NASCAR points observations through four races

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Hard to believe but we’re already a full month into the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. And while points aren’t of the same magnitude in years past, with wins counting more in terms of punching Chase tickets, they still matter.

Here’s a few observations of those in great, good, and not-so-good shape through four rounds (last week’s linked here).

IN GREAT SHAPE

Add Bristol winner Carl Edwards to the list that includes Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. And as the only driver with four top-10s in four races, Jeff Gordon is off to a phenomenal start as well in his elusive, seemingly eternal “drive for five.”

OFF AND RUNNING

Those from fifth through 11th in points – Jimmie Johnson down to Kasey Kahne – are in good shape. With second on Sunday night in Bristol, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is on a mission too. He’s driving like a man possessed and has already made key strides through the opening month of the season in his second year for Roush Fenway Racing; he’s currently 10th in points. Could he be NASCAR’s next first-time winner?

Additionally, how cool is it that Stenhouse, in the 17, and Aric Almirola, in the 43 were battling in the top three at Bristol? Two of NASCAR’s iconic numbers in contention at one of its most iconic tracks was a nice modern day throwback.

CLOSE, BUT NOT THERE YET

The group P12-23 have all had at least one really good run but not a string as yet. Big names here include Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Tony Stewart and rookie Kyle Larson among others.

MORE WORK TO DO

Through four races, those big names without a top-10 finish include Clint Bowyer, AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch. For Kurt, it has just not been the start he needed to his new relationship with Stewart-Haas Racing, despite running well at times. Same story for Truex, now in the Furniture Row 78 car.

POINTS: Through 4 of 26 regular season races.

F1 2017 driver review: Esteban Ocon

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Esteban Ocon

Team: Sahara Force India
Car No.: 31
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P5 (Spain, Mexico)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 87
Championship Position: 8th

A shining star in Mercedes’ junior programme, Esteban Ocon vaulted fellow youngster Pascal Wehrlein in the pecking order to secure a seat at Force India for 2017 – and boy, did he live up to the hype.

Ocon arrived at Force India with half a season of racing under his belt after his outings with Manor late in 2016, but wasted little time in settling in, scoring points on debut in Australia after winning a thrilling three-way fight with Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.

The Frenchman spent much of the year close to teammate Sergio Perez – even if things did get a little too close in Canada, Baku and, finally, Spa, prompting the team to introduce team orders – and impressed the entire paddock with his displays.

While no podium was forthcoming, Ocon was often leading the midfield fight, enjoying three straight finishes ahead of Perez from Japan to Mexico. Given how well Perez is rated on-track in the paddock, to have convincingly beaten him in such fashion did a lot for Ocon’s reputation.

The term ‘Oconsistency’ also came into F1’s dictionary as he set a new record for consecutive finishes from his first race, with his retirement in Brazil ending the streak at 27 grands prix. It was also his first retirement in a single-seater race since the 2014 Macau Grand Prix.

The highlight moment arguably came at Monza, though, when Ocon stuck his Force India third on the grid through torrential rain in qualifying. While he would drop to P6 at the checkered flag, the display nevertheless cemented his place as one of F1’s rising stars.

Mercedes rates Ocon very highly, and with Valtteri Bottas’ future beyond 2018 already being questioned by the paddock, a good season could see the youngster move on up to the top table of F1 for 2019. His progression in the next 12 months will be fascinating to keep track of.

Season High: Lining up P3 on the grid at Monza after a rainy qualifying.

Season Low: Clashing with Perez in Baku, costing Force India a possible podium.