Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – HAMPTON, GA – “Crazy Fast.” That’s how Sunday’s third-place finisher Clint Bowyer described his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick’s day dominating the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and their Ford Fusion’s podium sweep.
It was a strong statement at Atlanta and a strong statement for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.
So much so that the fourth-place finisher, Toyota driver Denny Hamlin, couldn’t resist a little fun at the Fusion’s Atlanta scorecard Sunday evening.
“Well, it’s clear the Fords have an unfair advantage,’’ he said, laughing. “It’s clear.”
“No, just kidding.”
The manufacturer does, however, boast an early and impressive lead in the Monster Energy Series championship standings – holding four of the top-five positions – and seven of the top-10 spots.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano has earned a six-point edge over his new teammate Ryan Blaney atop the leader board, two races into the season. Harvick is fourth and Bowyer is fifth, only 15 points behind Logano. Their SHR teammates Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are eighth and 10th, respectively, in the standings.
Wood Brothers Racing’s new addition to the Ford stable, Paul Menard, is ranked ninth. And Brad Keselowski, last year’s Atlanta winner and this weekend’s runner-up, is ranked 12th in the championship points.
It all bodes a positive outlook for the Ford teams as the series heads out for #NASCARGoesWest, which includes races at Las Vegas, Phoenix and California.
“I sure hope so,’’ Bowyer said. “Yeah, one, two, three for Fords. Fords were good all weekend long. It wasn’t just today, it was unloading off the trucks.
“It was neat to see all four Stewart‑Haas cars in the top 10 qualifying. Everybody is working hard. You’ve got another manufacturer that got a new body, of course, over the off‑season; that makes you a little bit nervous.
“But so far, so good. We were as good as anybody, obviously.”
On Sunday, they were better.
Harvick, who also won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday, led 181 of 325 laps Sunday to push his career total at Atlanta to 1,152 laps, which leads the next closest active driver (Kurt Busch, 801 laps led) by over 350 laps at the 1.5-mile speedway.
The last time a manufacturer swept the top three spots in a Monster Energy Series race was Aug. 19, 2017 at Bristol Motor Speedway’s night race when Toyota’s Kyle Busch, rookie Erik Jones and Hamlin took the podium.
What makes the early season success even more impressive is that Ford teams are excelling even with a good dose of personnel change in the offseason.
The popular 24-year-old Blaney left the Wood Brothers team to pilot a third Team Penske car this season and has finishes of seventh (at Daytona) and 12th (at Atlanta).
Menard came from the Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet team to the Wood Brothers for 2018 and has a sixth place at Daytona and a 17th place at Atlanta – driving the car Blaney recorded his career first Cup victory in (at Pocono) and qualified for the 2017 Monster Energy Series Playoffs.
The veteran Almirola has moved from Richard Petty Motorsports to replace Danica Patrick in the SHR No. 10 Smithfield Ford and very nearly won his maiden outing in the car, the Daytona 500 last week. But he got nudged from the race lead by eventual winner Austin Dillon, only a half lap from the sport’s most celebrated finish line.
He managed to finish 11th at Daytona and was 13th in Atlanta.
All of these drivers would remind you that it’s only two races – and a single mile-and-a-half track – into the 2018 season, so it might be a little premature to guarantee anything. But such a strong start sure doesn’t hurt the good vibe.
“I think absolutely we’re in a little bit better place,’’ said SHR Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli. “These guys have had a year to work with the car and understand it and make some little adjustments. Understanding what you have and what you’re working with every week, but like how you said, we unloaded, and I don’t know if anybody really knew where they’d stand amongst the competition.
“There was some aero balance changes with just the way they’re doing the process of inspection and how far you can push things and what you can get away with and all those little details. These guys did a great job.
“They unloaded with really good race cars, and they executed well all weekend, and that’s the biggest part is being able to execute when you have that good car, good speed. All our teams did it.”