NASCAR’s “Big 3” are on historic run to the Playoffs

LONG POND, PA - JULY 30: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Caramel Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Overton's 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 30, 2017 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Eight times in the past 10 weeks – excluding only the superspeedway race at Daytona and Clint Bowyer’s Michigan win – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have settled each Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race among themselves. On Sunday, Harvick muscled his way around Busch with eight laps remaining and scored his sixth win of the season at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It’s a single-season victory record for the 42-year-old former Monster Energy Series champion-Harvick and there’s every reason to think the Stewart-Haas Racing driver will only be adding to his historic mark.

As will his two other chief competitors to theirs.

Taking the above mentioned July 7 Daytona night race and Michigan out of the mix – the “Big 3” as Harvick, Busch and Truex are now referred to – have not only hoisted the overwhelming majority of the season’s trophies, but they have consistently finished among the top-five even when they don’t win.

Harvick won at New Hampshire, Busch finished second and Truex – who led the most laps for the fourth consecutive race there – finished fourth.

The previous week at Kentucky, Truex won, Busch finished fourth and Harvick was fifth.

At Chicago, Busch won, Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

At Sonoma, Truex won, Harvick was runner-up and Busch was fifth.

And at Pocono in June – the venue for this weekend’s Gander Outdoors 400 (Sunday, July 29 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – Truex won, Busch was third and Harvick was fourth.

In all, the trio has earned 15 wins in the 20 races to date this season. And for those who wonder what the dominance will mean for the postseason – well only one driver will be hoisting the championship trophy and spraying champagne, so imagine the Playoff drama still to come.

It’s an amazing time for modern day fans to witness this form of high-level performance and it’s a fond throwback image for NASCAR’s most loyal longtime fans who recall the dominant days of earlier eras.

Interestingly, the win totals of Harvick (six), Busch (five) and Truex (four) in 2018 match the same totals of NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison (six), Richard Petty (five) and David Pearson (four) through 20 races in the 1972 season.

There was another amazing trio dominating the opening 20 races of the 1977 season with Cale Yarborough (seven), Richard Petty (five) and Darrell Waltrip (four) – again all NASCAR Hall of Famers.

A year later in 1978, Yarborough (five), Waltrip (five) and Pearson (four) held court through the first 20 races. And in 1999, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton, and Jeff Gordon all had four wins apiece by this point on the schedule – that’s the last time three drivers have made such a thorough early season victory statement.

Jarrett, a NASCAR Hall of Famer driver himself and now commentator on the NBC Sports NASCAR race broadcasts, acknowledged the rarity of the current runs from Harvick, Busch and Truex. And unlike the pre-Playoff era he primarily competed in, Jarrett spoke for many in wondering aloud how the 2018 Monster Energy Series championship will eventually be settled.

“Their motivation at this point in the season comes from Playoff points, because you can’t ever have too many,” Jarrett said Sunday from New Hampshire. “You never know what’s going to happen.

“The other form of motivation now is from each other. The motivation to be the one that everyone is talking about. They all have multiple wins, so they are being talked about as a group, but what you want to do is separate yourself if at all possible. I don’t see that happening, because they are all so talented and their teams are performing at such a high level right now. But at some point, it will have to happen.”

For their part, the three drivers seem to be genuinely taken with the competition – racing hard but clean and keeping each other “honest”.

Harvick used his bumper to make the pass on Busch this week. It was clean but assertive. And may be a harbinger of things to come as the Playoff intensity gradually increases.

“I mean, these races are hard to win,” Harvick acknowledged Sunday afternoon. “When you’re in position, it’s one of those things that you have to do what you have to do for your team. You want to do everything that you can to not spin him out, not wreck him, just make it as clean as possible, try to accomplish the bump and run.

“Today we were able to accomplish it well and win the race.”

Even Busch, known for his candid and emotional post-race reactions could only nod to Harvick for getting it done and to recognize he’ll be ready to do it all over again next week at Pocono.

“My pit crew put us in position to have control of the last restart,” Busch reflected in the media center post-race. “To be able to lead that many laps… It was just a matter of those SHR cars, they were really fast. Just a matter every time they get by me and get by me. A little bumping and banging, a little rubbing. We go racing next week.”

And as he said on pit road after getting out of the car, “How you race is how you get raced.”

Busch returns to Pocono Raceway this week as the defending winner of this late summer race. And guess who rounded out the podium in 2017? Yes, Harvick finished second and Truex finished third.

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