5 Lessons Learned: Keselowski Up, JJ and Dale Jr. Down

By Jared Turner

1. Brad Keselowski Is Your Title Favorite

With six of 36 races in the history books, Brad Keselowski is the early favorite to capture the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title. Despite being outperformed at times by points leader Kyle Larson, Keselowski is this year’s only multi-race winner. The Team Penske driver leads the series in top-five finishes with five, and is tied with teammate Joey Logano in top-10 finishes. Of the top five drivers in the standings, Keselowski, in fourth, in the only past champion of NASCAR’s premier series. While it’s certainly a long season, it’s obvious that “Bad Brad” — the 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ — is likely to be a force to be reckoned with all the way to the end.

2. The No. 48/88 Shop Has Hit Rock Bottom

How bad are things right now for the 48/88 shop shared by the teams of Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? In six races this season, Johnson — the seven-time and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion — has combined with NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver to net one top-10 finish and nary a top five. Perhaps the most glaring example yet of the 48/88 shop’s woes came on Sunday at Martinsville when Johnson — a nine-time winner and overwhelming favorite at the Virginia short track — finished an unimpressive 15th while Earnhardt Jr. finished behind the wall with a wrecked car.

3. Martinsville Made Kyle Larson Look Human

With three second-place finishes and a victory in the first five races of 2017, Kyle Larson appeared to be virtually unstoppable heading to Martinsville Speedway — the first short track on the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Larson, who arrived at Martinsville as the buzz of the NASCAR world after his dominant performance the previous weekend at Auto Club Speedway, appeared to keep the golden horseshoe when he won the pole at Martinsville when qualifying was cancelled because of rain, and the starting grid was set based on points. Larson’s Sunday afternoon at Martinsville didn’t go as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had hoped, however, as he came home a season-worst 17th.

4. Stewart-Haas Racing Is Slumping

After beginning the season on the highest of highs with driver Kurt Busch winning the Daytona 500, Stewart-Haas Racing has quickly been snapped back into reality— a reality that, in all candor, hasn’t been all that impressive. Since Busch’s season-opening triumph at The World Center of Racing, SHR’s four drivers have combined for just one top-five finish in five races. In the past four races, SHR drivers have combined to lead a total of one lap. Meanwhile, first-year SHR driver Clint Bowyer, in eighth, is the highest SHR driver in the standings. These are pretty lousy numbers for an organization that began 2017 with so much promise at Daytona after its highly publicized off-season switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

5. Toyota Is No Longer The Toast

Despite ultimately losing the championship to Chevy driver Jimmie Johnson, Toyota enjoyed a blockbuster 2016 season in which the Japanese automaker captured its first manufacturers’ title on the strength of 16 wins in 36 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races. Toyota has won just once in 2017, however, as the manufacturer’s flagship organization — Joe Gibbs Racing — has notably been shut out of Victory Lane. Losing JGR and Toyota driver Carl Edwards to retirement after last season was certainly a blow to the manufacturer, and it appears that without Edwards in the fold, JGR simply isn’t on par with its 2016 form. The one bright spot for Toyota this year? Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., who owns the manufacturer’s lone win and sits third in the standings.