Bump & Run: Judging the crop of young Cup drivers

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NASCAR’s youth movement continues to make an impact in the Cup series. As the sport’s younger drivers race toward a victory, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has gotten off to a slow start. 

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who both will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing those subjects in this week’s Bump & Run.

Which young driver has been more impressive to you so far this season: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney?

Kyle Petty: That’s a tough question. I’m going to have to answer it’s a tie: Chase and Ryan. Here’s why: I think Chase gets better every week. Every week. I don’t think Chase is far away from not only his first win but his second or third win. I think Ryan has come out stronger and smarter than he was last year. There’s something different about him. The things he does on a racetrack. In these first three races, he’s not put himself in a bad position. Go back to last year. There were a few times he had fast cars but he would end up against the wall, something would happen. He put himself in a bad position. He’s seems to have outgrown that in the first part of this year.

Dale Jarrett: I’m going to say that Kyle Larson has been the most impressive to this point. I think I’ve had reservations, like other people. We know he is very talented, but could the team keep up with his progress? They’ve shown me that they’ve done that and that he’s figured out to run these 400- and 500-mile races. He’s been outstanding.

Nate Ryan: Tough question, so I’ll go solely off the results. With an average finish of 5.3 (including two runner-up finishes), Larson has been the best statistically, and though Atlanta highlighted the fact he still is learning how to close races, he is maximizing the potential of his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. It took the team the first three months of the 2016 season to provide Larson with rides worthy of his ability. The No. 42 is well ahead of that pace this season, which should bode well for Larson. Chase Elliott barely trails Larson in performance and also has been in position to win every race. It’s only a matter of time until his breakthrough occurs.

Dustin Long: I like what I’m seeing from Kyle Larson and his team so far this season. He still needs to pull out the win at the end, but he’s showing the signs that he’s getting closer to doing that more often. No other driver in the series has run as much in the top 15 in races this year (95.3 percent of all laps). He’s putting together more complete races.

For the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson has failed to score a top-10 finish in any of the first three races of the season. Should there be concern about this?

Kyle Petty: Yes. I think he needs to call Carl Edwards and retire. No, there’s no concern. No. No, no there is no concern. Jimmie has been so good for so long and so consistent. It just happens sometimes. I do believe that maybe as you look at this and the rise of the Toyotas and now throw (Martin) Truex and Erik (Jones) in, the way the Fords are running the first part of this year. Theoretically, now there’s another four of five cars Jimmie has to outrun on a regular basis, which is a little bit tougher. Until Jimmie absolutely falls off the face of the earth, that’s when you should be concerned. They’re not where they want to be, but they get that way sometimes and they find their way back.

Dale Jarrett: I think there should be some concern there. I think the Hendrick organization, in my mind, is still behind, except for Chase Elliott. They seem to have things figured out. I think Jimmie and Chad Knaus have some work to do. As we’ve seen, they’re pretty good at figuring things out.

Nate Ryan: Some, though slow cars aren’t what have prevented Johnson from recording a top 10. If his pit speeding lights were calibrated better at Atlanta (and if a scoring break had gone his way), he had the speed to contend. Las Vegas went awry when a late-race strategy failed to pan out perfectly, but if his pit crew correctly fastens lug nuts on the final stop, Johnson easily gets a top 10. It’s mostly just a case of improving on execution – which is an unusual weakness for the buttoned-up No. 48 Chevrolet team.

Dustin Long: Considering this team struggled during the middle of last season and still won the championship, I’m not overly concerned at this point. It just shows how one little thing that can make a big impact in a team’s finish (i.e. speeding at Atlanta and loose lug nuts at Las Vegas). Now, if this team continues to show similar flaws in a few months, then it will be more of a concern.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.