In just two months a new season of NASCAR kicks off and preparations are well underway at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 weekend.
It's at this time each year, with the Speedway getting ready for its NASCAR weekend and a new year fast approaching, that AMS President Ed Clark tests his clairvoyance and predicts what the next season of NASCAR will bring.
"2019 brings some new and exciting changes for NASCAR, including a new racing package that'll be raced for the first time in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500," Clark said. "This should make for a thrilling race here at Atlanta and an exciting, more unpredictable season overall.
"Here are my predictions for 2019."
7-time returns to victory lane
After a 2018 season that fell well short of the extremely high standards he's set in his illustrious career, Jimmie Johnson is primed for a rebound in 2019.
Don't be surprised if the No. 48 gets off to a bit of a slow start as Johnson and new crew chief Kevin Meendering get familiar with each other. As the season rolls on, however, I believe the No. 48 will become more of a factor and be in the mix for a race win or two, with Johnson making a return to victory lane in 2019.
Chase the championship contender
After breaking through for his first Cup series victory, Chase Elliott quickly followed it up with a second and a third win during NASCAR's playoffs. Like one year prior, however, Elliott's championship pursuit stalled in the Round of 8 in 2018.
I believe that changes in 2019, with the sport's most popular driver keeping up the momentum from 2018 and winning several more races, including a breaking win in the playoff's penultimate round to guarantee Elliott and the No. 9 a shot at the championship in the season finale.
Busch v. Truex
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. - two of the three drivers dubbed "The Big 3" throughout the 2018 season - are now teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing. I don't see either one of these guys slowing down in 2019, and I think that's going to result in some of the fiercest competition between two highly talented drivers with equal equipment throughout the year.
I believe several late-race battles for the win will be decided by these two. I predict this pair trades numerous 1-2 finishes in 2019.
Both Ganassi drivers find victory lane
Former series champion Kurt Busch moves over to the No. 1 car in 2019, joining Kyle Larson and the No. 42 in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable. I'm expecting a solid season with trips to victory lane for both of these drivers.
Kurt brings a wealth of experience behind the wheel of a Cup car (he is making his 650th career start in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, after all) and has what it takes to get the No. 1 to the checkered flag first.
Larson's raw driving talent is well documented, but despite having several shots at victory in 2018 came up just short. He'll have a few more shots at the checkered flag in 2019, but this time he'll seal the deal and roll the No. 42 to victory lane.
More exciting racing in 2019
Starting with the 2019 Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500, NASCAR's implementing new aero changes and horsepower-reductions at its larger tracks to bringing the competition closer together.
I see this change resulting in some of the most intense racing we've seen at the intermediate tracks in the last 20 years.
I expect 3-wide racing on restarts, side-by-side battles around the track, and back-and-forth passing throughout a run will be more commonplace at these larger tracks. It may even create the right circumstances for one of those vintage photo finishes here at Atlanta.
More winners in 2019
In 2018 just 10 drivers earned their playoff spots via wins during the regular season, the fewest to do so since the current playoff format began in 2014. That will change in 2019, thanks in part to the aforementioned aero and horsepower changes at larger speedways bringing the competition closer together.
Thanks to this increase in parity, more drivers will win their way into the playoffs in 2019; I predict 12, including a first-time winner or two.
--- Atlanta Motor Speedway ---