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NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings

NASCAR Power Rankings — Phoenix

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1. Kyle Larson (+4)

Larson has been on fire this month. He finished second for a third consecutive week and leads the series standings, becoming the first Chip Ganassi Racing driver to do so since Sterling Marlin in 2002.

2. Brad Keselowski (-1)

Although he fell out of the points lead after Phoenix, Keselowski is the only driver with three top-fives and a win through the first four races.

3. Chase Elliott (+3)

No sophomore slump for this ‘Young Gun.’ Elliott led 106 laps at Phoenix but is still searching for his first victory. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is third in the standings with two top-five results.

4. Joey Logano (–)

If it weren’t for a pit road speeding penalty, Logano might have been the man to beat on Sunday. He won the pole for the Camping World 500 but finished 31st after suffering a blown right front tire with six laps to go.

5. Martin Truex Jr. (-3)

After a dominating win at Las Vegas, Truex had a quiet day at the desert oval. The No. 78 team elected to stay out for track position during the final caution and restarted third but was shuffled back to 11th in the final two laps on older tires.

6. Kevin Harvick (-3)

Phoenix International Raceway has been Harvick’s playground the last four years, having won five of the last eight events there. However, he’s failed to lead a lap at the track the last two races and struggled throughout the first half of Sunday’s race. While he rallied to finish sixth, he has yet to post a top-five this season.

7. Kyle Busch (+1)

After a rocky start to 2017, ‘Rowdy’ finally earned a finish reflective of his performance with a third-place result on Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (-1)

Blaney was fast this weekend but also got nabbed for speeding, which led to his 23rd-place finish after qualifying second at the mile-long track.

9. Ryan Newman (Not ranked last week)

The choice to not pit during the final caution paid off for Newman, and Richard Childress Racing visited Victory Lane for the first time since Harvick won at Phoenix in November 2013. Performance-wise, RCR is still searching for more speed, but Sunday’s win was certainly a weight lifted off Newman, who ended a personal 127-race winless streak, and organization’s shoulders.

10. Jimmie Johnson (+3)

Johnson finished ninth on Sunday, marking the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet’s first top-10 of the year.

11. Jamie McMurray (+1)

McMurray was quick at the Arizona short track. He qualified his No. 1 Chevrolet fifth and ran in the top five early in the race, but settled for 15th place as pit strategy didn’t play into his favor at the end.

12. Kasey Kahne (-2)

The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet took a step backward by finishing 20th after three top 15s to start the season but remains ninth in the standings. He has an average finish of 10.8 after four races.

13. Kurt Busch (-4)

For a second straight week, Busch’s No. 41 Ford suffered voltage issues, and he finished 25th on Sunday. He’s tied with Kahne for ninth in points.

14. Denny Hamlin (+2)

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver got his second top-10 of the season with a 10th-place result but has yet to lead a lap in 2017.

15. Erik Jones (Not ranked last week)

Jones earned his first career top-10 with an eighth-place finish at the site of his first NASCAR national touring series victory. The No. 77 has been consistent the last three weeks, with three consecutive top-15 results.

16. Matt Kenseth (-5)

It was hard to choose who would claim the final position in the rankings. Clint Bowyer was almost put in the 16th spot, but Kenseth is given the benefit of the doubt despite wrecking on Sunday since he has one top-five and a top-10 while Bowyer has only one top-10.

Dropping out of the top-16 rankings this week: Trevor Bayne (was 14th) and Clint Bowyer (was 15th).

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jones Content with New Team, Earns First Career Top 10 at PIR

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Starting a new team from the ground up can be difficult in any racing series — even for the highest-budget organizations.

But Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series rookie Erik Jones is finding consistency with the seven-month-old Furniture Row Racing No. 77 team and earned his first career top 10 at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday.

Jones, who won his first NASCAR national series race at PIR in November 2013 in a truck, finished eighth in the Camping World 500. Remove the 39th-place result he had in the Daytona 500, and he’s averaging a finish of 12th to start his first year in the sport’s top level.

He earned four Stage points by running seventh at the conclusion of Stage 2 at the desert oval and sits 18th in the points standings — the highest among five Cup rookies.

“This week was better than I thought it would be,” Jones told POPULAR SPEED. “I know we have ups and downs, but it was my goal and the team’s goal to steadily improve each week, and I think we’ve done that.”

The 20-year-old Michigan native has veteran Martin Truex Jr., who visited Victory Lane last weekend at Las Vegas, as a teammate at FRR, but he hasn’t had to ask for much advice from the No. 78 driver.

“You look at your own data, and it takes a lot of the questions out,” Jones said. “Fortunately, we’ll see he’s doing this or doing this … OK, we’ll figure that out. It helps a lot. I study pretty hard.”

Jones said the team has meshed well together with first-year Cup crew chief Chris Gayle holding the reigns, and a “new camaraderie” has formed among the No. 77 team.

“We’ve been getting everyone to execute well over the last few weeks,” Jones said. “We’re definitely competitive and bringing fast cars to the track. We’re executing well on pit road, and we’re executing on restarts.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Stenhouse Stays Out Late to Earn First Top Five at Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Not pitting for tires in the closing laps at a hot, slick Phoenix Raceway on a sunny afternoon might not seem like the best strategy for victory, but somehow it paid off for race winner Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Newman led the field on the final restart of the Camping World 500 with Stenhouse on the inside of his No. 31 while the leaders pitted. Stenhouse finished fourth — marking the first top five of 2017 for RFR.

“[Brian] Pattie (crew chief) wanted to stay out and I kind of questioned it. Then when it came down to it, ‘Hey, everyone is coming!’ but I already committed to staying out,” Stenhouse said. “I think his gut instinct was right to stay out and that’s what I went with.”

The fifth-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver knew the cars behind him had fresh tires for the last restart, including new points leader Kyle Larson, who finished second for a third consecutive week.

“I thought the 42 (Larson) would run around the top. I was hoping I could get back to the 31,” Stenhouse said. “It didn’t fire off as well as we wanted and I was really loose. I was glad it got all the way to the checkered because if it were to have caution after caution, it’d have been trouble.”

Stenhouse has had a tough start to the season. He had finishes of 31st, 13th and 33rd in the first three races and found himself sitting 29th in the standings after Las Vegas. But he hasn’t lost confidence in his No. 17 team and believes he’ll contend for wins this year.

“It’s kind of hard to see [hard work] pay off. We’ve had some mechanical failures, bad restarts at the end, and getting fenders torn up,” he added. “We thought we could have finished top-five in Atlanta. In Vegas, we had a 15th-place car, and we had a mechanical failure.

“I think the speed is there — we’re just fine tuning to make sure we don’t make mistakes.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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XFINITY

Ganassi Duo Solid in Phoenix XFINITY Race

AVONDALE, Ariz. — Chip Ganassi Racing had a solid Saturday in the DC Solar 200 at Phoenix Raceway.

Tyler Reddick completed every lap for the first time in a NASCAR XFINITY Series race while Brennan Poole posted an eighth-place result.

Reddick, who ran the No. 42 at Daytona in February, was involved in an early accident at the superspeedway and salvaged a 20th-place result two laps down. But he stayed out of trouble at the desert oval and ran in the top five midway through the event. However, late restarts gave the 21-year-old racer trouble near the end.

“All day yesterday in practice, we had a really hard time getting the take-off speed we needed,” Reddick told POPULAR SPEED. “Honestly, for most of the race, we had pretty good take-off speed on the restarts — better than we were expecting.

“We freed it up too much at the end of the race hoping for a long green flag run. We probably could have finished inside the top 10, but mistakes there at the end cost us a good finish.”

Reddick finished 14th in his second career XFINITY race and was pleased with his performance nonetheless. He said racing on paved short tracks has been difficult in his NASCAR career.

“These short tracks are going to be tough for me,” he said. “[Asphalt racing] isn’t something I knew a lot about growing up. I did a lot of dirt track racing, and being on the top for restarts wasn’t the place for us all day long. Being loose at the end cost us a lot.”

Poole, who sits seventh in the standings, called the final 40 laps of the race “wild.” But he said his confidence is up after Saturday’s performance and thinks a win will come soon.

“The restarts were crazy. Everyone is trying to get what they can get,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “We battled all day. Our car was not really where we wanted in practice, and we didn’t get a great qualifying result. But at the end of the day, we worked through every stop to make the car better and wound up getting an eighth-place finish.

Both CGR drivers had sweat dripping down their face when they climbed out of the car after the race. That’s what a 200-mile event in the Valley of the Sun will do to a person. But both men still had quite a bit more energy afterward.

They both said they could go “another 200 laps.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

BK Racing Rookies Embrace Opportunity as Cup Drivers

AVONDALE, Ariz. — With two rookies running the No.’s 23 and 83 for BK Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the team knew 2017 would be a learning season for drivers Gray Gaulding and Corey LaJoie.

Entering this year, both racers only had two previous Cup starts and never competed full time in any of NASCAR’s three national series. But team owner Ron Devine gave them the opportunity run in stock car racing’s premier level and let them experience the career of a full-time NASCAR driver.

“Ron is a good supporter, and he knows we have a lot to learn,” Gaulding told POPULAR SPEED. “I know I’m here to work as hard as I can and show Ron I deserve to be in this car. I want to go out every week and give him the best finish possible.”

Gaulding said running at 1.5-mile tracks for the first time was “the most fun I’ve ever had behind the wheel,” particularly in Atlanta, which has an aged surface and tire fall-off is always a factor.

“That race was so fun because the tires get old and everyone is sideways,” he added. “In Vegas, we had a decent run. I felt like we could have finished in the 20s, which is a good run for our team, but I got two speeding penalties on pit road, which killed us under green. … It just comes with time and experience.”

LaJoie had a rocky start to the season. His No. 83 Toyota is unchartered, unlike Gaulding’s No. 23, so he had to race his way into the Daytona 500 in the Duel race.

He qualified for the “Great American Race,” and rolled off 31st, but made contact with the tri-oval’s outside wall on Lap 31 as he tried to slow down to pit road speed.

There was damage to the right front of LaJoie’s car, but he salvaged a 24th-place result in his first 500. Nevertheless, he was happy to make the show as 42 cars attempted Daytona with 40 spots available.

“It was a pretty big moment regardless, whether you were locked in or not, “LaJoie told POPULAR SPEED. “The Daytona 500 was pretty intense. I didn’t go there for a week to not make that thing.

“Obviously, the first three races weren’t quite how we envisioned them to go, but Daytona was cool because we made it.”

Looking ahead, LaJoie will run select events in the JGL Racing No. 24 Toyota in the XFINITY Series, including at Auto Club Speedway next week. He’s scheduled for 14 Cup races this year, and it there could be more if sponsorship is found.

Gaulding’s goal for his rookie season is to finish top 30 in the points standings. After competing in two of the first three Cup events this year, he sits 38th in the standings, two spots behind LaJoie.

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Ends Busch-Logano Feud, and “Everything’s Great”

AVONDALE, Ariz. — On Friday, NASCAR held a 15-minute meeting with Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, who were involved in a post-race fracas at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week.

The conference’s purpose was to eliminate any further conflict between the drivers and explain what is expected from them going forward.

“I tried to explain that I made a mistake underneath [Busch]. He asked for some data, and I was able to show him that,” Logano said. “I guess time will tell. We’ll see, I hope he’s able to see that and know that I was sincere about it but time will tell.”

Logano was open with the media and emphasized that the on-track incident with Busch last week was not intentional. He believes he got through to Busch.

When Busch spoke, he was more tight-lipped about the session with NASCAR officials. He told the media, “Everything’s great!” four times when asked about his thoughts on the meeting.

Watch the video from both driver’s interviews via Fox Sports here:

http://www.foxsports.com/nascar/video/900562499871

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Blaney Ready for First Double-Duty Weekend of 2017

AVONDALE, Ariz. — For the first time in 2017, Ryan Blaney will run double-duty between the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Phoenix Raceway.

Blaney, 23, will drive the Team Penske No. 22 in the 200-mile XFINITY race on Saturday and continue into Sunday’s Camping World 500 with his full-time role in the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford.

He currently sits sixth in the Cup points standings after opening the season with finishes of second at Daytona, 18th in Atlanta and seventh at Las Vegas.

Having practiced in both the XFINITY and Cup car on Friday, Blaney said the track is “slick” in the 90-degree desert weather and that “it’s only going to get worse” as the weekend progresses.

“This race track has aged very well, and the heat is definitely speeding up that process, which is nice,” he said. “It’s been a difficult task to try and get your car to where you need it. And tomorrow for race practice in the Cup car, it is going to be pretty tough to get your car dialed in for where you need it for Sunday.”

He enjoys competing in both series, though. His last double-duty stint was the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2016.

“It’s been nice to kind of bounce back-and-forth between garages,” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done for a long time — since last year. That’s nice to try and get repetition on race tracks. We learned things on the Cup car that we tried over [in the XFINITY car] that they’re working on.

“It’s just nice to have them try it and try different lines on the race track.”

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

Could 2017 Match Historic 1967 as One of Motorsport’s Greatest Years?

Fans that have watched auto racing all their life and have been alive long enough to remember might say 1967 was the most memorable year in motorsports history.

It was the year “The King” Richard Petty won 27 races and his second of seven championships in the NASCAR Grand National Series. That season, the sport consisted of 49 points events, meaning he won 55 percent of the races.

Racing legend Mario Andretti made his presence known in stock car racing by winning the Daytona 500 in the No. 11 Holman-Moody Ford. He started 12th and led 112 laps that day, and his victory is still considered one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.

19-22 January, 2009, Concord, North Carolina USA Mario Andretti (c)2009, Nigel Kinrade, USA Autostock
Nigel Kinrade, USA Autostock

“At that point, I had not won Indy [500, won it in 1969] yet,” Andretti once said. “I was competitive with a couple of poles but had not won at Indy. So arguably the Daytona 500 win at that time was the biggest event of my career at that time and particularly satisfying to do it somewhere where it wasn’t my specialty.

“Can you imagine the same thing as if one of their drivers — Richard Petty or David Pearson -— had come to Indy and won the Indy 500? It had a special sound to it, and it still does, actually.”

“Super Tex” A.J. Foyt won his third of four career Indianapolis 500s in 1967. He also won the iconic sports car event, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France co-driving with Dan Gurney just two weeks later. Foyt went on to win his fifth USAC Champ Car Series title at season’s end.

Now, let’s jump ahead 50 years. Think about what the racing world is like today. It’s a lot different, wouldn’t you say?

2017 NASCAR Cup - Clash at Daytona Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL USA Sunday 19 February 2017 Denny Hamlin, FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Daniel Suarez, ARRIS Toyota Camry, Kyle Busch, M&M's Toyota Camry and Matt Kenseth, Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry World Copyright: {Nigel Kinrade}/NKP
Nigel Kinrade / NKP

Today, NASCAR has three national series with its top division sponsored by the increasingly popular Monster Energy drink. The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which it is now called, begins its 36-race season with its most historic race, the Daytona 500, often referred to as “The Great American Race.” Races are also divided into three stages and the final 10 events of the year make up the elimination-style NASCAR playoffs, which started in 2014.

Open-wheel racing has evolved exponentially over the years too. Both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 have become exceptionally safer. In the 2013 Ron Howard film Rush, three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda says, “Twenty-five drivers start every season in Formula 1, and each year two of us die.”

Although the film took place in 1976, Lauda’s statement emphasizes the danger of being a racecar driver of more than 40 years ago. Deaths of both drivers and spectators were not as unusual as they are today.

In the last six years, two IndyCar drivers have died from accident-related injuries. The 2011 Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, who lost his life in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the same year he won the 500, and Justin Wilson, who was struck in the head by a flying piece of debris from Sage Karam’s wrecked car at Pocono Raceway in 2015.

In 2014, Jules Bianchi died after an accident in the F1 Japanese Grand Prix — the European sport’s most recent death. It’s still three lives too many when you include the two IndyCar drivers, but racecars have been redesigned countless times to enhance safety for each competitor.

In NASCAR, following the death of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the sanctioning body mandated the use of the Hutchens system, which was the head and neck restraint system required until the end of the 2004 season.

jimmie HANS
Rainier Ehrhardt / NASCAR via Getty Images

In January 2005, NASCAR mandated the use of the HANS Device, which most drivers were already using, as the required safety system because it felt the Hutchens didn’t meet minimum safety standards.

The 2017 racing season is still just beginning, but many storylines could make this year another one for the history books.

The new three-stage format NASCAR created during the offseason made its debut at the 59th running of the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson embarks on his quest for a record-breaking eighth championship after winning No. 7 in 2016. And the “Monster” era of NASCAR began with a “Monster” win by 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch, who is sponsored by the drink, in the “Great American Race.”

2017 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup - Daytona 500 Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL USA Sunday 26 February 2017 Kurt Busch celebrates his Daytona 500 Victory World Copyright: Rusty Jarrett/NKP
Rusty Jarrett / NKP

“The more I run this race, the more I’ve learned to throw caution to the wind and let it rip,” Busch, who had previously finished runner-up three times, said. “The performance of the [Stewart-Haas Racing] team has been incredible. My rearview mirror fell off with 30 to go, and I knew I had to drive defensively. I couldn’t even see the cars behind me, just heard my spotter in my ear, once we made that pass.

“It’s just unbelievable to have all this teamwork to get us in victory lane.”

Busch’s victory not only was a triumph for him but also for Tony Gibson, who won the race for the first time as a crew chief, and SHR co-owner Tony Stewart, who ran the race 17 times in his racing career but never won it.

Now being retired from NASCAR racing and having won the 500 as a team owner, Stewart jokingly said, “If I knew all I had to do was retire to get it done, I would have retired a long time ago.”

In IndyCar, Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud will defend his 2016 title and look to become the first repeat titlist since Dario Franchitti, who claimed three consecutive championships from 2009 to 2011, and the first Penske driver to repeat since Gil de Ferran, who accomplished the feat in 2001.

Lisa Davidson wrote a POPULAR SPEED story about Pagenaud’s approach to the 2017 season in which he says he’ll be in more of an “attack” mode than a defensive one.

“… I would say I really understood better what it all meant last year [his championship year],” Pagenaud said. “It’s about defending. Everything is back to zero. The counts are all back to zero. It’s all reset.

“Now it’s time to attack, attack a new championship, attack a new year. Last year, if I was so successful, it’s because we attacked and we didn’t look in the mirrors. The goal is to do the same thing, not defend, but attack a new season coming up.”

Pagenaud finished second in the season-opener in St. Petersburg behind fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais, who won the race after starting from the back.

Across the pond in F1, a retirement announcement heard around the world shocked the entire auto racing industry. The most recent World Champion Nico Rosberg decided that 2016 would be his final season in the pinnacle of motorsports and left the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport team. It ended a rivalry — which had the potential to match the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s or Lauda and James Hunt in the mid-1970s — with teammate Lewis Hamilton.

skysports.com
Skysports.com

Hamilton, now paired with Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes, will look to be the fifth driver in F1 history to win a fourth title. He’s 32 years old and already has 53 career wins, 104 podiums, and 61 poles. By the end of his career, whenever that is, he’ll likely be considered one of the sport’s greatest, if he isn’t already.

During preseason testing, Hamilton said rather interesting comments about the Scuderia Ferrari team, which last won the championship with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. Hamilton said, “I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing. They are very close, if not faster.

“It’s difficult right now to say who is quicker.”

If what Hamilton said proves to be true, it will be an intense competition for this year’s championship. Mercedes cars won all but two races in 2016, and Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Raikkonen won none.

Red Bull Racing won the other two races, once with 19-year-old Max Verstappen in his Red Bull debut at the Grand Prix of Spain after Hamilton and Rosberg wrecked each other on the first lap, and the other at the Malaysia Grand Prix with Daniel Ricciardo after Hamilton suffered a catastrophic engine failure while leading.

The 2017 IndyCar and F1’s campaigns are just getting underway, and there will surely be plenty to pay attention to as their season’s progress. If there’s one thing that holds true about racing, it’s that the unpredictability factor is always predictable.

So my question to you, whether you were around in 1967 or not, can 2017 be just as memorable 50 years from now?

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings

NASCAR Power Rankings — Las Vegas

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Each Tuesday, I’ll rank the top-16 positions for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

1. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski was victorious in Atlanta and nearly won in Las Vegas again had it not been for a late mechanical failure. The Team Penske driver has the best average starting position in the series (4.3) and sits atop the points standings.

2. Martin Truex Jr.

Fresh off a win in Sin City, only Kevin Harvick has led more laps than the Furniture Row Racing veteran. Truex finished 13th at Daytona after nearly winning the 500 and eighth in Atlanta. It looks like the No. 78 team hasn’t missed a beat.

3. Kevin Harvick

Although he suffered a blown right front tire early in the Kobalt 400, the 2014 champion still shows up to the track as a threat to win every week. He’s led the most laps after three races (342), 190 more than second-place Truex.

4. Joey Logano

Logano is the only driver to have finished in the top 10 in each of the first three races. He’s also tied with Kyle Larson for the best average finish at 5.3.

5. Kyle Larson

After earning his first win at Michigan last summer, 2017 could finally be Larson’s breakout year. He’s finished runner-up in the last two races and sits one point behind Keselowski in the points standings.

6. Chase Elliott

Like Larson, it looks like the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott will have a strong season. The Daytona 500 pole sitter nearly won the race and followed it up with consecutive top fives in Atlanta and Vegas. 

7. Ryan Blaney

The ‘Young Guns’ are trending in NASCAR. The Wood Brothers Racing sophomore finished second at Daytona, and put together another great effort on Sunday, qualifying third and finishing seventh. Like Elliott, Blaney is knocking on Victory Lane’s door.

8. Kyle Busch

It’s been a strange start to the season for Busch. He had a blown tire and wrecked while leading the Daytona 500. Then never showed much speed at Atlanta. And most recently, swung fists with Logano after the Vegas race and finished 22nd when he could have finished in the top five had the two not made contact. 

9. Kurt Busch

His Daytona 500 win was arguably the greatest victory of his career. He followed it up with a seventh-place finish in Atlanta but finished 30th after suffering a battery issue in Vegas.

10. Kasey Kahne

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has one top five and two top 10s after three races. He’s also led seven laps this season — seven more than he led in all of 2016. It looks like things are going in the right direction for the No. 5 group.

11. Matt Kenseth

After finishing 40th in the Daytona 500, Kenseth has finishes of third and ninth. He turned 45 last Friday and is the oldest Cup regular, but age hasn’t slowed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver one bit — he has 14 wins since joining the organization in 2013.  

12. Jamie McMurray

McMurray led 13 laps in the Daytona 500, but his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Kyle Larson, has been stealing the spotlight with consecutive runner-ups. The driver of the No. 1 has been consistent, though, finishing eighth and 10th the last two weeks.

13. Jimmie Johnson

The seven-time champion is off to a sluggish start in 2017. He’s led only 28 laps this season and is yet to start or finish in the top 10.

14. Trevor Bayne

Bayne’s NASCAR career has been a work in progress, despite being the 2011 Daytona 500 champion. But he’s slowly and steadily improving and has three top 15s to open the season, including a 10th-place finish at Daytona.

15. Clint Bowyer

Bowyer is beginning to find his groove with his new Stewart-Haas Racing team. The No. 14 driver earned his first top 10 of the season at Vegas.

16. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin has been under the radar to start 2017 but got his best finish of the season on Sunday (sixth). The JGR racer is 15th in the standings. 

EMAIL JOHN AT john.haverlin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @The5thJohnHav

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Larson and Elliott Find Las Vegas Luck

LAS VEGAS — While Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was dominated by front row starters Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, two of NASCAR’s brightest stars finished in the top five.

Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott finished second and third respectively and cited luck as the reason for their top-five results. Keselowski suffered a power issue while leading with less than three laps remaining, and both young guns were able to take advantage of it.

Larson trailed Truex to the checkered flag in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and when Joey Logano and Kyle Busch made contact in the final corner, Elliott snuck underneath the two to come away with third place.

“Awesome day for our Target team,” Larson said. “Second in the first stage, third in the second stage, and finished second in the race. … Hopefully, we’ll keep building off what we have, and keep contending for wins and it’ll come.

“We had a bad restart after the second stage and lost a lot of track position, but was able to get a good restart on the last one. I think Brad was blowing up [in the closing laps], so we got lucky there … back-to-back seconds. We’d like to have back-to-back wins, but this is pretty awesome.

Elliott, who started 12th, was a top-five contender all day. His Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 didn’t quite have the speed Truex or Keselowski had but felt satisfied with the third-place finish.

“We had a really good car,” Elliott told POPULAR SPEED. “We just had a bad restart there at the end and got behind. But we got lucky to end up where we did.”

Were they lucky because the race was in Las Vegas? Maybe. Regardless, Larson and Elliott are flying high as they sit second and third in the points standings, respectively, after three races.

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