Three races into 2018, and we clearly have our first title contender.
Kevin Harvick dominated for the second week in a row by leading 214 laps on Sunday, in the first of three races in the “West Coast Swing”. Once again, the veterans overtook the top 10 finishing positions. Unlike Atlanta – and the rest of the season so far – Jimmie Johnson rebounded to earn an OK finish, but still not anywhere near up to par.
After his second straight victory, Harvick took the points lead, becoming the third different driver to hold the top spot in as many weeks. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael McDowell fell out of the top 16 in the standings due to an engine failure allowing dark horse Chris Buescher to break his way in.
Our NASCAR power rankings also shifted slightly following NASCAR’s first visit out west this season:
1) Kevin Harvick
Could Ford horsepower have eclipsed the Toyota domination from 2017? Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers seem to be leading the charge for the blue oval, dominating the last two weekends. Harvick seems to be pushing the No. 78 from the top step of the podium but with that move comes criticism from the fans. Every season, as a driver begins to establish dominance, the cheating accusations always seem to follow. Unlike most times that word has been spoken, though, there actually is some legitimate suspicion following Sunday’s Pennzoil 400.
The back window of the No. 4 car was bending beneath the weight of the downforce in the turns when the car was at high speeds. On Tuesday, Childers faced the criticism on SiriusXM to address why that was happening, and he stated this was due to a parts failure.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) March 6, 2018
2) Denny Hamlin
It was a rather quiet weekend for Denny Hamlin and his finish during Sunday’s race wasn’t anything to celebrate either. Though, to his credit, he didn’t ruffle up any feathers nor did he say anything that got him sent to the NASCAR hauler.
Not only did Hamlin run a “ho-hum” race — he wasn’t even leading the charge for Toyota on Sunday; that accolade went to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch who somehow finished second.
It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Hamlin was back in style and in the headlines, but this time the storylines were mostly positive. GoFas Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto appeared on social media Tuesday stating that his No. 32 Ford Fusion would be left unsponsored for this weekend’s race at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
We hate doing this, but we are UNSPONSORED as of right now for @ISMRaceway this weekend! If you or anyone you know has the ability to help us connect with a business interested in coming on board this weekend please contact the @GoFasRacing32 page ASAP! pic.twitter.com/3hbFnTBBqI
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) March 6, 2018
While this tweet showed the viciousness of business in the sport, it also led to a social media response that put the family-oriented side of NASCAR on full display — a family willing to help one of its own.
Hamlin, along with multiple other drivers, took to social media announcing their support for the Grass Valley, California native. Hamlin donated $5,000 dollars to help the small team make Sunday’s TicketGalaxy 500.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) March 6, 2018
The story doesn’t end here — check out Matt DiBenedetto’s Twitter feed to find out what Hamlin’s initial show of support ultimately led to.
3) Joey Logano
In just the first two races, Logano has only led a combined four laps. With Harvick’s dominance in leading 214 laps, Logano led the second most laps of the race with 25. He was really the only driver who had a chance to reach Harvick, and it still wasn’t nearly enough.
With that said, Logano is making a return to form after nearly falling off of the radar in 2017, when he missed the playoffs and had his only race win of the season deemed encumbered.
He may be just weeks away from his return to Victory Lane.
— Joey Logano (@joeylogano) March 5, 2018
4) Brad Keselowski
Keselowski is still digging himself out of a hole following his 32nd-place finish at Daytona. The sixth-place finish on Sunday wasn’t necessarily what the No. 2 team wanted but it was a good points day. Keselowski moved up from 12th to seventh in the standings.
Flying home from @LVMotorSpeedway after scoring triple 6s in the stages & the race.
Not a bad result, not a great result, but a dang fine effort by the entire #2crew
Climbing out of our points hole from Daytona to 7th. @DiscountTire
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) March 5, 2018
Keselowski enters this weekend’s race at ISM Raceway in different circumstances than he did last November. The 2017 Can-Am 500 is memorable to Keselowski because it was the race that sent him to Homestead to battle in the Championship 4. Could the magic from last November send the No. 2 team to Victory Lane for the first time this season?
5) Martin Truex Jr.
For the second week in a row, the No. 78 team had to deal with a tire issue during qualifying.
In fact, the whole weekend was a struggle for the reigning MENCS champion.
Truex had a bad vibration during practice, but unlike the previous weekend, he had put a number of laps on his tires.
Issues with NASCAR’s new mandated pit gun have bit multiple teams so far this season and even the defending series champion wasn’t immune.
On the flip side, inspection went rather smooth for the No. 78 this weekend after failing three times the week prior and losing his car chief.
It was rather weird to hear Truex say they have a lot of catching up to do following Sunday’s race, especially after it seemed everyone was playing catch up with him last season. The post-championship slump seems to be on the backburner for now.
Truex was still able to finish fourth, giving the team two straight weekends of strong finishes. The top-five finish moved the No. 78 up from seventh in points to fourth, just 20 markers off of the lead. So you could say Las Vegas was lucky for Truex.
— SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch. 90) (@SiriusXMNASCAR) March 6, 2018
6) Ryan Blaney
After winning his third career pole on Friday, Blaney led the field to green. It was only for a brief moment, however, as Harvick took the top spot after just one lap and barely relinquished it the rest of the day. Following two straight weekends of fast cars but disappointing finishes, Blaney put a cap on the weekend and brought home his first top-five finish of 2018.
Solid weekend for our 12 team. Thank you @Pennzoil for jumping on board. All we can do is our best and see what happens!
— Ryan Blaney (@Blaney) March 5, 2018
7) Austin Dillon
The 2018 Daytona 500 champion wasn’t in the winning discussion on Sunday but still had a competitive car. Dillon kept it inside the top 10 most of the afternoon and showed that Richard Childress Racing could stick with all of the other cars.
Despite not finishing inside the top 10, Dillon earned his best finish since his victory at Daytona. Two straight top-15 finishes won’t win you a championship but could open the door to marked improvement over the course of the season.
— RCR (@RCRracing) March 4, 2018
8) Kurt Busch
Sunday’s race was a heartbreaker for Busch and his team as he had a fast enough car to potentially compete against his teammate for his first win at his home track. On lap 184, though, that all came to an end with just one wiggle. Busch got loose in the exit of turn four and ultimately sandwiched Chase Elliott, ending both drivers’ days.
Though depressed and down, his wife had a surprise for him following the race which would ultimately put a huge smile on his face.
Not the result I had in mind. Can not believe I wrecked. I let everybody down and in the process, ruined @chaseelliott day. Then this happened… S/O to #FelixSabatesFordCharlotte thank you! And my love @MrsAshleyBusch for the surprise! pic.twitter.com/DK5IpilJHs
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) March 5, 2018
9) Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch makes his debut in this year’s rankings after a strong second-place finish. On Friday night, he was finally able to add a NACAR Camping World Truck Series victory at Las Vegas to his long list of accomplishments. However, Saturday’s XFINITY Series race was one Busch would much rather forget as the No. 18 team struggled all day long.
Had Sunday’s race been the Pennzoil 412, Victory Lane could’ve had a different driver. Busch was catching up with Harvick, but he ran out of time and had to settle for a second-place finish. Despite not being the victory Busch always wants, it was the teams first top-five finish of the season.
Oh hot damn!! The answer to this photo now comes out! 💸 pic.twitter.com/s09oFMTUVu
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) March 6, 2018
10) Kyle Larson
Larson earned his first victory in the NASCAR XFINITY Series of the season on Saturday by absolutely dominating. On Sunday though, he slipped under the radar and once again was the top-performing Chevrolet driver with his first top-five finish of the season.
Larson led 12 laps last November at Phoenix and has the momentum heading to the desert that he’ll need when the series gets to California next weekend. Momentum will be key for Larson if he wants to get his first victory of 2018.
Nice day for our @CreditOneBank team! 3rd all day long. Need a bit to keep up with the 4 but we’re not far off from being dominant. 👍🏼👍🏼
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) March 5, 2018