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NASCAR mid-season superlatives, like Daytona 500, are not without controversy

The start of the KC Masterpiece 400 on Saturday, May 12, 2018, at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.

JOHN SLEEZER/KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS

By BRENDAN MARKS | The Charlotte Observer | Published: June 9, 2018

The 2018 NASCAR season is officially past its halfway point, meaning it’s time to hand out some mid-season superlatives. Your winners are:

Best Driver

Kevin Harvick: Duh, right? Harvick has undoubtedly been NASCAR’s best driver in 2018, although Kyle Busch has certainly given him a run for his money. Harvick has won the most races (five), led the most laps, and earned more top-five finishes than any other driver. Yes, technically Kyle Busch is ahead of Harvick in points, but both drivers have the same number of playoff points. Harvick is on a run of success rarely matched in NASCAR’s entire history, and if he can keep it up, he’ll set himself up nicely for a run at his second Cup Series championship.

Biggest Surprise

Everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing: A bit of a cop-out here, but how do you pick when four guys on the same team have all exceeded expectations? Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, and Kurt Busch have all been better than expected so far, with each in the top 11 in points. Harvick (second) has easily been the best of the bunch, but Bowyer (sixth) has a victory, and both Busch (seventh) and Almirola (11th) have multiple top-10 finishes. After years of being primarily a one-car threat with Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing is finally rounding out as a team. The question is, can they keep it up over the rest of the regular season?

Best Race

Bristol: There haven’t been a ton of thrilling finishes so far in 2018, but one that stands out has to be Bristol. The race had a little bit of everything — weather issues (the race was split between Sunday and Monday because of rain), some surprises (Bubba Wallace leading his first-ever NASCAR Cup Series laps), and a relatively thrilling ending (Kyle Busch bumped Kyle Larson for the lead with five laps to go). The thrilling last-lap of the Daytona 500 made that a strong contender, too, but Daytona always produces wild and unpredictable results. Even with the rain and other issues, the 2018 spring race at Bristol rates as a certain fan favorite.

Wreck of the Season

Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola (Daytona 500): Hoo baby, were there some upset fans after this collision. Almirola, driving his first race in the car vacated by Danica Patrick, was on pace to win the Daytona 500 at the beginning of the last lap. Dillon was slightly behind him and ultimately got to Almirola’s back bumper. At that point, Almirola’s two options were to let Dillon pass him for the win, or try to block and risk a crash. He went for the latter, spun out, and ultimately finished 11th. Meanwhile, Dillon went on to win his first career Daytona 500, bringing Dale Earnhardt’s famous No. 3 car back to Victory Lane on the 20th anniversary of Earnhardt’s own 500 win.

Biggest Story (on-track)

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch: These two have just been on a different level so far. They have a combined nine victories (five for Harvick, four for Busch) in the first 14 races of the season, and there’s still plenty of time left to improve on those statistics. What will be interesting to monitor over the next 12 regular-season races is if either one can post a career-best season. Harvick has already tied his season-high in victories from 2014 — also the same season he won his only championship — and Busch would need to double his current mark to match his eight-win 2008 season. Sure, there have been other drivers who won races this year, and yes, there have been other memorable moments, but the back-and-forth battle between Harvick and Busch has been the most captivating story.

Biggest Story (off-track)

Replacing departed stars: Coming into this season, NASCAR was looking to replace three of its best-known stars in Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, and Matt Kenseth, all of whom had left the sport. While Kenseth ultimately returned on a part-time basis and Patrick competed in the Daytona 500, trying to fill the void left by those notable names has been one of the biggest talking points surrounding NASCAR this year. Young drivers such as Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney were heavily promoted before the season, but so far have been unable to step up and win races. And while it’s a boon for big names such as Harvick and Busch to be battling on a week-to-week basis, neither has close to the star power Earnhardt and Patrick possessed.

This week’s NASCAR race

Michigan: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400.
Distance: 200 laps, or 400 miles.
Where: Michigan International Speedway, a 2-mile tri-oval in Brooklyn, Mich.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
TV: FOX.
Radio: MRN.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Larson.

Also this week: LTi Printing 250, Xfinity Series, Michigan International Speedway, 1:30 p.m., Saturday, FOX.

Worth mentioning: Since the track was repaved in 2012, Michigan has become arguably NASCAR’s fastest race; normal qualifying speeds can often exceed 200 miles per hour.

Who’s Hot/Who’s Not

HOT

Martin Truex Jr.: His second win of the season puts him firmly in the championship hunt, and one step closer to recovering his 2017 title-winning form.

Kyle Larson: Three second-place finishes this season (including last weekend at Pocono) without a victory is frustrating, but also a sign that Larson is close to finally breaking through.

NOT

Bubba Wallace: His first DNF of the season only drops Wallace further down the standings, making his playoff chances that much more unlikely.

Alex Bowman: He was trending towards making a playoff push, but three of his last four finishes have been outside the Top 15, dropping him to the fringes of the postseason.

©2018 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)
Visit The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.) at www.charlotteobserver.com
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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick celebrates winning the KC Masterpiece 400 on May 12, 2018, at the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.
JOHN SLEEZER/KANSAS CITY STAR/TNS

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