Earnhardt Jr., Johnson among drivers to watch

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NEWPORT, Virginia: As always, there is no shortage of stories among the nearly 40 drivers set to start the Monster Energy Cup Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday (Monday in Manila) afternoon at Richmond International Raceway (RIR).

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Today we’ll focus on five.

They are a varied mix that includes a driver tied for the most Cup titles in history, another who won a recent Cup title and one who seems destined to win one in the near future. We also look at the sport’s most popular driver, as well as its youngest.

Dale Eearnhardt Jr.

It’s easy to forget that before suffering the concussion that sidelined him the second half of last season, NASCAR’s most popular driver was performing solidly. He had four second-place finishes in the first 14 races of 2016, after having his most credible run at a Cup title end in 2015 via Kevin Harvick’s wreck-inducing maneuver in the Chase race at Talladega.

That seems like ancient history amid his dismal start to the 2017 season, with four finishes of 30th or worse and only one top-10 — his fifth place at Texas. Mired at 24th in the standings, he needs to begin a turnaround soon to even think about a playoff berth in the final season before he retires.

Jimmie Johson

His season has gone from subpar by his standards to great in the past two races. Starting way back in the pack at Texas, then battling a mediocre car early at Bristol, Johnson won both races to become the first driver this season with back-to-back wins.

He said the No. 48 wasn’t as bad as it appeared in the first six races, when a ninth at Phoenix was the best the team could muster. The difference, he added, was better execution at the track in the two wins, something evident in his late-race surges.

Will the roll continue? Whether it does or not, you can figure that with a playoff berth now firmly in hand, preparing for those all-important final 10 races will share a lot of team focus with the comparatively meaningless 18 regular-season races remaining.

After all, what’s at stake besides an attempt to win a record eighth Cup title?

Gray Gaulding

We don’t mention him as a potential winner at RIR, not with BK Racing, but lots of people will be happy to see a Richmond-area (Colonial Heights) driver return for his first Cup race on his home track. Most would judge it a good afternoon if he can beat his best of 29th (twice) in seven Cup races this season.

Although, at 19, he’s the youngest driver in Cup, his history at RIR suggests he can. Gaulding finished 13th in an Xfinity Series race this past fall at RIR, where he once won the pole in the K&N Pro Series East — a top feeder to NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck series.

Kyle Larson

The 24-year-old Elk Grove, Calif., native is serving notice that he could be the next big star in NASCAR. He had a pretty good season last year, when he finished ninth in the Cup standings and won his first race (at Michigan) in the series.

But this year, Larson has made a jump to one of Cup’s elite. He had five top-two finishes in the first seven races, including a win at California, and had one of the best cars on the track at Bristol most of Monday before finishing sixth.

He currently leads the Cup standings, is a lock to make the playoffs and finished well in most of the Chase races last year. That followed a second-place finish at RIR in the fall, a huge improvement over his previous best of 11th.

Kyle Busch

It is really rare when Busch isn’t good at RIR, where he has finished in the top five in 15 of 23 starts. He’s won there four times and was a few hundred yards from getting win No. 5 last spring before team-mate Carl Edward’s bump-and-run on him going into the final turn.

With a third at Phoenix, a second at Martinsville and another top-10, Busch is the closest any Joe Gibbs Racing driver has come to consistency this season. Whatever the team’s foibles, it would be no surprise to see Busch return to the form that earned him the 2015 Cup title and brought him within a few miles of defending it last year.

It would be even less surprising if his rise toward the top begins Sunday at Richmond.

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