Early season NASCAR stars and strugglers

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It’s only been three races and the mantra being trumpeted this year is that wins mean everything in NASCAR.

Points still do too, eventually at least. Here’s a look at some of the best and those who will have work to do after three races, now that a slightly larger sample size of tracks is available to draw from:

IN GREAT SHAPE

Race winners Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are all essentially locked into this year’s Chase. They can all afford to take chances from here, and it’s why Earnhardt was so disappointed with second on Sunday, because they went for it and came up just short on fuel.

OFF AND RUNNING

Six other drivers have either two or three top-10 finishes even though they haven’t yet visited Victory Lane. But it’s likely only a matter of time for all of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Denny Hamlin, of course, took home a pair of wins at Daytona Speedweeks but has yet to match his runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 itself.

RUNNING BETTER, BUT NOT GREAT YET

From 10th on down in the points are drivers who should factor into Chase contention down the road but haven’t run in top-five or top-three contention yet through the first three races. All these drivers have just one top-10 finish in the first three races: Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Casey Mears and Paul Menard.

SOME WORK TO DO

All these drivers rank outside the top 20 in points through three races, and have had at least one “bad” race or DNF: Clint Bowyer, rookie Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing’s trio of Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, and Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports.

Combined this group ranks anywhere from 22nd to 33rd in points, and have zero top-10 finishes between them. It’s not something they can’t recover from, but they’ve already dug themselves a slight hole to climb out of.

POINTS: Through 3 of 26 regular season races.

F1 Paddock Pass: United States Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

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As Lewis Hamilton took another step towards his fourth Formula 1 World Championship Sunday at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas, plenty of other topics of discussion emerged in the wake of Round 17 of the season from Austin.

Hamilton’s win came as his Mercedes AMG Petronas team claimed its fourth consecutive Constructor’s Championship, Scuderia Ferrari came up short once again despite a valiant effort in second and third, and Max Verstappen’s penalty after the race was the major talking point.

Elsewhere Valtteri Bottas struggled again, the Sahara Force India twins continued to pick up points, Carlos Sainz Jr. made a major positive impact in his first start with Renault, Brendon Hartley impressed on debut at Toro Rosso and Romain Grosjean and Haas F1 Team endured a tough weekend on Haas’ home soil.

Check out all the recap from the latest USGP in the latest post-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton, below.