In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Charlotte

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Photo by: Brian Lawdermilk

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series spent Memorial Day weekend in NASCAR’s backyard at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Three drivers were faced with various challenges during the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 27, 2018.

Two former champions are featured in this week’s top 5, one who continues to face an uphill climb as we approach the summer.

No. 1 Brad Keselowski – Brad Keselowski’s fourth place finish on Sunday was the first top-5 finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Team Penske driver since May of 2016, where he finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Keselowski failed to earn stage points in the first two stages of the event, but finished third at the end of Stage 3.

Keselowski, who was the top Penske finisher, gained 35 positions from his finish one year ago. He avoided tire trouble as well as being caught up in a wreck for his third top 5 of the season.

Keselowski is fourth in the points standings, 136 points behind leader Kyle Busch. He is seven points ahead of defending champion Martin Truex Jr.

No. 2 Kyle Larson – Kyle Larson overcame adversity at Charlotte before earning his eighth top 10 of the season.

Larson was running fourth when his No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet got away from him, causing Larson to spin in Turn 1. Larson impressively avoided hitting the wall and kept the damage to a minimum.

Larson failed to earn stage points in Stage 3 after bringing out the ninth caution of the night, but he did secure points in Stage 1 and Stage 2 with third.

Larson finished seventh and gained two positions in the points standings. He sits ninth, 191 points behind Busch.

No. 3 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott was a quiet competitor despite running inside the top 15 for majority of the night.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished seventh during Stage 2 and had an 12th place average throughout 600 miles. Elliott gained 27 spots from his position in last year’s event, where an early two-car accident took him out of contention.

Elliott brought his No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet home in 11th place. He holds the 15th position in the points standings, tied with Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 277 points behind Busch and 80 points from Aric Almirola in 10th.

No. 4 Jimmie Johnson – Like Larson, Jimmie Johnson was faced with challenges on Sunday night.

Johnson was involved in a four-car accident on Lap 121 after slight contact sent the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet spinning. Johnson avoided hitting the wall and contact with other competitors.

Despite restarting outside of the top 25, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was inside the top 5 within 40 laps and crossed the line eighth at the end of Stage 2.

An issue on pit road early in Stage 3 was the cause of Johnson battling from behind again, but Johnson prevailed to finish in the 11th position at stage end.

Johnson settled inside the top 10 with less than 100 laps to go, before finishing fifth and earning his second top-5 finish of 2018.

Johnson sits 12th in the points standings, 246 points behind Busch and 49 points behind Almirola.

No. 5 Erik Jones – Erik Jones did not improve his position from last year’s Coca-Cola 600, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did secure stage points in the three stages, matching results in both Charlotte events in 2017.

Jones’ 19th place finish was the result of three pit road issues, two of which involved the No. 95 of Kasey Kahne, and being involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 121.

The first pit road problem occurred in the early laps of Stage 1 under caution. Jones was pinned behind Kahne on pit road, forcing the 21-year-old to back up before exiting his stall. Later, Kahne ran over a hose that resulted in Jones’ front tire-changer losing his pit gun.

Jones finished 10th in Stage 1 and Stage 2. He earned a second-place finish at the end of Stage 3.

Jones was hit with his third pit road problem during his final stop, which was an uncontrolled tire violation.

Jones was unable to recover and finished in the 19th position. He is 13th in the points standings, 259 points behind Busch. He is 62 points from 10th.

Notables: Busch became the first driver in NASCAR history to earn a win at every active track on the MENCS schedule. Busch led 377 of 400 laps on Sunday before earning his 47th Cup victory.

Busch extending his points lead to 67 points over Joey Logano and 88 points ahead of Kevin Harvick, who finished last on Sunday.

William Byron currently leads the Rookie of the Year battle over Darrell Wallace Jr. despite crashing out on Lap 116. Byron finished 39th, while Wallace finished in the 16th position.

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In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Dover

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Photo by: Jerry Markland 

The 11th race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Delaware saw a former champion earning his fourth win of the season.

One young gun overcame obstacles to tie a career best, while another veteran earned his best finish at Dover in three years.

Only two organizations are featured in this week’s top 5, but all improved their positions from one year ago by more than 10 positions.

No. 1 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer was in a good position on Sunday to earn his second victory of the season, but a rain delay halted the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s momentum that ultimately ended in his runner-up finish.

Bowyer was leading on Lap 320 when NASCAR red-flagged the AAA 400 because of rain, but when the race resumed it took teammate Kevin Harvick just eight laps to get around Bowyer.

Bowyer finished second to earn his third top-5 finish of 2018. He led 40 laps and earned stage points in Stage 1 (seventh) and Stage 2 (fifth).

Bowyer sits fourth in the points standings, 86 points behind leader Kyle Busch.

No. 2 Kurt Busch – Kurt Busch was relatively quiet at Dover despite his fifth place finish.

Busch finished Stage 1 in fifth and failed to finish inside the top 10 during Stage 2 of the event, but had an average position of ninth throughout 400 miles at the one mile track.

Busch sits sixth in the standings, 108 points behind his brother. He is only seven points behind Brad Keselowski in fifth.

No. 3 Ryan Blaney – Ryan Blaney earned his sixth top 10 of the season despite battling issues.

Blaney started in the 14th position and worked his way into the top 10 before the end of Stage 1, all while saving fuel. Blaney fought a tight car throughout Stage 2, but finished in the eight position.

The Team Penske driver tied a Dover career best finish by earning an eight-place finish on Sunday.

Blaney now sits seventh in the point standings after 11 races, 120 behind leader Busch and 119 from fifth.

No. 4 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola gained 14 positions from the fall event in 2017, finishing 11th on Sunday for his best finish at the track since finishing fifth in 2015.

Almirola, who did not race at Dover’s spring race last year because of a back injury sustained at Kansas two weeks earlier, ran as high as fifth on Sunday.

Almirola was 13th by mid-race and had a 15th place average. Almirola sits 11th in the point standings, 162 points behind the leader and three points behind Kyle Larson, who sits in the 10th position.

No. 5 Joey Logano – Joey Logano gained 12 positions from one year ago, when he finished 25th.

Logano started in the 18th position on Sunday and was just outside the top 10 by Lap 22 of 400.

Logano earned stage points in Stage 1 (ninth) and Stage 2 (10th). After many adjustments to the Shell-Pennzoil Ford, Logano made his top 5 appearance at Lap 274.

Logano pitted after the red flag for rain was lifted, but was forced to pit again with loose lugnuts. He finished in 13th place. The finish marked the second time this season in which the No. 22 has finished outside the top-10.

Notable: Kyle Busch finished in the 35th position after the drive shaft on the No. 18 Toyota broke on Lap 272. Busch previously reported a problem on Lap 3. He still retains the points lead by 22 points over Logano and 40 points over race winner Harvick.

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Talladega

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Photo by: Jonathan Ferrey

The Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway wasn’t the usual wild and chaotic event that you would expect at the 2.66-mile track, instead it was unusually tame and somewhat uneventful.

The tenth, and second restrictor-plate, race of the season included only two cautions for multi-car wrecks. The others being for debris and end of stages.

Another Ford appeared in Victory Lane on Sunday. The win ended a 36-race winless drought for a veteran who’s last win was an encumbered finish.

No. 1 Joey Logano – Joey Logano looked like his old self at Talladega. The Team Penske driver led 70 laps before earning his first win since the spring Richmond race last year.

Logano took the lead for the first time on Lap 75 and led for an additional three times. Logano earned stage points with second place finishes in Stage 1 and Stage 2.

Logano remains second in the points standings, but gained 26 points on leader Kyle Busch after his win on Sunday.

The momentum gained at Talladega is beneficial for the No. 22 team, but they still have work to do heading to Dover International Speedway.

Logano has a 14.2 average finish at Dover despite having three top-5 finishes. He has finished 15th or worse in three of the last four events.

No. 2 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott earned his third top five of the season at Talladega, but not without having to overcome some obstacles. Elliott qualified in the fifth position, but was forced to start at the rear of the field because of an unapproved adjustment to the No. 9 NAPA Chevrolet.

Elliott cracked the top five on Lap 32 and finished just outside the top 10 at the end of Stage 1.

Elliott was hit with a pit road violation during Stage 2 and later had to make an additional stop for missing his pit stall, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver charged to the front to finish third.

Elliott sits 18th in the points standings, 238 points behind Busch. He is eight points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 15th place and 71 points behind Kyle Larson, who is 10th.

No. 3 Alex Bowman – Alex Bowman earned his first career top 10 at a restrictor-plate track on Sunday, finishing eighth.

Bowman led 26 laps before he was caught speeding on pit road mid-way through the race, but was back inside the top 10 by Lap 152.

Bowman was up to the fifth position before a late caution halted his momentum. He restarted fourth on Lap 172, but faded to eighth before taking the checkers.

Bowman is 12th in the points standings, 209 points behind Busch and 42 points from Larson.

No. 4 David Ragan – David Ragan’s restrictor-plate track consistency continued on Sunday when he earned a sixth place finish.

Ragan earned stage points with a sixth place finish at the end of Stage 2. He ran as high as third throughout 500 miles.

Ragan earned his fourth top-10 finish in the last six super speedway races. He is one of five drivers to score four top-10s within that span.

No. 5 Daniel Suarez – Daniel Suarez’s season may be on the up-rise. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has earned three top-11 finishes since finishing 29th in Fort Worth, Texas.

Suarez avoided being caught up in the “Big One” at Talladega and even led one lap before finishing in the tenth position.

Can Suarez add another good finish this weekend at Dover? The 26-year-old finished sixth and eighth, respectively, in his rookie season.

Notable: Timothy Peters made his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start on Sunday. He finished 23rd.

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Bristol

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Photo by: Sean Gardner

The Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway saw a lot of stop-and-go thanks to rain that caused Sunday’s event to be postponed to Monday, but not before the event was red flagged three times for weather.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stars went 204 laps before the remainder of the event got pushed to Monday, when a former champion and 11-year veteran scored their best finishes of the year.

Five different organizations are featured in this week’s top-5 for the first time this season.

No. 1 Jimmie Johnson – Jimmie Johnson may have won this event one year ago, but immediately was put at a disadvantage when an unapproved tire change after qualifying forced the team to give up their starting position.

Johnson recovered to finish third at Bristol, giving the Hendrick Motorsports driver his first top-5 of the season. Johnson had not earned a top-5 since October of 2017 when he finished third at Dover.

Johnson sits 17th in the points standings, 196 points behind leader Kyle Busch. He is one point behind Paul Menard in the 16th position and 72 points from 10th place.

When will Johnson find victory lane? Can Richmond be that place? The 7-time champion has three wins at the three-quarter mile track.

No. 2 Kyle Larson – Kyle Larson may have been looking for redemption after an early crash at Texas took him out of contention, but it didn’t run as smoothly as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver hoped for.

Larson was leading when he spun on Lap 324 after receiving a bump from behind from Ryan Newman, but the 25-year-old recovered and re-took the lead on Lap 439. Larson battled with Busch for the remainder of the event, before falling to second in the closing laps.

Larson received stage points in both Stage 1 and Stage 2 after crossing the finish line in the fifth position. He sits ninth in the points standings, 116 points behind Busch.

No. 3 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola gained 16 positions from his finish at the half-mile track one year ago.

Almirola avoided trouble to earn a seventh place finish at Stage 1 end, but drifted to the back at midrace. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver ran as high as third before finishing sixth, earning his third top-10 of the season.

Almirola sits 11th in the points standings, 154 points behind Busch and 30 points behind teammate Kurt Busch, who is in the 10th position.

No. 4 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Ricky Stenhouse Jr quietly and consistently ran up front at Bristol, while earning his first top-5 of the season.

Stenhouse earned stage points in Stage 1 (ninth) and Stage 2 (sixth) during the event.

Stenhouse, who finished fourth, gained four spots in the points standings. He’s now in 18th place, 203 points behind the leader.

No. 5 David Ragan – David Ragan earned his best finish of the season at Bristol when he finished in 12th place.

Ragan failed to earn stage points, but was as high as seventh with an average position of 20th place.

This is Ragan’s best finish since finishing 10th at Talladega in the fall.

The momentum gained from this finish can help Ragan at Richmond before heading to Talladega, where the Front Row Motorsports driver has one win, four top-5s, and nine top-10 finishes.

Notables: Busch’s win at Bristol marked the first time in thirty-one years that a driver won at the half-mile track while leading the points standings. The feature was last accomplished by Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1987.

Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first African American driver since 1963 to lead a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event. Wallace led for six laps, before his No. 43 STP Chevrolet began to lose the handling that allowed the rookie contender to battle with two former champions. Wallace salvaged for a 16th place finish.

Daniel Suarez earned an 11th place finish despite suffering a broken finger last weekend at Texas. Suarez also led for five laps on Monday’s rain postponed event.

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Texas

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Photo by: Sean Gardner

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned from the holiday off weekend to frigid temperatures in Fort Worth, Texas.

One veteran avoided multiple wrecks and came from behind to earn his best finish since May of 2017, while another found Victory Lane.

Another young gun scored his best finish of the season, while the Rookie of the Year battle remains a close one.

No. 1 Kyle Busch – Kyle Busch’s run of top 5 finishes without a win came to an end in No Limits Texas, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver held off Kevin Harvick for his first win of the season.

Busch, who is now tied with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott on the all-time win list, led the most laps and secured the Stage 2 win before earning the 44thvictory of his MENCS career.

With the Texas victory, the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion extended his points lead to 38 points over Joey Logano and 51 points ahead of Ryan Blaney.

Will the momentum from this win carry into Bristol? Busch has six wins, nine top-5s, and 14 top-10 finishes at the half-mile track.

No. 2 Jamie McMurray – Jamie McMurray came from being one lap behind to finish third in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

McMurray was only a couple car lengths ahead of multi-car wrecks during Sunday’s event. Avoiding trouble with the first caution on Lap 2 and again on Lap 179.

McMurray regained his lap on Lap 305, when the No. 31 of Ryan Newman brought out the eighth and final caution of the evening.

From there the Chip Ganassi Racing driver surged to the front, earning his best finish since placing second at Talladega last year.

No. 3 Erik Jones – Erik Jones earned his first top-5 of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing fourth after leading 64 of 334 laps.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver earned stage points in Stage 1 (10th) and Stage 2 (fourth).

Jones gained one position in the point standings. He now sits in 11th place, 123 points behind leader Busch. He is nine points behind Kyle Larson in tenth.

No. 4 Darrell Wallace Jr. – Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. looked like a new man on Sunday, coming from his 15th starting position to earn his first top-10 since finishing second in the season-opener at Daytona.

Wallace’s team used an off sequence pitting strategy to get the rookie of the year contender in contention. Wallace stayed out during the final caution that put the Richard Petty Motorsports driver restarting in the fourth position.

Wallace remained strong to earn an eighth place finish. He sits 19th in the point standings, nine points behind Rookie of the Year competitor William Byron and three points ahead of A.J. Allmendinger.

No. 5 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer carried the momentum from his Martinsville win two weeks ago into Texas for a quiet but strong run at the 1.5-mile track.

Bowyer started in the third position and had an average position of seventh on Sunday. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned a sixth-place finish during Stage 1 and fifth at Stage 2.

Bowyer sits sixth in the standings after finishing ninth. He is 67 points behind Busch and one point behind defending champion Martin Truex Jr, who is in fifth.

Notables: In addition to McMurray and Jones, there were multiple drivers who scored their best finishes of the season at Texas.

Byron earned his first top-10 of the season with 10th place. He led one lap on Lap 234.

Trevor Bayne recovered from a late-race crash to finish in the 12th position. His best since finishing 13th during the Daytona 500.

Ty Dillon, Michael McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne, and Ross Chastain all earned best season results.

Pit guns remain a hot topic after issues with the No. 4 team forced Harvick to pit multiple times for loose wheels. Harvick, his crew chief Rodney Childers, and JGR owner Joe Gibbs all expressed their displeasure with the NASCAR mandated pit guns following the race.

Daniel Suarez injured his left hand after being involved in a crash on Lap 2 with Austin Dillon, Paul Menard, and Alex Bowman. Suarez finished 29th, 44 laps down

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Martinsville

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Photo by: Brian Lawdermilk

An overnight snowstorm in Virginia postponed the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway to Monday, March 26th – when a veteran’s winless drought that spanned almost six years came to an end.

A young gun with a top team earned his first top-10 of the season, while his teammate overcame obstacles to earn himself a top-10.

This week’s top-5 led laps, overcame being laps behind the leader, and improved their positions from one year ago at the half-mile track.

No. 1 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer was the underdog coming into the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, but at race end he was the top dog.

Bowyer led more laps at the Paper Clip than the last four years of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. He led 215 laps on Monday, compared to 145 laps from 2014 through 2017.

Bowyer gained the lead on Lap 285 and stayed out front for the remainder of day, with the exception of one lap on Lap 386.

The win is Bowyer’s first since the fall race at Charlotte in 2012, first with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 14 team. It is the ninth win of his MENCS career.

No. 2 Ryan Blaney – Ryan Blaney led 145 laps on Monday, second to race winner Bowyer, and secured points with a third place finish in Stage 1 and the Stage 2 victory.

Blaney significantly improved his position from one year ago, when he finished in the 25th position.

Blaney sits third in the points standings, 24 points behind new points leader Kyle Busch.

Can Blaney continue the momentum from Martinsville to earn his second career victory at Texas? The Team Penske driver finished 12th in the spring race last year after leading 148 laps.

No. 3 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott finished ninth at Martinsville Speedway, but it wasn’t an easy finish for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Elliott, who finished in the 27th position during the fall event after contact with Denny Hamlin, fought to stay on the lead lap through 500 miles, but was the beneficiary of the free pass on two occasions.

Elliott overcame the troubles to earn his third top-10 of 2018. The 22-year-old sits 18th in the points standings, 62 points from 10th and 142 behind Busch.

No. 4 Joey Logano – Joey Logano has been quietly flying under the radar this season. The Team Penske driver has earned five top-10s and two top-5s throughout six races.

Logano finished sixth on Monday. He earned stage points in both stages by finishing in the ninth position.

Logano sits fourth in the standings, 25 points behind Busch. He sits only one point behind teammate Blaney in third.

No. 5 Alex Bowman – Alex Bowman earned his first top-10 at Martinsville, earning a seventh place finish after rain and snow on Saturday was the cause of a Monday double-header.

Bowman has made improvements this season. The Hendrick Motorsports driver sits 14th in the standings, 112 points behind Busch. He is 32 points from Kurt Busch, who is in 10th place.

Clint Bowyer returns to Victory Lane at Martinsville

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Photo by: Sarah Crabill

Clint Bowyer snapped a winless streak that spanned almost six years, dating back to October of 2012, on Monday, March 26th, after an overnight snowstorm on Saturday caused the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway to be delayed by one day.

Bowyer led 215 laps before earning his ninth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory of his career, ending a drought of 190 races without a win. The victory is also the Stewart-Haas Racing driver’s first at the .526-mile track.

 “We learned last year,” Bowyer said of the 2017 season, his first season with SHR after co-owner Tony Stewart retired from NASCAR competition. “Obviously, Harvick came on strong at the end of last year, but it was a learning year for our team and the 14 bunch.”

Bowyer won by a 1.146 margin-of-victory over runner-up Kyle Busch, who gained the points standings lead from Martin Truex Jr. by eight points.

“We just tried to maintain and keep ourselves in the right position, in the right spots all day long on the long runs and save our stuff as much as we could to see if we couldn’t mount a charge late in the going,” Busch said.

But it wasn’t enough for the 32-year-old. Busch finished second for the third time in the last four races after leading 24 laps. 

Ryan Blaney, Truex, and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-5. Blaney led 145 laps and earned the Stage 2 victory before bringing his Menards / Libman “Cleaning Since 1896” Ford to a third place finish.

“It was a good showing for us, for sure. I think the track tightened up a good bit there towards the end and we just got a little bit behind. Congrats to Clint for winning that race.” Blaney said, “It was fun racing with him for a bit, but for us to come out of here and lead a bunch of laps, win a stage and run third here at Martinsville – where I usually run terrible – that says a lot about this team and the preparation that they did getting ready for this race. That’s nice to have, we just need to be a little bit better.”

Joey Logano finished sixth, Alex Bowman earned his first top-10 of the season with seventh, while AJ Allmendinger, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-10.

The lone caution for an incident occurred on Lap 384 when the No. 1 of Jamie McMurray and the No. 3 of Austin Dillon made contact going into Turn 2. The contact caused McMurray to spin. McMurray later suffered a tire rub and was forced to pit. McMurray finished 26th, five laps down.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series have a week off for Easter, but return on Sunday, April 8th at Texas Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson earned his first victory of 2017 at the 1.5-mile track one year ago. Can he repeat again? Will a young gun earn a win? Or will someone earn their first career victory?

Find out on April 8, 2018 at 2 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.