NASCAR Power Rankings: Is Chase Elliott a legit Big 3 challenger?

1. Kyle Busch: We made sure to note what Busch did Sunday afternoon but it’s worth repeating. He gained 22 spots in the final 32 laps at a road course. That’s incredible.

Busch had a right to be upset with the troubles that plagued his team on the final pit stop. They ruined any chance he had of racing Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. for the win. And given how well he sliced through the field in the final third of the race he probably had a pretty good chance in a three-way battle.

Busch currently boasts the best average finish of anyone in the Cup Series and has a firm grip on the points lead. He’s 70 points up on Kevin Harvick. If Busch maintains that gap over the next three races he’s going to clinch the regular-season points title at Darlington, just like Truex did a year ago.

2. Martin Truex Jr.: Truex has now finished second to both Erik Jones and Chase Elliott, the two first-time winners in 2018. We’ll let you write your own “young driver beats defending champion for first victory!” narratives in your own time.

Truex is over 120 points back of Kyle Busch and his season is better than 2017 so far. Soak that in for a minute. Truex had four wins, 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races of 2017. Through the first 22 races of the season this season Truex has four wins and 15 top-five finishes. Want a statistical oddity? Truex hasn’t finished outside of the top five inside of the top 10 this season.

3. Kevin Harvick: Harvick finished 10th on Sunday. As Busch and Truex were near the front of the field throughout the majority of the weekend Harvick was off. He didn’t post speeds at the top of the chart in practice and started the race in 15th. He’ll be competitive again at Michigan, a place where he finished second to teammate Clint Bowyer in June and probably would have won at if the race went a few laps longer before the rain began.

4. Chase Elliott: Elliott isn’t even in the top 10 of the points standings. He’s still 11th. But is he emerging as the top threat for that coveted No. 4 spot in the NASCAR hierarchy? There’s a decent case to be made for it.

He now has eight playoff points, two fewer than Clint Bowyer. But all eight of those points have come within the last three races and he’s finished inside of the top 13 in each of the last four races. There’s still a big gulf between Busch, Harvick, Truex, and everyone else, but Elliott could now be the guy that’s leading the other side.

“I feel like the past few weeks ‑‑ have we had the actual pace of the 4 and the 18? No, probably not,” Elliott said. “But have we been a hell of a lot better than what we were at the beginning of the year? Yes. And have we been a legitimate top‑5 car? I would say so. So that’s a big improvement from what we’ve been. You don’t just go from running 12th to 15th to winning these races overnight consistently.”

5. Kurt Busch: Did you know that Kurt Busch has the most points of any driver not named Kyle Busch, Harvick or Truex? It’s true. Busch is now two points ahead of Clint Bowyer for fourth after finishing ninth on Sunday. Bowyer was 11th … two points behind Busch.

“We had a surprise flat right-rear and that forced us into taking two tires and we had to improvise from there,” Busch said. “It’s kind of a bummer, but we made the best we could with it and got a top 10.

6. Kyle Larson: Larson finished sixth and he was pleased with that.

“Yeah, a lot better finish than I thought we would have,” Larson said. “I always feel like I don’t race well at these places, but able to run a nice smooth race, so I was happy about that and I think we finished sixth or seventh, so yeah, pretty cool.”

7. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer was 11th, meaning Stewart-Haas Racing had drivers finish ninth, 10th and 11th. Aric Almirola was not eighth or 12th because he hit the wall early in the race.

8. Erik Jones: Jones finished fifth on Sunday. He’s continuing his steady improvement. It was happening before Daytona and it’s continuing to happen after that win. He has 11 top-10 finishes now and six of them have happened in the last seven races.

9. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin started first but didn’t stay there for very long. He only led two laps and his race highlight wasn’t a very good one. This crazy pit stop sent Hamlin to the back because he ran over the air hose.

(via NBC)

The chaos happened because Hamlin’s team — like many others — were pitting the outside tires on the car last in an apparent attempt to save time.

10. Ryan Blaney: Almirola went spinning after early contact from Blaney. It appeared that Almirola had no idea Blaney was inside of him in turn 7. Blaney went on to finish 12th.

11. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski was caught behind Hamlin’s car — you can see him stop for Hamlin’s crew in that GIF above. Here’s his explanation when we asked about teams pitting the outside of the car last.

12. Joey Logano: Logano finished last for the first time since 2009 after early contact led to his retirement at Watkins Glen a after a single lap. After being the most consistent driver in terms of laps completed for much of the early part of the season, randomness is catching up to Logano.

The Lucky Dog: Daniel Suarez was fourth

The DNF: Outside of Logano, there’s really no good candidate.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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