So Close, Yet So Far Away In NASCAR

Kyle Busch may not be wholly satisfied in his fantastic run of three runner-up finishes in the opening six races of the season, but historians – and fans – can certainly appreciate his effort in the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

 It’s been outstanding enough to give Busch the points lead – by eight points over fellow Toyota driver and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr. and statistically, Busch becomes only the 10th driver in series history to finish second in three or more of the first six races. He joins Kyle Larson (2017), Kevin Harvick (2015) and his older brother Kurt Busch (2003) as the only active drivers to post such a fast start.

 NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker set the all-time mark with four runner-up finishes in the opening six races. His son, Buddy Baker, finished second in three of the opening six races in 1971 – and remarkably, was only running part-time that season.

 The late Dale Earnhardt posted three runner-up finishes in the opening six races – and he accomplished that twice. He did it in 1993 and 1995. Plus, Jeff Gordon grabbed three runner-up finishes in the first six races of the 2007 season.

 Harvick collected five runner-up finishes through the first nine starts in 2015. He finished second 10 times that season – the most in the regular season since the inception of NASCAR’s Playoffs in 2004.

 Three drivers have finished runner-up four times during the 10-race Playoff stretch, including Chase Elliott (2017), Jeff Gordon (2014) and Jimmie Johnson (2006).

 Freaky Fast Start

Should Kevin Harvick win Sunday’s race, he would become only the fourth driver in NASCAR’s modern era to earn four trophies within the first seven races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

 A win at Texas – where Harvick has only one trophy in 30 previous starts – would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Bill Elliott and Richard Petty, who accomplished the feat in 1992 and 1975, respectively.

 The late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt set the standard for fast starts, winning five of the first seven events in 1987. His six wins through the opening 10 races that year is the all-time best mark. Jimmie Johnson won four of the season’s first 10 races in 2007.

 Harvick’s lone win at Texas came in the Monster Energy Series Playoff race there last November. He won the Busch Pole position for the spring race in 2017. He has top-10 finishes in the last seven races at the track – including back-to-back runner-up showings in 2014-15.

 Johnson Hopeful In Texas

Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team have made a real effort not to press the panic button this season in looking to restore the operation to a more familiar front-of-the-pack existence and to snap Johnson’s career longest 29-race streak without a victory.

 Johnson is the defending winner of Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 and also of next week’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

 If statistics can provide promise, then Johnson may find some solace in Fort Worth.

 His seven race wins is the all-time best mark. In 29 starts he has 15 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. Five times he’s finished second. He’s the all-time leader in laps led (1,041) and boasts a top-10 career average in both finish (8.8) and starting position (9.4).

 Bowyer’s Back

Clint Bowyer’s victory at Martinsville Speedway two weeks ago wasn’t just a major career reset for the veteran, but a popular win throughout the NASCAR garage. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. joined Bowyer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammates in congratulating the well-liked competitor before he’d even had a chance to raise his newest trophy.

 And while it was Bowyer’s first win of the season at Martinsville, the 39-year old has looked competitive all season. He moves up to eighth in the points standings and is now poised to make his first NASCAR Playoff run since 2013.

 Bowyer’s success is indicative of the entire SHR team. Bowyer’s teammate Kevin Harvick won three times in the opening four races. Kurt Busch has two stage wins, has led laps in three of the first six races and has three top-11 finishes. And SHR’s newest addition, Aric Almirola, came within a lap of winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

 All four drivers are ranked among the top 11 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings. Harvick is seventh, followed by Bowyer in eighth. Busch is 10th in points and Almirola is 11th.

 On the Verge of Victory

Team Penske has certainly positioned itself well atop the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship standings. Team newcomer Ryan Blaney is third, 23-points behind leader Kyle Busch, while his teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are fourth and fifth, respectively. The whole team is separated by five points.

 Now, for that first victory of 2018.

 Texas Motor Speedway has historically proven itself to be a challenge for the three Penske drivers. Only Logano has a Monster Energy Series win here – becoming the youngest driver ever to hoist a trophy back in 2014 at the age of 23. His average finish is 15.3.

 Keselowski has five top-fives and a Busch Pole Awards at Texas, but it is one of the venues the former Monster Energy Series champion still hasn’t earned a Cup trophy. And the 24-year old Blaney has just one top 10 in six starts here.

 Sunoco Rookie Outlook

Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, 20, is ranked 20th in the standings – 11 points over the series’ other Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. in 23rd position. Both will be making their first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Texas this weekend.

 It has, however, historically been a good venue for Byron and he likely considers it a prime track at which to score his first top-10 finish of the year in the No. 24 Chevrolet.

 Byron won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series there in 2016 in only his eighth series start. And he had a pair of top-10s (seventh and ninth) there in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last year.

 Wallace, driver of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet, has six NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Texas, earning a pair of top 10s. His best showing is a sixth-place finish in the April race last year. He has a pair of top 10s in the Camping World Truck Series as well, with a best of sixth place in 2013.

 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Etc.

Starting Third May Be Best: Only three of the 34 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at Texas Motor Speedway have been won from the Busch Pole position. The most victory-friendly starting position is third, the grid spot race winner Kevin Harvick started from last November. Seven times the race winner has started third.

 Select Company: Denny Hamlin (two), Kyle Busch (two) and Jimmie Johnson (seven) are the only multi-time Texas winners in the field this weekend.

 For Whom Texas Victory Has Been Elusive: Reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. is among a threesome sporting the longest active winless streaks at TMS. Truex is winless in 25 starts in the Lone Star State. Jamie McMurray is 0-for-28 and Clint Bowyer hasn’t won in 24 tries at Texas.

 Fun Fact: Kurt Busch needs to lead only 49 laps to become the 20th driver in NASCAR history to lead at least 9,000 laps in his career.

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