The Daytona 500 is behind us. The west coast swing? That’s in the rear view mirror too. It’s hard to believe, but in the NASCAR world, we’re already into April as far as the racing goes. Six races are down, with the next one coming up after the Easter break.
But, with the first off week up on the schedule, we have enough data and resources to take stock into what we’ve seen thus far. Most drivers said that by time we came east after the west coast swing, the true contenders would be shining.
Boy were they right.
Clear Championship Favorites
At the moment, three drivers stand out as far as 2018 championship favorites – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Harvick started out of the gates hot with going on a three race win streak at one point. He has three wins, four top five finishes and a series high 433 laps led thus far. His No. 4 Ford clearly has been the most dominant.
But, don’t discredit the Toyota’s which are led by Truex and Busch either. They’ve been quiet, but that’s all because of how well Harvick has been driving. Truex, is actually off to a far better start in 2018 than his championship winning one in 2017. He has more poles, a better average finish, more stage points and more top fives through six races this year than last. Truex, is riding a streak of five straight top five finishes heading into the off week. He’s had three straight poles too.
If not for getting caught up in a late race crash at Daytona, he would likely have had a top five finish in every race thus far. What’s that say?
Busch is right there too. He has three runner-up efforts and a fourth place finish over his last four races. What happens when those solid results start turning into wins?
Right now, these are the three to beat for the title.
Penske Trio and Hamlin Next In Class
This group of four are also a solid championship threat, but they haven’t quite had the overall speed or luck to contend with the top three just yet. Denny Hamlin has led 193 laps, fifth most in the series. He has four top 10 finishes, but could easily be six. Think about it, if not for a late race electrical gremlin in Vegas, he was going to finish in the top 10. If not for late race contact on Monday at Martinsville with Harvick, he would have had another top 10 finish.
He’s not contending for wins just yet, but he could easily have six top 10 finishes in six races.
The Team Penske trio has been strong as well. In three of the last four races, all three have came away with top 10 finishes in the same race. That’s the first time the storied organization has ever done that. They sit 3-4-5 in the Cup standings right now.
Ryan Blaney has led the second most laps in the entire series with 264 circuits led. He has four top 10 finishes, two of which are top fives. Joey Logano is fourth in the standings and has led just 38 laps. Logano, has five top seven results in six races. It’s really a very similar start to the year that he had in 2017. Can he sustain it this time around?
Brad Keselowski is third among the three with being fifth in the points. He has four top 10’s over his last five starts, three of those in the top six. He’s led only 51 laps himself.
So, as you can see, this group isn’t leading a ton of laps, but they’re all finishing inside of the top 10. They’re the next in class.
SHR Off To Dream Start
Though six races, Stewart-Haas Racing has four victories. Harvick has three of those wins while Clint Bowyer ended a 190 race winless skid with a thrilling win in Martinsville. Those two are solidly into the 2018 playoffs. But, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch are close too. Busch, is 10th in the points while Almirola is 11th.
Busch, has four top 15 finishes while Almirola has six. They’re not quite there yet on speed to win races, but they’re doing what they need to do to make the playoffs on points if needed.
SHR is the top team in the sport right now.
Hendrick Motorsports Improving, But May Have Stalled Out
2018 has not been a very good start to the season for Hendrick Motorsports. Currently, the best driver in the Cup standings is 14th. None of the four have finished in the top five yet, as the only time they did, the win was taken away.
But, the organization is rebuilding and knew that results would be tough to come by. It’s not like they were extremely quick last year either. With a new car and Chevrolet struggling as a whole, HMS has been one of the most affected by it.
They were just wanting to improve each week. But as we head into the off week, it appears that maybe they have stalled out.
Jimmie Johnson crashed in all three Speedweeks races at Daytona. Then, he spun on his own in Atlanta and finished three laps down in 27th. But, that improved to a 12th place finish at Vegas, granted he fell down a lap early. At Phoenix, he finally finished on the lead lap in 14th. Then at Fontana, he came home ninth. But, in Martinsville, arguably his best track, he was back down a lap in 15th.
Chase Elliott was supposed to be a title contender but instead he’s fighting to get into the playoffs in general. He’s 18th in points and has finishes of 33rd, 10th, 34th, third (encumbered), 16th and ninth respectively He’s led four total laps in 2018, Johnson has zero.
Not real good for the top two drivers in the organization.
Alex Bowman may be the best of the four right now as he has improved from 17th to 20th, to 16th to a pair of 13th place runs to seventh. He’s led 13 laps himself. But, he’s not contending yet.
William Byron is looking like this is a throw away year. He’s actually led the most laps among the team with 16, but he’s yet to finish inside of the top 10. He sits 20th in points and has finishes of 23rd, 18th, 27th, 12th, 15th and 20th respectively.
Youth Not Served Yet
Coming into 2018, it was all about the new youth movement. Gone were several veterans and replacing them were drivers that were younger than ever. The hype was real and the marketing department in NASCAR took notice. But, as we sit here through six weeks, the veterans are saying not so fast.
Out of the six races, the youngest winner is 27 (Austin Dillon). Five of the six races have been won by drivers with 14+ years experience in the sport. Nine of the top 11 in the Cup standings are drivers with 11+ years in the sport. The average age of the race winners?
While the youth movement is on the rise, you can’t push the veterans completely out just yet.
Wallace Jr. Stalling Out, But Not His Fault
I warned everyone back in Speedweeks that we shouldn’t get too high on Bubba Wallace just yet. Yes, he finished third in his Duel and yes he was runner-up in the Daytona 500. But, that was on a restrictor plate track. Wallace, has tons of talent and will be a champion in this sport one day if given the proper time. But, it was unfair of fans to claim that Wallace would be an immediate contender and RPM a championship caliber team after one race. After all, RPM was nearly extinct last winter. If not for a late deal to merge with Richard Childress Racing, they weren’t going to be able to even show up at Daytona.
They lost a driver and his sponsor to another team and had Wallace, but little funding. So, they switched manufacturers, moved shops and hit the reset button. It’s completely unfair to expect Wallace, a rookie I might add, to propel this team to new heights in the first year of a rebuild. So, when Wallace has stalled out with finishes of 32nd, 21st, 28th, 20th and 34th since, people are blaming him and RPM.
He’s stalled out because those are restrictor plate tracks that he was racing at. This team needs time to build. This is expected right now.
Chevrolet Struggling With New Car
After being shut out of the Championship 4 last year at Homestead, Chevrolet was hoping by switching body styles from the SS to the new Camaro would make them competitive everywhere again. So far, it hasn’t worked.
Through six races, the top Chevy driver in the standings is Kyle Larson in ninth. They’ve led just seven percent of all laps in 2018 with leading 132 total circuits. Out of the 500 laps in Martinsville, they led zero of them. Out of the 267 laps in Vegas, they were again shut out.
As a whole, they’re not contending. They don’t have a championship caliber cars after six races right now.