We saw a lot of Kyle Larson and Martin Truex, Jr. up front during Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at California’s Auto Club Speedway. But what we had not seen this year, and only once before, was Larson finishing up front. Larson’s second career victory put to rest a series of oh-so-close second-place finishes to start off 2017.
It was just a matter of time before the No. 42 visited Victory Lane this year, though, considering how great Chip Ganassi’s two NASCAR teams are running. The next question is how many more times will Larson make it there this year? He’s easily the hottest of the drivers we profile below.
Larson has been a front-runner all season, finishing second in each of the last three races. Despite dominating Sunday’s race it looked like that streak could be extended to four. His second chance at California came on a late restart when, as the leader, he lined up next to Brad Keselowski.
The last time that happened, Keselowski took advantage of an open lower lane and passed Larson for the win. This time, Larson controlled the pace to the green flag, got away and went unchallenged over the final two laps. So give Larson and his crew credit for figuring out the end game and executing a winning plan this time.
What’s good for one track is not necessarily good for another. Cole Pearn, crew chief for Truex Jr., found that out the hard way Sunday. When running second, Pearn decided to keep Truex on the track instead of hitting pit road for precious new tires late in the race. While Denny Hamlin also stayed out, there was not a long list of pit row skippers under yellow. That left Truex and Hamlin sitting out front as sitting ducks; it didn’t take Larson long to regain the lead as a result. Truex hung on to finish fourth while Hamlin ended up a disappointing 14th. There’s a lesson here; what worked for Ryan Newman in his win at Phoenix last week won’t play out that way every time.
Clint Bowyer got his second chance by taking over for the retired Tony Stewart in 2017. Bowyer struggled through a very difficult 2016, finishing 27th in points last year with just three top-10 finishes. But with his third-place performance Sunday, he sits eighth in points and already has two top-10 results in the first five races this season. Bowyer still hasn’t led a lap, but the fact he’s getting closer to the front is an encouraging sign for a driver who hasn’t won since the fall Charlotte race in 2012, a span of 154 events.
Matt Kenseth could win a race at any track at any point. But right now, he’s got a points problem. Due to a late-race accident, Kenseth suffered his third DNF in five races this season. It’s not a matter of him being competitive, as he finished third and ninth in the other two events. But you’ve got to finish to get points in these things. So now, after five races, Kenseth sits in the unenviable position of 25th in the standings. It’s not a sky-is-falling scenario for the driver of the No. 20; at least, not yet. The point has come where he needs to string together some top 10s to get back on the right points track.
It looked like it was going to be a really bad day for Keselowski and the No. 2 team. He had issues at the start of the race where it was a matter of just trying to stay out of everyone’s way. However, one of the marks of a championship team is that it doesn’t give up. In this case, that attitude almost allowed Keselowski to steal a win Sunday as he finished second.
The No. 2 team already has one win this year, so there’s no pressure to have to take a risk for a win now. But the most important thing about having that type of attitude now is that if a similar situation occurs during a Chase race, the team will know how to handle it.
It seems like it’s been a new wife, new life for Kurt Busch. He secured his place in the Chase with a Daytona 500 victory and followed that up with a seventh at Atlanta. But the last three races he has finished 30th, 25th and 24th. That’s why it’s important to have a victory in the bag early in the season, just so slumps like these turn out to be bumps in the road, rather than roadblocks to the Chase.
After having to deal with a couple of cookie-cutter tracks in recent weeks (Las Vegas and California count as that), we will get back to a track carrying all kinds of character Sunday with the paperclip half-mile at Martinsville. While he hasn’t won there in the last four races, Joey Logano has run up front regularly by leading 357 laps in those events; I say he gets the grandfather clock this time. The deep sleeper underdog who you might not think about pick is AJ Allmendinger, who has two top-10 finishes, including a second place, in the last four races out in rural Virginia.