CRANDALL: NASCAR's year of emerging plotlines

Image by Harrelson/LAT

CRANDALL: NASCAR's year of emerging plotlines

Cup Series

CRANDALL: NASCAR's year of emerging plotlines


Somehow, a quarter of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is complete, and there’s already plenty to unpack.

A quick glance shows that in 10 races there were six different winners. Two of those six pulled off the impressive feat of winning three consecutive races. On the manufacturer front, Ford and Toyota are battling to be the leaders of the pack. And pit guns, yes pit guns, have been a dominating storyline.

That’s just on the surface. Throughout the garage many things are becoming clear. Joey Logano and the No. 22 Team Penske group have been models of consistency, but a Talladega victory marked the official shaking-off of the funk they wore through most of last season. Logano is among those who look to be legitimate contenders this season.

The rest of the season’s first quarter shook out like this:

Biggest surprise

Having torn through the series in wins and stage points in 2017, there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t be more of the same for Martin Truex Jr. this year. But Truex has been oddly quiet through the first portion of 2018. The No. 78 Furniture Row group has won once (Fontana) and has only two stage wins. Truex has 72 stage points.

While Truex also had just one victory at the same time last year, he’d already scored five stage wins and had led twice as many laps. Though he’s not consistently in the headlines, do not overlook Truex,as he’s not far off Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who many have said are the drivers to beat.

“As long as we’re happy with our performance and have that confidence, I think we’re in a good place,” Truex said in Richmond. “It really doesn’t matter what everybody else thinks. Honestly, I could care less – we’ve been doing this long enough to know where we stand, and what we need to work on, and what we need to do. Focusing on yourself is the most important thing.”

Image by Jarrett/LAT

Biggest disappointment

Where art thou, Chevrolet?

Hype and positivity surrounded the rolling out of the Camaro and what it would do for Chevrolet teams. However, the air was quickly let out of the balloon. A Chevrolet has not been to Victory Lane since Austin Dillon’s last-lap contact with Aric Almirola in the Daytona 500, and just one Chevy driver, Kyle Larson, sits in the top 10 in points.

Why? Depends who you ask. But Chevrolet is at the bottom of the manufacturer totem pole behind Toyota and Ford, and even though Chase Elliott and Larson seem to always be the ones showing flashes of brilliance, the overall performance from the Chevy camp has been less than impressive.

Trending upward

Tony Stewart said Aric Almirola had nothing to prove, but for some, including this writer, that was far from the case coming into the season. Stewart-Haas Racing Fords are the best equipment Almirola has ever had in the Cup Series, and SHR has repeatedly proven to be a championship-contending organization. The good news is that Almirola fits right in with his teammates.

Even more encouragingly, the question of whether Almirola’s past performances were a driver or car issue was quickly answered. Since being a half a lap away from winning the Daytona 500, the No. 10 has been fast everywhere. Aside from a few decent finishes slipping away, Almirola has been on pace with his teammates, proving that SHR now has four capable cars and drivers to get the job done.

Image by Kinrade/LAT

Reading into the racing

There has been a little bit of everything in 10 weeks as the series has competed on two superspeedways, three short tracks, and five facilities one-mile or larger.

From an intermediate track standpoint, Atlanta offered entertainment through tire wear and the weather, but the other events haven’t been all that jolting. Daytona and Talladega produced carnage, of course, and many online still call for more short tracks.

Bristol was split into two days because of rain, with the second half run Monday, and it was quite a show. Traffic and the concern about the prospect of more bad weather had drivers on their toes, and it caused frantic action.

Another short track race, Richmond, was just as fun even without the cautions. Two weeks ago, the Cup Series race went 354 laps without a natural caution – aside from the two stage breaks, the yellow flag was never displayed.

Sounds boring, right? But for those who are interested in elements of a race besides the carnage, Richmond delivered. The long green flag run and tire wear meant only the best drivers were going to survive. Those who could manage their car over a long run were able to move through the field, while it was clear which drivers couldn’t hang on. Plus, a fast pace by the leaders on a short track left no time to breathe, and it was a constant fight to stay on the lead lap.

That was cool moment

Clint Bowyer breaking back into Victory Lane for the first time in five years was cool enough just from an interview perspective. But Bowyer celebrating with his family was highlight-worthy, as racing has always been described as a family sport.

Image by Thacker/LAT

Neither of Bowyer’s children were born when he last won at Charlotte in October 2012, so the sight of him running down the frontstretch as his two-year-old son, Cash, ran towards him while wife Laura, holding their daughter, was close behind was a great moment for him, and couldn’t help but make many stop and smile.

We saw that coming

The Ford Mustang joins the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2019. Not a surprise, since much of last year was spent listening to Brad Keselowski talk about the disadvantage Ford was at with its outdated body. Ford decided to stay the course for this year with the Fusion, so it was only a matter of time before they announced future plans.

The Mustang has been in the Xfinity Series for a few years now, and it will be Ford’s fourth different model in the Cup Series. What is fascinating about this scenario is that while Ford without a doubt needs a body update, the manufacturer has been off to an unexpectedly hot start this year that is nowhere near reminiscent of last season.

For the highlight reel

This moment perfectly sums up why NASCAR teams recruit former athletes. Tyler Mitchell was carrying both right-side tires for Paul Menard when the No. 21 came down pit road at Bristol Motor Speedway. Clipped by Ryan Newman, the tire went flying but Mitchell has quick instincts and rebounded nicely. That’s SportsCenter Top 10 material.