Road to the Monster Energy Cup: Part 2

NASCAR

As the month of May opened, the Monster Energy Series schedule took teams to Talladega Superspeedway for the second restrictor-plate race of the season. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This is the second of a five-part series recapping the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. See Also: Part 1

Talladega Superspeedway

As the month of May opened, the Monster Energy Series schedule took teams to Talladega Superspeedway for the second restrictor-plate race of the season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got the best of race leader Kyle Busch in a side-by-side duel on the
next-to-last lap, charging to his first Cup Series victory and ending a 101-race winless drought for Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse made his winning move coming out of the day’s last restart, which occurred in overtime after the final caution forced the race three laps past its scheduled distance. Busch took the white flag as Stenhouse drove alongside and, with a big push from Jimmie Johnson, Stenhouse then pulled away to claim victory in his 158th start.

The win marked Roush Fenway’s first trip to a Cup Series Victory Lane since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway in June 2014. Jamie McMurray grabbed second place, just .09 seconds behind Stenhouse. Busch held on for third place after leading a race-high 48 laps, including the last 39 before losing his lead to Stenhouse on the final trip around the sprawling Alabama oval. Aric Almirola ran fourth and Kasey Kahne completed the top five.

Stenhouse became the first pole sitter to win a Cup Series race at Talladega since Jeff Gordon in 2007. It was team owner Jack Roush’s fifth victory there but first since 2012, giving Ford its fourth straight Talladega win and five of the last six dating back to the 2014 season. Race Story | Race Results

Kansas Speedway

On Mother’s Day weekend in Kansas City, Ryan Blaney started from the pole and won Stage 2. But Martin Truex Jr. emerged in the final stage as a threat to win ... and he did.

NASCARTruex mastered a pair of late restarts and kept his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota in front over the final 19 laps to claim victory. In recent seasons, Truex had led the most laps three times on the Kansas City oval. But victory eluded him. This time, he once again led a race-high 104 laps and this time, he closed the deal.

Truex got the best of race leader Blaney on a restart less than 20 laps from the finish and drove away to his ninth career win and second of the season. The margin of victory was 1.1 seconds over runner-up Brad Keselowski. Kevin Harvick finished third and Blaney held on for fourth place. Kyle Busch, seeking his second straight win in the track’s spring race, completed the top five.

The race was slowed by 15 cautions, tying the track record set in 2013. The most serious incident was a three-car accident midway through the second half of the race that involved Aric Almirola, Joey Logano and Danica Patrick. Almirola had to be cut out of his car and was airlifted to a local hospital, where he was held overnight for observation and then released. He suffered a compression fracture to one of his 12 vertebrae and would miss the next eight races. Neither Logano nor Patrick were injured. Race Story | Race Results

Monster Energy All-Star Race

The run to a championship would take a break the following weekend for NASCAR’s annual All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with no points and nothing but prestige on the line. The format broke the race into four stages with $1 million going to the overall winner.

Kyle Busch took the green flag and took charge of the race on the night’s final restart, storming into the lead with a bold three-wide move to the inside that put Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson in his rear-view mirror. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was never challenged over the last 10 laps and easily drove away to his first win in the non-points special event.

Kyle Larson started from the pole and finished second after dominating the first half of the race. He was plenty fast on the track throughout the night. But slow work by his Chip Ganassi Racing crew during the final round of pit stops cost Larson track position that he never completely regained en route to the runner-up finish. Busch’s margin of victory was 1.2 seconds.

Johnson ran third with Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray – Larson’s teammate – completing the top five. Kevin Harvick grabbed sixth place on team owner Tony Stewart’s 46th birthday.

Larson won the first two stages, leading all 40 laps, and Johnson was in front at the conclusion of Stage 3 after leading all but one of the 20 laps. The race had just three lead changes all night among only four drivers: Busch, Larson, Johnson and Ryan Blaney.

The All-Star event primarily features race winners from the previous season and in 2017, it included stage winners from the Monster Energy Open preliminary race – Blaney and Clint Bowyer - along with overall race winner Daniel Suarez. Race Story | Race Results

Charlotte

Kyle Busch’s victory in the All-Star Race gave him confidence heading into the Coca-Cola 600, which was split into four stages rather than the usual three due to the length of the event.

Busch qualified second (behind Kevin Harvick) and won the first stage.

Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin also won stages, but it was Austin Dillon in the right place at the right time at the end of the night.

NASCARWhen race leader Jimmie Johnson’s fuel tank went dry on the next-to-last lap, Dillon capitalized and went to Victory Lane. The Richard Childress Racing driver was seemingly destined to finish second as Johnson was motoring toward what would have been his 83rd career victory. But when the seven-time champion slowed on Lap 399, it was Dillon who went on to claim his first win in the Monster Energy Series.

The margin of victory for Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet was .83 seconds as he led a parade of four Toyotas behind him. Busch finished second with Truex third after leading a race-high 233 laps. Hamlin and Matt Kenseth completed the top five. Erik Jones was the highest-finishing rookie, in seventh place.

After starting from the pole, Harvick led 45 laps en route to his eighth-place finish. Johnson faded to 17th, the last driver on the lead lap with Dillon at the end of the night. He had taken his final lead less than 35 laps from the finish and kept the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in front for a stretch of 30 laps before yielding to Dillon less than three miles from the end of the 600-mile grind. Race Story | Race Results

Dover International Speedway

From Charlotte, it was on to "The Monster Mile," where a familiar face returned to Victory Lane.

Jimmie Johnson quickly left race leader Kyle Larson behind on the day’s final restart and motored on to victory – winning the race under caution as a nine-car wreck unfolded along the backstretch after the seven-time champion made his decisive move.

The victory was Johnson’s 83rd, lifting him into a tie with Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth place on NASCAR’s all-time list. Johnson’s series-best third win of the season capped a challenging day that saw the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team start the race at the rear of the field after making an unapproved gear change, forfeiting its No. 14 qualifying position.

Johnson led just seven laps but made them count as he recorded his 11th victory at Dover, winning the track's springtime Cup Series race for the fourth time in six years. Larson held on for second place after leading a race-high 241 laps. Martin Truex Junior swept the first two stages and placed third overall after leading 102 of the 406 laps. Ryan Newman and Chase Elliott completed the top five. Daniel Suarez was the highest-finishing rookie, in sixth place.

Pole winner Kyle Busch led just 19 laps and finished 16th, one lap behind Johnson at the checkered flag. The race was slowed by 15 cautions, one shy of the track record set in 1993. Race Story | Race Results

Pocono Raceway

Twenty-three-year old Ryan Blaney outdueled a pair of NASCAR champions and carried the famed Wood Brothers back to Victory Lane with a stirring win.

Blaney stormed past race leader – and 2015 Cup Series champ Kyle Busch – 10 laps from the finish and kept his No. 21 Ford in front the rest of the way, holding off Kevin Harvick down the stretch. Blaney’s margin of victory over the 2014 series champion was .13 seconds.

NASCARBusch started from the pole, won the first stage and led a race-high 100 laps but faded to ninth place at the checkered flag.  Blaney’s late charge to victory came to a head as he pulled up on Busch’s rear bumper. The race leader threw a block and Blaney darted to the inside to make the pass. He held his ground as Busch tried to squeeze him onto the track apron and then pulled away to claim his first career win in his 68th start.

For Wood Brothers Racing, which has been in the sport for more than 65 years, the victory was its first since Trevor Bayne’s upset win in the 2011 Daytona 500. Rookie Erik Jones took third place with Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski completing the top five.

The race was red-flagged for clean-up late in the second stage after Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray crashed hard, victims of brake failure. Neither driver was injured. Johnson finished 36th, McMurray 37th. Race Story | Race Results

Michigan International Speedway

Kyle Larson smoothly managed three late restarts and finally drove away from the field to easily post his second win of the season. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver started from the pole, placed among the top five in each of the first two stages and led a race-high 96 laps - including the final 15 trips around the two-mile Irish Hills oval.

Larson beat runner-up Chase Elliott to the finish by a full second with Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray completing the top five. Martin Truex Jr. won the first two stages and finished sixth overall, leading 62 laps. Erik Jones was the highest-finishing rookie, in 13th place.

With Larson’s victory, pole winners had now won five of the last eight Cup Series races run in Michigan. That list included Logano (twice), Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Logano was bidding to become the first driver with back-to-back wins in the track’s springtime race since Hamlin doubled up in 2010 and 2011 but had to settle for third place.

The race included just 10 lead changes among four drivers, the fewest number of drivers to lead a Cup Series race at MIS since the track first hosted the series in 1969. The previous low was five, which had occurred five times before but not since 1984. The total of eight cautions was two shy of the track record, set in 2006.

Larson's victory was the third at MIS for team owner Chip Ganassi, who also won in August 2016 with Larson behind the wheel and in 2001 with Sterling Marlin driving. Race Story | Race Results

Sonoma

Kevin Harvick finally found his way to Victory Lane in 2017, stretching his fuel mileage over the final 40 laps and leading the last 22 trips around Sonoma Raceway’s two-mile road course for his first Cup Series win of the season.

NASCARThe 2014 champion started 12th and led briefly early in the second half of the race, then taking command down the stretch to record his 36th career victory but first since October 2016 at Kansas Speedway. Clint Bowyer finished second, giving Stewart-Haas Racing a one-two sweep. Brad Keselowski ran third with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch completing the top five.

Pole winner Kyle Larson led only the first nine laps and finished 26th, one lap off the pace. Daniel Suarez was the highest-finishing rookie, in 16th place.

Martin Truex Jr. won the first stage and led a race-high 25 laps. But he was sidelined by engine failure and finished 37th in the 38-car field. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson notched his first stage win of the year, leading the field home in the second segment. He went on to finish 13th, one of 22 drivers running on the lead lap with Harvick at the checkered flag.

The race featured 13 lead changes, which broke the track record of 12 that had occurred three times before – most recently in 2016. There were 10 different race leaders, erasing the old mark of nine that had been recorded four times before – most recently in 2014. Race Story | Race Results

Daytona International Speedway

Next up was the return to Daytona International Speedway, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. would make what’s expected to be his final Cup Series start at “The World Center of Racing.” The weekend began with a pole for “Junior” but ended with a disappointing 32nd-place finish.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stormed past race leader David Ragan coming out of an overtime restart and kept his Roush Fenway Facing Ford in front over the final lap-and-a-half to notch his second victory of the season.

The win gave Ford a 2017 sweep of the Cup Series races at Daytona. The year opened with Kurt Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500. Dating back to the second half of the 2014 season, the manufacturer had now won 10 of the last 13 restrictor-plate races run at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.

Stenhouse started sixth and led the race four times for 17 laps (matching his car number) in posting his second career victory (his first came at Talladega in May 2017). The margin of victory over second-place Clint Bowyer was .21 seconds. Paul Menard grabbed third place with Michael McDowell and Ryan Newman completing the top five.

Earnhardt led only the first lap and was caught up in a four-car accident that saddled him with that 32nd-place finish. Erik Jones was the highest-finishing rookie, in ninth place.

The race included 14 cautions, just two shy of the track record set in 2011. The final yellow flag of the night was displayed for a two-car incident involving Jones and Denny Hamlin that sent the race three laps past its scheduled distance. Race Story | Race Results

Kentucky

From Daytona Beach, it was on to Kentucky Speedway - where Martin Truex Jr. dominated for his third win of the season. Truex won the first two stages and sealed the deal in Stage 3. He led 152 of the scheduled 267 laps.

The race seemed to be in the bag for Truex until a late caution, for a blown engine by Kurt Busch, forced a decision to stay on the track and hold the lead instead of pitting for fresh tires. The incident occurred just as Truex was about to pass the white flag, signifying the final lap, and forced the race into overtime.

His gamble on old tires paid off as Truex held off Kyle Busch on the final restart. One last incident helped secure the win when Matt Kenseth, Daniel Suarez and Austin Dillon crashed in Turn 4, bringing out the final caution flag and ending the race.

After Truex, the top five was made up of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Nine lead changes were shared among four drivers: Truex, Busch (who competed in all three weekend races at Kentucky Speedway), Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Race Story | Race Results

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