver yet to win a title” label. With the Toyota pipeline continuing to churn out talent, the pressure is on for Hamlin to produce.
WINKLER: Speaking of talent, take a poll of his peers and you will likely see Kyle Larson right up there with Kyle Busch as the most talented driver on the Cup level. But the express train to title town took a detour in 2018 when Larson put up a goose egg in the win column. After breaking through for his first Cup victory in 2016 and adding four more wins in 2017, Larson appeared poised to take the No. 42 team to the next level. But that didn’t happen and now Larson is left to refocus and pick up the pieces entering the 2019 season. The good news is, at 25 Larson still has plenty of time to improve and is just scratching the surface of his prime years. Plus, he’ll have a new teammate to lean on in Kurt Busch, who’s a former champ. But at some point, all of Larson’s talent needs to translate into a Championship 4 bid.
KRAFT: I feel differently than you about Larson, but I’m sticking with the Chevrolet camp for my second selection. It feels weird to say a seven-time champion is under some pressure this season, but to me Larson’s fellow California-born Cup driver, Jimmie Johnson falls in that camp. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is coming off his worst full-time season with just two top fives, 11 top 10s, 40 laps led and no wins — all career lows. The veteran will also have a new voice atop the pit box with Kevin Meendering coming over to run the No. 48 team with former crew chief Chad Knaus shifting over to the No. 24 team. That’s quite a bit of change for a driver that hasn’t seen a lot of it during his Cup career. Adding to the intrigue, “Seven-Time” will have a new look and a new primary sponsor this season on his No. 48 Chevrolet. A final concern is that Johnson has struggled in the elimination format — reaching the Championship 4 just once in the five years of its existence. Since the advent of stage wins in 2017, he has just one — those are a must in racking up playoff points to advance during the early parts of the postseason.