Before the season started, we drank deeply of the Kool-Aid.
Joe Gibbs Racing had been so strong for the past two seasons that we suspected they would continue to dominate. As a result, we ranked Kyle Busch in the No. 1 slot, Martin Truex Jr. second, and Denny Hamlin sixth. All four of their drivers were listed among the top 10 and the Leavine Family alliance was expected to produce the top rookie in Christopher Bell.
Through the fourth week of the 2020 season, none of their drivers are listed among the top 10 in the points’ standings. Hamlin is closest in 11th; Busch is 12th in the points, and Martin Truex Jr. has barely cracked the top 16 that qualifies for the playoffs; he is 15th. Erik Jones sits 21st in points. Bell is 32nd with four of the six rookie contenders ranked above him.
The break in action to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak provides a great opportunity to reassess our early enthusiasm.
Certainly it is too soon to hit the panic alarm just yet. The aero-restricted superspeedway Daytona 500 wild card accounts for 25 percent of the total events so far this year and both Busch and Truex drew high numbers in that lottery. Busch was 34th; Truex finished 32nd. On the other hand, Hamlin pulled the winning number from the hat. Fate gives with one hand while taking with the other.
Unfortunately the entire organization has not performed exceptionally well for the majority of the season. In the latest Fantasy Power Rankings before the hiatus, Busch managed to jump three spots into the top 10. It was his first appearance of the season and was spurred by a strong performance at Phoenix. That was his only truly strong run, however.
Meanwhile, despite his Daytona 500 victory, Hamlin fell to 13th after Week 4. Truex was 16th. and Erik Jones was 22nd. Bell currently sits 33rd in the ranking. Those rankings largely mirror the points’ standings.
One other factor we like to look at is the Average Running Position because it provides a more complete snapshot of how a driver ran throughout the race instead of simply how they finished.
Once again, Busch is the best of the Gibbs’ guys, but his average place of 11.46 is significantly lower than Joey Logano’s 7.43 or Chase Elliott’s 8.47. And given how strong he was last year, Busch’s ranking of seventh through Week 4 is certainly disappointing.
Truex also ranks among the top 10, but only barely so, while Hamlin is ranked 16th, Jones 21st, and Bell 27th.
Part of the reason may be a general lack of speed this year compared to what was expected and what was seen in 2019.
Speed comes because of two factors: horsepower and mechanical grip. And there is no reason to suspect that the horsepower is lower than it was last year. But applying that power to the ground with the new aerodynamic package is a different story.
Not counting Daytona – where speed comes in the form of which drafting pack a driver is in – Truex has shown the greatest speed. His average ranking for the three unrestricted tracks is sixth. Kyle Busch is ranked eighth on average.
Perception and reality sometimes merge. One big difference this year is who has become their competition. All three Team Penske drivers are among the top 10 in Green Flag Speed average ranking. Add Kevin Harvick to the mix and Ford is just as strong a challenger in 2020 as they were in 2019.
But Chevrolet has also emerged as an early contender with all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers inside the top 10 and Chase Elliott holding the best average ranking of 3.0. Chevrolet was not much of a factor in 2019.
Meanwhile, fantasy sites have not quite caught up to this new reality. As of the FanShield 500k, Busch was still $12,000 at Draft Kings. Truex was the second-most expensive driver at $11,600. Hamlin also commanded a cap in excess of $10,000.
Busch has the best average rank in that game – but he is only sixth. That means fantasy players have a lot of better value propositions from which to choose.
JGR will rebound before the season is over, but it seems clear that the competition has caught up to them and will challenge throughout the remainder of the season.