What we’ve learned through six Cup races

There are familiar faces — Truex, Busch, Harvick — at the top of heap, but there’s plenty of intrigue early in the season

High Point’s Ryan Blaney (12) ranks third in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings heading into Texas, chasing points leader Kyle Busch (18) after six races. (Michael Shroyer / USA TODAY Sports)

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series took a week off after starting the season with races in six consecutive weeks. The series returns Sunday in Texas with the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (2 p.m., FS1) for the first of six more races in a row. Here’s a look at how the season has gone so far.

Best driver/team: Kevin Harvick, No. 4, Stewart-Haas Racing

Harvick is seventh in the point standings, but he has already collected 11 Playoff points thanks to his three consecutive wins in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix in the second, third and fourth races of the season. Two finishes near the back of the field (31st at Daytona, 35th at Fontana) have made Harvick’s 2018 campaign an up-and-done one, but he’s already locked into the Playoffs and has shown he and his team can be unstoppable.

Honorable mentions: Kyle Busch, No. 18, Joe Gibbs Motorsports; Martin Truex Jr., No. 78, Furniture Row Racing

Busch has only one Playoff point thus far, but he’s collected four top-five finishes and — outside of a 25th-place finish at Daytona — has finished seventh or better in five of six races. That has him eight points in front of the defending champion, Truex. Truex, like Busch, has raced near the front every week since a mediocre finish at Daytona (18th) to open the season. Since then, he’s been in the top five every week and earned his first checkered flag of the year at Fontana after winning a series-best eight times in 2017.

Top rookie: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., No. 43, Richard Petty Motorsports

The 24-year-old is the first black driver to earn a full-time ride since Wendell Scott in 1971, an accomplishment in and of itself. On the track, it’s been a tough start for Wallace despite a second-place finish at the season-opening Daytona 500. Charlotte’s William Byron has finished in the top 20 in four of six races and is ahead of Wallace in the points, but he still hasn’t had a breakthrough performance.

Biggest surprise: Clint Bowyer, No. 14, Stewart-Haas Racing

Bowyer’s win at Martinsville snapped a personal 190-race span without a win, but the 38-year-old Kansan has done more than just get into Victory Lane once. Bowyer already has three finishes in the top six (third at Atlanta, sixth at Phoenix) after totaling eight all of last season.

Biggest disappointment: Jamie McMurray, No. 1, Chip Ganassi Racing

McMurray is off to arguably the worst start in his Cup career after reaching the Chase/Playoffs in each of the past three seasons. He has yet to finish in the top 15 through six races and ranks 26th in the point standings. With no wins since 2013, McMurray will either need to snap his drought, collect some stage wins or find a way to climb the standings to get back in the postseason hunt.

Biggest question mark: Jimmie Johnson, No. 48, Hendrick Motorsports

Johnson is still sitting on seven Cup titles, tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most in series history. Johnson won his last title just two seasons ago in 2016, but he didn’t factor in last season’s Playoffs, and through six races this year has just one top 10 (ninth at Fontana) and is yet to lead a lap in 2018. Are Johnson’s best years behind him? He will be 43 by the end of the season, and only four drivers have been 43 or older and won the title: Dale Jarrett (1999) and Earnhardt (1994) were both 43; and Lee Petty (1959) and Bobby Allison (1983) were both 45.

Carolina contender: Ryan Blaney, No. 12, Team Penske

The 24-year-old from High Point has quietly climbed to third in the point standings thanks to four top-10s and no finish worse than 16th (Phoenix). Blaney had a breakthrough last year in his second full Cup season, getting his first win, making the Playoffs and finishing ninth. Fords have won four of six races this season (three by Harvick, one by Bowyer), so the stars might be aligning for Blaney to have an even bigger year than last season.

Top moment so far: Austin Dillon wins at Daytona

The Richard Childress Racing No. 3 returned to Victory Lane at Daytona, piloted by Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon. It seemed fitting that Dillon took the checkered flag at Daytona — it is the track that delivered Dale Sr.’s biggest moment and also took his life. Furthermore, it was the first Cup race since longtime fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired following the 2017 season. His win honored the legacy of both Dales, but also ushered in a new era of Cup racing without them.