Ranking the 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Who Most Needed a Week Off
The votes are in. The fans have spoken.
Here is the official top 10 list of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers who needed a weekend off.
Well, not really. But it sounds good.
Now that I have your attention, what you have here is a look at 10 drivers who are in need of a mid-course (or midseason) correction, who need to stay the course or who just plain need to get out of the country and lay on a Caribbean beach for a few days to chill out.
Starting our countdown is a driver who has done surprisingly well, despite going winless so far this season.
10. Matt Kenseth
We’re all wondering how the team that won the most races last season and almost won the championship has gone winless this year.
Apparently, Matt Kenseth is searching for an answer himself.
"I feel like we’re gaining on it. I felt like overall it was a positive weekend," he said after the race at Kentucky.
Following the New Hampshire race, he had this to say: "I thought we really gained on it. Denny (Hamlin) and them guys really helped us a lot this week. I felt like all three (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars were top-five race cars today. I feel like we’re definitely moving in the right direction. I felt like we were definitely in the ball game today."
Way to go, Kenseth. We love all that positive talk. It’s good for team morale.
The team isn’t that far off. One pole (Fontana), seven top-fives and 12 top-10s isn’t chopped liver, if you know what we mean.
Look, we’re not the type to kick someone when he's down, so we’ll just say that hopefully the weekend off will help this team actually find what it's looking for instead of just talking about finding it.
How about a trip back to cheese country to reconnect with your roots, Matt?
Despite Kenseth having a less-than-stellar season so far, the fans are still asking him for his autograph, even if the young man in this photo probably doesn't even know who he is.
9. Kasey Kahne
To be fair, Kasey Kahne is winning races, as shown above in the NASCAR Nationwide race at Daytona a couple of weekends ago.
But what does it feel like to be driving for the most well-financed, well-oiled and successful NASCAR organization, one for which all of your teammates have won a Cup race or three this season, and to go winless so far?
Here’s how Kasey sees it:
Really where we are at right now, as a team, we need to show up each weekend, and put full weekends together; from myself to Kenny (Francis, crew chief) to everybody on our team. We all have talked about this all weekend, and all week-long leading into this race. We just need to step up, and if we do that, I feel like ‘yes, there is going to be pressure, we want to be in the Chase.’ But we have fast enough cars. We have all the equipment; everything there to do it. We just need to put those weekends together. Put ourselves in position, and there is still plenty of time to win races.
Two top-fives and a meager seven top-10s aren't a whole lot to be excited about.
A weekend away from the track to clear the mind and attend a Tony Robbins seminar might just be what could cure this team of its blues. Or maybe Kahne needs to go back to having middle-aged housewives chase after him. We miss those commercials too.
8. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick should be smiling. After all, he’s won two races this season (Phoenix and Darlington), has started from the pole three times (Darlington, Kansas, Michigan), is 13th in points and is close to absolutely, positively locking himself into the Chase.
But the last two weeks have been absolute disasters for the No. 4 Budweiser squad out of the Stewart-Haas Racing stables. He was caught up in one of the huge wrecks at Daytona, and Loudon was one of those forgettable weekends.
This team has a credible record of two wins, five top-fives and eight top-10s. But there’s a bit of an issue with consistency. Harvick and Co. have two or three good weekends and then two or three miserable ones. Remember that streak of disasters following Harvick’s initial win at Phoenix early in the season? It took the team six weeks to get back on track, but when it did—wow, it was the amazing Darlington weekend.
So, if this team’s history this season tells us anything, it's that, after two bad weekends, it’s time for a good race at Indianapolis, where Harvick’s record is quite good—one win, one pole, four top-fives and seven top-10s in just 13 attempts.
That’s pretty good stuff, no matter how you look at it.
So why, you ask, does this driver need the weekend off? Not for any reason whatsoever other than to spend time with his family, rest up and lay out on the beach.
The next 17 weeks are going to be brutal, but our money is on Harvick to win it all come November.
7. Austin Dillon
OK, so this guy’s grandfather is a legend in the sport.
And he’s driving the No. 3 car, a number that was driven by the legend in the sport.
And he’s racing in his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series, against what is arguably one of the best rookie classes to come along in more than a decade—a rookie class that includes a once-in-a-decade newcomer like Kyle Larson
Say what you will about Austin Dillon—that he's spoiled, that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that he’s had everything handed to him, etc.
None of that stuff is true. Dillon has earned his place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by driving the wheels off of everything he’s ever driven on a race track. Sure, he’s had some great equipment to use, but even great equipment won’t win you races unless you’ve got the talent to use it correctly.
He was a standout in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and a champion in that series (2011), and he was last season’s NASCAR Nationwide Series champion.
This season, he’s racing against the best drivers in the world (take that, you snobby Formula One guys!) in cars that are all well-prepared and powerful, and so far, he’s held his own, with one pole, one top-five and two top-10s.
But his top rival for Rookie of the Year honors, Larson, does have a better record. And he may very well win a race before Dillon does.
However, Dillon isn’t in a hurry to prove himself. He’s already been a champion in NASCAR—twice. He may not win a race this season, but his consistency could have him in the Chase on points. We would expect that winning the Rookie of the Year title over Larson would be nice, but it is not necessarily a major part of his overall career goals.
Dillon can take this weekend off, hang out at home or head off to the western mountains (where he likes to hunt) of North Carolina and chill. He’ll need his focus and energy as the race to the Chase heats up.
6. Greg Biffle
OK, simply put, Greg Biffle needs to win a race before the regular season ends. It might be an iffy call to say that he’ll make it into the Chase on points, as he’s currently 16th.
It’s not that he’s had a bad season. But Biffle knows that his team is just a bit off from where it needs to be.
“We just didn’t have what we needed. We just still have a little bit of work to do,” he said after the race at Kansas.
At Loudon, Biffle got into the No. 66 car early in the race, which caused considerable damage.
The 44-year-old is in a contract year, and while there’s been plenty of speculation about him staying at Roush Fenway Racing since longtime sponsor 3M re-upped its deal with the organization, there’s been no announcement yet of Biffle re-signing with RFR.
Biffle has offered in the media that he wants to stay with RFR. But he knows he needs to make the Chase field this year to show he's still a driver who can contend for a Cup title, and so far, he and his team haven’t shown that they’ve got what it takes to do that.
Could this weekend off give Biffle the time to reconsider other offers? And are there still other offers on the table? Or could it be the time he needs to solidify a deal with RFR?
It may be time for Biffle to make that bold move and move on.
5. Marcos Ambrose
Fan favorite Marcos Ambrose is a lot of fun to watch on the race track. Not so much on ovals, but on a road course, there is no one better in today’s field of Cup drivers than this Thunder from Down Under.
The way he masterfully out-brakes the competition and then bumps and bangs his way to the front is some real NASCAR entertainment. You almost wish the guy would restart about seventh or eighth on every restart just so you can watch him muscle his way past everyone to the front.
While Ambrose might have a shot at winning at Indianapolis next weekend, or even at Pocono the following weekend, you can bet the farm that he’ll be the guy to beat when the Sprint Cup Series rolls into Watkins Glen.
Before the race at Sonoma, where Ambrose started 23rd and finished eighth, he had this to say during a media teleconference:
We know that the race here this weekend (Sonoma) and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year. That will automatically lock us into the Chase. Clearly there's a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.We've done some road course testing as well, so we feel we're as ready as we can be.
NASCAR is a “what have you done for me lately” sport. And lately, Ambrose has been mediocre—at best. His eighth-place finish at Sonoma was an embarrassment for a driver who should have dominated all weekend long.
It’s hard to imagine Ambrose not being the dominant driver in a few weeks at Watkins Glen, where he’s started from the pole once and won twice. This is a good weekend for thinking about the braking zone going into Turn 1 at the Glen and blasting through the esses and out-braking the rest of the field going into the bus stop.
Like we said, you can bet the farm that Ambrose will be victorious at Watkins Glen and get himself a spot in the Chase along with teammate Aric Almirola. How cool would it be to have both Richard Petty Motorsports cars in the Chase?
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
No matter how you look at it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a miserable weekend at Loudon. His No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet SS never felt comfortable on the flat, one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It was reflected in his post-race television interview.
“That was frustrating. That was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a 10th-place finish," Junior said. "But we have been off all weekend. It’s been a real frustrating weekend to be honest. The guys worked real hard.”
His interview was hard to watch, but it showed real emotion from a real person, unlike many of the post-race interviews in which a driver is bound by his commitment to rattling off the names of his sponsor(s). It made it easy to see why so many NASCAR fans love the man, regardless of his last name.
(A side note: TNT got into the habit of interviewing Earnhardt Jr. after every race, something it obviously realized that the fans watching at home wanted to see, unlike the often-seen post-race interview with Danica Patrick that Fox Sports felt was important after every Cup race it broadcast. We’ll likely see the post-race Danica interview being repeated once ESPN takes over the television broadcasts beginning with the next race.)
Junior, take the girlfriend off to Paris for the weekend. You’ve earned it, and she deserves it.
We’ll see you in the Chase!
3. Brad Keselowski
What more can be said about Brad Keselowski, who is arguably the hottest driver in NASCAR right now?
He took advantage of a race car that was nearly perfect all afternoon at New Hampshire and beat up on the rest of the 42 cars in the field. His dominating performance last weekend showed that when the No. 2 Team Penske car is right, there’s nothing that can or will stop it. It’s likely that even if the No. 48 car had been in the field, it would not have made a difference.
Why does Keselowski belong on this list of the top 10 drivers who need a weekend off?
He’s got to have a few days to chill out on the beach, drink margaritas (or his favorite beer or apple cider) and enjoy the fruits of his and crew chief Paul Wolfe’s labors.
This team will be very, very tough to beat when the Chase begins.
This might be a good time for the driver to practice opening and spraying the champagne in Victory Lane.
2. Joey Logano
When we last saw Joey Logano, he and his No. 22 Ford were facing the wrong way at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The Team Penske driver was unhappy, and he made that clear when being interviewed by the TNT television reporter:
I got taken out by the slowest car out there. You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders. We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in.
Whatever. I don’t know. We will fix it and go at it again. Daytona is Daytona and everyone else crashed but this week – we were doing a good job after having a left rear flat in practice and we were running second with our backup car.
I can’t get too mad at ourselves over this. It is just dumb that it happened. I feel like that should be stuff that shouldn’t happen at this level of racing.
If you read over what Logano said, it appears he wasn't too upset at what happened. After all, he stated, “I can’t get too mad at ourselves over this."
That didn't stop a lot of folks on the Internet from getting mad, though. It seemed as though every blog, every website and eventually every television show that had anything at all to do with NASCAR jumped on the “why was 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd racing?” bandwagon, beating the war drums to death over what was nothing more than an unfortunate racing incident.
Shepherd had every right to be on the race track. The man was trying to earn a few bucks doing what he loves. He wasn’t racing against Logano by any means, but maybe, just maybe, Logano could have waited to pass him on the straightaway instead of the corner.
But we won't get into that here.
Time has come today, young Joey Logano, and you and your two Cup wins have earned your team a seat at the big kids table come Chase time.
Enjoy your weekend off. Work on your stamp collection. Arrange your marbles by size. Or maybe sit by the swimming pool and listen to your favorite music. You’ve earned it.
You are living the dream.
1. Jimmie Johnson
It is a rare instance that you find Jimmie Johnson’s name near the bottom of a Sprint Cup results page. Rarer still is to find it there two weekends in a row.
But we saw that exact event happen the past two race weekends.
Johnson was involved in an early wreck at Daytona and then this past weekend fell victim to a tire issue that put him out early. He was officially scored as finishing 42nd on both weekends.
The last time Johnson had consecutive DNFs was 2007, after back-to-back accidents at Chicagoland Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The last time he had three consecutive races with a DNF was in 2004.
For any other team, such an occurrence might have been a devastating blow to the entire team’s morale—from top to bottom. How could the team have been so unlucky? How could it ever recover from such misfortune?
But the No. 48 Lowe’s team isn’t your “normal” team by any means. It is a unique group of guys whose hard work has paid off not once but three times this season, offering the team the privilege of celebrating in Victory Lane with its driver, who, by the way, is one of a kind. The same goes for Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus.
This Hendrick Motorsports team is all about the postseason races. These guys seem to thrive on it. They work well during the regular season, but during the Chase, they kick things up to a whole different level.
This year, though, they’ll find the challenge of winning a record-tying seventh championship for driver Johnson their toughest ever. Competing against talented teams whose drivers have names like Harvick, Keselowski and even Hendrick teammates Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, the Chase won’t be anything like it has been in years past.
So rest up, fellas. Enjoy these days away from the race track. Don’t sweat the past two weekends, as the next seven should seem like a piece of cake in comparison.
But those last 10 weekends…they’ll have to be as close to perfect as you can make them.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow Bob Margolis on Twitter: @BobMargolis