In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after New Hampshire

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Photo by: Robert Laberge

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event in Loudon, New Hampshire got off to a slow start on Sunday, thanks to rain showers in the area that delayed the start of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 by three hours.

It was a dominating performance by “the Big 3” once again, with the winner landing in this week’s Top 5 for the gains from the last race at the track nine months ago.

Two of Harvick’s teammates join him, while Hendrick Motorsports may be on the rise at just the right time.

No. 1 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick earned his sixth victory of the season on Sunday, leading 12 laps toward the win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Harvick battled with Kyle Busch in the closing laps, even making contact with the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to take the lead for his third career win at the 1.058-mile track.

The 2014 MENCS Champion earned stage points in Stage 1 (seventh) and Stage 2 (fourth), as well as gaining 35 positions from last September.

Harvick is second in the points standings, 53 points behind Busch.

No. 2 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola has made significant gains in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, and Sunday was no different for the driver of the No. 10 Smithfield Ford.

Almirola led twice for a total of 42 laps, before earning his first top-5 finish of the year, earning third.

Almirola earned stage points in Stage 1 (10th) and Stage 2 (fifth). He is 11th in the points standings, 269 points behind the leader and just eight points behind Denny Hamlin, who is in the 10th position.

No. 3 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott and his No. 9 Chevrolet showed their growing potential on Sunday, leading 23 laps before finishing fifth. The finish is Elliott’s first top-5 and top-10 at the track with five starts to his credit.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished second to Martin Truex Jr during Stage 1, before earning his first stage win of the season at the end of Stage 2.

Elliott sits in the 13th position in the points standings, 324 points behind Busch and 63 points from 10th place.

Can Elliott earn his first MENCS victory on Sunday at Pocono Raceway? The 22-year-old has one top 5 and four top 10s at the 2.5-mile track.

No. 4 Kurt Busch – Kurt Busch matched his finish from one year ago, earning his 11th top 10 of the season in 20 races.

Busch earned stage points in Stage 1 (fourth) and Stage 2 (second). He led 94 laps on Sunday, before finishing eighth.

Busch is fifth in the points standings and eighth in the playoff standings, 198 points behind his brother. He is the first driver in the playoff standings without a win.

Can Busch earn his first win of the season next weekend at Pocono? The driver of the No. 41 Ford has 3 wins, 14 top 5s, and 19 top-10 finishes there, with a 14.3 average finish.

No. 5 Jimmie Johnson – Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, with six races remaining in the regular season.

Johnson earned stage points in Stage 1 (third) and Stage 2 (eighth), before bringing his Lowe’s Chevrolet home in 10th place.

Despite it being Johnson’s seventh top-10 of the season, it is the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s first in seven races, when he finished eighth at Pocono in early June.

Johnson sits 12th in the points standings, 322 points behind Busch and 61 points behind Hamlin.

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In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Daytona

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Photo by: Sarah Crabill

The third superspeedway event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule was a wild one in Daytona, Florida – where a young star earned his first series victory in overtime.

This week’s Top 5 features some fresh faces that we don’t normally see, some for the first time this season.

Several drivers scored their best finishes of the year, one earning the first top-10 finish of his career.

No. 1 Erik Jones – Erik Jones earned his first career Cup win on Saturday night after passing the defending series champion on the last lap in overtime.

Jones went a lap down after being involved in a multicar wreck on Lap 65. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver failed to earn stage points, but secured his place into the 2018 playoffs with his victory.

Jones sits in the 13th position in the points standings, 301 points behind teammate Kyle Busch and 55 points from Aric Almirola, who is in 10th place.

No. 2 Kasey Kahne – Kasey Kahne earned his first top-5 finish of the year and with new team Leavine Family Racing, finishing fourth.

Kahne led 17 laps and earned stage points in Stage 2 (fourth). He was 1 of 26 cars involved in a crash on Lap 54 when Brad Keselowski was turned after bumper contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Kahne’s finish is his first top 5 since winning last year’s Brickyard 400 in July. He sits 26th in the points standings, 480 points behind the leader and 138 points from Stenhouse in the 16th place cutoff.

No. 3 Matt DiBenedetto – Matt DiBenedetto earned his first top 10 of the 2018 season on Saturday, finishing seventh.

DiBenedetto failed to earn stage points, but ran as high as third throughout 400 miles.

The Go Fas Racing driver is 30th in the points standings, 535 points behind Busch and 104 points from 20th place.

No. 4 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon followed his Daytona 500 win up with a ninth-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Dillon earned stage points in Stage 1 (ninth) and Stage 2 (eighth). He ran as high as second and held a 12th place average.

Dillon is 18th in the points standings, 402 points behind Busch and 60 away from 16th place.

No. 5 Ty Dillon – Ty Dillon’s top-10 finish at Daytona wasn’t just the first of the year for the Germain Racing driver, it was the first of his MENCS career.

Dillon finished sixth on Saturday, earning him his first top-10 in a career that spans five years, three of which are full-time.

Dillon failed to earn stage points in Stage 1, but led three laps and finished fifth in Stage 2.

Dillon is 29th in the points standings, 505 points behind the leader.

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Chicagoland

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Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event at Chicagoland Speedway for the 2018 Overton’s 400 came down to a dramatic finish between Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

Busch and Larson bumped fenders and made the most noise, while the three veterans and one young gun quietly held their own.

No. 1 Erik Jones – Erik Jones earned his seventh top 10 of the season at Chicagoland, finishing sixth.

Jones started in the ninth position and earned stage points in Stage 1 at the 1.5-mile track with 10th place.

He is 14th in the points standings, 328 points behind Kyle Busch and 87 points from Ryan Blaney, who is in 10th place.

No. 2 Jamie McMurray – Jamie McMurray’s failed oil pump at Sonoma one week ago, didn’t keep the Chip Ganassi Racing driver from making a quick recovery.

McMurray failed to earn stage points on Sunday, but gained 25 positions from last weekend to finish in 12th place. He also held an average position of 15th on Sunday.

McMurray sits in 20th place in the points standings, 427 points behind Busch and 58 points from the cutoff position of 16th with 10 races to go before the playoffs begin.

No. 3 Kyle Busch – Kyle Busch continued his growing rivalry with Kyle Larson on Sunday when he and the 25-year-old traded paint on the last lap of the Overton’s 400.

Larson held the momentum in Turn 1 and Turn 2, eventually reaching Busch and tapping the left rear of the No. 18 Skittles Red White & Blue Toyota. Busch returned the favor in Turn 3 when Larson was unable to clear him.

A bump to the rear sent Larson spinning, giving Busch his fifth MENCS win of the season.

The win is Busch’s 48th of his Cup career. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is one win away from tying three-time champion Tony Stewart.

Busch remains the points leader by 62 points over Kevin Harvick.

No. 4 Joey Logano – Joey Logano earned his 13th top-10 finish of 2018 on Sunday, with an eighth place average throughout 400 miles.

Logano earned stage points in Stage 1 (eighth) and Stage 2 (10th), before scoring his fifth straight top 10 in Joliet, Illinois since finishing 37th in 2013.

Logano finished 11 places better than last week at Sonoma. He is third in the points standings, 119 points behind Busch.

No. 5 Michael McDowell – Michael McDowell gained 11 positions from his 30th place finish at Chicagoland one year ago. He finished just outside the top 20 in 21st place.

McDowell’s highest position was fourth on Sunday. He earned his only top 10 in the season opener at Daytona in February. Can the Front Row Motorsports driver better his finish?

Notable : Aric Almirola earned the first stage win of his career on Sunday. He led 27 laps before earning the stage win. He led a total of 80 laps, before finishing in 25th place.

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Sonoma

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Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series return from an off weekend and head West to the first road course of the season at Sonoma Raceway in California.

The Toyota/Save Mart 350 quickly became a strategic race, with a trick play eventually becoming the winning move of the race.

Three young guns and two veterans had impressive runs at Sonoma. Here’s how they stack up.

No. 1 Martin Truex Jr. – Martin Truex Jr. earned his third win of the season at Sonoma Raceway in one of the most unusual strategic plays not only of this season, but the last five.

Truex opted to pit on Lap 73 of 110, but plans changed last minute at the order of crew chief Cole Pearn. That wasn’t the only thing that put Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team ahead, because Kevin Harvick pitted despite the No. 78 Chevrolet diverting from the plan.

The move became a race winning one that included only one pit stop, on Lap 81, that eventually gave him more than a 20-second lead over Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

The win is Truex’s second at the 1.99-mile road course and the 18th of his career. He sits fifth in the points standings, 150 points behind leader Kyle Busch.

No. 2 Erik Jones – Erik Jones was a quiet contender on Sunday. He failed to earn stage points, but held a 14th place average and was inside the top 10 at the halfway point.

Jones earned his sixth top-10 finish of the year, finishing seventh. He gained 18 positions from a year ago, when he finished 25th in his first start at the track.

Jones is 14th in the points standings, 320 points behind Busch and 95 points from Almirola in 10th place.

No. 3 Chase Elliott – Chase Elliott’s experience on road courses may be low compared to his teammate Jimmie Johnson, but Elliott is consistently showing improvements.

Elliott earned stage points in Stage 1 (fourth) and Stage 2 (second) on Sunday, before scoring his fourth top-5 finish of the season.

Elliott finished fourth for his first top 5 since placing third at Talladega in April. He sits 13th in the points, 285 points behind Busch and 60 behind Almirola.

Elliott holds one Xfinity win at Chicagoland. Can he earn his first MENCS win next weekend?

No. 4 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola’s eighth place finish was an impressive trek considering the Stewart-Haas Racing driver hasn’t raced on the road course since 2016.

Almirola earned stage points in Stage 1 (seventh) and Stage 2 (sixth), and had an average position of 15th throughout the event.

The finish is Almirola’s first top 10 at Sonoma.

Almirola is 10th in the points standings heading into Chicagoland. He is 225 points behind Busch and 34 points from Denny Hamlin, who is eighth.

No. 5 Alex Bowman – Alex Bowman rebounded from the less than stellar performances at Pocono and Michigan, and matched his finish at Charlotte four weeks ago.

Bowman failed to earn stage points in Stage 1, but earned them in Stage 2 with a seventh place finish.

He went on to finish ninth for his fifth top-10 finish of the year. He sits 15th in the standings, 333 points behind Busch.

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.

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.