Erik Jones

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.

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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 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 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.