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Could it be more than a three-man race?

Jeff Birchfield • Jun 28, 2018 at 5:17 PM

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have thoroughly dominated the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series throughout the first half of the 2018 season.

They have won a combined 12 of the first 16 races with defending series champion Truex easily winning Sunday at Sonoma after pit strategy by his crew chief Cole Pearn. It was his third of the season for the driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.

Overall, Harvick has been the strongest of the season with five wins. He won three in a row earlier in the season at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Realistically, Harvick could have seven wins at this point. His No. 4 Ford was the fastest at Michigan, where teammate Clint Bowyer won, and he could have won Sunday with pit strategy the difference in both of the last two races.

Busch has four wins, winning three in a row at Texas, Bristol and Richmond. He also captured the win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, giving him a win at every track on the entire circuit.

At this point of the season, the odds are heavily in favor of those three winning the championship. But, the championship battle is far from done. Sure, the last four years since the new championship format, the title has gone to the dominant driver at that time.

Harvick won in 2014, Busch, who was dominant after missing the first 11 races with a broken leg, won in 2015 and Truex prevailed last year. The only exception was Jimmie Johnson in 2016, when there truly wasn’t one driver who won a series-best five races — although Truex easily led the most laps. That season, Truex, Harvick and Busch led a combined 4,572 laps, over 40 percent of the yearly total.

Two factors make it impossible for the top three to be a lock, and that is the championship playoff and the fact there is always a fourth car in contention the final race at Homestead.

In 2014, Harvick barely beat Ryan Newman, who hadn’t won a race all season, for the championship.

Clearly, their dominance and the lack of success of a group of “young guns” has led to the biggest storyline of the season.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

The “Young Guns” have fired blanks so far this season.

None of the 25-under crowd of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman or Erik Jones have been able to unseat the veterans. They’ve all had their moments, but experience has trumped youth. Larson has scored three runner-up finishes, including second to Busch at the Food City 500 at Bristol, where he was the victim of the bump-and-run in the final laps.

FAILING HEARTBEAT

Chevrolet, the brand whose slogan was once “The Heartbeat of America,” has had little to cheer about after Austin Dillon’s win in the season-opening Daytona 500. Even that race, the Ford of Aric Almirola was out front on the final lap before the bump from Dillon.

It’s not what one expects from the winningest all-time brand in NASCAR — and its star team, Hendrick Motorsports with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, hasn’t been a serious contender this season. Elliott did finish second at Richmond, but the combination of Johnson with all young drivers in Elliott, Bowman and William Byron has failed to product the results of the Bowtie brand.

PENSKE STEADINESS

Stewart-Haas has supplanted Team Penske as the fastest Ford team this season, although Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have been steady, currently third and fourth, respectively, in the point standings.

Logan won at Talladega, a track where the Penske organization has dominated of late, while Keselowski took a back seat to Harvick crushing the field at Atlanta. Blaney has been fast at times with two pole positions and 444 laps led.

BOWYER IS BACK

Clint Bowyer, the fun-loving teammate of Harvick, has won twice in the No. 14 Ford. He led 215 laps in a strong performance at Martinsville, but only the final eight laps in the strategy win at Michigan. He has done well other times, including a second at Dover and a third-place this past weekend on the Sonoma road course.

ROUSH STRUGGLES

The one Ford team that continues to struggle is Roush Fenway Racing. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has a couple of top-five finishes in the No. 17 car, but the decision to remove Trevor Bayne from the No. 6 for Matt Kenseth in selected races has produced similar results.

Bayne has a best finish of 12th in 12 starts with a 24.9 average finish. Kenseth, a former series champion, has a best finish of 13th in four starts with a 24.8 average finish.

MOST LIKELY TO BREAK THROUGH

Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin haven’t been in the winners circle yet, but both veterans have nine top-10 finishes as does Larson.

Once the Chevrolet teams get the new Camaro figured out, one has to believe Elliott or Johnson will win soon. Dillon in the No. 3 and Darrell Wallace Jr. in the No. 43 Richard Petty-owned Chevrolet could once again be fast at Daytona.

THE BIGGEST CHANGE

The biggest difference from the past couple of years are more guys are going to be racing their way in the playoffs as only six drivers have won races this season. Compare that to this time a year ago, when 12 drivers had won races. By the start of the playoffs, 15 drivers had proven victorious, and even after Logano was penalized, it left just two spots open for those to get in by points.

This weekend at Chicago could produce more of the same as Harvick, Truex and Keselowski are the only two-time winners on the 1.5-mile Illinois track. Tony Stewart, who retired at the end of the 2016 season, holds the record for most wins at Chicagoland with three.

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