The first month of 2021 NASCAR Cup Series winners reads more like a list of NCAA bubble contenders for the national tournament. Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Kyle Larson had a grand total of one victory last season. Daytona 500 champion McDowell and Bell had never even won a Cup race, period.
Well, on Sunday NASCAR's Cinderellas finally got wiped off the bracket. NASCAR's top seeds came to play at the track that will host the sport's playoff finale this November. Martin Truex Jr. led the charge at Phoenix Raceway, the first top-tier contender to win this season. Last year's Championship 4 quartet, the equivalent of the NCAA Final Four, finished second through fifth: Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott.
Are the blue bloods ready to put the sport's upstarts to rest? Truex is perhaps the most overlooked of this group, earning just his second victory since losing longtime crew chief Cole Pearn at the conclusion of the 2019 season. But bad luck, not bad management pushed Truex down a notch last year. He was in the running to win at Martinsville Speedway last fall, challenging Chase Elliott for a Championship 4 bid until a flat tire late.
Only one win on the stat sheet was deceiving as Truex piled up 11 top-3 finishes in 2020; only Hamlin and Kevin Harvick had more.
"We really were hungry," Truex said Sunday after rising back to the top. "We really wanted it, obviously. It seemed like for whatever reason, it was always little things that were biting us. It's like, 'Man, what do we have to do to turn it around so it's our day?"
The answer came in the form of contact between Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain. That gifted Truex a late caution to close the gap, then pass Logano after the Team Penske veteran darted out front on pit road.
Now, will this win put the soft-spoken Truex back on the championship radar screen?
"We had really strong races last year and just didn't execute," added Truex's crew chief James Small. "Nobody remembers who finished second or third. Wins are what matters in this sport. It's definitely a relief to get one this early."
Green: Denny Hamlin. Shut out of victory lane, Hamlin's still cruised to the series point lead by 39 over Keselowski. The No. 11 Toyota team knows how to take advantage of the sport's stage system, winning three of 10 so far to collect valuable playoff points they'll cash in later.
Yellow: Joey Logano. The good: this 2018 Cup Series champion sits third in the Cup standings and was in position to win three races already. The bad: he's come up empty, getting passed for the lead each time with a handful of laps remaining. He's got to close.
Red: Kevin Harvick. A sixth-place finish won't raise alarm bells for most. But at Phoenix, where Harvick's won a NASCAR-best nine times? Uncharacteristic struggles continue for last year's dominant force as he hasn't even led a lap since the Daytona 500.
Speeding Ticket: Kyle Larson. Larson was in position to win a second straight race, driving from the back to the front twice until clocking in at 50.01 mph on pit road. The NASCAR cops weren't willing to let him off with a warning and Larson lost too much ground to make up.
A total of 10 drivers total got busted for speeding, more than the first four races combined. This one-mile oval's lengthy pit road makes beating the radar gun tricky ... but 10? It looks like officiating overreach for a penalty you can't "see" with the naked eye.
Two candidates stand out this week. Chastain's bump of Busch left the two-time Cup champion ravaging him on the radio, ready to slam the No. 42 Chevrolet straight into the outside wall. The spin followed an uncontrolled tire penalty for Busch, leaving him a lap down in 25th and all too willing to get aggressive with Chastain when the two came back together in the closing laps.
Former crew chief Larry McReynolds' advice as Ross let Kyle drive away?
"If you stick your finger in a rattlesnake's mouth, you can't get mad if it bites you," he said.
The other oops goes to Bubba Wallace crew chief Mike Wheeler, whose decision to stay out on old tires cost his driver a likely top-10 finish. Wallace dropped like a rock on the restart, then dropkicked Cole Custer into the wall on route to a disappointing 16th. Five races, no top-15 finishes for Michael Jordan's new venture.
Here's Wheeler's take:
Why we stayed out: 7 laps on tires, newest of anyone. P10 of 22 cars on the lead lap. Earlier in race with similar position, it was split who pitted vs stayed. And no one on tires drove to the lead. We were on the same page to stay. It didn't work out. And yes my head hurts.— Michael Wheeler (@MikeCWheeler) March 14, 2021