Hendrick Motorsports is the clear leader of the NASCAR Cup Series clubhouse as the circuit moves back toward its home base after a three-week Western swing.
William Byron claimed back-to-win wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway to give the organization two out of three wins. Hendrick drivers combined to lead 524 laps in the three Western races, including its first stop at Auto Club Speedway.
Byron and Kyle Larson won four of the six stages. And two wins in the first four races should assure Byron’s place in the postseason.
The numbers are as impressive as the eye test, where it was clear over the last three weeks the Hendrick Chevrolets were close to untouchable. Alex Bowman leads the point standings on the strength of four consecutive top-10 finishes — the only driver in the series to have finished in the top 10 in each race.
But take Daytona out of the equation. Daytona is a superspeedway race, a different animal every team wants to win for prestige. Three weeks out west, however, have given a good look at who is on the right path and has an early leg up on the competition.
Chevrolet has won all four races. Chevrolet drivers have dominated the races. Although Kyle Busch was in victory lane at Fontana, Ross Chastain swept the stages and led the most laps.
Fontana and Las Vegas are high-speed racetracks but with different characteristics. Fontana is unique with how fast and rough it is, but drivers still say some variables can carry over to other racetracks. Performing well at Fontana can be a confidence booster. Vegas, meanwhile, is a fast intermediate that is the bread and butter of the NASCAR schedule.
Phoenix is flat and, although pretty fast, is one mile and considered a short track to some. Most importantly, it’s the site of the season finale, which makes its spring date an important one for teams with the attention it gets beforehand in preparation.
All four Hendrick drivers finished in the top 10 at Phoenix.
Take those three weeks: Chevrolet, specifically Hendrick Motorsports, leads the Toyota and then Ford teams. Chevrolet is above the rest, but the gap isn’t too large for Toyota. Some execution needs to improve, and the hunt for speed never ends, but Toyota drivers are in the race. It has primarily been Chevrolet and Toyota teams in the top 10 the last three weeks.
The same can’t be said for Ford drivers. Sunday at Phoenix was the best they looked out west as Kevin Harvick contended for the win and had an average running position of fifth. Ryan Blaney was also in the picture with an average running position of seventh. And Brad Keselowski showed some more glimmer of hope with an average running position of sixth before the two late cautions took away a potential top-10 finish.
Keselowski was also strong in Fontana and Las Vegas. In Fontana, he finished seventh despite being spun by Corey LaJoie, and really flexed some muscle in Las Vegas as the highest-running Ford driver at some points.
Ford is behind, though. Three Ford drivers finished in the top 10 at Phoenix and at Fontana. Two Ford drivers finished in the top 10 at Las Vegas.
Joey Logano won the pole at Las Vegas but sank like an anchor and ended up knocked out of the race after getting squeezed into the outside wall off Turn 4. After being released from the care center, Logano agreed the Fords have work to do. Then in Phoenix, the No. 22 Penske team, which won at the track in the fall when clinching the championship, was an also-ran much of the day, having gotten lapped early on and then fighting to stay in the top 20. Somehow, Logano ended up 11th.
The pendulum will swing back in the other direction at a certain point. Or at least that’s what everyone would expect if Next Gen taught us anything last season. It seems much easier with this car to be good one week and fall off the next, so for those who are behind, the benefit of a long season is getting to hone in on their setups now for a robust second half.
Hendrick Motorsports might be the favorite right now, with the keywords being “right now.” Teams continue to learn and science out their race cars, and with the different aero packages on some of the short tracks and road courses, it’s another variable thrown into the equation.
The last three weeks, however, make it clear which teams the weekend’s high expectations should start with and who still has work to do.