By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
With the first six races of the season complete and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaching their first weekend break, we’ll take this opportunity to evaluate the season to this point and the storylines that have come to the forefront over the first month and a half.
Stewart-Haas Racing Has Come to Play in 2018
If there’s one thing we’ve learned above all else this season, it’s that Stewart-Haas Racing is not messing around when it comes to their performance in the Cup Series. With a revamped lineup for 2018 and the team being in their second year with Ford, all four cars have shown speed from the drop of the green flag in Daytona.
Fast forward six weeks and the organization now has four wins on their season resume, with Kevin Harvick winning three in a row at Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, followed by Clint Bowyer’s dominating win on Monday at Martinsville to break a nearly six year winless drought.
“We had some growing pains last year,” said Greg Zipadelli, Stewart-Haas Racing Vice President of Competition. “And I think maybe not having the success that we expected or wanted or feel that this group of capable of, everybody worked a little harder this year. Everybody dug down. Everybody is working better together as a group. I feel like our whole entire company is doing better.
“We took a lot on last year from chassis shop to rear-end housings to all the components, all the things that we didn’t do in the past, so there was a lot of moving parts.
“I would honestly say that the crew chiefs and our teams might have been handicapped a few times last year because we couldn’t get stuff done in the order that we needed to as an organization. They were patient. They worked hard. They kept focused, and they believed in the group and the people behind them.
“You know, we’re reaping the benefits of that today.”
In addition to Harvick and Bowyer making their way to victory lane, teammates Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola each have a pair of top-10 finishes on the season, sitting 10th and 11th in points, respectively. With the way SHR has come out of the gate, it would not be a surprise at all to see them win at some point later on this season.
So Much for Ford Facing Doom and Gloom
At the end of last season, Brad Keselowski spelled out what he thought would happen in the upcoming season, noting that the Blue Oval brigade was in for a “drubbing” in 2018. So much for that.
Given the dominance of Toyota last year, with them winning 16 races and Chevrolet coming out with their new Camaro body for this season, Keselowski’s fears were warranted since Ford would be entering 2018 with the oldest body of the three manufacturers, placing them in a perceived disadvantage.
However, that has not been the case through the first six weeks of the season, with Ford drivers consistently running up front and leading laps, not to mention ending the day in victory lane four times. If the playoffs were to start today, Ford drivers would make up half of the 16-driver field.
The other manufacturers are likely to catch up as the season plays out, but thus far everything is coming up Ford.
Camaro Still a Work in Progress
While Ford has hit the ground running this season, Chevrolet teams are struggling a bit trying to figure out all of the nuances of the new Camaro body. When they were shut out of the Championship 4 last season, the thinking was that the new body was going to be their saving grace. It has been far from that so far this season.
After winning the Daytona 500, Chevrolet has been shut out of victory lane in the five weeks since as the series has moved on to the other types of tracks that make up the majority of the schedule.
The teams sporting the Bowtie have had some outliers make it close to the front of the field early this season, with Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and others finish in the top-five and top-10, but when looking at the bigger picture, it’s clear that Chevrolet is behind at this point.
Larson remains the lone Chevrolet driver in the top-10 in points, while the rest of them are still trying to get their act together. When Jimmie Johnson, a driver with 83 wins and seven championships to his name is struggling early in the season, it’s clear that it may take some time to get the Camaro up to the performance standards that Chevrolet teams expect.
Truex and Kyle Busch Pick Up Where They Left Off in 2017
Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch were the class of the field last season, ending the year with 13 wins between them and a 1-2 points finish. As this season has reached its first break, the two are right back on top once again.
Truex has already scored one win this season with a triumph at Auto Club Speedway, while Busch has racked up runner-up finishes in half of the races thus far in 2018. The two also lead the way in number of top-five finishes and average finish through the first six events.
While Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing have been making waves early on, these two are serving notice that the path to the championship still runs through them and any contenders will have to knock them off the top of the mountain to claim the title at season’s end.
“Ultimately we’re here to win each and every week,” said Busch. “I know everybody is, but we’ve been that close each and every week, so we’re right there, we’re knocking on the door. We’re trying. I wouldn’t say it’s one particular thing that we can pinpoint, we’ve just been beat by somebody kind of hitting it a little bit more than we have. And we’ve been the closest thing to everybody each and every week. We’re getting beat by different guys. The SHR team is certainly probably one of the better teams right now, but we’re right there knocking at their heels.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will be back in action at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8th.