Five Monster Energy Cup Series drivers are looking for a turnaround from last year as they get ready for the upcoming 2018 NASCAR season. Let’s take a look at my top five drivers picks to bounce back and challenge for a championship.
The Team Penske speedster now has the shady characteristic of receiving what might be the sternest penalty in NASCAR history. Joey Logano’s win at Richmond in the spring was officially classified as encumbered. That is because of a rear-end suspension infraction. The NASCAR officials discovered the anomalies in their post-race inspection of his Ford Fusion. Yes, the victory will still remain in the record books but it was disallowed for playoff purposes.
That decision by NASCAR was huge for Logano. The win would have placed him in the post-season with a chance to turn things around. Instead, the aggravated motorist struggled for the rest of the regular season. More importantly, he went winless and missed the playoffs altogether. The underachievement was a big surprise too many because he was a lot of peoples 2017 pre-season pick to win it all.
It just doesn’t seem right to put a driver who found Victory Lane three times in this category. Especially when that driver is an instant Hall of Famer the moment he retires. Nevertheless, I believe this mantra applies to Jimmie Johnson.
Sure, he’s certainly is a victim of his own success. The fact of the matter is the seven-time champion is expected to be in the playoff finale’ every year. His 83 Monster Energy Cup Series wins is also a testament to that. His mediocre regular season after those three victories rolled over into the post-season. Even still, his fans and experts alike were just waiting for Johnson to flip the switch and race from the front. Well, that just didn’t happen. The #48 Lowes driver didn’t even have a shot at Miami-Homestead to close out the year. Let’s not forget, the savvy veteran won it all in 2016. Obviously, Johnson will be out to prove he can return to championship form in 2018.
There is little doubt that Kyle Larson had a breakout season in 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver crossed the finish line in front in four different races. As the season trudged forward, Larson was considered one of the “Big Three”. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were the other two in terms of being the championship frontrunners. Well, the old adage “It ain’t how you start” applied to Larson in the playoffs. The talented driver suffered a disastrous stretch that included four straight finishes of 39th, 37th, 37th, and 40th. As a result, Larson’s hopes of competing for his first title went up in smoke.
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver more than likely wants to erase the memory of 2017. For most of the time, it seemed nothing could go right for the hopefull racer. A 27th-place finish in the point standings was embarrassing for a driver as talented as Allmendinger. It certainly is not what he expected going into the year that was filled with optimism. The organization grew from a one-car outfit to a two-car team. They also added Chris Buescher to the mix. Even so, Allmendinger struggled at every type of track on the schedule. More surprisingly were his poor performances at the road courses in Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Believe it or not, Allmendinger is usually considered the favorite at those two events.
In my opinion, no racer experienced a more bitter ending to their year than Sadler did. The skilled veteran was in the midst of a battle with teammate William Byron in the finale’ at Homestead Speedway. The JR Motorsports driver exchanged places with Byron lap for lap. At times it looked like he had the faster of the two cars but traffic decided his fate.
Elliott Sadler lost his shot at running down Byron when he got caught up in another battle for position with Ryan Preece. The unexpected challenger eventually forced Elliott to make contact with the wall. The tussle ended his hopes for a first career title. It also triggered an emotional reaction from Sadler in the aftermath. The popular veteran definitely has his eyes set on the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ prize again in 2018.
All five of these veteran drivers made some splashes in last seasons circuit. Nevertheless, every one of them fell short of their expectations. Yes, a few of the aforementioned drivers performed well. Still, all of them finished off their campaigns disappointed. There is just too much talent in this group for a repeat performance of their 2017 NASCAR season.
All of the speedsters mentioned above also have a great base to work with. They have been with their teams for quite some time now. They also are familiar with their teams and the companies they race for. Familiarity goes a long way in the NASCAR Cup Series and the Xfinity Series as well. Because of that, these drivers have a slight edge over others that underperformed last year. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these drivers took home a title.
Jimmie Johnson certainly has the experience. He will be looking for a record eighth NASCAR championship. Kyle Larson proved that he had the speed to win races. In fact, he hung in the top three in the standings for much of the year. If not for the three-race debacle in the playoffs, he very well could have captured his first NASCAR championship.
Joey Logano has had several years where he has been a top-five threat. He also has proven he is one of the best qualifiers in the sport. AJ Allmendinger has steadily improved over the last three years and is a road racing specialist. That could pay huge dividends when he needs to come up big with a victory to put him in the playoffs. Elliott Sadler is the consummate professional. He has been there and done that before. I fully expect Sadler to drive his rig to the front in plenty of Xfinity races in 2018. As a result, he should find himself back in the Sunshine State with a shot at that elusive first championship.
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