Early NASCAR storylines you may have missed

Chris Graythen/NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are feuding, which has caused everyone (even TMZ) to collectively lose their minds. Martin Truex, Jr. is celebrating an early season victory, and Kurt Busch may have finally recovered from his initial Daytona 500 victory celebration – though his Harley J. Earl trophy tour continues on.

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These are things everyone knows, but what of the other stories in the NASCAR garage?

The first three races of the season have seen strong runs from the sport’s youth, surprising struggles from longtime contenders and even a return to relevancy for a few grizzled (and babyfaced) veterans.

These storylines aren’t stealing headlines like a fight or trip to victory lane can, but they’re certainly worth telling.

Here are a few of them.

The Youth Uprising

Kyle Larson sits just one point out of the points lead after three races. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

I know, this is a rehash of one of 2016’s top stories, but the sport’s young stars are closer than ever to reaching the top in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS).

Fourth-year shoe Kyle Larson came just one Kyle Busch spin from tying Brad Keselowski for the MENCS points lead leaving Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sophomore Chase Elliott sits third in points, just three markers behind Keselowski after contending for the victory in each of the year’s first three races.

Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers Racing have rallied to sixth in the standings after three races, a mark Athlon Sport’s Geoffrey Miller notes is their best at this stage since 1992.

Even the newest trio of rookie contenders —Erik Jones, Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez- have shown flashes of speed.

Jones has proven to be the leader of the group thus far, running inside of the top 10 for the majority of the last two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas, though the Michigander’s finishes (14th, 15th) haven’t reflected the No. 77 team’s speed.

Veteran Struggles

A few of NASCAR’s best drivers have crashed their way through the opening month of racing. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

As is typical of this time of year, a few of the sport’s biggest stars find themselves in an early hole after a few bad runs to start the season.

The returning Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits the lowest in the standings of those that’ve made the playoffs multiple times in the past, mired back in 26th after a group of poor results to open the season.

While some fans have been quick to place blame, the poor runs haven’t been solely attributable to the driver behind the wheel.

The Hendrick Motorsports wheelman was leading the season-opening Daytona 500 when a spinning Kyle Busch ended his day.

While Atlanta began with an Earnhardt error in the form of a speeding penalty, the disastrous combination of a flat tire and loose wheel that followed had nothing to do with the two-time Daytona 500 champion’s driving.

Las Vegas’ 16th-place run didn’t provide much of a spark, but the No. 88 did make its way into the top 10 for spurts of that race, indicating that the team may be making baby steps in the right direction.

Earnhardt isn’t the only one at Hendrick that’s struggled, either. Seven-time MENCS champion Jimmie Johnson’s title defense has started off with a bit of a blunder, with no top 10s and an average finish of just 21.3 en-route to an 18th-place performance in the points standings through three races.

Kyle Busch isn’t faring any better after his Vegas fireworks, sitting in 19th. 2016 playoff newcomer Austin Dillon has also found early season difficulty, slotting in one position behind brother Ty Dillon in 24th heading to Phoenix.

There’s still plenty of time for these stars and their teams to correct the ship and get things rolling in the right direction, especially with the added incentive of stage points to earn along the way.

Still, they’d best get their act together soon, because under the new points system, playoff points -and therefore all points- matter more than ever.

Early Surprises and Returns to Form

Aric Almirola is one of many drivers that find themselves in a good place in the points as the first month of the season nears it’s end. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Kasey Kahne spent much of the last season firmly on the hot seat, struggling enough to yield speculation that he could be removed from the No. 5 Chevrolet at year’s end, though that line of thinking ultimately proved false.

Just four months later, Kahne finds himself firmly in the top 10.

Kahne’s first three starts have yielded strong results of seventh, fourth and 12th, respectively, to elevate the Enumclaw, Washington native to ninth in the series standings. The 14-year MENCS veteran also led seven laps in the season-opening Daytona 500, ending a streak of races without laps led that dated back to 2015.

Kahne has to be overjoyed with his early performance. However, he isn’t the only one enjoying a bit of a career renaissance early in the season.

Whether it’s Trevor Bayne (11th), Clint Bowyer (12th), Aric Almirola (14th) or Paul Menard (16th), a group of the Cup Series’ veterans find themselves on the right side of the standings in the midst of the “NASCAR Goes West” tour.

Perhaps most impressive, though, are the runs of Matt DiBenedetto and Cole Whitt.

The first comes with a Go FAS Racing team that struggled to be competitive in 2016. DiBenedetto surprised many by expressing excitement upon a leap from BK Racing to Go FAS over the offseason, but the team’s improvement has spoken for itself thus far in the form of three top-30 performances, including a ninth-place run at Daytona.

DiBenedetto sits 22nd in the standings entering Phoenix, the highest mark either he or his team have ever seen at this stage.

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For Whitt, the early success comes with a TriStar Motorsports (TSM) organization that didn’t even race in the Cup Series last season.

Whitt, 25, came to TSM with a career-best average finish of 28.7 in 2015. Thus far, the Alpine, California native has an average finish of 22.0, including back-to-back top 20s to open the year.

The runs have TSM sitting 25th in the series standings, a mark much higher than most would’ve afforded them entering the year.

Whether the performance continues or not, that level of early-season success is something TSM can be proud of moving forward.

Schedule Switchups

Las Vegas Motor Speedway is set for a second race in 2018. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

After years with a near-unchanged tour, one of the prevailing topics thus far has been switching up the schedule.

The first inkling of change up came shortly before the start of the season when AJ Allmendinger was seen testing on the road-course/oval hybrid (known as a “roval”) at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That test later translated into a report from NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan that the home track for most NASCAR teams may host a playoff race on the roval in 2018.

Just a few weeks later, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. announced that they were converting their second race weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as well as Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY Series standalones at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway into twin-tripleheader weekends in Vegas, with the new second weekend coming at some point in the playoffs.

As if that weren’t enough, Indianapolis Motor Speedway became a discussion point Tuesday when the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern tweeted that the speedway’s executives are considering running their NASCAR weekend on the facility’s road course in an effort to spice up what’s become one of the sport’s least liked (albeit highly viewed) races.

Whether additional schedule changing options will come into play remains to be seen, but it’s clear that NASCAR’s facilities are beginning to take notice of the current demand for change amid a largely stagnant schedule.

The Playoff Push

Kevin Harvick may have collapsed late in Atlanta, but the new points system means his day wasn’t for naught. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

It’s difficult to tell this early, but initial showings of NASCAR’S new playoff and race formats have seen them have an immense impact on the races held thus far.

The new stages, with both regular season and playoff points up for grabs, have enticed competitors to drive more aggressively than ever before early in the race.

From Toyota pitting off-sequence in Daytona to Logano and Johnson attempting a risky tire strategy in Las Vegas, the addition of stage points has fundamentally changed the way races are ran, injecting early excitement into each event.

By making points matter again on a long-term basis, NASCAR has also increased the drama at race’s end.

Take a look at last Sunday’s race in Las Vegas. Sure, everyone wanted the five playoff points for winning a race, but in the end Logano and Busch came to blows over a battle for fourth-place.

Under the previous points system, Logano wouldn’t have had as much to gain with a single regular season point, and Busch wouldn’t have had as much to lose by crashing.

Logano might have gone easier on Busch going into Turn 3. Busch might not have been as upset by the late crash.

However, under the new system every point matters. With playoff points on the line for the top 10 regular season finishers, teams are forced to scrape and claw for every regular season point they can grab.

Because of the stages, every lap matters.

Because of the playoff points, every race matters.

Like it or not, points racing is back in NASCAR, and so far the sport seems more exciting because of it.

 

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