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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

Early Title Advantage Could Be Decided at Michigan

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The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has been a constant bout between two top performers, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson.

While 14 different competitors have visited Victory Lane in 22 races, Larson and Truex have been the classes of the field throughout the year.

Now Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway is shaping up to be the latest duel between the early championship favorites.

Larson captured his first career NASCAR Cup Series win in this event one year ago. He then backed up the performance in June with his second consecutive victory at the track.

However, in the seven races since the win, the 25-year-old has faced more adversity than success. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has only placed in the top-10 twice with runner-up finishes at Kentucky and New Hampshire.

The No. 42 team has been mired outside the top-20 in the other five events, struggling to compete at the same level that placed Larson in the driver’s standings lead for much of the first half of the season. 

While the finishes haven’t matched what many expected, he has endured more unfortunate circumstances than a lack of speed.

“Yeah, you know we have had probably more bad luck than bad runs,” Larson said. “I think Indy we were pretty good at, fourth or fifth best car and the same at Pocono, but we broke a driveshaft at Pocono and got in a wreck at Indy. Watkins Glen, we were definitely not very good, I didn’t think.”

Running up front in every race is a rare feat in the sport, and every driver is bound to face some challenges, and this shouldn’t impact Larson’s status as a top title threat

“It’s hard to have a perfect season and be fast every week, but our team is excited about the racecar we’ve got here this weekend,” Larson said.

Truex Jr. has risen to the occasion amidst Larson’s streak of bad luck. He has pulled away in the race to become the regular season champion and earn an additional 15 playoff points after Larson closely contested him for this honor during the first half of 2017.

Toyota has also shown increased speed among all its teams over the last month, and this has benefited Truex Jr. most.

He has placed third or better in four of the previous five races. While he finished 33rd at Indianapolis, he had one of the best cars in the field and looked set to battle Kyle Busch for the victory before a crash on a restart took both of them out of contention.

Stage racing has been the biggest benefit for the No. 78 team has they continue to lead the series with 14 stage wins and a staggering 34 playoff points, more than double of Jimmie Johnson who holds the second-highest amount with 16.

Once the post-season begins next month, Truex Jr. will hold a points advantage, but the true test will be if he can continue to perform at such a dominant pace. 

Michigan offers a perfect stage to see these two competitors to engage in a Playoff preview as Larson is arguably the best active driver at the 2.0-mile oval and Truex Jr. seems to excel anywhere he goes and has been stout in recent weeks. 

The post-season may ultimately come down to a battle between youth and experience, and Sunday could offer the first glimpse at seeing which side will prevail. So far, Larson has the upper-hand, qualifying ninth, while Truex will start 13th.

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Jason Schultz

Jason Schultz aspires to enter the public relations field of NASCAR. Schultz, 19, attends UNC Charlotte and is a communication studies major with a focus in public relations. In addition to contributing to POPULAR SPEED, Schultz produces podcasts for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Dirty Mo Radio. He also completed a semester as a social media intern at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Each year, he volunteers as the social media correspondent for Autism Delaware's Drive for Autism golf tournament featuring NASCAR personalities and the AAA 400 Drive for Autism Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover.