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NASCAR Cup Series

Byron’s DAYTONA 500 Pole Draws Parallels to Johnson and Knaus

Seventeen years ago this month, a pair of the most formidable sports dynasties of this century began with two of the most successful athlete and coach pairings of all-time.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick paired for their first full-time season together in 2001 with the New England Patriots, then going on to win its first Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002.

One week later, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus began their tenure together by claiming the 2002 DAYTONA 500 pole in Johnson’s fourth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start.

Both feats came as upsets in their individual sports and also marked the start of two historic runs.

Each duo has since gone onto win a record number of championships and earn their places among the best of all-time.

Seventeen years later to the exact dates, Brady and Belichick claimed their sixth championship and one week later, Knaus again led the DAYTONA 500 pole-winning team.

However, this time it was with another young racer as Knaus begins his first season with William Byron after moving on from the seven-time championship-winning No. 48 team with Johnson.

Knaus began his career with Johnson by claiming the top starting spot in the “Great American Race” and now Byron has followed suit with Knaus calling the shots.

While one pole at a superspeedway doesn’t indicate much, reflecting on the significance of the achievement in Johnson and Knaus’ careers opens the possibilities for Byron to replicate that success.

Byron entered his rookie year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season as one of the most promising talents to emerge out of the developmental ranks in years. He dominated during his time in the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, winning a combined 11 races in two seasons and taking the 2017 Xfinity Series championship.

Prospects for the 21-year-old were high entering the premiere level but tougher competition and a steeper learning curve tempered expectations.

While the Hendrick Motorsports driver didn’t dominate in his first year as he had in the other two series, he showed signs of strength and won rookie of the year honors.

Now he enters his sophomore year with more experience, both behind the wheel and on the pit box. Knaus is arguably the most talented crew chief in NASCAR history and his pairing with a rising star has laid the groundwork to launch the next dynasty.

Even if the No. 24 team had not posted the fastest lap Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, the ingredients for this duo to be successful still exist.

As Byron continues to grow comfortable behind the wheel of a NASCAR Cup Series car, the talent he showed in his rise to the top level will likely emerge. Coupled with the wealth of knowledge Knaus brings to the table could allow them to put up impressive numbers. 

No one could predict what Johnson and Knaus would accomplish after winning the DAYTONA 500 pole 17 years ago. It’s unknown what Knaus and Byron will do together. However, knowing Byron’s talent and the seven-time championship-winning crew chief’s capabilities means this pole could also be reflected back on as having begun a new dynasty.

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EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Fierce Competition Makes Logano’s Championship More Impressive

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Joey Logano’s 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship will be remembered as one of the most impressive feats in history considering the strength of his competition.

This season’s headlines have been dominated by the historic performances from the big three drivers of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex JrAll three competitors put up record numbers over the course of 36 races.

Busch tied his career-high wins mark of eight set in 2008, scored 22 top-five’s, which is five more than ever before, and finished inside the top-10 28 times, beating his 2016 record of 25.

Harvick won eight events, three more than any other season in his career. He tied his 2015 record of 23 top-five finishes and 28 top-10’s marks the most in his NASCAR Cup Series tenure.

While 2017 remains Martin Truex Jr.’s banner year overall, he scored a career-high 20 top-five finishes in his final year behind the wheel for Furniture Row Racing.

Each driver accumulated a healthy amount of playoff points throughout the year as a result of this success and entered the playoffs as the favorites to make the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The only question that remained is who would join them to round out the field where ultimately, one race would decide which member of the big three would reign supreme. A victory at Martinsville meant they would face the assumed underdog, Logano.

It was not a record year for the No. 22 team as entering Homestead-Miami, they had two wins, 12 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. All three statistics had been topped previously in Logano’s career in seasons that did not end with a title.

Additionally, intermediate tracks haven’t historically been Logano’s strong suit as his last mile-and-a-half win came in 2015 at Kansas Speedway.

In contrast, the big three won eight of the 11 intermediate races this season and captured three of the last four victories at Homestead-Miami entering Sunday, with those wins en route to the first and currently only championships for each driver. They had been in this situation before, faced the pressure, and left with the title.

This seemed to lend them the upper hand over Logano who had competed in the Championship 4 twice before but came up short each time.

While Logano emerged as a rising threat as the post-season progressed and self-titled himself the championship favorite at ISM Raceway, history and statistics were not on his side. However, the No. 22 crew overcame those challenges to capture Team Penske’s second title and the first for Ford since 2004 on Sunday.

The finale has not played favorites under this format as the fifth running featured a fifth different winner. While Logano may not have had the best season-long statistics, once in this race, it’s anybody’s game.

In a season that many predicted a big three champion, Logano outperforming three drivers putting up career numbers for the title is an upset story that will be remembered for years to come.  

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Almirola “Oh So Close” to Championship 4

Aric Almirola entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as an underdog. Being one of five drivers that made the post-season based on points, expectations of making a deep title run were low.

However, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver quickly proved those predictions wrong and put up a strong nine-race performance that nearly earned him a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As his three challengers under the cutoff line crashed out of Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway, the No. 10 team found themselves at the front with a shot at victory.

Despite not having the fastest car, late restarts played into Almirola’s favor. However, he was unable to capitalize as Kyle Busch’s strength showed as he pulled away to his eighth win of 2018.

Almirola placed fourth, marking his second-best finish of the playoffs. However, only first-place mattered for his team at Phoenix.

“We took a seventh or eighth-place car and the next thing you know we were in position to win the race,” Almirola said. “It was a good day for us, but today we needed to win and we didn’t win.”

While it’s a discouraging conclusion to an impressive championship run, many never expected the No. 10 team to be in this position. Beginning the season with a new driver and ending it just short of a title race berth tells the story of a remarkable breakout year. 

“This is our first year working together,” Almirola said. “You look at all the teams we’re racing and they’ve got four, five, six, seven years working together, so what we’ve accomplished in one year is a hell of a lot…”

Outrunning some of the most experienced competitors in the garage this fall attests to SHR’s strength and Almirola’s growth. In his one previous post-season appearance with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014, he was eliminated after the first round.

With one event remaining in 2018, Almirola has already posted career numbers across the table, including scoring nine more top-10 finishes than his previous high of seven in 2014.

This success sets the bar higher for the No. 10 team moving forward. With a full year under their belts and returning to tracks where they contested closely for wins, Almirola could emerge as a consistent front-runner in the coming seasons. 

Phoenix may leave Almirola wrestling with what-if scenarios heading into the championship race, but off-season reflection and further improvement could fuel another breakout year in 2019.

“It’s been a long grind and I’m tired and I’m ready for the offseason, but I really wanted to go to Homestead with a chance to run for a championship and oh so close.”

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Elliott Rising at the Right Time

Chase Elliott didn’t enter the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as a championship favorite.

A regular season of mixed results and a lack of speed among the four Hendrick Motorsports teams with the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 led many to expect similar struggles in the final 10 races. 

After rebounding from a crash in the playoff opener at Las Vegas with two top-10 performances at Richmond and Charlotte, Elliott advanced to the Round of 12 where he became a serious championship contender.

He capitalized when Kevin Harvick made two costly mistakes late at Dover and Kansas and scored both victories to put himself in the Round of 8 for the second consecutive season.

Now he will look for redemption this fall after narrowly missing the Championship 4 in 2017.

After pacing 123 laps and leading with three laps to go at Martinsville Speedway last year, contact from Denny Hamlin sent Elliott spinning, costing him a shot at an automatic spot in the final four.

Elliott bounced back in the season’s penultimate event at ISM Raceway, pacing the field for 34 laps and leading late before Matt Kenseth passed him with 10 laps remaining to take the win.

Those opportunities were coupled with the pressure of securing his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory. However, that pressure has been alleviated entering this season’s Round of 8.

While the No. 9 team has yet to dominate a race en route to victory like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have, a combination of momentum and increased speed places Elliott on the championship radar.

After struggling for much of the season at 1.5-mile tracks, Kansas showed an improved intermediate performance for Elliott. Demonstrating that again at Texas will be crucial to set up for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Reaching the Championship 4 remains the challenge at hand for Elliott. However, the playoffs reward performers who execute under pressure and Elliott has proven that through six races.

Seeing if he can maintain this performance in the Round of 8, advance to the final four and rise above the competition at Homestead will ultimately decide his fate in 2018.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Uncharacteristic Talladega Puts Keselowski on Verge of Elimination

Brad Keselowski is the winningest and arguably best superspeedway racer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with six victories.

After Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired with 10 restrictor plate wins last year, Keselowski took the reigns as the favorite when Daytona and Talladega appear on the schedule.

He started the 1000Bulbs.com 500 looking to capitalize on this success, continue a strong championship run and tie Earnhardt Jr. with six victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Team Penske won six of the last eight Talladega races entering Sunday, splitting the wins between Keselowski and Joey Logano. Despite a poor qualifying effort that placed the three Team Penske cars in positions 18-20 on the grid, many expected them to move forward quickly.

They advanced through the field early but couldn’t top the formidable Ford fleet of Stewart-Haas Racing.

SHR ran first through fourth for much of the day, leaving Keselowski and teammates with little opportunity to leapfrog the fastest cars.

The No. 2 car did pace the field for 21 laps, and Ryan Blaney led for six, but once the four-car train of SHR returned to the lead, it proved difficult to reclaim it.

This prevented the usual showcase of speed and talent from Keselowski at Talladega, in a race where he couldn’t afford to lose ground in the championship standings.

After entering the day seventh on the playoff grid with 21 points over ninth-place, running out of fuel during Sunday’s overtime finish led the No. 2 to a 27th place finish. Now Keselowski sits ninth in the title battle, 18 points outside the eight advancing positions.

Following three consecutive victories to conclude the regular season at Darlington and Indianapolis and to begin the playoffs at Las Vegas, many ranked Keselowski with Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. as the championship favorites.

A solid night at Richmond Raceway where he led 67 laps and finished ninth followed by a strong run at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL before crashing out as the leader, kept expectations high in the Round of 16.

Now a 14th at Dover and 27th at Talladega puts Keselowski essentially in a must-win situation heading to the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway. Running up front and dominating or taking advantage of the misfortune of others may be his only path forward.

However, he has not fared well at Kansas in recent years, with only one top-10 finish in the last four races.

If Keselowski is to remain a title contender and be among the final four for the second consecutive year, a championship-caliber performance will be required next Sunday at Kansas.

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Chicagoland Defines Bowyer’s Resilience and Potential

Clint Bowyer has arguably been the fourth strongest competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.

While much of the attention has been placed on the “big three” contenders of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer’s two victories and an average finish of 9.9 places him in the conversation.

The No. 14 team’s comeback performance Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway portrayed their strength at the halfway point of the season.

After leading 21 laps early in the Overton’s 400, three costly penalties under the first pit cycle trapped Bowyer two laps down.

However, a fast car and lucky break with how the cautions played out allowed him to return to the lead lap by the conclusion of Stage 2 and earn stage points for placing eighth.

Bowyer ultimately finished fifth in one of the most impressive come from behind performances of the season.

“The guys work very hard on making sure that they are pushing the envelope, which you have to do in this world and against this competition,” Bowyer said. “You have to push everything. Certainly pit road is a big part of that.”

When needing to gain ground on the top contenders who have shown tremendous speed throughout the year, pit road presents the opportunity to gain crucial time.

“You are splitting hairs out there on the race track down to the tenths of a second and you can gain seconds on pit road,” Bowyer said. “Obviously our pit road speed was just a little too fast.”

One mistake often derails a team’s day but facing three consecutive blunders is unheard of, and the ability to limit mistakes is what allows the most successful drivers to rise.

This sequence highlighted a shortcoming of Bowyer’s compared to the top three performers, but his response defined the No. 14 team’s resilience.

Leading early showed the caliber of the car on Sunday and being able to race back through the field further attested to its speed. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver likely would have been the one to beat throughout the day had it not been for the early penalties.

However, having to fight through the adversity and seeing their determination pay off with Bowyer’s sixth top-five of 2018 provided valuable confidence and momentum.  

July will be a very telling month regarding Bowyer’s ability to maintain pace with the big three.

He has proven capable of competing with them each week but now will look to top their performances.

A stellar July propelled two of the last three champions into their title run. Truex Jr. finished first at Kentucky and third at New Hampshire last season while Kyle Busch won all but one race this month in 2015.

Not all champions have fared as well in July, but strong races this month can establish the momentum that can carry a team through August and into the playoffs.

It’s a crucial time for Bowyer to contend closer with the top three drivers and put himself in a position to outduel them this fall.

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Sonoma Momentum Puts Elliott Closer to Victory

The focus placed on Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet through the first 16 races of 2018 has centered around their struggles.

The manufacturer’s lone victory came with Austin Dillon in the DAYTONA 500 as they continue to show growing pains associated with the new Chevrolet Camaro body style in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

However, Chase Elliott’s season, especially over the past two months, tells a different story.

A fourth-place finish Sunday at Sonoma Raceway was Elliott’s fifth top-10 in the last eight races.

While he hasn’t yet competed for victories like he did at the conclusion of 2017, the month of June marked significant progress in the right direction.

He captured three top-10 finishes, marking the longest streak of the season for the No. 9 team as they head to Elliott’s strongest track, Chicagoland Speedway.

In two starts, the 22-year-old has never finished worse than third and led multiple laps in each race.

While his second-place finish was ruled encumbered after last September’s playoff opener, the performance mirrored his run as a rookie and showed his skill at the 1.5-mile track.

It’s a place where he excelled in the NASCAR Xfinity Series as well, scoring a victory in his first career start at the speedway in July 2014 behind the wheel for JR Motorsports.

A strong showing in Sunday’s Overton’s 400 would be extremely timely for Elliott and Chevrolet as a whole.

Mirroring Toyota’s performance from the second half of 2017 is an attainable goal for Chevrolet teams. Toyota struggled for the first half of the year with their new Camry body before dominating beginning in July and going onto capture the championship with Martin Truex Jr.

A turnaround must be mounted now for Chevrolet to see a similar scenario unfold and emerge as a weekly threat. 

While Sonoma’s road course layout doesn’t allow for an accurate performance measurement, it can demonstrate momentum and Hendrick Motorsports is gaining it heading into the summer stretch.

Placing Elliott, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson in the top-11 in Northern California marked much-improved results for the organization.

Now Elliott can continue to lead the HMS climb with another impressive outing at Chicagoland.

He has been on the cusp of his first win for years now but his best opportunity may present itself on Sunday and could put HMS and Chevrolet in a position for a second-half resurgence.

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Bowman Leading the Charge for Hendrick So Far in 2018

When the new-look Hendrick Motorsports rolled onto the track at Daytona two months ago, few expected Alex Bowman to emerge as the organization’s most consistent driver.

As the team transitions from a stable of experienced veterans to a young fleet of talent behind seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, many expected the 42-year-old to take charge.

However, the organization has faced uncharacteristic struggles. It has been especially rough for Johnson, who only had one top-10 finish of ninth at Auto Club Speedway before heading to Bristol Motor Speedway.

While Bowman hasn’t fared significantly better, he leads the team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, sitting 13th after eight races.

Two strong short-track performances put him in this position, with a seventh-place run at Martinsville and career-best fifth in Monday’s Food City 500.

“It’s been a lot of fun finally getting some good runs going our way,” Bowman said. “To run fifth, it’s not a great day, but it’s better than what we started the year doing.”

Seeing the 24-year-old perform best comes as a surprise considering the expectations many had for Chase Elliott and Johnson in 2018.

After closing in on his first career victory last fall, a breakout season from the No. 9 team seemed all but guaranteed and the No. 48 appeared primed to return to its dominant ways after a difficult 2017.

They have shown signs of promise early in 2018, each earning a third-place finish with Elliott at Phoenix and Johnson at Bristol.

However, they have also collected two DNFs a piece. Bowman has completed all events, which has provided the No. 88 team an early points advantage.

While Bowman and rookie William Byron haven’t been immune to the team’s struggles, they have performed better at times in comparison to their more seasoned teammates.

Bowman does have four more NASCAR Cup Series starts compared to Elliott, but his time behind the wheel of a competitive ride has been limited.

As a result, many didn’t know how to gauge Bowman’s performance ahead of the season.

Considering the slow start for the organization compared to the field, his consistency has been impressive and leaves room for improvement.

It’s remarkable that he is performing best among his teammates in his first full year behind the wheel for Hendrick Motorsports, but he’s looking to erase the surprise factor.

“Just thankful for driving for Hendrick Motorsports,” Bowman said. “We are making progress, making steps in the right direction and just got to keep doing that.”

Progress is likely to continue on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway as the No. 88 team aims to build on their short track racing success.

Another strong run would further solidify the No. 88 team as the best car currently in the stable and raise Bowman’s profile as a consistent weekly contender.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Bowyer May Be Next Breakout Performer

The last victory for Clint Bowyer before Monday at Martinsville Speedway came at a drastically different time in his career. The 2012 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway marked his third win of the season and kept him in the midst of a championship battle.

While he ultimately finished runner-up in the standings, it seemed to place him on a path towards stardom in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

However, the next four years played out unexpectedly as Bowyer failed to win a race, suffered the effects of a cheating scandal that derailed and ultimately led to the closure of Michael Waltrip Racing, and only made the Playoffs twice.

Joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017 marked a new beginning for the 38-year-old as he once again competed in equipment capable of performing well and proved it with three runner-up finishes.

While he didn’t break through for victory, changing organizations laid the groundwork for a comeback.

Moving to a new team had been key to elevating the careers of both Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

Harvick won five races and took home the championship in his first season at SHR after leaving his longtime home of Richard Childress Racing.

Truex Jr. didn’t ultimately decide to change teams, but when NAPA Auto Parts parted ways with MWR following the Richmond scandal, it left him without a ride before a new opportunity at Furniture Row Racing emerged.

After a rough 2014, Truex Jr. found his footing in 2015 and has made his presence known ever since, becoming one of the most dominant drivers in the garage and winning the championship last season. 

Now Bowyer will look to follow in their footsteps, and his performance en route to victory at Martinsville showed that he has the potential to rise similarly.

It’s an ideal time for Bowyer to flourish as SHR continues to experience unprecedented success. The organization has won all but two races in 2018 and nearly won the DAYTONA 500 with Aric Almirola before a last-lap crash.

Bowyer showed signs of his 2012 self in the STP 500 and now has the confidence to match his potential, which may lead to a title run with continued dominance throughout the remainder of the regular season.

“This is a year that’s starting to shape up to where I feel like I’m accustomed to, way back when when I was confident that we were going to go to the end of the year and we were going to compete for a championship,” Bowyer said.

Truex Jr. has been the most prolific breakout star in recent years, but Bowyer is now in a prime position to inherit that role.

While one race can’t determine the future, Bowyer sent a statement at Martinsville and could be dangerous by competing at this level moving forward. 

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Harvick Following in Truex’s Dominant Footsteps

Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance emerged as the story of 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season as he won a career-high eight races and captured the championship.

Stage racing success contributed to the No. 78 team’s prowess as they collected nearly triple the number of playoff points compared to other teams in the regular season.

This advantage almost automatically advanced Truex Jr. in each post-season round and allowed him to pull away with a substantial points lead.

He easily made the Championship 4, entered Homestead-Miami as the favorite and came home with Furniture Row Racing’s first title.

Running well throughout the first 26 races acted as a key to success for the organization, and other teams will look to replicate that strategy in 2018.

Kevin Harvick is making an early case to follow in the No. 78 car’s tire tracks, winning three consecutive races dominantly.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led the most laps at both Atlanta and Las Vegas, winning five of six stages in those events.

While he didn’t show as commanding of a performance at ISM Raceway, he still reached Victory Lane and remains the driver to beat.

The field chased Truex Jr. for most of last season, and now Harvick has assumed that role after just four races, despite being handed an L1-level penalty following Las Vegas.

He lost seven playoff and 20 regular season points after the Pennzoil 400, will be without his car chief for two races, and crew chief Rodney Childers was fined $50,000.

A similar penalty negatively impacted Joey Logano’s team after Richmond in 2017 as they failed to recover and missed the playoffs.

However, Harvick bounced back stronger at his best track on the schedule in Phoenix and may not face the same fate. 

Early indications point to the No. 4 team emerging as the favorites in 2018, and that should keep the field on edge after seeing what Truex Jr. accomplished last season.

Stage victories ultimately aided the No. 78’s championship run and Harvick could find himself in a similar position by continuing to perform at this pace.

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