NASCAR Cup drivers who need to rebound after early season woes

Jimmie Johnson was hoping to make a comeback at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend.

NASCAR Cup drivers who need to rebound after early season woes
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet pit stop
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Chris Buescher, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, are involved in an on-track incident
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, crash
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, pit stop
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

But it was as if the defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champ, who had won the last two races at the 1.5-mile track, didn’t show up at all.

Yes, Johnson qualified worse at AMS in his two previous starts and still came back to win. But on Sunday, two speeding penalties — first on Lap 130 and the second on Lap 206 — mired the No. 48 Chevy deeper in the field than the initial 19th-place qualifying run had done. 

“Tough day with two speeding penalties,” Johnson said following the race. “We will have to look at our math and figure out what was going on there.  The first one, I’m sure I could have gotten popped.  The second one, I made sure I didn’t get popped again and I still got in trouble.  So we might have had something off on our end.  

“But at the end, I thought we were going to finish on the lead lap and there was some confusion on why the caution came out, who it came out for and if we were eligible for the ‘lucky dog’ scenario. The way it unfolded certainly didn’t work in our favor. Still a lot of confusion… hopefully, we can get some answers before we get to Las Vegas next week.”

Even the seven-time champion, known for his ability to battle back from adversity time and again, couldn’t rebound in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500. Johnson finished 19th, one lap down. And while he moved up to 32nd in the standings, he trails points leader Kevin Harvick by 66 points. 

Why is this significant? Under the new points system, Harvick has averaged 45 points in the first two races — and that’s with a 22nd-place finish at Daytona. Harvick has won three stages in the first two races, good for 10 points each. He finished second in the other stage. Sunday’s winner Brad Keselowski and second-place Kyle Larson, are the only other two drivers to finish in the top 10 in the first two stages at Daytona and Atlanta. Keselowski and Larson are third and sixth, respectively, in the standings.

For teams that have second-guessed the importance of gaining points in these segments, think again.

Currently, only the top 14 drivers are less than 45 points behind Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team. Here are five regular contenders needing to get into high gear.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth is 16th in the standings, 49 points behind Harvick. Like Johnson, Kenseth was busted for speeding twice on pit road. The No. 20 team soldiered back from two laps down to a podium finish on Sunday but after finishing last at Daytona, Kenseth need to accumulate points. With three career wins at Las Vegas, a little luck in Sin City could go along way for Kenseth.

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin is 18th in the standings, 53 points behind Harvick. With a top 10 finish in the first stage at Daytona, Hamlin left the season opener eight in the standings despite finishing 17th in the Daytona 500. Although he started 10th on Sunday and finished eighth in the first stage, a tire issue and problems with the rear end housing forced the No. 11 behind the wall early. Hamlin finished 38th.

Ryan Newman

Newman is 20th in the standings, 53 points behind Harvick. The No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team performed like a contender all weekend long at Atlanta. Newman showed speed from qualifying, where he ran second, through Sunday’s race where he led three laps and finished in the top 10 in the first two stages. Newman’s crew came over the wall too soon on Lap 280, then eight laps later, he lost the charging system and his battery died. Newman finished 35th. This is a make or break season for Newman and it hasn’t started according to plan.

Kyle Busch

Busch is 25th in the standings, 58 points behind Harvick. Who would have thought Kyle Busch would have started the season outside of the top 20? But a wreck in the Daytona 500 and problems at Atlanta proved costly for the No. 18 team. Busch started third at Atlanta but an ill-handling race car and an unschedule pit stop but him at a deficit. Busch fought back to finish 16th and return to the lead lap. Fortunately, Las Vegas has been a solid track for the Sin City native. Busch won from the pole in 2009 and has five top-five finishes in 12 starts.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is 33rd in the standings, 70 points behind Harvick. Clearly, this isn’t the comeback NASCAR’s Most Popular driver was hoping for in 2017. Despite finishing fifth in Stage 1 of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt was collected in a wreck 45 laps later ending his day. He left Daytona 25th in the standings. Earnhardt advanced to the final round of qualifying at Atlanta. But a speeding penalty compounded with tire issues took him out of contention early at the 1.5-mile track on Sunday. Earnhardt has been solid at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, however, Phoenix, where he has three wins, might be a better track to turn his season around.

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