Erik Jones

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

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In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Las Vegas

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Photo by: Matt Sullivan

The start of NASCAR’s three race stint, known as the “West Coast Swing,” began with a quick start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Last week’s winner Kevin Harvick picked up where he left off, while another champion struggled before the green flag even dropped.

This week’s Top 5 dominated, rebounded, and maintained consistency for finishes of 12th or better.

No. 1 Kevin Harvick – Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford team did a complete 180 from one year ago, when a crash was the result of finishing 38th out of 39 cars.

Harvick continued his dominance in Las Vegas to earn his second win this season, leading a stellar 214 of 267 laps – the most by any driver at the 1.5-mile track.

Harvick took the lead from polesitter Ryan Blaney on Lap 2 of the Pennzoil 400, and soon began to lap the field. Harvick put half the field at least one lap down before the end of Stage 1.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned his 100th career victory through NASCAR’s three national series, crossing the finish line 2.906 seconds ahead of Kyle Busch and 13 seconds ahead of third place finisher Kyle Larson.

No. 2 Jimmie Johnson – Jimmie Johnson started in the back on Sunday after failing pre-race inspection three times. The Hendrick Motorsports driver remained focused and determined, gaining nine spots in the first stage while fighting with handling issues.

After putting fresh tires on before the start of Stage 2, Johnson continued toward the front. The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet finished in the 20th position at the end of the second stage, two laps behind leader Harvick.

Johnson rebounded to earn a 12th place finish, his first top-15 of the season after crashes at Daytona and Atlanta resulted in finishes of 27th or worse.

Johnson sits 29th in the standings after three races. Will more improvements continue for Johnson? A top-10 at ISM Raceway would be just what he needs going forward, a top-5 could put Johnson on a steady pace back into familiar territory.

No. 3 Kyle Busch – Kyle Busch finds himself among the most improved after a second-place finish, a gain of 20 positions from last season.

Busch’s day in Sin City was much quieter than in 2017, when he confronted Team Penske’s Joey Logano on pit road post-race.

Busch led twice for a total of ten laps. He sits fifth in the standings, along with Kyle Larson, 31 points behind Harvick, who is the new points leader.

No. 4 Paul Menard – Paul Menard earned his second top-10 of the season at Las Vegas, finishing in the ninth position.

Menard’s stats through three races have steadily improved from years past.

The last time the Wood Brothers Racing driver scored two top 10s within the first three races was in 2012, when he finished sixth in the Daytona 500, and seventh two week’s later in Vegas.

Menard sits ninth in the standings as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series continues on the West Coast Swing to ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona on Sunday, March 11th.

No. 5 Erik Jones – Erik Jones has a lot that he could be happy about heading into this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is coming off his first top-10 of the season, after finishing 11th at Atlanta and in the 36th position at Daytona.

The 21-year-old has made consistent improvements since the season opener and is headed to the very same track where his No. 20 Toyota sat in Victory Lane last November with Matt Kenseth.

Can Jones earn his first MENCS victory and secure his way into the playoffs with an early victory? If the JGR driver builds on his performance, we could see the young star in victory lane sooner rather than later.