It's still early, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski are beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Keselowski followed up his pair of third-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix with a victory at the Kobalt 400 on Sunday afternoon. After also winning the Boyd Gaming 300 on Saturday, the 30-year-old veteran completes the first weekend sweep of his impressive career, per Yahoo! Sports' Kari Van Horn:
Junior, meanwhile, remained atop the Sprint Cup standings by notching his third consecutive top-two finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Of course, it's somewhat of a bittersweet moment for the white-hot Hendrick Motorsports driver, as he had the lead on the white flag but ran out of fuel on the last lap to let the win slip through his fingers.
He and crew chief Steve Letarte summed it up following the race, via Fox Sports' NASCAR Twitter feed:
It undoubtedly stings, but it hardly takes away from Junior's tremendous start to 2014. After the race, the two standout drivers showed mutual respect for each other via Twitter:
Let's take a look at the updated standings following Sunday's thrilling race from Vegas:
|Position||Driver||Team||Kobalt 400 Finish||Points|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Hendrick Motorsports||2||133|
|2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||1||132|
|3||Jimmie Johnson||Hendrick Motorsports||6||117|
|4||Joey Logano||Team Penske||4||116|
|5||Jeff Gordon||Hendrick Motorsports||9||115|
|6||Carl Edwards||Roush Fenway Racing||5||105|
|7||Matt Kenseth||Joe Gibbs Racing||10||105|
|8||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||12||101|
|9||Ryan Newman||Richard Childress Racing||7||97|
|10||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||11||95|
After Junior and Keselowski, things get a little tighter.
Joey Logano, who entered the day in sixth place, took the pole position in Vegas and ended up jumping two spots after finishing in fourth. He is just behind Jimmie Johnson (who finished sixth in Vegas), and he surpassed Jeff Gordon (ninth) and Kevin Harvick, who was having a strong race but finished in 41st after dealing with brake issues.
As one fan pointed out, that put the exclamation point on a forgettable day for Harvick and Stewart-Haas racing:
Stewart-Haas Racing has a dismal day today: P21 (Danica Patrick), P26 (Kurt Busch), P33 (Tony Stewart) & P41 (Kevin Harvick). #Kobalt400— Davey Segal (@harvicknut_4) March 9, 2014
Harvick dropped 10 spots into 14th place in the standings, but he already has an all-important win in Phoenix to fall back on.
As for Jeff Gordon, the future Hall of Famer may have dropped slightly in the standings, but he accomplished a feat he hadn't done since 2007 and now has an opportunity to make some personal history in Bristol:
Speaking of Bristol, let's take a look at the upcoming Sprint Cup schedule to see what's in store for the drivers:
|Race||Track||Date||Time (ET)||Distance (Miles)||2013 Winner|
|Food City 500||Bristol Motor Speedway||Sun, March 16||1 p.m.||266.5||Kasey Kahne|
|Auto Club 400||Auto Club Speedway||Sun, March 23||3 p.m.||400||Kyle Busch|
|STP 500||Martinsville Speedway||Sun, March 30||1 p.m.||263||Jimmie Johnson|
|Duck Commander 500||Texas Motor Speedway||Sun, April 6||3 p.m.||501||Kyle Busch|
|Bojangles' Southern 500||Darlington Raceway||Sat, April 12||6:30 p.m.||501.322||Matt Kenseth|
|Toyota Owners 400||Richmond International Raceway||Sat, April 26||7 p.m.||300||Kevin Harvick|
|Aaron's 499||Talladega Superspeedway||Sun, May 4||1 p.m.||500.08||David Ragan|
Since the turn of the century, the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway has, historically, been dominated by the Busch family. Kurt won the race four times from 2002 through 2006, while Kyle has accumulated three more victories at the 266.5-mile race since then.
If the first three weeks are any indication, though, it's going to be difficult to keep Keselowski or Earnhardt out of the winner's circle.