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Jimmie Johnson leads the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to Richmond International Raceway on Sunday looking to win his third race in a row.
Johnson has been on an absolute tear over the season’s past two events, sparking a larger trend—the veterans are starting to figure out how to navigate this new format and take home checkered flags as per usual.
The last three events have now had a winner from the “usual suspects” column, with Johnson taking two and Brad Keselowski getting another.
Which isn’t to say this year has settled into a state of predictability. Looking at the standings, upstarts like Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman and others continue to remain competitive.
Below, let’s take a look at the event in Richmond, where the rest of the series will attempt to keep pace with Johnson.
Where: Richmond International Raceway
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Toyota Owners 400
|3||Martin Truex Jr.|
|4||Rick Stenhouse Jr.|
|12||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|Eliminated After Round 2|
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|4||Martin Truex Jr.||323||1|
Drivers to Watch
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Call Kurt Busch another one of this year’s unexpected winners after stealing the checkered flag at the Daytona 500.
No exaggeration—Busch led the only lap that mattered, getting a win and setting the tone for this rather unpredictable season.
Busch also happens to be the guy who most recently won this race among active drivers. He took the top prize in 2015, notching one of his two wins in a rather strong campaign.
Now would be the time for Busch to hit the two-win mark. He’s still hanging on in the standings because of the automatic bid, but last week he had problems remaining competitive after a wreck, as NASCAR captured:
That’s significant front-end damage for @KurtBusch!
4/24/2017, 5:28:24 PM
Pair a rain delay with a repaved surface that threw most of the series for a loop, and it’s not hard to see why Busch had some problems last week.
Busch knows how to win at Sunday’s track, so if he can put last week out of his mind and get back to early-season form, he could shock the series and become the third multi-race winner this year.
Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Sorting race winners first like above, Kyle Larson comes in at a surprising third thanks to his win in California in late March.
The performance wasn’t exactly an anomaly. Larson has won three poles this year and has four runner-up finishes alongside his win. He’s been impressive in almost every scenario, including turning a starting position of 32nd into a second-place finish in Texas a few weeks ago.
Larson came out of Bristol especially encouraged, even after rainy conditions and a repaved track:
Kyle Larson @KyleLarsonRacin
Listen fans, it doesn’t get much better racing than that! That was some solid stuff all day. Time to start appreciating side by side racing!
4/24/2017, 10:25:11 PM
It’s hard to imagine Larson slows down, and if it weren’t for Johnson and the unexpected Dale Earnhardt Jr. retirement news, he’d probably be stealing the headlines left and right.
Larson only finished 15th last year at this event, but it’s clear he’s enjoying the new stage-based format. Another run at a checkered flag would not only keep things fresh, but keep the season-long outlook interesting.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
As hinted, nobody can steal the top spot from Johnson this week.
Johnson isn’t coming close to blowing away the field in points thanks to an iffy start to the year, where he finished 34th at the Daytona 500 and didn’t register a top-10 finish until mid-March.
Now he’s sitting on two wins in a row and seeking a third.
Crew chief Chad Knaus, at least, accredited part of the win to the state of other drivers in Bristol, as captured by ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass:
What helped us the most this weekend is that everybody else was lost. … The track surface being the way that it was I think is exactly what we needed because everybody was searching, people were sliding all over the racetrack, they were complaining and nobody was really in a comfortable state of mind.
Does it matter either way? Most drivers knew how to run in Texas the week before Bristol. There, Johnson started 24th and stole the win after leading only 18 laps. He led 81 in Bristol before taking the checkered flag.
The point is simple—the rest of the series had a break. Johnson, Knaus and the rest of the crew were having a few problems adapting to the new format. It’s been unexpected, but a nice way for other guys to get wins and stick near the top of the leaderboard.
But Johnson is back in full force now. Content with the changes and on a roll, he heads to an event he finished third at one year ago. At this pace, he’ll keep climbing the points leaderboard without a problem.
Does anybody have what it takes to stop him?
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.