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.

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”