The calendar has turned to 2018 and drivers will be in Daytona for Speedweeks in less than a month meaning the new season is inching closer.
Looking back at 2017, Martin Truex Jr. set a blistering pace with more than 2,000 laps led, a host of stage wins, plenty of playoff points and eight wins, including a victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to earn the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Truex had his fair share of challengers over the course of 2017 from recent champions in Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick to breakout stars in Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. All that begs the question: Who is best positioned to serve as the biggest threat to unseat Truex heading into the 2018 season? NASCAR.com’s Zack Albert and RJ Kraft weigh in.
Albert: Looking for prospective candidates? Let’s start with the driver who came a whisker’s breadth away from derailing the Truex train last season — Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has landed four or more victories in four of the last five seasons, and he’s been a Championship 4 participant in the Homestead-Miami finale for three years running.
Consider also that Busch is still just 32 — perhaps quote-unquote “old” as the age of the starting grid trends younger, but still well in the prime years of his career. The combination of talent with the backing of one of the sport’s most potent teams in JGR makes Busch a likely contender for a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series crown.
Kraft: I like trends, and I think Larson will follow the template laid out by Truex over the past three seasons of gradual growth that builds to a championship. In Truex’s case, he got back to Victory Lane in 2015 and followed it up with a four-win campaign in 2016 before last season’s championship. Larson scored his first Monster Energy Series win in 2016 followed by four victories in 2017. Given Larson’s repeated mishaps in the latter half of the playoffs, it’s easy to forget that he set new career highs in laps led, top fives and top 10s in his breakout season. Behind Truex, no driver gained more stage points than Larson as he took full advantage of the new format.
What is the key to the Chip Ganassi Racing driver taking the next step to a championship? Notching wins at 1.5-mile tracks, which he has yet to do. With four runner-ups at 1.5-milers in 2017, it seems like Larson is closing in on those victories — almost as fast as he gets around on the high line.