These are the names spoken most often in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when it comes to discussing the young 2018 season’s early front-runners, and with good reason. Harvick’s batting .500 in wins this year, scoring three victories in six races. Truex has added an additional win to go with his five top fives and a second-place spot in the overall points. And Busch, though he hasn’t won, has been exceptional, with four straight finishes of second or third to his credit before the series hit its first off-weekend of 2018.
But are these the drivers we’ll be talking about in a few weeks — say, come mid-May?
After all, the Cup Series is coming off its first break of 2018, the same one that hits around Easter weekend each year. Argument about whether or not momentum exists aside, it’s easy to point at that respite as a rejuvenating period for drivers who’ve had to endure multiple cross-country trips since February and have had time to reflect on early-season triumphs or woes and regroup as an organization.
In 2017, that off-weekend came after Texas Motor Speedway, the seventh race of the season, on April 9. The series then picked back up at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 24, continuing on another four-week run before the All-Star Race weekend (which, of course, is barely much of an off-weekend at all).
In that four-race stretch, a few drivers rose to the occasion, some of whom had experienced diminishing returns at the start of the season. Others, after hot starts, flunked a little.
All of which is to say that Busch, Truex and Harvick are not necessarily safe bets for future success, even though one out of three of them is all but locked into the playoffs and another just needs either a regular season with less than 17 different winners or another win himself to do so.
Based on 2017, Harvick should be in pretty good shape, though. In the four races following last year’s Easter break through the All-Star break, the driver of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 posted an average finish of 8.5, scoring three top fives in the process. That followed an opening seven races in which he could only break into the top five once, finishing fourth at Texas, right before the break.
Truex, meanwhile, fared fairly well, with an average of 13.5 after three top 10s, including a win at Kansas Speedway. In fact, his average would be far better were it not for his 35th-place result at Talladega Superspeedway. He also gained a spot in points during that time frame, moving from third to second behind Kyle Larson.
And then there’s Busch, who was just a few ticks off Truex, clocking in at a 14.75 average with a pair of top fives at Talladega and Kansas.
The best of the best during that stretch? Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and if you recall the first half of 2017 at all, that’s probably not surprising. Along with winning his first-ever Cup race at Talladega, Stenhouse finished no worse than 11th, emerging with a 6.25 average before the All-Star Race after landing just two top 10s in the first seven races.
Jamie McMurray had a stellar showing as well, with a seventh-place average, led by his runner-up Talladega finish and results that were no worse than 12th at Bristol. Points leader Larson was also nearby, with a 9.5 average (a pair of top 10s).
Meanwhile, among full-time drivers, Danica Patrick and AJ Allmendinger struggled, both with averages of 32nd — a far cry from Allmendinger’s third- and sixth-place results he scored during the first seven races. Ryan Blaney also crashed and burned, following his three top 10s and sixth-place points showing before Easter with three sub-33rd finishes and an average finish of 28th that only edged above 30th because of his rebound at Kansas (fourth).
Which has to be worrisome to Blaney and Team Penske’s No. 12 crew, since he finds himself in a similar position in 2018. Through six races, Blaney sits third in points with two top fives and four top 10s, including a dominating performance for the first two stages at Martinsville Speedway. But the young driver didn’t emerge too strongly from last year’s first break, and if he’s slow to adapt yet again this year, there’s a chance he could be a non-story come the All-Star Race — until, of course, he pulls out that sweet, sweet victory like last year at Pocono Raceway and ends up in the playoffs regardless of what he does post-Easter.
Others to keep an eye on? Erik Jones struggled between Easter and All-Star weekend last year, posting a 27.5 average (albeit with Furniture Row Racing rather than Joe Gibbs Racing). Chase Elliott, too, left much to be desired, finishing in the top 10 just once (seventh, Bristol) and dropping from second to fourth in points.
For the next few races (it’s six until the All-Star break this year instead of four), it’s absolutely worth checking out drivers like Stenhouse and McMurray, who need strong finishes after rough starts to their 2018 seasons (neither has a top 10 yet this year). But as for the front-runners, well, don’t expect Harvick to lose steam anytime soon.