After all the hand-wringing at the beginning of the season about Ford’s old car design and the power of the Toyota’s and the great new Camaro and… well the Ford’s have been kicking some butt. Now that the real racing season has begun, we have seen Ford dominate the races. Toyota has been keeping up but Chevy has really struggled with only Kyle Larson has been consistently in the top 10.
Kevin Harvick has been on a tear, leading an insane amount of laps this season. He won Atlanta in dramatic fashion and went out Sunday and put on another clinic. There were 5 Fords in the Top 10 at Atlanta and 6 at Las Vegas. It will be interesting to see how Chevy performs at Phoenix this coming week. This will be the first shorter track race and aero will play a different role. You won’t see a car running a half a straightaway in front in clean air. How the car handles in traffic will be much more important.
Phoenix has been Harvick’s playground in the past but he has never won three races in a row. That could change this week. I think his biggest threat may come from another Ford driver like Blaney or Keselowski and from the Toyota of Kyle Busch.
Jimmie Johnson has been the biggest surprise of the season. He wrecked at Daytona but then finished 37th at Atlanta and struggled mightily at Las Vegas on his way to a 12th place finish. Johnson was lapped by lap 34 and it looked like the day was only going to get worse. But he got the Lucky Dog award late in the race and managed to bring it home in a much more respectable place. Phoenix has not been that kind to him the past few years so he may be lucky to get another top 15 finish. At least that would be a start in the right direction before NASCAR heads to Texas. If the 48 care struggles at Texas, I think there is room for real concern. But we are talking about Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. They have won 7 titles together and all it takes is a single win to get you into the playoffs. And it is only a few races into the season. Concern but no panic in spite of what you might hear on NASCAR Race Hub or another race talk show designed to manufacture controversy.
A nice surprise for me this season has been the performance of Paul Menard. After a sluggish end to his RCR career, I wondered what he had left to give. His move to the Wood Brothers famous 21 car and the Blue Oval racing family has seen him with two Top 10 finishes and a Top 20. If he can get through the next few races with at least one more Top 10 and nothing outside the Top 20, I might become a believer in Menard for 2018.
I have been most disappointed in the performance of Hendrick Motorsports. Chase Elliott has been the lone bright spot for the organization while Johnson has been lackluster, Bowman has been so-so and rookie William Byron has just been learning the ropes of Cup racing. Part of this could be the transition to the new Camaro but time will tell. HMS has enormous resources and if they can’t get a handle on the Camaro soon, the two new guys may just continue to struggle for much of the season.
The resurgence of the Ford power hasn’t translated to all the Ford teams yet. Roush Fenway Racing is lacking speed (or talent) and Front Row, among others, has yet been able to flex any muscle. But with SHR and Penske & Associates leading the charge, I think Ford will take what they can get.