Through the opening seven races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, nearly no one has been able to challenge the big three of Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr, and Kyle Busch. Only Austin Dillon (Daytona) and Clint Bowyer (Martinsville) have outdone those three this season at any point. Heading to Bristol, is there anyone that can halt the dominance of the #4, #78, and #18?
Class of the Field
Kevin Harvick has certainly set the pace to begin the season. At first glance, his season seems very inconsistent, but everywhere the series has gone, he has been fast. Harvick dominated Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Phoenix en route to a three-race winning streak.
At Fontana, Harvick worked his way up to fourth in the first stage, but was sent into the wall after contact with Kyle Larson. He had a quiet, but solid day at Martinsville while his teammate Bowyer won. And last week at Texas, he overcame multiple pit road violations and being a lap down to finish second. He sits fourth in the standings, but that is due to a penalty at Vegas and his DNF in California.
Martin Truex Jr, meanwhile, is no longer the man to beat week in, week out, as he was last season. Nonetheless, Truex has shown top-5 speed nearly every week, but has not been able to challenge for many stage wins, aside from his stage sweep at Fontana.
At Martinsville, he struggled early, but came back to finish fourth, his fifth consecutive top five at the time. Last week, running second, he blew a tyre and took a massive hit, literally and figuratively. He finished 37th and was taken back to fifth in the standings. The Furniture Row entry is still one of the fastest cars every week.
Lastly, Kyle Busch finally broke through and got his victory last Sunday at Texas, at the same time extending his streak of top-3 finishes to an impressive five. He is the hottest driver in the sport, and his Bristol stats speak for themselves. He boasts six wins, including his dominating win from last August. He has led over 100 laps seven times at the half-mile, and will certainly look to do so again this Sunday.
Kyle Larson: The #42 team is off to an average start to the 2018 campaign, but Bristol could be a turnaround. Larson dominated last year’s spring race, leading 202 laps, but finished sixth after a speeding penalty. He also led 70 laps and finished ninth in the 2017 fall race. The Chevy camp has struggled with the new Camaro, but Larson’s previous success at Bristol could help him challenge for the win on Sunday.
Erik Jones: The second-year Toyota driver finally found some speed last week at Texas, notching fourth and leading 64 laps. Last August, Jones duelled with mentor Kyle Busch, leading 260 laps, but ultimately fell just short of victory. If ever there was a time for Jones to break through with his first career win, it is this weekend at Bristol.
Joey Logano: Logano has been possibly the most consistent driver this year, finishing 4th-7th in every race excluding Phoenix when he was 19th. Logano has not enjoyed race-winning speed, but does sit second in the standings. He’s a two-time winner at Bristol, and even though both wins came in the night race, the #22 team should contend on Sunday.
Who to Watch
Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR): Aside from principal driver Harvick, SHR has enjoyed a very successful year. Bowyer grabbed his first win since 2012 at Martinsville, and Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola have run top-10 much of the year. Harvick’s trio of teammates are still a step behind. Bristol can be a bit of an equaliser, making it very important for SHR to continue their hot start with their entire team, not just the #4.
Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott: Hendrick’s top two drivers have enjoyed very little success this season. Johnson, the defending champion of this race, has shown very little speed all season. The same stands for Elliott, who has a 4th and 7th in his first two Bristol spring races. Hendrick desperately needs some good results, especially from these two teams.
Unfortunately, a common theme of the 2018 season has been Mother Nature. The Atlanta weekend was heavily affected by rain. Martinsville was run on a Monday after snow all day Sunday whilst last week at Texas, cold temperatures and mist were seen on Saturday. The forecast for Sunday afternoon at Bristol does not look promising. There is a high chance of precipitation all day Sunday afternoon. Hopefully NASCAR can find a slot on Sunday to fit a full 500-lapper in.
Essaar’s pick to win comes a bit out of left field as we predict Ryan Blaney will win his first race with Penske. He ran well at Martinsville and has shown flashes of speed at Bristol before, even if he has just one top 10 at the track. Jones, Busch, and Larson will be contenders all day, and could also very well find Victory Lane. Catch the race (hopefully) at 7pm (2pm EST) on Premier Sports (FOX).