Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Who is the Best of the Rest Right Now in Cup?

The big three — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. These drivers have been the best of the best through the first 14 races of the 2018 season. They have also combined to win 19 of the last 24 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races overall, a remarkable stat.

We always ask ourselves when we see this kind of domination if anyone can catch up. This year is no different; it feels predictable already when it comes to who will race for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, even though it’s a long season.

Harvick has five wins this season (six including the All-Star Race), which is roughly 40 percent of the races run so far. After a somewhat down year for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford, he has returned to his form from 2014 and 2015, maybe even better this time around. Harvick has dominated this season, being an easy top-two or -three car every week.

Busch, meanwhile, possesses four wins. Now, he hasn’t been as dominant as Harvick, but he definitely has given him a run for his money every week. Busch has consistently been a top two car most weeks — not as often as Harvick at first, but as we approached late spring, Busch turned it up a notch and won three in a row at Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond Raceway.

Truex is the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. He did not start off the season as well as he would’ve liked, though he did pick up a win at Auto Club Speedway to clinch his spot into the playoffs very early on. Winning the race last weekend at Pocono Raceway was a sign that he will compete with Busch and Harvick the rest of the season, and he definitely should be in the conversation with the other two drivers.

All together, they have been the talk of the garage week in and week out. Approaching summer, will we see anyone be able to challenge them? If this current trend continues, it will be extremely difficult for anyone to challenge the three front-runners.  There are a few drivers who could be considered the best of the rest, but that seems to change week to week at times in the early portion of the 2018 season.

Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports is starting to show signs of life. Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team are starting to click off consistent runs inside the top 10, approaching the top five at times. However, even though the last two weeks have been better, the inconsistency is still there. Is there still concern in the No. 48 camp?

Q: Who do you believe is the best of the rest right now outside of the Nos. 4, 18 and 78? -Brian S., Ocean City, Md.

A: Sometimes it’s been a different driver each week to begin the season. However, the last few weeks, it’s Kyle Larson. Even with Team Chevy struggling as a whole, the No. 42 team has pulled it together to run up front and lead laps to compete for wins.

Kansas Speedway is a perfect example of this. Larson led over 100 laps of that race and finished fourth, even with the incident with Ryan Blaney. His team did get penalized later in the week because of a rear window infraction, but even so, that was its best race of the season. Move on to Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he finishes in the top 10 and runs there most of the night. This was also the night Team Chevy had five drivers inside the top 10. Last weekend, Larson finished second to Truex. Even if he didn’t run top three all race, he was a consistent top-five car, and the strategy worked out at the end of the race to finish where he did.

In Larson’s five-year MENCS career, we’ve seen the potential everybody knew he had when he came into the sport.  He has won multiple races on different types of tracks, he’s had consistency and he hasn’t torn up much equipment.  He doesn’t have any crown jewel wins yet, but everyone knows he is a championship threat. 

Just look at last season.  His bad luck in round two of the playoffs cost him a shot at the championship. Going into the season finale, Larson had nothing to lose and was there to race for the win, as he has done in his four starts at the track.  He arguably had the fastest car there the last two seasons but didn’t win the race.  If you give Larson a chance at the title going into that final race, he is going to take advantage of it and have an excellent shot at a championship.

We will see him win multiple races as we approach the playoffs, and it could be as soon as this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, where he has won the last three races. As Team Chevy figures out the Camaro ZL1, Larson will continue to be the top Chevy team and compete each week. If he gets on a roll during summer, we could be looking at a big four, not a big three. 

Q: When do you think Jimmie Johnson will win again? What do you think is the level of concern with that team? – Barbara R., Charleston, S.C.

A: Will Johnson win again? Yes, he will sneak in at least one win at some point this season. To say he wouldn’t win again in his career is a little overboard.

Johnson has even said himself that there are several new guys on the team and that it’s not the same team that won seven championships. Growing pains will happen, even though it seems like his have been worse than many. Chevrolet’s struggles have added to it as well, but we have seen flashes of the No. 48 getting better. 

As for my level of concern, it’s not too potent. Even though Chad Knaus and Johnson aren’t the dynamic duo they used to be, they usually figure something out come playoffs time, even last year when they made the Round of 8 while having several struggles throughout the playoffs. On a scale of 1-10, it’s about a three. Right now, there isn’t too much to be worried about being inside the playoffs, and he is running about the same as his other three teammates.

Once Chevy figures the Camaro ZL1 out, he’ll get better and start competing more consistently. He won’t ever be the Jimmie Johnson of old, but he’ll be perfectly fine as the season progresses.

Johnson will make the playoffs, but it is hard to determine at the moment how far he can go. However, if his team can figure out the new bodies and gain more consistency, there is no doubt in my mind that the team can compete for the title this year. 

About the author

Brandon is a 22-year-old from NY and has been a passionate follower of motorsports for 14 years now. He recently graduated from Molloy College on Long Island with a BA in Communications. Working within NASCAR has been a dream for Brandon for a while, and he hopes to be able to live out the dream in the very near future.

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