Now that we’re heading into the annual Easter holiday break, we’ve had enough of a sample size to see who the main contenders will be for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. We’ve also seen who likely won’t be contending for the title as well.
Another thing we’ve seen are drivers who are surprising us. Some are exceeding expectations, some aren’t living up to the expectations that were set forth coming into the year.
Here are the 10 drivers that are either surprising us in a good way, or a bad one.
5 Good Surprises
The Richard Childress Racing driver has led one lap in 2018, but it was the most important lap of the season thus far – the last one in the Daytona 500. While some may view Dillon’s 2018 Daytona 500 victory as controversial, it’s a win that you can’t ever take away from him. While he hasn’t led any laps since, he’s been solid. After six races, Dillon currently sits 13th in the Cup standings. Other than his 30th place finish on Monday at Martinsville, his other five results have all been inside of the top 17.
At this point last year, he had just two finishes inside of the top 17.
I think most people assumed the Wood Brothers ride would go down a bit in performance for 2018. Nothing against Menard, but most assumed Ryan Blaney had a little bit more talent. With Blaney shifting over to the third Team Penske car, would Menard leave the Wood Brothers with a bit of decline in the stats department?
Instead, the drop off is minimal.
Through six races, Menard sits 15th in the Cup standings. He has three finishes inside of the top 15 already. It took him until July to reach that point last year with RCR. In fact, Menard is looking like a solid top 15 contender everywhere we’ve gone thus far.
While it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that Almirola is performing the way that he is, we have to give him and his team credit where credit is due. Danica Patrick had previously driven this No. 10 Ford for the past six years. She had 20 total top 15 finishes in 190 starts. In fact, she had just seven combined top 10 finishes in her tenure with SHR. In just six starts in his time with the team, Almirola already has six top 15 finishes and two top 10’s.
He’s making this car an instant contender and one that could be a player for this year’s championship.
It shouldn’t be a surprise per say, but it is in how quickly the success has come.
I have to give a nod to Bowyer on this list as well. He’s finished in the top 15 in five of the six races in 2018 as well. He even ended his 190 race winless drought on Monday in Martinsville. He led more laps on Monday than he led in the previous three seasons combined. Bowyer and this No. 14 Ford are back running up front and it’s a good thing for NASCAR. With Fords expected drop in stats for 2018, SHR and the manufacturer have actually flipped the script.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Penske driver is doing good. I mean, this team has unlimited resources. But, it’s a surprise when it’s a third Penske driver in the first year that the team has expanded to another car. Sometimes, it takes teams a year or so to get acclimated with an additional team. Instead, Blaney and his No. 12 Ford are arguably one of the top championship contenders for 2018.
Through six races, Blaney has four top 10 finishes and currently sits third in the championship standings. He’s led 264 laps this season, second most in the series. He’s performing better than his other two mainstay teammates.
That’s a surprise in my book.
By all accounts, it appears that this may be a contract year for McMurray. Contracts in NASCAR aren’t made public, but from what it sounds like, 2018 may be the final year that McMurray is signed through by Chip Ganassi Racing. With NASCAR having this new found youth movement, where does that leave a 41 year old driver that’s not performing well in a top ride?
We all have seen the promise and rise of Kyle Larson. Well, he’s McMurray’s teammate. Why is one car competing at a championship level and the other not? While Larson’s stats have declined too in 2018, McMurray’s have dropped quicker.
Through six races, McMurray’s best finish in 2018 is 16th in the Daytona 500. He has three finishes outside of the top 25 already. He only had seven all of last year.
He’s riding a 153 race winless streak as he hasn’t won since Talladega in 2013. He’s led a total of one lap this season. Being 26th in points in a Ganassi car at this point of the season is a disappointment.
After the NASCAR media week, Ty Dillon had me as a believer. He said all the right things that he would be contending on a more regular basis in 2018. When it appeared that a ride would be open with his grandfathers team, he signed an extension to stay with Germain Racing. While I know that his Germain ride is essentially an RCR car, they all said the right things. Instead, he’s sitting 30th in the Cup standings with a best finish of 22nd this year.
At this point last year, Dillon had three finishes inside of the top 20. In 2018, he hasn’t had a good enough car to even sniff the top 20. Without a lead lap finish in 2018, it’s a disappointing start for such a talented driver.
The hype train was big on Elliott for 2018. With how he ended the 2017 season, Elliott was the sexy pick to win the 2018 championship. Now, he’s looking like he will be lucky to even make the 2018 playoffs. Through six races, Elliott is 18th in the Cup standings. His best finish of third at Phoenix was taken away. His only other two top 10’s were a ninth on Monday in Martinsville and 10th in the second race in Atlanta. He’s only led four laps in 2018 and not looking like the title contender that we all thought he’d be.
There’s definitely been a sophomore slump for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. The 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion is struggling right now. Suarez, is sitting 22nd in the Cup standings while his other three teammates are first, sixth and 12th respectively. His best finish in an eighth place run in Fontana. He has two top 15 results. He’s yet to lead a lap in 2018 too.
2017 looked like it would be the start of a nice turnaround for Roush/Fenway Racing. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won twice and made the playoffs and Trevor Bayne had a hot start to the season as well. While they weren’t contending for a ton of race wins, they were solidly inside of the top 15. Heck, Bayne had eight top 15 finishes through the first 11 races of the season.
In 2018, Bayne’s best finish is 13th at Daytona. His next best run was a pair of 20th place finishes at Las Vegas and Phoenix. He has three finishes outside of the top 30 already.
It’s not been a good start to the year for the RFR driver. He’s 29th in the points right now.