Race Weekend Central

The 10: NASCAR Cup Series Power Rankings After Fontana

Kevin Harvick‘s bid for four in a row ended at Fontana last Sunday as Harvick made contact with Kyle Larson early in the race, ending his hopes. Harvick’s day was done but Larson managed to come away with a runner-up finish.

Leading 125 of 200 laps, Martin Truex Jr. was the first to the finish line as the defending champ picked up his first win of the 2018 season. Kyle Busch led the second most laps with 62 and ended the day in the third position.

Jimmie Johnson picked up his first top ten of the year, earning a ninth-place finish. The Chevrolet teams continue to play catch-up this season as Johnson was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to finish in the top 10. (Bowman – 13th, Byron – 15th, Elliott – 16th)

With the win, Truex jumped to the top of the standings with a nine-point lead over Busch. Brad Keselowski jumped three spots to fourth while the biggest loser was Harvick dropping seven spots to eighth.

There was no change to rest of the top 16 as Alex Bowman heads into Martinsville with an eight-point advantage over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The West Coast Swing is over and the MENCS heads back to the East Coast at Martinsville. Race Coverage starts Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on FOX.

1) Martin Truex Jr. (+5)

Last Sunday at Fontana looked like a flashback to 2017 with the dominance established by the defending champion.

Truex started on the pole, led more than half the race, and the margin of victory between him and Kyle Larson was 11.68 seconds.

“People kept asking ‘When are you going to win again? When are you going to win one of these stages?’ Well, there you go,” said Truex after climbing out of the car on Sunday. “I knew we really had a good race car after the first adjustment of the race. The thing just came alive. From there it was just about managing my tires and being smart.”

Truex won eight races last year en route to the title, and the competition certainly does not want to see a repeat performance. Not only did he win the race, he also took the points lead away from Harvick, earning a total of 60 points for the day.

2) Kevin Harvick (-1)

Harvick’s trip to Fontana went nothing like the previous two races on the West Coast Swing. After winning the prior three races, the driver of the No. 4 was racing Larson on lap 38 when the two made contact going down the backstretch. Harvick and Larson both shot up toward the wall and, while Larson did not hit the wall, Harvick’s car pounded the SAFER barrier. He finished the race nine laps down in 35th.

“I went down to side draft and he (Larson) was coming up and we touched, and it just knocked the thing to the right and spun out,” Harvick said, describing the incident. “I don’t know that it’s his fault. I think that’s my fault for coming down the racetrack right there and trying to side draft and then as we touch it just came back up the racetrack. I was just trying to get a little too much right there. I knew the stage was coming in.

“I’ve just got to thank all of my guys. They did a great job on our Busch Beer Ford and it was just my fault back there.” 

Harvick was not able to win four in a row but not all is lost. He still has three wins and 433 laps led on the year, which is twice as many as Busch who is second on that list with 209 laps led.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Harvick has one win at Martinsville which came back in 2006 in the fall race while driving for Richard Childress Racing.

3) Kyle Busch

Kyle Busch picked up his third top five and fourth top 10 of the year this week at Fontana, finishing third. During certain parts of the race, it looked like Busch had the car to beat, leading 62 laps. He remains second in the points heading into Martinsville this week, a track where he has previously scored two victories.

“We were hoping for more with our Interstate Batteries Camry today, but we just never could get the car where we needed it,” Busch said post-race. “So that was tough for sure, but it’s another top-five finish. We’ll take that and look forward to going to Martinsville next week. It’s been pretty good to us the last few years, so hopefully, we’ll be able to do what we need to get a win.”

Busch ended the West Coast Swing with an impressive 2.3 average finish over the course of the three races, the best average of any driver.

The driver of the No. 18 also is the most recent winner at Martinsville after earning the victory in the fall, leading 184 of the 500 laps.

4) Brad Keselowski

Keselowski had another strong run this week at Fontana, finishing fourth. This is Keselowski’s second top five of the year and third top 10, putting him fourth in the MENCS standings, right in front of his teammate Joey Logano. Keselowski was fourth in Stage 1 and second in Stage 2 and restarted third in the third and final stage. A loose condition caused him to fall back and lose positions over the course of the run.

“Martin (Truex Jr.) was real strong for sure, Keselowski said. “We had exceptional speed today with the Wurth Ford Fusion on the short runs, but not very much for them there on the long runs. I was hoping to get a late-race caution and could make it exciting for the fans that were here, but it didn’t pan out that way.”

Keselowski has one win at Martinsville, which was recorded last year during the spring race. The No. 2 driver has finished in the top five in the last four Martinsville races.

5) Joey Logano

Logano remains one of the most solid drivers so far in 2018, earning a fifth-place finish on Sunday. He now has two top fives and four top-10 finishes, jumping up to third in the MENCS standings. It’s also Logano’s best four-race stretch since before his win at Richmond was encumbered last season.

“The 78 had a great car,” Logano said post-race. “I was in front of him for about five laps and I was like, ‘Hey,’ but it was short-lived. Overall, it was a good weekend. To get a top five here and a win yesterday is great. I would have liked to sweep the races here at Auto Club and we’re just trying to get this Auto Club Fusion to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway.

“I’ve been so close for quite some time now and it’s been a great race track for us and a lot of fun to race here, I just need more speed to be able to keep up there. We made one change that the car didn’t like right before the last stage and we lost some track position there, and by the time we were able to start catching back up it was too late. We probably could have finished fourth, maybe third at the end if we didn’t have that bad run, but overall that’s where we’re at.”

Logano and the No. 22 team now need to show that they can contend for wins after missing the playoffs last year. They could find themselves sitting in a similar spot after five races this year and still without a victory. Logano has an 82-point cushion over the 16th and final playoff spot of Bowman going into Martinsville, a place where he has four poles but no wins.

6) Denny Hamlin (-3)

Besides a 17th-place finish at Las Vegas, Denny Hamlin has been close to the top for much of the start to 2018. With finishes of third, fourth, fourth and sixth this most recent week in Fontana, Hamlin looks to keep that going at one of his best tracks, Martinsville.

“We were exceptional during the long green-flag runs today, but I definitely struggled to keep up on the restarts and short runs,” said Hamlin. “We were really in it with the leaders there at the end of the race, we just didn’t have enough time to get it done. Overall though, a good day for our FedEx team and a solid way to finish the West Coast swing.”

Hamlin remains sixth in the MENCS standings.

Look for Hamlin to be one of the favorites this week at Martinsville. He has five Martinsville wins, the last of which came in 2015. Hamlin finished seventh last year in the fall race, even after the dust-up between him and Chase Elliott.

7) Ryan Blaney

Blaney continued his strong start to the 2018 season by finishing eighth last week. Spending much of his day back in the pack after having to make an unscheduled pit stop when he made contact with the outside wall — losing a lap in the process — Blaney rebounded and finished 19th after stage two and drove his way into the top 10 during the final laps.

“It was a hard fought day for our PPG Ford team,” Blaney said. “We started a little tight and after the first couple pit stops got super loose. I made contact with the wall and had to make an unscheduled pit stop putting us way behind. The team did a great job repairing the car and we finally managed to work our way back on the lead lap late. I feel like I set us back, but we worked hard and managed to bring home a solid finish. It stinks we didn’t get any stage points, but we’ll try to gain a lot next week in Martinsville.”

Blaney has one top five and three top 10s this year but looks to add to it at Martinsville. He has four MENCS starts at Martinsville with a best finish of eighth last year in the fall race.

8) Kyle Larson (+2)

Larson had an eventful day at Fontana and still ended with a runner-up finish. The biggest moment during the race was when Larson and Harvick made contact and almost wrecked the both of them. Larson had damage but he ended up continuing and ran strong for the majority of the race.

After the incident between Harvick, Larson keyed the mic: “He’s going to be mad, but I did nothing wrong.”

“We had a lot of weird issues, vibrations and different stuff that happened where we had to restart at the back and drive back forward,” said Larson after the race. “It seemed like we could always get to third or fourth and kind of stall out there. Still, a really good day. The 78 (Truex) was really good. I think the 4 (Harvick) – he didn’t get to race a lot, but he was probably the best car again.”

Larson moved up one spot to seventh in points going into one of his statistically worst tracks on the schedule. The driver of the No. 42 has only posted one finish inside the top 10 in his eight races at Martinsville, a third in 2016. His seven other finishes? 42nd, 27th, 30th, 19th, 14th, 17th and 37th.

9) Clint Bowyer (NR)

Bowyer is new to the power rankings this week after his 11th-place run at Fontana. Bowyer moves to ninth in points after picking up his second top 10 of the year.

“We got really lucky to finish this race today,” Bowyer commented after the completion of the event. “That tire was coming apart, and I didn’t think we had any chance of making it to the checkered flag – but it did. We wanted more than 11th, and at times today, we were really good. We got some stage points, but we have some work to do. We’ll be ready for Martinsville.” 

Bowyer this year has an average finish of 10.6 and is going to a track that has shown him favor. He has 24 career starts at Martinsville and has collected five top fives and 14 top 10s. This was also Bowyer’s best track with Stewart-Haas Racing last year as he finished seventh and third in the two races on the schedule.

With all four cars at SHR running in the top 10 consistently, maybe this week Bowyer breaks that winless streak.

Safe to say, Bowyer needed a break from the West Coast Swing.

10) Erik Jones (NR)

Another driver new to the list is sophomore Jones. He was one of the best drivers during the West Coast Swing finishing eighth, ninth and seventh, moving him up to 13th in points, a 10 position difference from three weeks ago.

“It was sometimes a battle, we had a decent car and speed all weekend but it was too loose off all race,” Jones said post-race. Mistake-freee day and another top 10 and it’s a good way to keep building.”

Jones only has two starts at Martinsville but has plenty of short track starts in other forms of racing, including back-to-back wins in the Snowball Derby in 2012 and 2013.

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Moparjeff

How did Bowyer pick up his second top 10 of the year by finishing 11th?

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