(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Who’s Hot & Who’s Not in NASCAR: Dust In The Wind

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season is basically halfway over, as Saturday night’s KC Masterpiece 400 at Kansas Speedway was the 12th of 26 races before the playoffs. At any rate, the 2018 season is one-third complete, with the score by manufacturers sitting at Ford 7, Toyota 4, Chevy 1.

Just before the white flag, Kevin Harvick passed Martin Truex Jr.‘s Toyota to take his fifth victory of the season, tying his career-high from his championship-winning 2014 season. Joey Logano was third, Kyle Larson was fourth and the highest-finishing Chevrolet, and Denny Hamlin was fifth.

Rounding out the top ten were Paul Menard, Erik Jones, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch.

It was a rough race – despite battles between Harvick, Truex, Larson and Ryan Blaney, cars quickly were strung out and lapped shortly after the green flag flew. Once laps down, they tended to stay there, and vibrations and loose wheels also played a role in ruining most drivers’ nights.

Three accidents marred the final laps, involving eleven cars, setting up the shootout at the end. In total, six cautions flew, and 15 of the 38 cars finished on the lead lap.

Hometown drivers Clint Bowyer (Emporia, Kan.) and Jamie McMurray (Joplin, Mo.) were never really in position to win (15th and 31st, respectively), but sentimental favorite Aric Almirola pulled in a strong result in the race that sidelined him last season.

HOT

How good have Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing been so far in 2018? Well, they’ve each had at least one driver finish in the top 10 in every race this year. That is very impressive. In fact, it’s solid teamwide domination, and likely shouldn’t still be so surprising. Stewart-Haas Racing would be on this list, too, if it wasn’t for the Daytona 500. Between those three teams, they’ve won 10 of the 12 points races this season, and 20 of 24 stages. (11 races and 23 stages if satellite teams are included.)

NOT

For the fourth time in the past five races, Ryan Blaney was wrecked, derailing a promising day (or in this case, night). He went immediately to the garage after a collision with Larson on lap 247 for a 37th-place finish. On the plus side, he led 54 laps, scored 18 stage points and won the first stage, gaining a playoff point, which gives him 3 on the year.

HOT

While he doesn’t have a nickname like Rowdy, or the ascendant reputation of sophomore teammates Jones and Daniel Suarez, Denny Hamlin has quietly earned five top fives and seven top-10s this season, with five straight finishes in the top 15 for the No. 11, and he’s solidly in ninth place in the standings, third among the winless. Not bad for JGR’s longest-tenured driver.

NOT

For at least the third time since 2013, Kansas Speedway saw a serious accident during a Cup Series race, as William Byron‘s Liberty University car ended up in literal flames in a seven-car wreck on lap 252. (Liberty’s teams are known as the Flames.) Thankfully, everyone was all right, but it proved another lackluster result in a season already full of them for Ty Dillon, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman.

HOT

If one of the Front Row Motorsports cars has a good day so far this season, it seems as though the other’s day ends in disaster. However, David Ragan notched his second top-15 finish in three races crossing the line 13th, and Michael McDowell earned his third top-20 result of the season, in FRM’s best overall race this season.

NOT

It was a rough night for veterans. Brad Keselowski overcame a loose wheel to claw his way back onto the lead lap and finish 14th. Jimmie Johnson salvaged a 19th-place finish after he avoided the big wreck late, but he spent most of the night two laps down (while thoroughly cussing out teammate Byron). And Matt Kenseth‘s return to Roush Fenway and the the Cup Series was dismal, running several laps behind all night before getting caught up in the big wreck and finishing 36th. Kasey Kahne was 21st, roughly where he’s been all season.

Paint Scheme of the Week

Corey LaJoie‘s Schluter Systems No. 72 was 24th, his best result for TriStar Motorsports this season (the team’s best is Cole Whitt’s 19th at Martinsville). More importantly, LaJoie’s car made it to the checkered flag for the second time in five races this season. And it looked good under the lights, as the usually-black vehicle switched things up and went mostly orange with a black side stripe and silver trim. The new Camaro ZL1 nearly always looks good, but this was an especially sharp look.

Predictions:

The All-Star exhibition race (and the last-chance qualifier Monster Open) at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the only action this week. Smash Mouth will be stuck on mental radios for a significant portion of fans as a result. Restrictor plates will be used to try to up the competition factor, which could be a problem for Hendrick cars (they’ve had at least one mangled vehicle every plate race this year).

Three drivers will race their way in via the Open, someone will win the fan vote, and the winner of the 22 starters will walk away a million dollars richer – I’ll say that will be either Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Ryan Blaney.

The race will be Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on FS1.

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Wesley has been with Fronstretch since October 2017. He loves well-told stories in whatever format he finds them. Aside from NASCAR, he enjoys reading, country music and OKC Thunder basketball. He has a BA in Liberal Arts/English and currently lives in eastern Oklahoma, where he works as a freelance writer/editor.

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