Some final thoughts from Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, where Kyle Larson dominated the weekend to win for just the second time in his still-young Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.
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Four drivers had their best finishes of the year at Auto Club: Kyle Larson (1st), Clint Bowyer (3rd), Jamie McMurray (6th) and Austin Dillon (11th). In five races this season, Larson’s average finish is 3.80. That’s just crazy.
Chip Ganassi Racing is clearly the most improved team in the sport, with Larson leading the Cup points and McMurray sixth. Only once since 2001 has Ganassi had two drivers win races in the same year. That could change this year.
As for Bowyer, he’s found his Happy Place at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he leads his three teammates in points and is enjoying life a lot more now that he’s back in a fast race car.
Last year, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports combined to win 18 of 36 Cup points races. This year, the two power teams are both winless after five races.
Right now, Chase Elliott is head and shoulders above the other Hendrick drivers in terms of his results. I wonder if that will last or whether Jimmie Johnson will bust out of his early season slump and reassert himself. Time will tell.
And the best driver with the worst start this season is JGR’s Matt Kenseth, who is 25th in points with three DNFs in five races. And none of those DNFs were his fault. Still, a slow start for JGR, with only Kyle Busch (10th) in the top 10 in points.
Strength in numbers?
Furniture Row Racing expanded to two cars this year. Martin Truex Jr. has a victory and is third in points, while rookie Erik Jones has done a nice job and is a respectable 15th.
JTG Daugherty Racing, meanwhile, also added a second car this year, but without much success. AJ Allmendinger is 30th in points, with new teammate Chris Buescher 32nd. Not good.
Size matters, for sure, but it’s how you integrate additional cars that matters more.
He hasn’t made much noise so far in 2017, but Team Penske’s Joey Logano has finished sixth or better four times in five races. When you consistently run that well, sooner or later you’re going to win.
If you look beyond the headlines Logano made when he wrecked Kyle Busch at Las Vegas, it’s clear Logano is one of the sport’s premier wheelmen now.
Sleeper, part deux
Without a whole lot of fanfare, the Wood Brothers Racing outfit and driver Ryan Blaney have made significant progress this year. Blaney was second in the Daytona 500 and finished in the top 10 in two of NASCAR’s three Western Swing races.
Like Chase Elliott, the first win can’t be too far away for Blaney.
Without question, some fans are antsy that Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t done better than he has so far this year. But actually, he hasn’t fared that badly.
In the last three weeks, he’s finished 16th twice and 14th once. That isn’t where he wants to run every week, obviously, but he’s still getting used to being back in the car after sitting out the second half of last year. I expect to see him running better soon.
I continue to be impressed by both the ingenuity and the philanthropy that NASCAR drivers exhibit. Kudos to Kyle Busch for simultaneously performing a solid for charity while at the same time taking a subtle jab at rival Joey Logano, with his “Everything is great” t-shirts.
The shirts sell for $22 each — 22 being Logano’s car number — with all proceeds going to the Kyle Busch Foundation. So far, they’ve raised more than $20,000, which is indeed admirable.
Last but not least
Forget about NASCAR’s playoffs or stage points or the aero package or any one of what seems like a bazillion changes in NASCAR in recent years: By far — by far — the most important change in the last decade has been the advent of double-file restarts.
We saw all sorts of chaos in the closing laps at Auto Club, where there were four cautions in the final 20 laps. The drama on the restarts was tremendous, with genuine edge-of-your-seat action. That would have never happened under the old system, where lead-lap cars restarted in one lane and lap-down cars restarted in the other.