In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Atlanta

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Photo by: Kevin C. Cox

The weather at Atlanta Motor Speedway hindered the start of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, causing a two-hour rain delay before taking the green on Sunday afternoon.

A veteran overcame pit road issues to score his second victory at the track in an astonishing time gap since his first, all while paying tribute to the late driver he replaced.

This week’s Top 5 were steady contenders, one driver used a different strategy from the rest to advance his chances at an early season victory, while others were consistent in earning stage points.

No. 1 Denny Hamlin – Denny Hamlin went from the bottom of the grid to the top of it, jumping 34 spots from a year ago when a broken rear-end ended his day in the 2017 Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

This year the Joe Gibbs Racing driver used a two-pit-stop strategy during the final stage in an attempt to earn him a win at the 1.5-mile track. Hamlin’s first win at Atlanta came in 2012, and he has a 22.8 average finish since the victory.

No. 2 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick’s recent dominance at Atlanta has proven that it was only a matter of time before the Stewart-Haas Racing driver returned to victory lane there.

Almost two decades separate the 2014 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion’s two wins at the track. Harvick won in just his fourth start in 2001 for Richard Childress Racing driving the No. 29. Harvick returned to victory lane in the No. 4 saluting Earnhardt just as he did 17 years ago.

Harvick was one of several drivers that dealt with pit-gun problems while being serviced on pit road. Harvick overcame the trouble to earn the 38th MENCS victory of his career.

No. 3 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola has not wasted any time showcasing his talent and deservingness with the No. 10 Smithfield Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Almirola started 11th and finished in the 13th position, but was a top contender throughout the event. Almirola earned stage points in two of the three stages, finishing fifth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. He sits ninth in the points standings, tied with Paul Menard with 66 points.

No. 4 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon had a quiet, but effective day – earning a 14th place finish. Dillon ran as high as sixth, with a 15th average position throughout 500 miles.

Dillon has failed to earn a top-5 or top-10 at the oval since becoming a full-time driver in 2014, but he has made some gains. Dillon improved his finish by 18 positions from one year ago.

The Richard Childress Racing driver sits sixth in the standings, 19 points behind new points leader Joey Logano.

No.5 Clint Bowyer – Clint Bowyer earned his first top-5 finish at Atlanta after finishing third on Sunday. Bowyer was the runner-up after Stage 1 and finished ninth in Stage 2, before earning his first top-5 of the season.

Bowyer jumped eight spots in the standings, from 13th to fifth. Three points separate him from Hamlin in third, and 15 from Logano.

Can Bowyer break a 187-race winless streak to score his first win in almost five years at Las Vegas?

Notables: Daniel Suarez excelled at Atlanta before falling back to a 15th place finish, the lowest position for the 26-year-old throughout the day. He was as high as third and earned a 10th place finish at the end of Stage 2.

Several drivers, including defending MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Alex Bowman, and Harvick, had problems with the new mandatory pit guns. Truex’s team went through three guns because they failed to work properly.  Will the problems be consistent or will they be resolved early in the season?

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Kevin Harvick wins at Atlanta


Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

It took Kevin Harvick 17 years to return to Victory Lane at Atlanta Motor Speedway, home of the 2014 champion’s first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.

Harvick was dominate once again at the 1.54-mile track. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led 181 of 325 laps as well as finishing almost three seconds ahead of second place, Brad Keselowski.

Just like in 2001, Harvick held three fingers out the window of his No. 4 Jimmy Johns Ford to pay tribute to the late Dale Earnhardt.

“I’m just so proud of everybody on our team,” Harvick said. “That was the first win in my career (in 2001), and to be able to do that and pay tribute to Dale was pretty cool. I’ve been waiting a long time to do that.”

“I love racing here, and it’s good to be back in Victory Lane – finally. It took a while.”

Harvick overcame early pit road problems when pit gun issues forced the driver to return to double check all the lugnuts before returning to competition.

Harvick started the second stage of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 in the 16th position on Lap 94. 32 laps later, Harvick passed teammate Kurt Busch for the lead.

Jimmie Johnson brought out the first caution for an incident on Lap 160. The 7-time champion blew a tire that caused him to spin in Turn 2. The Hendrick Motorsports driver sustained significant damage to his Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet. He finished in the 27th position, four laps down.

Trevor Bayne blew an engine late in the event on Lap 297, leaving a cloud of smoke in his rear view. The smoke left rookie Bubba Wallace blinded, ultimately running into the back of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Five Fords finished inside the top 10. Brad Keselowski finished second, Clint Bowyer third, while Joey Logano and Busch finished sixth and eighth, respectively.

Logano takes the series points lead after the second race of the season, six points over teammate Ryan Blaney.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Las Vegas for the first of three events on the West Coast on March 4, 2018.

Martin Truex Jr. dominated in 2017, winning each stage, and passing Brad Keselowski in the final laps for his first Cup victory in Sin City.

Don’t miss Truex attempt to defend his victory on Sunday, March 4th at 3:30 p.m ET on FOX.

In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Daytona

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Photo by: Robert Laberge

The 2018 NASCAR season kicked off to an incredibly start in the 60th running of The Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.

An iconic number returned to Victory Lane after being pushed by another, while rookies and veterans alike were the victim of the Big One.

This week’s Top 5 most improved drivers earned their place by making impressive moves, improving their positions from a year ago, and leading laps and earning stage points.

No. 1 Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – The Richard Petty Motorsports driver finished a career high second in his first start in the Daytona 500. Wallace, who started seventh, remained up front throughout the event and became the highest finishing African American in the event. Wendell Scott held the previous record for his 13th place finish in the 1966 Daytona 500.

Wallace pushed Austin Dillon to the win Sunday evening and avoided the Big One, despite contact with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in overtime.

The RPM driver can take the momentum and confidence gained and apply it next weekend at Atlanta. Wallace has three Xfinity starts at the 1.5-mile track, his best finish is sixth from one year ago.

No. 2 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon stated he doesn’t remember much about the 1998 Daytona 500, in which he stood in Victory Lane next to the late Dale Earnhardt.

The 27-year-old will have a reason to remember this year’s event in twenty years.

Dillon restarted fourth in an overtime finish, but gained the lead after making contact with Aric Almirola, which sent the Stewart-Haas Racing driver spinning.

The win is Dillon’s second in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Dillon now holds victories in two of the four “Crown Jewel” events. Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2017.

Dillon has proven to excel under pressure of the famous No. 3 in recent years, earning eight top-5s and 18 top-10 finishes since 2016.

No. 3 Ryan Blaney – Ryan Blaney dominated by leading 118 laps and winning Stage 2. The newest driver of Team Penske came back to earn a seventh place finish despite sustaining damage in two multi-car wrecks.

Blaney heads into Atlanta, where he has an average finish of 21.5, as the points leader. Can he improve his results, and will it be enough to keep the points lead over teammate Joey Logano?

No. 4 Michael McDowell – Michael McDowell found a new home at Front Row Motorsports after losing his ride to Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing, but he picked up right where he left off with another stellar performance at a restrictor plate track.

McDowell finished ninth in his 250th start. It is his second straight top-10 at Daytona and sixth top-10 of his career.

McDowell wasn’t in contention for the win at the end, but remained mid-pack for majority of the race. He was as high as fifth and secured stage points in Stage 1 (sixth) and Stage 2 (fifth).

No. 5 Chris Buescher – Chris Buescher last scored a top-5 in August of 2016, when he finished fifth at Bristol. The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver quietly climbed inside the top-5 Sunday to earn his best finish at the 2.5-mile track.

Buescher scored a top-10 during the 2017 Coca Zero 400. He sits ninth in the points standings, 25 points behind the points leader.

Notables: Justin Marks earned his best career finish at Daytona with 12th place, one lap down from the leaders. Marks has four MENCS starts and led his first lap in the series on Sunday.

William Byron finished 23rd after spinning on Lap 190. Byron was also involved in a 9-car incident on Lap 60 that ended the day for Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson.

Danica Patrick was the victim of a multi-car wreck on Lap 102 and finished in the 35th position. The race was Patrick’s last NASCAR event. She is scheduled to participate in the Indy 500 to bring her racing career to an end.

Austin Dillon wins 60th Daytona 500

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Photo by: Robert Laberge 

Austin Dillon went from fourth to first during an overtime finish that resulted in the Richard Childress Racing driver celebrating his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway.

Dillon acquired the lead after making contact with the bumper of the No. 10 of Aric Almirola, who attempted to hold his position by moving in front of the No. 3 Dow Chevrolet.

“I did what I had to do there at the end,” Dillon said. “I hate it for the No. 10 (Almirola’s) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.”

“This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those (Dale) Sr. fans. I love you guys.”

Dillon’s win comes in the same number the late Dale Earnhardt won the prestigious event 20 years ago.

“I said (after) my first win I couldn’t beat it, but this does. My grandfather has done everything for me. Everybody knows it. There is a lot of pressure on me to perform, because I’ve had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure. The same with the No. 3. There is a lot of pressure behind that.”

Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in his Daytona 500 debut racing for Richard Petty Motorsports. Wallace is the first African American driver to race full time in the Cup series in 47 years.

“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it,” Wallace said. “But I just want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it’s still a good day.”

Former Daytona 500 winners Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano finished third and fourth, respectively, while Chris Buescher rounded out the top-5.

Ryan Blaney finished seventh after a dominate performance. The Team Penske driver led 118 laps before being involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 199. His teammate Brad Keselowski finished in the 32nd position after being involved in a seven-car crash on Lap 102.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Atlanta on Sunday, February 25, 2018. Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Larson one year ago.

Who will win this year’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500? Tune into FOX next Sunday at 2 p.m. ET to find out.

3rd & 1: The Top 3

The 2017 Iron Bowl brought a shake up to the CFB Playoff Rankings, including a new team claiming the number one spot. While another climbs four places ahead of the SEC Championship.

No. 1 Clemson – The Clemson Tigers dominated yet again on the road in a 34-10 victory over South Carolina. The, then No. 4, team went halfway through the first quarter before scoring, but did so in a telling fashion.

Ryan Carter intercepted and returned for 12-yards to put Clemson on the board. Tavien Feaster added another seven points to the board early in the second, while Hunter Renfrow had a pair of touchdowns, including a 61-yard pass from quarterback Kelly Bryant.

The feature was the third time in Renfrow’s college football career that he collected multiple touchdowns within a single game.

No. 2 Auburn – The annual match-up versus Alabama brought a surprise to many fans of the 16-time National Championship team. Auburn University dominated the Crimson Tide and brought down the No. 1 team for the second time within 2 weeks.

The momentum and tone of the game was established early on when Nate Craig-Myers reached the end zone. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy answered it in the second quarter from a 36-yard pass, the best scoring-drive play in the game from the Crimson Tide.

Alabama kept Auburn from scoring a touchdown in the second, but they still added points with a 33-yard field goal kick from Daniel Carlson.

After Alabama started the second half with a touchdown from Bo Scarbrough, the rest of the game belonged to the Tigers.

Carlson completed a 44-yard field goal, while Kerryon Johnson and Jarrett Stidham earned a 1-yard run and 16-yard run, respectively.

No. 3 Oklahoma – The Sooners played West Virginia with home advantage, but that didn’t stop the Mountaineers from putting up a fight to the finish.

It took Oklahoma just two plays before they reached the end zone and put them on the scoreboard. West Virginia settled for a 28-yard field goal before Baker Mayfield passed for 8-yards to CeeDee Lamb.

West Virginia reached the end zone in the second quarter, but it was Oklahoma that had the advantage at the half – with touchdowns coming from Rodney Anderson and Mark Andrews. A field goal sent Oklahoma into half time with a 35-point advantage.

The third quarter brought the two teams exchanging touchdowns. West Virginia started early with a 15-yard run by Kennedy McKoy. It took Oklahoma six plays to answer, ending with an 18-yard pass to Grant Calcaterra.

McKoy grabbed his second touchdown of the afternoon to make it 24-59, but the Sooners extended their lead with a 46-yard pass to Myles Tease from Kyler Murray.

West Virginia scored the lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to gain momentum at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

Truex wins at Homestead for Championship

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Ford EcoBoost 400
Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

Martin Truex Jr. didn’t think about what being a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion would feel like prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400. He didn’t think about it during Sunday’s event either.

It wasn’t until the Furniture Row Racing crossed the finish line for the eighth time this season that the 37-year-old got emotional.

“I couldn’t even talk,” he said. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me. But the guys who mattered did — my fans, my family and then when I got with this team.

“They are unbelievable and they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”

Despite being the team to beat throughout the 2017 season the No. 78 team was looked at as the underdog, looking to defeat the odds for a storybook-type ending.

And they did. Time after time after time. The result ending with Truex earning his first career MENCS championship with eight wins, 19 top-5s, and 26 top-10 finishes.

“Honestly, it’s just a lot of love on our team,” said (crew chief) Cole Pearn. “We all believe in each other and believe if you live your lives right, good things will come. We’ve been together a long time and we battle like brothers. All I did the last few laps was think of my friend Jake and his family.

“It’s just unbelievable we’ve been able to do this. I’m still speechless about it. I just hope that what comes out of this are accolades for (what) an unbelievably good driver Martin is.”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Ford EcoBoost 400
Photo by: Brian Lawdermilk

Sherry Pollex, Truex’s longtime girlfriend, reaffirmed that statement.

“I told him that’s why you never give up, because these guys are so cool,” Pollex said. “That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. We are never going to give up and we didn’t.”

The conclusion of the finale at Homestead potentially marked the ending of three full-time Cup drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced his retirement in April, finished 25th in his last race. The 14-time winner of the Most Popular Driver award ends with 26 career wins, including two victories of the Daytona 500 (2004, 2014).

Matt Kenseth, who is being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Erik Jones, finished eighth. Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for 2018 and has stated he is not actively looking, however he will not call it a retirement.

Danica Patrick finished 37th in a 39-car field in what will be her second-to-last start. Patrick will race in the 2018 Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 before calling it quits.

Kyle Busch finished second to Truex, followed by Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, and Chase Elliott. Brad Keselowski finished seventh.

Kevin Harvick Earns Texas Victory

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Photo by: Jonathan Ferrey

Kevin Harvick became “The Closer” once again for the second time this season, passing Martin Truex Jr. in the final laps at Texas Motor Speedway to earn his first career win at the 1.5-mile track.

Harvick’s 37th career victory guarantees him a chance to battle for the 2017 championship at Homestead in two weeks.

“This feels so good,” Harvick said, “We have been qualifying well here and racing well ever since I have been at Stewart-Haas Racing and just never got it to work out to go to Victory Lane. Today we had to earn it. To be able to pass the 78 car for the win is something that is huge for our confidence and team knowing we need to go to another 1.5 mile (track) at Homestead to race for the championship.”

Truex finished second after leading 107 of 334 laps, but the Furniture Row Racing driver still has reason to celebrate. Truex secured his way into the Championship 4 based on points, joining Harvick and Kyle Busch in the final round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

“At the start of the race, our car wasn’t very good,” Truex said. “Track position was a big part of this race. We fought the car. We fought track position. We got the lead, led some laps. Ultimately, at the end, we weren’t as good as we needed to be to win.”

“A little disappointed to come up short, but to clinch a spot in Miami is unbelievable. Definitely got the job done today and came here and did what we needed to do.”

Matt Kenseth earned his first top-5 finish since Loudon in September, one day after saying that he will likely step away from Cup full-time at season’s end. He led 29 laps before finishing fourth.

Kyle Larson hit the wall and ended up in flames on Lap 282. The incident was the driver’s third weekend in a row which ended in finishes of 37th or worse.

Last week’s winner and Brad Keselowski were also faced with trouble on the first lap of the event. The two made contact and were forced to pit to access damages. Keselowski rebounded and finished fifth, while Busch had additional issues on Lap 275. He finished in the 19th position.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, November 12th to set the field for the Championship 4.

Five different drivers (Keselowski, Hamlin, Blaney, Elliott, and Johnson) are left with only one spot available. Who will advance? Find out on November 12th at 2:30 p.m ET on the NBC Sports Network.