Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – NASCAR’s 2018 western swing wrapped up Sunday in much the way the 2017 season concluded – with a dominating performance by Martin Truex Jr., whose Furniture Row Racing team offered a not-so-subtle reminder of what makes them so very good, lest anyone be prepared to overlook the group in this year’s championship talk.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway – the third leg of the #NASCARGoesWest portion of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule – the attention and speculation rightly surrounded Kevin Harvick, who was looking to win a fourth race in a row and become the first driver to sweep the three-race trek though Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California.
But contact with Kyle Larson early in the first stage of racing essentially eliminated Harvick from his historic quest. And Truex was on his game – winning the pole position and sweeping all three of the stages en route to his first trophy in 18 tries at the two-mile Fontana track. It wasn’t just a dominant win for Truex, it was a strong championship statement: Don’t forget about the reigning champ.
The victory for Truex and the team was such a big deal his typically low-key, even-keeled team owner Barney Visser was noticeably euphoric about this particular trophy hoist. Having gone through heart surgery in early November, Visser was unable to attend the 2017 season finale in Miami when Truex won the race and the organization’s first championship.
The win Sunday – so dominant and so well-executed – was good medicine for Visser.
“It’s nice to be back, I felt like we’re back,’’ a smiling Visser said after the celebration. “That’s huge. I usually don’t jump up and down (laughter). I try to dodge the champagne when I can.”
This race – and the western swing – proved an interesting start to what’s been an unpredictable season.
Harvick’s early domination at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix came after Auston Dillon’s dramatic last-lap victory in the season-opening Daytona 500. Harvick has been so strong even the typically cynical odds-makers in Las Vegas predicted he would win Sunday for a fourth consecutive week – a feat no one has pulled off in NASCAR’s elite Monster Energy Series ranks since Jimmie Johnson did it in 2007.
It was the ultimate case that the 2014 Monster Energy Series champ Harvick – a Championship 4 contender in three of the last four years – would be a strong pick for this year’s title, too. Even without that fourth straight win, expectations are that Harvick will collect more trophies before the Playoffs begin in September.
The post-season field he’ll compete against may have a decidedly different look, however, judging by early season looks.
Truex reminded everyone Sunday that he is the reigning champion. But five races into the season, there are also plenty of new prospects in new situations looking to earn a shot at the 2018 title.
Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Paul Menard and Alex Bowman are currently ranked among the top-16 – the threshold mark for the Playoffs. All four of these drivers are competing for different teams than they were in 2016.
Almirola is having a career year already through his first two months driving for the Stewart-Haas Racing team. His 10th place position in the standings after five races ties a career high (2015) mark for him at this point in the season. He has a pair of top-10 finishes, (10th at Las Vegas and seventh at Phoenix) and hasn’t finished worse than 13th this season in the No. 10 Smithfield Ford. The Tampa, Florida, native nearly won the Daytona 500, leading with a lap to go before contact with race winner Austin Dillon.
Jones, 22, who moved to the No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing from the second Furniture Row Racing car last year, is 13th in the standings. He’s riding a three-race streak of top-10 finishes, including a season-best of seventh Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. It took him 14 races to collect three top-10s last year.
Menard, a veteran who moved from Richard Childress Racing’s Chevrolet to the famed Wood Brothers Racing Ford for 2018, is ranked 15th in the standings thanks to a sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a ninth place at Las Vegas three weeks ago.
Bowman, 25, who took over the famed No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick Motorsports, started the season with the Busch Pole position for the Daytona 500. His 15th place ranking in the standings is tops among the four Hendrick drivers, including seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and rookie William Byron.
In addition to the newcomers starring in the top-16, a couple veterans are making serious noise as well from Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer to Team Penske’s Joey Logano.
Bowyer, who just missed qualifying for the Playoffs last year in his first season with SHR, is now ninth in the standings. He has three top-11 finishes through five races, including a third place at Atlanta.
Last year marked the first time in five seasons that Logano was not in the championship mix. He won at Richmond last May, but lost the Playoff-related benefits of the victory after his car failed post-race inspection at NASCAR’s Research and Development Center. He never regained momentum and failed to earn a position among the 16-driver Playoffs field in 2017.
This year, however, the driver of the No. 22 Ford has four top-seven finishes in five races – a best of fourth-place in the Daytona 500 and a fifth-place finish Sunday in California. Logano led the standings in weeks two and three and is ranked third right now, 19 points behind leader Truex.
Also of note, Logano’s fellow Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski (fourth) and Ryan Blaney (fifth) have given the team the majority in the top five places in the standings. Although Harvick has garnered much of the attention focused on Ford drivers by virtue of his three wins, the Team Penske trio leads the manufacturer in the driver standings with their consistent race finishes across the opening five races.
This weekend the Monster Energy Series returns east and heads to the half-mile Martinsville Speedway (Sunday, March 25 at 2 p.m. ET on FS1) for this weekend’s STP 500, where NASCAR fans may see even more surprises race their way into the Playoff picture.