NASCAR: Kevin Harvick Wins in Atlanta, Monster Energy Series Heads West for Three Races

By  //  March 1, 2018

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LAGANO LEADS STANDINGS HEADING TO VEGAS

ABOVE VIDEO: Kevin Harvick finally gets back to victory lane at Atlanta in the Folds of Honor QuickTrip 500.

(NASCAR)– It’s almost as if Dale Earnhardt is giving NASCAR fans a bump in the rear or his trademark Earnhardt tire rub to remind them he’s still here, one way or another.

Two weeks ago the No.3 Car went to victory lane in the DAYTONA 500 for the first time since the man known as The Intimidator did so 20-years ago in his 20th 500 for the first and only time in his career.

Three years later on the same track, Earnhardt was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the Great American Race. Three weeks later in a renumbered car (the No. 29) for Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick won in his third start in Earnhardt’s car—at Atlanta. It was a tight finish as Harvick edged out Jeff Gordon by 0.006 seconds.

Last week in the Folds of Honor Quick Trip 500, Harvick returned to the winners’ circle in Atlanta for the first since 2001 and just as he did 17-years ago, Harvick honored Earnhardt again by holding up three fingers out of his driver’s window on his way to victory lane.

Five times in the last six years, Harvick has dominated the Atlanta Motor Speedway Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race – leading 100 laps or more – only to watch another driver take the checkered flag. This year, it was his race, his trophy.

The former Monster Energy Series champion led a race-best 181 of the 325 laps to claim an emotional second victory at the track.

His first win 17 years ago as a 25-year old rookie came only three weeks after he was tabbed to drive the late champion Dale Earnhardt’s legendary Chevrolet, which had been given a number change from “3” to “29.”

ABOVE VIDEO: After Kevin Harvick put on a dominating performance, he did exactly what did after his last win in Atlanta, salute the fans with a number 3.

As he drove toward Victory Lane Sunday afternoon, Harvick saluted the crowd with three fingers – a sentimental second nod to Earnhardt and also a personal affirmation of the hard work over so many years that went into this particular win.

Harvick will try to repeat the effort Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he won in 2015. He’s led 166 laps at Vegas since his championship season in 2014 but crashed out early last season.

Adding fuel to the Vegas motivation, Harvick’s victory at Atlanta was win number 99 in NASCAR’s three national series. He needs one more to join a very short list of triple-digit success stories that include only Richard Petty (200 Cup wins), Kyle Busch (183 over three series) and David Pearson (106 in Cup and Xfinity).

Three of a Kind for Truex

Defending Las Vegas winner and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. holds a very specific distinction in Las Vegas – it is one of two venues (also Kentucky) where he swept all three race stages in 2017.

He’s the only Cup driver to accomplish the feat – anywhere – and Truex certainly wouldn’t mind channeling that dominant mojo this weekend.

He’s currently ranked seventh in the points standings – 20 points behind leader Joey Logano – and his best showing thus far is a fifth-place earned Sunday in Atlanta. Interestingly, Truex was also ranked seventh last year when he used Vegas as a championship launch.

The track certainly proved to be a significant springboard for the entire 2017 season, when Truex recorded a career-best seven of his eight wins at 1.5-mile venues. It was the biggest haul for any single driver and certainly bodes well for him as the series moves West this week.

“No question we had some special moments in Las Vegas last year,” Truex said. “The victory was a confidence booster to our team. It not only took the pressure off for making the playoffs, but it also showed that we had some strength at the mile-and-a-half tracks.”

Logano Leads Championship Standings

Team Penske driver Joey Logano finds himself atop the championship standings for the first time since late in the 2016 season. He leads teammate Ryan Blaney by six points heading into Las Vegas, a track where he has not won previously. (Image by NASCAR)

Team Penske driver Joey Logano finds himself atop the championship standings for the first time since late in the 2016 season. He leads teammate Ryan Blaney by six points heading into Las Vegas, a track where he has not won previously.

He has, however, put together an impressive last few visits, finishing no worse than 12th and winning the pole at the track in 2014. He led 74 laps and was runner-up to his teammate Brad Keselowski there in 2016.

Cole Custer: Moving On Up

It’s a big week for 20-year-old Cole Custer, who will make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut at Las Vegas for Rick Ware Racing.

The Californian will drive the No. 51 Ford Fusion that Justin Marks drove to a 12th-place finish in the Daytona 500 two weeks ago. Custer, who is running for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in the No. 00 Haas Automation Ford fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing won the 2017 Xfinity Series season finale at Homestead-Miami in November and is a two-time winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

“This is a dream come true,’’ Custer said of his Monster Energy Series opportunity. “It’s going to be a new experience for me, but I feel that we can have a productive day by completing all the laps and seeing the checkered flag.”

Custer has raced twice previously at Las Vegas, finishing 11th in the Xfinity race last year and finishing third (and leading three laps) in the trucks in 2016.

Seven-time Ready for Primetime

ABOVE VIDEO: Joey Logano and Drew Blickensderfer share their level of concern for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team after two disastrous races to start the year.

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to win consecutive races at Las Vegas – earning three straight trophies from 2005-2007 – and adding another in 2010 for good measure.

The seven-time champ is hopeful to reclaim those victorious ways as he currently negotiates an unfamiliar winless streak. It’s been 25 races since the 83-time winner last hoisted any hardware. And it’s been a rough start to the 2018 season with finishes of 38th (at Daytona) and 27th (at Atlanta).

You have to go back to Martinsville Speedway last October to find his most recent top-20 finish (12th) and back four races earlier than that at Charlotte to find his last top-10 (seventh).

Johnson has four top-10 finishes in his last six Vegas starts, including a runner-up finish in 2012 and a third-place to the Penske duo of Keselowski and Logano in 2016. He was 11th last year.

Crowd Favorites

The NASCAR championship Busch brothers are a crowd pleaser in their hometown. Younger brother Kyle Busch – the 2015 series champion – has won a pair of pole positions (2008-09) and the 2009 Las Vegas race. He has two top-fives in his last four starts at LVMS and has led 117 laps in that time.

Older brother Kurt, the 2004 Monster Energy Series champion, has never won a Cup race at Las Vegas but does own a pair of pole positions (2010 and 2016). His best finish in the race is third in 2005. It’s been a tougher stretch for him recently, with only two top-10s in the last 11 races (ninth place in 2011 and 2016).

Vegas Manufacturer Shuffle

The same make of car hasn’t won back-to-back races at Las Vegas since Jimmie Johnson’s triple victory haul from 2005 to 2007 in a Chevrolet. In fact, the track has dealt mostly fair deals – the winner’s podium alternating regularly between the Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota makes.

The last three races, for example, have been won by Harvick (then in a Chevrolet), Keselowski (Ford) and Truex (Toyota). Ford drivers have won four times in the last 10 years, Chevrolet drivers three times in that span, and Toyota three times.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Etc.:

ABOVE VIDEO: Sit back and enjoy the drivers and crew chiefs on the radio during the Atlanta race. 

Sunoco Rookie of the Year Standings:

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. is the early leader in the Rookie of the Year running. The 24-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver’s dramatic runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 and a 32nd place at Atlanta last week have him ranked 14th overall in the Monster Energy Series standings. Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, 20, is ranked 24th with finishes of 23rd at Daytona and 18th at Atlanta.

Fantasy Central:

Statistical Categories: Leaders Loop Data
Driver Rating Jimmie Johnson 112.0
Average Running Position Chase Elliott 8.893
Laps Led Jimmie Johnson 582 laps (16.7 %)
Laps In The Top 15 Jimmie Johnson 76.3% (2,666 laps)
Fastest Laps Run Jimmie Johnson 445 laps (12.7%)
Green Flag Passes Jamie McMurray 903
Quality Passes Jimmie Johnson 496
Green Flag Speed Chase Elliott 172.858 mph

* The above stats are based on Loop Data from 2005 – 2017

Las Vegas:

ABOVE VIDEO: Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn recap the strategy that brought them to Victory Lane in the 2017 race in Las Vegas. 

By the key Loop Data statistical categories listed above, it should be no surprise Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson is one of the top choices to consider for your lineups this weekend at Las Vegas.

The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ leads five of the seven key loop data stats listed below.

He also leads the series among active drivers in wins (four), top fives (six) and top 10s (nine). A solid run is exactly what Johnson needs right now, as he is currently 35th in points.

Sports Editor Alan Zlotorzynski’s TOP 5 predicted finish in Las Vegas

  1. Martin Truex Jr.
  2. Chase Elliott
  3. Kyle Busch
  4. Jimmie Johnson
  5. Brad Keselowski
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#NASCARGoesWest:

Las Vegas marks the start of the three-race west coast swing for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The haulers will go from Las Vegas to ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona, and then on to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, to wrap up the road trip. 13 different drivers who have made Monster Energy Series starts recorded Nevada as their home state.

Kurt and Kyle Busch are the only two drivers on the entry list this weekend who hail from the “Silver State.”


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