Aric Almirola

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.

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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?