Four observations from the MENCS season thus far

Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

1) Ganassi vs. Penske is transitioning to NASCAR

Through five races, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ grandest rivalry has made the transition into NASCAR’s top levels.

Points leader Kyle Larson stole the headlines on Sunday when he completed his first-career weekend sweep at Auto Club Speedway, soaring to victories in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

What was lost to some, however, was that Larson’s victories both came at the expense of Team Penske’s top two stars.

First it was Joey Logano that fell just short, crossing the start-finish line inches behind Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet in Saturday’s XFINITY Series event.

On Sunday, it was Brad Keselowski that rose from the an early crash to ascend into the top five. But his hopes for a victory were dashed by Larson’s dominant machine in the top spot on the race’s final run.

The strong results for both teams continued a storyline that’s slowly building over the course of the season’s first month – a battle between two of racing’s largest fixtures.

Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have long held firm control of the IndyCar title, claiming nine of the past 10 championships – three for Penske, six for Ganassi – with only Ryan Hunter-Reay’s lone championship run for Andretti Autosport in 2012 separating the duo from a decade-long era of dominance.

Now, for the first time in years, the legendary owners find themselves in a fight to reach the zenith of stock car racing.

Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR) and Team Penske account for four of the top six positions in the points, with Penske affiliate Ryan Blaney slotted just one spot further back in seventh. Larson leads the standing for Ganassi after his victory, while Keselowski (third) and Logano (fifth) each slot in the top five, with Keselowski holding the playoff points and near-guaranteed postseason appearance for a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

While he’s been quiet compared to his blossoming teammate, Jamie McMurray has also enjoyed a small career renaissance, riding three top 10s to sixth in the series standings.

It should be noted that CGR and Penske aren’t the only ones in contention for the points lead. Sophomore phenom Chase Elliott sits second, and Martin Truex, Jr.’s incredible 2016 has carried over to 2017 with a victory and fourth-place position in the standings thus far.

Still, for the first time in a decade or more, both organizations appear to have one or more true championship contenders in the early stages of the season. It appears Penske and Ganassi may be dueling to the end in more than just indy cars this year.

2) Stewart-Haas Racing may not be a one-team show

Kurt Busch was brilliant in flashes, and Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick each delivered the occasional showcase of talent, but for the last few years it has to be said: Stewart-Haas Racing’s (SHR) only real championship threat was Kevin Harvick.

In their first season with Ford Performance, that may be set to change.

Kurt Busch led the organization into their first season with the Blue Ovals with a victory in the Daytona 500, but it’s been newcomer Clint Bowyer that’s risen to rival Harvick through the first month of the season.

The Emporia, Kansas native made his way to SHR’s No. 14 team over the offseason as the retiring Tony Stewart’s replacement following consecutive years with dying organizations in Michael Waltrip Racing and HScott Motorsports.

While Bowyer has yet to take over a race like Harvick did for much of the day in Atlanta, the eight-time MENCS winner has quickly transitioned back into the championship threat of five years ago with a slew of consistent runs.

Save for a crash in Daytona, Bowyer has proven to be a constant threat to score stage points and top 10s, finishing no worse than 11th in each of the past four races. The 12-year veteran’s best highlight to date came Sunday, when he rose to third in the closing laps to claim his first top five in nearly two years.

Suddenly, Bowyer finds himself ninth in the championship standings, just four points behind Harvick.

The scary thing is, Bowyer’s expectations are even higher. The 37-year-old expects better results moving forward.

“Hell yeah. It better be coming,” Bowyer said of his hopes for stronger runs. “When you’ve got a team like this that’s organized and as good as it is, it better be.”

3) NASCAR’s most recent champions are off to a slow start

March 24, 2017: Jimmie Johnson during practice at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and Hendrick Motorsports have claimed each of the last two MENCS championships, but you wouldn’t know it by the way the two teams have started the 2017 season.

Neither team has managed to make their way to victory lane through the opening five weeks of the season, a stat that’s made all the more shocking by the fact that they claimed three of these events just last year.

In their place, Toyota and Chevrolet have been led by Truex, Larson and Ryan Newman with a group of early victories.

Elliott has been the lone highlight for either team, sitting second in the standings for Hendrick after a group of solid results. Beyond him, though, things get a bit uglier.

Save for a good run at Atlanta, Kasey Kahne’s 2017 is proving nearly as subpar as 2016. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson has started his hunt for an eighth title with a brutal opening slog that sees him 17th in the standings with just one top 10, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s poor early performance in his return from a sixth-month recovery from a concussion has already seen fans questioning his readiness behind the wheel and chemistry with crew chief Greg Ives – whether warranted or not.

JGR hasn’t fared much better. Kyle Busch leads the company in 10th, despite the fact that he’s tallied as many beatdowns on pit road (1) as he has top fives on the track through the season’s first month.

Denny Hamlin sits a quiet 12th after a somewhat mediocre beginning to the season, and Matt Kenseth finds himself mired back in 25th after a group of DNFs that make his 2016 woes look pleasant by comparison.

Rookie Daniel Suarez has also struggled, sitting just 19th in the standings, but his recent runs suggest something positive for JGR…

4) Daniel Suarez appears to be the heading in the right direction

Suarez endured one of the rougher rookie beginnings for a major team in recent memory through the year’s first three races, finishing no better than 20th and falling as far as 30th in the points standings.

However, back-to-back seventh-place runs suggest that the Cup Series newcomer might be beginning to mesh with his new team.

No one was quite sure what to expect from Suarez when he was announced as the replacement for the suddenly-retiring Carl Edwards over the offseason. Sure, the Drive for Diversity graduate was the defending XFINITY Series champion. But the Mexico native had no experience in a Cup car, and wasn’t given time to prepare like fellow rookie Erik Jones, who was announced as Furniture Row Racing’s second driver at Watkins Glen International in August.

For three weeks, it appeared Suarez’s move to Cup would be a rocky one. The three-time NXS race winner crashed in Daytona, then struggled in Atlanta and Las Vegas.

Phoenix Raceway provided similar difficulty for the Mexican shoe in the early stages, leaving him a lap down, but Suarez’s No. 19 team rallied over the race to salvage their first top 10.

At first the run seemed like it could be a flash in the pan, but it took Suarez just one week to repeat the feat with his second top 10 in California.

Suarez hasn’t been stellar by any means, and his mid-pack standing in the points means that his team still has work to do if they want to be a significant fixture in the championship hunt. However, Suarez’s two top 10s equal the totals of each of his JGR teammates thus far, showing that he’s quickly ascended from struggling rookie to legitimate contender.

Given the caliber of his teammates and his own inexperience, running well enough to be “one of the guys” is nothing to scoff at, even if JGR as a whole has struggled thus far.

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