By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
After seven races have been completed in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, there are definitely some teams that have stepped up their performance from last season, while others have stumbled out of the gate thus far in the season.
As the series takes their first off-weekend of the year before embarking on a marathon run into late August, we’ll take a look at performance of the top teams in NASCAR’s premier division up to this point and how they rank amongst their peers in the garage area.
Chip Ganassi Racing: A
The two-car team has been the class of the field through the first seven races of the season with fourth-year driver Kyle Larson lighting up the track on his way to being the current points leader. Larson came within a lap of winning the Daytona 500 before running out of fuel to finish 12 and has been almost unstoppable since then with four top-two finishes and a win in five of the last six races.
His teammate Jamie McMurray has also improved from 2016 into 2017 as the momentum from the end of last season has continued right into the beginning of this season. Though he has yet to win in 2017, McMurray has made his presence known so far, with four top-10 finishes in the first seven races. Take out crashes at Daytona and Martinsville and McMurray’s worst finish is a 15th place run at Phoenix.
If the Ganassi duo can keep up their early season performance through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, they should be able to both advance past the first round and be real contenders to make some more noise down the stretch.
Team Penske: A
After coming up short of the title in 2016, Team Penske has entered 2017 with a renewed vigor to flex their muscles once again and through the first seven races of the season, both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are doing just that.
Keselowski has landed his No. 2 Ford in victory lane on two different occasions this year with victories at Atlanta and Martinsville, as well as finishing no worse than sixth place since a crash sidelined him from finishing the Daytona 500. Though the team has a penalty from Phoenix still hanging over their head while they await NASCAR’s decision on their appeal, they are already setting themselves up to be one of the teams to beat as the season plays out.
Much the same can be said for Joey Logano as well. Despite not yet visiting Victory Lane this season, the 26-year old has been knocking on the door and it will only be a matter of time before he breaks through for his first win of the year. Throw out his late race crash from Phoenix and Logano has finishes no worse than sixth in six of the seven races this season and scored his best finish of the year at Texas Motor Speedway just last weekend.
Hendrick Motorsports: B
While sophomore driver Chase Elliott has been stout from the start of the season, the remaining three drivers at Hendrick Motorsports stumbled out of the gate and are just now getting their footing under them seven races in.
Elliott still seeks his first career win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but has been a contender all season long, scoring top-10 finishes in all but two races this year, including high finishes of third at Las Vegas and Martinsville to boost him to second place in the points at the break. At this point, it’s not a matter of if Elliott will win in 2017, but where that breakthrough will finally happen for the No. 24 team.
It’s safe to say that 2017 has not gone quite as planned for the remaining drivers in the Hendrick stable, as both Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t finish inside the top-five until last weekend at Texas, where Johnson won his seventh race at the track and Earnhardt finished fifth. If Texas is any indication, this won’t be the last time we see the No. 48 and No. 88 teams running up front this season.
The other three drivers may be getting their performance woes figured out, but for Kasey Kahne and the No. 5 team, things are going in the wrong direction. Kahne started the season with finishes of fourth and seventh, respectively, but since then, it’s been all downhill with finishes ranging from 12th at Las Vegas to a 38th place finish at Texas. Kahne and his team have got to get things sorted out, and fast, if they have any hope of being contenders as the 2017 season rolls on.
Stewart-Haas Racing: B
After an offseason manufacturer swap from Chevrolet to Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing was guarded about their prospects to start the season until they got a handle on their new Blue Oval equipment, but thus far in 2017, they have shown they’ll be just as strong with Ford power as they were with Chevrolet in seasons past.
The newest member of the SHR stable, Clint Bowyer, has also been its best car overall through the first seven race of the year as he ranks ninth in points just ahead of teammate Kevin Harvick. Both Bowyer and Harvick are still seeking their first wins of the season, but have one top-five finish and three top-10 finishes apiece, while Harvick has two poles to his credit. With both showing speed, it should only be a matter of time before they find Victory Lane.
Despite his win in the Daytona 500, Kurt Busch has struggled in the majority of the races since, only finishing two of the next six races inside the top-10 and 24th or worse in the other four. The team definitely needs to get things turned around to get some momentum back on their side through the summer months heading into the playoffs.
And then there’s Danica Patrick, who has had nothing but trouble this season, her fifth full-time season in the Cup Series. Through the first seven races, her best finish is a 17th place result at Atlanta and finishes of 22nd or worse in the remaining races to land her 29th in points thus far, a far cry from her SHR teammates that should all be playoff bound by the time the regular season is complete in mid-September.
Wood Brothers Racing: B
In his second full-time season with the legendary team, Ryan Blaney has brought the No. 21 car back to prominence early in the 2017 season as he is gunning for his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and first win for the team since Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500.
Through the first seven races, Blaney has shown he can get the job done behind the wheel, scoring one top-five finish and two top-10 finishes in that time span.
However, it was his performance at Texas Motor Speedway that has turned heads in the garage area. Blaney qualified on the front row for the race on the newly repaved and reconfigured track before leading 148 laps en route to two stage wins on the day. Had it not been for an issue on pit road late in the race, Blaney may have been able to pull off the sweep with a trip to victory lane.
With the momentum from Texas, look for Blaney and the Wood Brothers to continue to turn heads in the coming weeks and months as it looks like Blaney will win himself a race sooner, rather than later.
Furniture Row Racing: B
Moving from a single car team to two full-time cars over the offseason, some expected the Denver, Colorado based organization to have some hiccups to start the 2017 season, but after seven races, the team has picked right up where they left off at the end of last season.
After a career year last season, Martin Truex, Jr. already has a win under his belt this year with a win at Las Vegas that saw him sweep all three stages en route to the win. Along with the win, Truex also has an additional top-five finish, as well as two top-10 finishes. In fact, Truex has yet to finish lower than 16th this season and should be primed to visit Victory Lane a few more times before all is said and done.
Rookie Erik Jones has had the normal rookie speed bumps through the first seven races of the season, but has also shown he has the talent to be a powerful driver in the years to come. Jones scored his best finish of eighth at Phoenix four weeks ago and has four other top-15 finishes under his belt so far. The more seat time the rookie gets as the season goes along, the better his performance will get, so watch out for the No. 77 team once they really get their feet under them.
Joe Gibbs Racing: C
To say that Joe Gibbs Racing has underperformed in 2017 would be an understatement. Following their 12 win season in 2016, JGR was expected to roll right into 2017 to continue their hot streak, but thus far this season, they have been anything but hot.
Of their four cars, only Kyle Busch has been able to score more than one top-five finish, as he led the most laps at Phoenix and Martinsville only to fall short of capturing the win. Despite not winning a race yet in 2017, Busch has been the only bright spot at JGR as he currently sits seventh in points after Texas.
While Busch has been running well enough to at least contend for wins, the same cannot be said for the others in the JGR stable.
Finishes of sixth and 10th at Las Vegas and Phoenix, respectively, are the only top-10 finishes for Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, this season, with three other finishes of 25th or worse (two of which have come in the last two weeks) dropping Hamlin to 15th in points.
Matt Kenseth’s best finish of the season came at Atlanta with a third place result and he followed that up with two ninth-place finishes in the four races after, but three crashes resulting in finishes of 36th or worse at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix, and Daytona have dropped Kenseth and his No. 20 team to a dismal 22nd place in points. Definitely not where this team expected to be at this point in the season.
The fourth member of the JGR squadron, rookie Daniel Suarez, was expected to have some hiccups in his first full-time season in the Cup Series, but has shown some speed early in the year. After three finishes of 20th or worse to start the year, Suarez and his team finally got their feet under them at the end of the West Coast swing, with seventh place finishes at Phoenix and Fontana.
However, just as it looked like the No. 19 team was getting their act together, crew chief Dave Rogers took an indefinite leave of absence, forcing the team to bring in a new crew chief. Suarez and his new crew chief have stumbled out of the gate together with finishes of 32nd and 19th in their first two races paired together, so it will be interesting to see if they can regain their form from a few weeks ago as the season progresses.
Richard Childress Racing: C
Though RCR finally made it back to Victory Lane for the first time since 2013 with Ryan Newman’s win at Phoenix, the organization as a whole still has some work to do to turn themselves into legitimate contenders down the stretch.
Newman has his Phoenix win and one additional top-10 finish, but has finished 15th or worse in the five other races that have taken place so far. While the win gets him into the playoffs, he will have his work cut out for him unless the team can boost their performance between now and then.
Likewise, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard both have one top-five finish to their credit in 2017, but it’s the other six races they have competed in that really tell the tale. Dillon has finished 18th or worse in five of those six races, while Menard has not fared better than 19th since the Daytona 500, landing the two drivers 21st and 26th in points respectively.
Roush-Fenway Racing: C
Last season, Roush-Fenway would have been given a failing grade as none of their cars were able to win a race or make the playoffs, but an offseason downsizing from three cars to two cars has seemed to give the team new life as their performance in 2017 has increased ten-fold from last year.
Both Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have finished in or just outside of the top-10 in multiple races this season, boosting both drivers to current points standings within the top-20.
Bayne currently sits 12th in points with one top-10 finish to his credit and four additional top-13 finishes, while Stenhouse finished fourth at Phoenix and scored his best finish ever at Martinsville two weeks ago, bringing home a 10th place finish to move him to 19th place in points.
The team may be a ways from being able to contend for race wins, but as long as they can keep doing what they’re doing, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see them flirt with a playoff berth based on points when all is said and done.
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