Easter weekend brought the first open weekend of the Sprint Cup season after eight races, but even in that short period of time there have been several teams and drivers establish themselves as legitimate contenders for this year’s title. It’s all about winning with the new point system, and some teams and manufacturers have already figured out what it is going to take to claim the title with the Gen-6 car that underwent some changes prior to the start of the season.
All three manufacturers have claimed at least one checkered flag this season, but it is the Chevrolet camp that can claim early bragging rights as it has won four races during the eight-race stretch. It would be hard not to say that the most successful organization at this point in the season is Hendrick Motorsports. All four of the Chevrolet wins have come in cars that have used Hendrick chassis and engines.
Even though those four wins came in cars with HMS chassis and engines, the only Hendrick driver to actually win a race is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the season-opening Daytona 500. The other three Chevrolet wins have come from Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, who is the only driver in the series to post multiple wins with two. SHR gets its engines, chassis and technical support from HMS and has used them to become the dominant organization during this early part of the schedule.
Deciding which driver has been the most dominant up to this point is a little tougher than deciding on a manufacturer and organization. Harvick’s two wins accounts for 25 percent of the checkered flags awarded this season and with the emphasis that is now on winning races, it would be hard to argue that he is not the hottest driver in the sport up to this point.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his win at the first stop on the schedule and even though he hasn’t notched a second win, he is showing that he is a threat every time the green flag waves to begin a race. He has five finishes in the top five this season including three runner-up finishes and a third to go along with his Daytona win.
It is hard to consider a driver that hasn’t posted a win on the season as one of the sport’s hottest drivers, but Jeff Gordon has put up the kind of early season numbers that has earned a lot of recognition. He now sits on top of the often forgotten point standings with three top-5 and six top-10 finishes and, maybe more importantly, has been in the mix for a couple of wins during the closing laps.
The early season has also produced a very competitive battle for the Rookie of the Year title as Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson have proved that the hype that preceded them to the Series was legitimate. Both drivers are still looking for a win but have shown enough consistency to be in the thick of the points battle as Dillon is in 10th and Larson is 14th. Dillon has posted one top-10 finish on the season, but Larson, even though he trails in the points, has made the biggest impression.
Larson has two top-5 and four top-10 finishes, but more importantly he has put together several races that put him in a position to run for the win in the final laps. He has shown that once he is in the mix at the front, he is willing to play some give and take but even though he is a rookie it’s definitely not all give and no take as is the case with so many young drivers.
The schedule has to have early season winners and for me it goes to a couple of throwback tracks that are still on the schedule. Martinsville’s STP 500 produced a surprise winner in Kurt Busch and he earned it as he had to pass Jimmie Johnson twice in the final laps to capture the win. Darlington’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 took two green-white-checkered attempts before Kevin Harvick claimed his second win of the season, with both restarts forcing Harvick to come from behind for the victory.
Event: Toyota Owners 400
Track: Richmond International Raceway (.75 mile D-shaped oval, 140 of banking in the turns)
Date: April 26, 7 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick