Column By: HOLLY CAIN NASCAR / LAS VEGAS, NV – Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney was a bit frustrated Sunday having narrowly missed – again – a chance to hoist a winner’s trophy. Only two races into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and Blaney has been a major factor in both checkered flags.
But there is some solace for the popular and talented competitor. Blaney is the NASCAR Cup Series championship leader entering Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Auto Club Speedway.
Near-misses, triumphant rides and a sense of it being “anyone’s race” have been the order of business in the young NASCAR Cup Series season.
Only two drivers have scored top-10 finishes in both the opening two races. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick finished fifth in the Dayton 500 and was eighth last Sunday at Las Vegas. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson has finishes of 10th at Daytona and ninth at Las Vegas.
Sixteen other drivers have scored at least one top-10 finish – ranging from Corey LaJoie to Matt DiBenedetto. Race winners Denny Hamlin (Daytona 500) and Joey Logano (Las Vegas) did so in dramatic form. But, Chris Buescher, who was third in the Daytona 500 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was third Sunday in Vegas are both ranked the highest they’ve ever been entering the third race of the season.
Buescher’s finishes are third and 14th (at Las Vegas) and the driver of the No. 17 Roush-Fenway Ford is ranks eighth in the series standings – 24 points behind leader Ryan Blaney. Stenhouse, who started on the pole for the Daytona 500, has finishes of 20th (Daytona) and third (Las Vegas); and is ranked fifth in the NASCAR Cup Series standings – only 19 points behind Blaney.
“So far, so good,” Stenhouse said Sunday. “Two weeks we’ve been fast. This week, we weren’t bad and we know what we need to work on and I know [crew chief] Brian [Pattie] and the boys will tune it up.”
Austin Dillon, driver of the famous No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, is a former Daytona 500 winner (2018) which is the ultimate in season good starts. Yet his early consistency, not a trophy this year, has landed him seventh in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings. He trails Blaney by only 22 points. He finished 12th in the Daytona 500 and answered it with a fourth-place run on Sunday at Vegas.
Richard Petty Motorsport’s driver Bubba Wallace is also off to the best season start of his young career. Although the popular driver of the famed No. 43 Chevrolet earned big headlines for his runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500; he is actually higher in the championship standings after two races this season with a 15th-place showing at Daytona and a sixth-place run last Sunday at Las Vegas. He’s ranked 12th in the standings a 26 points behind series standings lead. Sunday’s race runner-up Matt DiBenedetto, 2020 Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson are all tied in in points from ninth-11th.
DiBenedetto is another who is riding high after an extremely positive start in his Wood Brothers Racing inaugural season. He equaled a career best mark finishing runner-up Sunday in Las Vegas. Add that to a 19th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and DiBenedetto is ranked in the top 10 in the points standings after two races for the first time in his career.
“This is all just too surreal,” a proud DiBenedetto said Sunday standing alongside his No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. “Tough to be that close, but hey, this is only the second race of the season. So it was the strength of this team.
“It’s so cool to have the backing of all the people that allow me to drive this thing.”
Looking forward to the two-mile Auto Club Speedway, where the series races this weekend, only half the current top 10 in the standings earned a top-10 finish in last year’s race – Logano (second), Harvick (fourth), Blaney (fifth), Hamlin (seventh) and Dillon (10th).
Kyle Busch, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion and defending Auto Club Speedway race winner, is still looking for his first top-10 finish of the early 2020 season. He finished 34th at Daytona with an engine problem and 15th at Las Vegas. Busch is ranked 27th in the standings, 60 points back from the standings lead.
Busch is one of the best at Auto Club Speedway – with four wins – three in the last seven races. A victory in California this weekend would automatically earn him a Playoff berth and right his ship.