Big-Name NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Who Are Most in Danger of Missing the Chase
Only nine races remain until the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, and some of the biggest names in NASCAR are going to be left on the outside looking in as the latest Sprint Cup champion is determined.
In a season when wins really matter because even one likely will lock a driver into the Chase field, several of the biggest names in the sport remain without one after the first 17 races of the regular season.
The list of drivers still in pursuit of their first win includes three-time champion Tony Stewart, 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and others.
With the Chase field expanded to 16 drivers this season and only 10 different race winners thus far, it is becoming rather obvious that you might not have to have a win to get in. If there aren't 16 different winners within the top 30 in the points standings, the non-winning drivers with the most points can still qualify.
But a win would take all guesswork out of the equation. Read on to find out which big-name drivers are in the most danger of missing the Chase.
Hey, she's a big name in NASCAR, right?
While that cannot be questioned, Danica Patrick's driving skills can be as she motors through her second full-time Cup season. Certainly, she is not alone among drivers with little Cup experience who are struggling; just check out her boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is only one spot ahead of her in the points standings as he also wrestles his way through his second full-time Cup season.
Stenhouse currently is 27th in the points, 17 ahead of Patrick in 28th.
Neither of them has shown any inkling of being able to contend for the win that at this point would be absolutely necessary for either to get in the Chase. But despite Stenhouse's two Nationwide Series championships, Patrick remains the bigger name.
When Jamie McMurray won the Sprint All-Star Race in May, it seemed a win in a points race would not be far behind.
He still has time and the talent to get it done. But with only two top-five and five top-10 finishes in the first 17 races, he's not going to have the time to move up enough in the points from his current position of 22nd to get in without a win.
So McMurray might want to circle the very next race on his calendar.
It's the Coke Zero 400 this Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, where McMurray has won twice previously. In fact, four of McMurray's seven career Cup wins in points races have come in NASCAR's two restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
It's been a big year for Kyle Larson.
He's only 21 years old but was tabbed to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet full time in the Sprint Cup Series for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Although some questioned if he was ready for this, he's done quite well and currently sits 14th in the points—one of a total of six drivers without a win who would qualify for the Chase under the current format if the regular season ended now.
Of course, it doesn't end now. And that means Larson and the other five drivers without a win aren't yet in a comfortable position at all.
As if all of this wasn't enough for Larson to have on his plate, he recently learned that he'll soon be a father, proudly announcing it to the world along with his girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet. That's not all the confident Larson is expecting; he still no doubt expects to make the Chase, too, even if it requires winning one of the next nine races for what would be the Cup rookie's first win in the series.
Martin Truex Jr.
It's been mostly a long, depressing, downhill ride for Martin Truex Jr. ever since shortly after he mistakenly thought he had raced his way into last year's Chase.
You know the story by now.
Truex's then-teammate at Michael Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer, allegedly spun his car on purpose in the closing laps of last year's final regular-season race at Richmond to help Truex's chances of qualifying for the Chase. Instead, long story short, Truex ultimately ended up losing his MWR ride because of the radioactive fallout from the ill-conceived idea.
This season, he just hasn't clicked at all with his new No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team. He has yet to record a single top-five finish and is 26th in the points with time running out to pull out a win that could change everything.
Kasey Kahne currently sits 17th in the points standings, so he's well within reach of getting inside the top 16 before the next nine races play out.
But he really desperately wants and needs a win—or two. With seven top-10 finishes and two top-fives, including three finishes in a row of eighth or better, it seems he's getting closer.
Everyone knows he has the talent, the equipment (he drives for Hendrick Motorsports) and the crew chief in Kenny Francis to get it done. Plus, prior to this season, Kahne had won at least one race in each of the last three seasons and in five of the last six.
Odds are he will finally get one in 2014 sooner rather than later.
There was an old saying in NASCAR that under the old points system a driver could, according to Fox Sports television analyst Larry McReynolds, "top 10 you to death."
Well, Ryan Newman is trying to take this to a new level in a season where all that matters is supposed to be winning.
Through the first 17 races, he has only one top-five and six top-10 finishes—yet he's up to eighth in the points because he's finished outside the top 16 only five times and worse than 22nd only once (31st at Dover).
That puts Newman behind only Matt Kenseth among the six drivers without a win who currently would qualify for the Chase if the cutoff were June 2. He still remains in a very vulnerable position if he doesn't win one of the next nine races, but the stretch includes a stop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he is the defending race winner.
Last season, Matt Kenseth won a career-high seven races and contended for the championship all the way until the end before finishing runner-up in the Chase to six-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was somewhat uncharacteristic for Kenseth, who had never before won more than five races in a season and hadn't won more than four in a single season since 2006.
But what is happening this season is uncharacteristic, too. Kenseth has yet to visit Victory Lane despite registering six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
The problem is that his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has been lacking the speed to run consistently up front. He's led a total of just 323 laps all season—whereas last season he led a total of 960 through the first 17 races and a career-high 1,783 for the season (or 651 more than he had ever led in any of his previous 15 Cup seasons).
Of all those without a win, though, he sits in the best shape to get into the Chase on points. He's currently fifth and tops among those who remain winless.
The Biff has been baffled by his inability to be more competitive on NASCAR's bigger non-restrictor plate tracks this season.
But it isn't only Biffle who has been left mystified by this. Neither of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates (Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) have been able to muster much on the tracks that measure 1.5 miles or longer and aren't either Daytona or Talladega, which are their own animals.
Perhaps one of the most stunning statistics of the entire season is this: Biffle has led laps in only four races and has led more than five laps in only two—18 en route to an 18th-place finish on the short track at Martinsville and 58 en route to finishing second at Talladega.
Other than the runner-up finish at 'Dega, Biffle's only other top-five finish was a fifth at Darlington. In his last seven races, he hasn't finished better than the ninth he registered on the road course of Sonoma to break a string of five consecutive finishes of 16th or worse.
That's why he's fortunate to be 12th in the points, although he ranks 15th among the contenders for the 16 Chase spots and is very vulnerable.
Clint Bowyer currently resides on the proverbial bubble.
He's 14th in points, but with two drivers outside the top 16 already owning wins (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch) and seemingly already locked into the Chase, Bowyer really resides in 16th.
So unless he can win one of these next nine races, he's in very real danger of failing to make it into the postseason party. For Bowyer, like many of those seeking their first win, the problem is he just hasn't been able to run up front very much at all.
He has led laps in just seven races and has led more than five in only one—when he led 16 on his way to a ninth-place finish at Martinsville. After 17 races, he's led a total of 35 laps. To put that in perspective, Jimmie Johnson has led 34 or more laps in seven different individual races.
Bowyer is in serious trouble and knows he can't step too far out of the box to make something dramatic happen down the stretch of this regular season. After instigating SpinGate at Richmond last year, NASCAR will be watching him closely.
Tony Stewart is a three-time Cup champion, so don't ever count him out.
But he has made some un-Stewart-like mistakes behind the wheel lately, including a pit-road speeding penalty at Pocono that took him from contention for the win to a forgettable 13th-place finish.
And that's just it. While there have been wisps of the old Smoke rising from time to time this season, the fire has yet to ignite, and something seems to be missing. His best finish in the last 12 races is a seventh at Dover.
As hard as it may seem to believe, he's currently 18th in the points on the outside looking in. Not only that, but it is beginning to look as if he'll remain there.
Unless otherwise note, information for all slides was obtained by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.