Road to the Monster Energy Cup: Part 1

NASCAR

2017 brought monumental changes to NASCAR. Its top national series secured a new sponsor and races intensified thanks to new competition rules. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This is the first of a five-part series recapping the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

2017 brought monumental changes to NASCAR. Its top national series secured a new sponsor and races intensified thanks to new competition rules.

Monster Energy brought a youthful, indulgent edge as the new Cup Series sponsor. And in January, NASCAR announced sweeping changes to race structure and the format for winning championships in its three national series.

By awarding points for top performers in three stages throughout each race, the sanctioning body said that would make drivers race harder. The concept for the new format was a group effort among NASCAR, fans and drivers.

Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway

The first race of the new season was the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway, the annual exhibition race featuring pole winners from the previous season. Team Penske extended its recent run of success on restrictor-plate tracks with Joey Logano’s victory.

Contact between race leader Denny Hamlin and a fast-closing Brad Keselowski on the last lap opened the door for Logano to claim his first victory in the annual non-points special event. Dating back to May 2017, Logano and Keselowski had now combined to give Team Penske four straight wins on NASCAR superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega.

Hamlin led a race-high 48 laps and took the white flag at the front of the field before feeling the heat from Keselowski, who stuck the nose of his No. 2 Ford under Hamlin as they charged through Turns 1 and 2. Hamlin, seeking his second straight victory in the exhibition race and fourth overall, moved the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota down the track to block Keselowski but wasn’t quick enough and made contact.

Logano steered his No. 22 Ford to the outside and motored past the skirmish, beating runner-up Kyle Busch to the checkered flag by 1.1 seconds. Keselowski finished sixth and Hamlin slipped to 13th.

In pole qualifying for the 59th Daytona 500, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned the top two starting spots. The rest of the field would be set with the running of the Can-Am Duel, where Elliott and Hamlin claimed victories in the qualifying doubleheader.

Daytona 500

NASCAR’s new three-stage race format took effect for the first points race of the season. Kyle Busch was strong early, winning Stage 1, but a crash in Stage 2 knocked him, Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones and Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of the race.

NASCARMore accidents during the final stage took several big names out of contention including Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

Kurt Busch would lead just one lap of the race, but it was the one that counted the most. After race leader Chase Elliott slowed with a fuel pick-up problem and then Kyle Larson ran out of gas on the final lap, Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was well-positioned – sweeping around Larson’s sputtering Chevrolet to win "The Great American Race."

His margin of victory was .22 seconds over Ryan Blaney as Ford swept the top two spots. A-J Allmendinger, Aric Almirola and Paul Menard completed the top five. Elliott, bidding to become the first pole winner to also win the "500" since Dale Jarrett in 2000, led 39 laps before yielding the lead less than three laps from the finish. Race Story | Race Results

Atlanta

After starting from the pole, Kevin Harvick won the first two stages and seemed to be on his way to victory before getting hit with a speeding penalty on pit road during a late caution. That put Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson in position for a late run to the checkered flag.

And it was an unscheduled pit stop that surprisingly preceded an unexpected victory for Keselowski.

After teams pitted during the fourth caution of the afternoon, it was soon discovered that Keselowski would need to return with a loose wheel. He did so and restarted 14th less than 60 laps from the checkered flag. He worked his way through the field, passed race leader Larson seven laps from the finish and kept the No. 2 Team Penske Ford in front the rest of the way to notch his 22nd victory.

Larson took second place, a half-second behind Keselowski. Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott completed the top five. Harvick settled for ninth place after leading a race-high 292 laps. He did come away from the second race of the season with a consolation prize, of sorts.  Harvick held the series lead by four points over Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heading into its three-week swing through the western United States.

Busch was bidding to become the first driver to open the Cup season with back-to-back wins since Kenseth in 2009 but fell short, finishing seventh. Race Story | Race Results

Las Vegas

The 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted the third race of the season, where Martin Truex Jr. swept the first two stages and claimed his first victory of the year. He charged past a fading Brad Keselowski in the closing laps for the win on a day that ended with Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and his Team Penske pit crew scuffling after contact between those two drivers on the final lap of the race.

NASCARAfter being separated from Logano and his crew by NASCAR officials, Busch exited pit road with a small stream of blood trickling down his face. Logano was unmarked and unfazed by the post-race developments, chalking things up to "racing hard."

Truex led a race-high 150 laps in notching his eighth career victory and first on the mile-and-a-half desert oval. He beat runner-up Kyle Larson to the checkered flag by 1.5 seconds with Chase Elliott taking third place. Logano held on for fourth with pole winner Keselowski completing the top five. Busch’s issue on the last lap sent him sliding to a 22nd-place finish.

With his sweep of all three segments of the race, Truex became the first driver to win a stage and also win the race through the first three weeks of the season. Race Story | Race Results

Phoenix Raceway

Week 2 of NASCAR’s western swing had Joey Logano on the pole for the start of the Camping World 500. He and Chase Elliott each won a stage, and Kyle Busch held a commanding lead near the end of the race.

But Ryan Newman traded tires for track position late and the big payoff was a trip to Gatorade Victory Lane. While Busch and others pitted for fresh rubber during the day’s final caution, Newman kept his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet on the track and assumed the top spot on the ensuing restart.

He then held off Kyle Larson over the final two green-flag laps to claim his 18th career victory and snap a 127-race winless streak dating back to July 2013 at Indianapolis. Newman’s victory also ended a long winless streak for RCR, which hadn’t won a Cup Series race since November 2013 – when Kevin Harvick was victorious, also at Phoenix Raceway.

Newman’s margin of victory over runner-up Larson was .31 seconds. Busch grabbed third place with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski completing the top five.

Newman, who started 22nd in the 39-car field, led only the final six laps of the race – which was extended two laps past its scheduled distance by that final caution, which was caused when Logano blew a right-front tire and smacked the wall in Turn 1.

Busch led a race-high 114 laps, all of which came in the final stage as he notched his first top-five finish of the season. Race Story | Race Results

Auto Club Speedway

Jamie McMurray won the pole for the Auto Club 400 while Jimmie Johnson’s crash in practice and Joey Logano’s problems with technical inspection forced two contenders to start near the back of the 39-car grid.

After winning the opening stage and finishing second (to Martin Truex Jr.) in Stage 2, Kyle Larson dominated the final stage and held the field at bay through a series of late restarts to complete a weekend sweep on the two-mile Southern California oval.

NASCARLarson followed Saturday’s XFINITY Series victory by leading a race-high 110 laps in the main event, including 64 of the 82 that were run during the last of the day’s three stages. His margin of victory over runner-up Brad Keselowski was .77 seconds. Clint Bowyer finished third with Truex and Logano completing the top five. Johnson finished 21st and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Suarez was the highest-finishing rookie, in seventh place.

Larson’s win came on the heels of three straight second-place finishes that had lifted him to the top of the series standings. He's just the second driver to win a Cup Series race at ACS after starting from the pole since the track first hosted NASCAR in 1997. Johnson started first and finished first in 2008.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his 600th Cup Series start and placed 16th. He failed to lead a lap but was one of 22 drivers running on the lead lap with race winner Larson at the checkered flag. Race Story | Race Results

Martinsville Speedway

A pair of NASCAR’s rising stars, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, led the field to green for the first short-track race of the season but by the end of Stage 2, veteran Kyle Busch was positioned for his second straight spring win at Martinsville Speedway ... before Brad Keselowski entered the picture.

The Team Penske driver would survive a fierce duel with Busch during the final stage, taking his last lead 43 laps from the finish and keeping the No. 2 Ford in front the rest of the way to record his second victory of the season.

Keselowski and Busch swapped the lead five times over the final 100 laps before Keselowski prevailed. Combined, he and Busch led all but four of the final 228 trips around the Virginia half-mile. Keselowski’s margin of victory was 1.8 seconds over Busch with Elliott, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon completing the top five.

Larson, bidding for his second straight victory, led only the first 23 laps and finished 17th. Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones was the highest-finishing rookie, placing 12th in the 38-car field.

For Keselowski, the win was his 23rd in the Cup Series but first at Martinsville. He became the first repeat winner in the first six races of the 2017 Monster Energy Series. It was Ford’s first Cup Series victory at Martinsville since Kurt Busch won the track’s fall stop in 2002 while driving for team owner Jack Roush. Race Story | Race Results

Texas

Ford continued to shine the following week in “The Lone Star State.” Ryan Blaney started from the front row and dominated the first two stages in the No. 21 Wood Brothers entry.

But Jimmie Johnson broke through in the final stage to claim his first victory of the season as the seven-time champion became a seven-time winner at Texas Motor Speedway.

NASCARAfter spinning during the first round of qualifying on Friday, Johnson had to start in the back of the field after the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team chose to replace his flat-spotted tires, which broke the NASCAR rule which states that cars must start the race with the tires they qualified on.

No worries for Johnson, who's now won a race in NASCAR’s top series for 16 straight years. The Texas victory was the 81st of his career and the first win in 2017 for Hendrick Motorsports.

Blaney led the race four times for 148 laps but ended up with only a 12th-place finish. He elected to stay out during a late caution to secure the win in Stage 2, falling out of pit sequence with other teams and never recovering.

After Johnson, the top five finishers were Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, pole-winner Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Race Story | Race Results

Bristol

After taking a week off for the Easter holiday, NASCAR was back on track at Bristol Motor Speedway – where rain forced a 24-hour delay. But not even “Mother Nature” could slow Jimmie Johnson’s early-season momentum as he stormed to his second straight victory.

Johnson measured his competition in the closing laps and then pounced, passing Kevin Harvick for his final lead of the day and driving off to victory in the Food City 500. The seven-time champion kept the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in front over the final 21 laps to notch his 82nd win and second in "Thunder Valley."

With his victory 16 days before in Texas, Johnson became the first driver with back-to-back wins in the Cup Series since Brad Keselowski doubled up at Daytona and Kentucky in the summer of 2016.

Johnson’s margin of victory over runner-up Clint Bowyer was 1.1 seconds. Harvick held on for third place with Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano completing the top five. Pole sitter Kyle Larson led a race-high 202 laps and finished sixth.

A quartet of notable drivers placed well outside the top 30. Kyle Busch (who finished 35th), Danica Patrick (36th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (38th) were sidelined by accidents. Keselowski finished 34th after losing time while his crew was solving steering issues on the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.

After starting from the pole, Larson dominated much of the first half - leading 202 laps before yielding to Martin Truex Jr., who led all but seven of the next 123 trips around the high-banked half-mile. Johnson then began to assert himself and led 81 of the final 107 laps. Race Story | Race Results

Richmond Raceway

One day after that 38th-place finish at Bristol, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced that 2017 would be his last season as a full-time NASCAR competitor. Five days later at Richmond Raceway, “Junior” started 12th but finished 30th in the Toyota Owners 400.

Joey Logano made the most of his 300th start, breaking into the 2017 win column with his 18th Cup Series victory. He made a late pit stop during the day’s final caution and fresh tires paid big dividends.

NASCARLogano quickly roared past the six drivers who stayed out on older tires and kept the No. 22 Ford in front over the final 17 laps. The margin of victory over runner-up Brad Keselowski was three-quarters of a second as Team Penske swept the top two spots. Denny Hamlin ran third with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kevin Harvick completing the top five.

Pole winner Matt Kenseth won the first stage and led a race-high 164 laps before fading to a 23rd-place finish – one of 27 drivers running on the lead lap with Logano at the checkered flag. Kyle Busch was challenging for the victory when the last of the day’s nine cautions transpired, leading to Logano’s decisive pit stop. When Busch missed the commitment line to properly enter the pit lane for service, he was penalized and forced to settle for 16th place in the 38-car field.

Logano’s charge to victory was noteworthy in that he began the day at the rear of the grid after a transmission change, forfeiting his original No. 5 starting spot. It was a stellar day for Ford as the manufacturer took four of the top five finishing positions with drivers Logano, Keselowski, Stenhouse and Harvick.

But after the race, NASCAR officials discovered an illegal suspension part in the rear of Logano’s car. The subsequent penalty stripped Logano of the playoff benefits that go along with the victory and when the regular season would end in September, the Team Penske driver was three positions and 100 points short of a playoff berth. Race Story | Race Results

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