Paul Menard

In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Texas

Photo by: Matt Sullivan

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff event at Texas Motor Speedway held no limits for the No. 4 Mobil 1 Ford of Kevin Harvick.

Harvick swept both stages on Sunday before claiming his eighth victory of 2018 and 45th series win of his career.

Harvick earned his ticket to race for the second title of his career, but one of this week’s Top 5 is on the outside looking in. Plus, which drivers outside the playoffs are still not letting running for a championship get the best of them.

No. 1 Kyle Larson – Kyle Larson earned his 11th top-five finish of the season on Sunday in No Limits Texas, finishing in the fifth position.

Larson failed to earn stage points at the 1.5-mile track, but gained 32 positions from his finish one year ago, when a late crash took him out of contention.

Larson is 12th in the point standings, nine points behind Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin.

No. 2 Aric Almirola – Aric Almirola earned his 15th top-10 finish of 2018 on Sunday during the AAA Texas 500, finishing eighth.

Almirola earned stage points in Stage 1 (10th) and Stage 2 (sixth), despite battling from the back of the field due to an unapproved adjustment.

Almirola is in a must-win situation to advance in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He is seventh in the point standings, 75 points behind leader Kevin Harvick and 51 points from the fourth place cutoff.

No. 3 Paul Menard – Paul Menard has continuously made gains in his first season with the Wood Brothers driving the No. 21 Ford.

Menard gained stage points in Stage 1, finishing eighth, before finishing in the 13th position.

Menard gained 10 positions from his finish one year ago. He sits 19th in the point standings.

No. 4 Brad Keselowski – Brad Keselowski led 50 laps on Sunday before bringing his No. 2 Wurth Ford home in the 12th position.

Keselowski failed to earn stage points during Stage 1, but earned them with a fourth place finish at the end of Stage 2.

Keselowski is 10th in the point standings.

No. 5 Jimmie Johnson – Jimmie Johnson was mistakenly penalized and sent to the rear on Sunday, due to NASCAR saying his No. 48 Low’s Chevrolet failed tech inspection three times, instead of the actual two.

Johnson was involved in a wreck on Lap 97 after making contact with Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron.

Johnson led twice for a total of 11 laps before finishing in the 15th position.

He sits 14th in the point standings.


In The Fast Lane: Most Improved after Las Vegas

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.