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January 2, 2018

Championship favorites: Breaking down Monster Energy Series outlook

Sarah Crabill
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Can Martin Truex Jr. repeat? Will Kyle Busch or Kyle Larson close the competitive gap that plagued them in 2017?

Past performance often is indicative of future results, and after sifting through a slew of statistics compiled by Motorsports Analytics, we’ve identified some early championship favorites and the rationale that supports their candidacy for the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

Martin Truex Jr
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Martin Truex Jr.

There were six Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races on intermediate tracks with 20-degree banking or less, including the championship event, in 2017. Truex won all of them.

That’s not to say he has nowhere to go but down — in fact, the addition of a second Las Vegas date to the 2018 schedule means Truex could conceivably go 7-for-7 — but pulling off the first eight-win championship season in a decade is a difficult feat to duplicate. Considering everything that took place in 2017, there’s a higher likelihood of that than one might expect.

Furniture Row Racing, consolidated from two teams to one after Erik Jones jumped to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota, has its pick of personnel from two quality race teams heading into the new year. They return crew chief Cole Pearn and a deep engineering staff that produced the fastest car overall and specifically on four different track types — short tracks, flat intermediates, steep intermediates and 2-mile, non-drafting tracks. Pearn protected Truex’s running whereabouts a series best 62.5 percent of the time when pitting from a top-five position on green-flag pit cycles. Truex, to his credit, added to the track position his team provided him.

Since arriving at Furniture Row in 2014, Truex grew from a driver with a minus pass differential to a neutral passer to one of the 10 best passers in the series. As his passing acumen climbed, so did the team’s yearly win total from zero to one to four to eight. All this team does, from year to year, is improve.

Kyle BuschKyle Busch

Somehow, five wins — and mind you, that’s tied for his second most in a single season — and a second-place finish in points felt like a down year for Busch. Perhaps that’s because he didn’t win until the final weekend of July, or that he crashed more often than any of the eight drivers left standing prior to the final two rounds in the Monster Energy Series Playoffs.

One could argue Busch underachieved in 2017. Given his 81.6 percent of completed laps inside the top 15 forecasted 29 top-15 finishes (he scored 25), there were races, and possibly wins, left on the table. There were four races prior to his breakthrough victory at Pocono in which he led 100 laps but missed out on the winner’s trophy. Odds are, those slip-ups in the upcoming season won’t share the same quantity.

His car was the fastest of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, fourth overall in the series, and crew chief Adam Stevens is an adept defender of his running position during green-flag pit cycles, over 12 percent better than the series average when pitting from a top-five spot. Stevens also chipped in 85 additional positions thanks to crafty pit planning over the last two years.

Kyle Larson

On intermediate race tracks in 2017, Larson passed 15 more cars than expected from his average running position per 400 miles. This was an average four positions greater than the next most efficient passer. Still, Larson went winless on intermediates.

Larson always has been a proficient traffic navigator, but this past season was his first with elite speed at his disposal. His Chip Ganassi Racing entry ranked third in average green-flag speed, up from 12th in 2016, the biggest improvement among all teams. Even when he took full advantage of his more competitive surroundings — he scored four runner-up finishes and one third-place result on NASCAR’s most prevalent track type, but also amassed three DNFs — there was a twinge of misfortune that allows room for improvement in the new season.

While Truex Jr.’s championship was deserved, one can’t help but acknowledge Larson’s absence in the Championship 4. Larson could’ve been a late-race foil at Homestead; his average speed rank in the fourth quarter of races was within 0.4 spots of Truex’s, and only Joey Logano retained position more often on restarts inside the final 10 percent of a race.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski’s title hopes are tied to manufacturer performance — namely if the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is a success, the Ford driver is likely to be leapfrogged in the championship hunt by bow-tie branded competitors Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.

He was the biggest underdog among the Championship 4 solely due to his lack of elite speed down the stretch. His Ford was the eighth fastest car on average, per timing and scoring data supplied to, and slowest of the four title contenders during the final 10 races.

The good news for Keselowski is that he and his team are good independent of their speed. He held a top-five Production in Equal Equipment Rating five times in the last six years, while crew chief Paul Wolfe has supplied 84 extra positions through smart green-flag pit strategy across the last two seasons.

Kevin Harvick

At age 42, Harvick has exited his prime — a driver’s peak age is 39 according to a 2014 study by Motorsports Analytics — but as long as he has speed, he’ll factor into the championship equation. Since joining Stewart-Haas, he ranked first, first, first and second in average green-flag speed each year, a testament to a forward-thinking, manufacturer-independent infrastructure with its own wind tunnel.

Harvick is a consummate restarter, ranking second in preferred groove retention rate (87.39 percent) and positions earned (plus-94) in 2017. Even his non-preferred groove exploits mitigated what is typically a huge positional loss; across 105 restarts in the least desirable lane, he coughed up just 22 spots. Considering, too, he routinely avoids crashes — across the last three seasons, his crash rate of 0.18 times per race was the lowest among frequent frontrunners — awaiting his falter seems a tedious task.

David Smith is the Founder of Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

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