The label of future Sprint Cup champion is liberally dispensed – but rarely achieved. In the 60 years of NASCAR competition, only 28 drivers have attained the hallowed crown – and it’s a pretty exclusive club. 12 drivers have won a solitary championship, while another eight have won two titles. Five men – Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson and Lee Petty – have won three; Jeff Gordon owns four, while both the King and the Intimidator won a record seven apiece. So, it’s fair to say the odds of becoming a Sprint Cup champion are extremely slim (think, paper thin) and with the Chase format and the increasing number of competitive teams, it’s arguable that it’s harder than ever to win the lot.
With that level of complexity in mind, I’m going to pick a number of current drivers and analyze their chances of winning a Sprint Cup championship at some point in the near (or far) future. Those that know me well won’t be surprised to learn my method of analysis is hardly scientific, but roughly divided into drivers who have been referred to both fleetingly and often as future Sprint Cup champions. I’m going to divvy up the drivers into four major categories: Yes, Maybe, No, and Too Early To Tell.
In about 10 years’ time, it will sure be interesting to revisit this column and see how accurate or way off the mark I was; so, let’s not waste another 10 seconds and get right to it:
Kyle Busch: There’s no doubt in my mind that one day Busch will toast a Sprint Cup title in victory lane at Homestead. Whether this will win the crowd over is anyone’s guess; but in the era of bland, corporate drones, who better to root for than a driver who’s straight off the pages of Talladega Nights? So many column inches (physical and electronic) have been written criticizing Busch Junior for his many and varied transgressions – some imagined and some obvious – but for my money, there’s no one on the current Sprint Cup circuit I’d rather watch close out a victory these days.
Carl Edwards: The backflip king is going to win the big prize, likely in the next three years. His consistency on the Sprint Cup circuit staple, the Cookie Cutter, combined with his increasing prowess on other types of tracks – not to mention crew chief Bob Osborne and equipment from owner Jack Roush – all add up to a title in the toothy one’s future. Having met Edwards and talked to him about subjects I’d never have expected, I have to say I have something of a vested interest in that I’d like to see Carl win one. But personal feelings aside, the objective assessment says yes anyways.
Kevin Harvick: If Harvick puts it all together, then maybe, just maybe, he could pull off an eighth title for legendary car owner Richard Childress. As a column on ESPN pointed out earlier in the season, drivers with more than 10 years’ experience rarely win a first championship so late in their careers. But like every good rule, there are exceptions, and Harvick might just fall into that category. Having had perhaps the toughest start in the history of any Sprint Cup driver (replacing Dale Earnhardt after his death in the 2001 Daytona 500), you’d figure that his career trajectory should end with champion on his resume. Already a Nationwide Series titleholder, Harvick is a racer through and through and would be a worthy champion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The toughest driver to judge in this category simply because of his fan base. I know for a fact I’ll get slaughtered for not putting him in the yes column; but as with Cousin Carl, I’d like to see Junior win a Cup crown and join the Petty, Jarrett father-son champion club – preferably before the Busches manage it first. Simply put, NASCAR needs its favorite driver to win the big kahuna sooner rather than later. But the ironic thing is that even if Junior does win a crown, his fans and critics will just start talking about the fact that his father won seven. The guy’s got the talent, no doubt, but can he and Tony Eury Jr. pull it all together when it matters most? For now, I’d say that’s a maybe.
Clint Bowyer: Nothing seems to phase this cat, and season finishes of fifth and third prove that the likable Emporia, Kans. native knows how to wheel a racecar. As I mentioned earlier this year, Bowyer is the driver I underrate the most, and by placing him in this category I suppose I’m open to that criticism again… a little. With a Nationwide Series title already in the locker, Bowyer can focus his attention on the big prize, with a seamless transition to new car and crew that’s been highly impressive. If Bowyer continues to build, his name will be bandied around with the top-echelon drivers for years to come. Clint the Champ? Definitely possible, but the chips would have to fall exactly right… time is on his side, though.
Greg Biffle: Great driver, great guy, great guest on This Week in NASCAR… the Biff is another you can’t help but root for. My money says the driver of the No. 16 Ford Fusion will never lift the big trophy at Homestead, but he’ll be a borderline Hall of Famer when he hangs up the helmet. No matter what, he’ll leave – barring anything unforeseen – with a ton of fans and the respect of his fellow competitors.
Jeff Burton: The 17-year veteran has had a storied, successful NASCAR career with all the requisite ups and downs you’d expect. He may not win a Sprint Cup crown, but he’ll leave the sport with the respect of the garage, and his next job is likely to be (gasp) even more important than NASCAR. Props, too, go to Burton for a fine cameo on General Hospital last week. It was the first (and likely only time) I’ll watch the long-running ABC soap – well, that is until the next driver makes an appearance.
Ryan Newman: It’s been three years since Newman made the Chase, and while the move to Stewart-Haas Racing might yet be a wise one, it seems like a stretch that Newman will win a championship. He probably had his best chance in 2003, when he won eight of his 13 Sprint Cup races while aligned with Roger Penske. The trouble was, a certain Matt Kenseth had things wrapped up that year. He’ll go down as a fine racer, and will likely pad his win total… but Newman, Sprint Cup champ? Unlikely, very unlikely.
Juan Pablo Montoya: After a good start to his Sprint Cup career, things seem to have stalled for the irascible Colombian. In terms of pure driving ability, he could win a title; but unless he gets a ride with more horses under the hood, I can’t see him adding one to his glittering resume.
Mark Martin: Martin, Sprint Cup champ. Never gonna happen, right? Well, the evidence would certainly suggest that despite the many accolades the most famous son of Batesville, Arkansas has picked up through the course of his long career. But – and maybe it’s just because I prefer looking on the bright side of life – there’s still a chance Martin could get it done despite a tough start to the 2009 season. And if it does happen, Mark Martin – Sprint Cup champion would be (without a doubt) the Greatest Story in NASCAR. Ever.
TOO EARLY TO TELL
Joey Logano: An unblemished charge through the lower levels of racing along with plaudits and kudos by the likes of Martin would suggest that Logano will get better; but as his struggles multiply week by week, the evidence is starting to look a little damning. It’s still possible he could flame out in Casey Atwood style, but I reckon Logano’ll get it figured out and if he does – look out. One note of caution: if he can’t do in the No. 20 car (with that crew chief, pit crew and owner) then he’s not likely to do it anywhere else. But the kid is still two and a half years from a legal drink, let’s not forget. He’s still got time, which Coach and JD will give him plenty of without much of a problem. I say he improves and becomes a champ over time; but right now, it’s still far too early to tell.
David Ragan: Another driver who falls snugly in this category is the driver of the Roush Fenway Racing No. 6. He’s had a horrible start to 2009, outside of his solitary top 10 (sixth – Daytona). But time is on the side of the man from Unadilla (what a great name for a place, by the way), and his sponsor UPS is not looking at this deal as a short-term partnership, I’m sure. With a breakthrough 14 top-10 finishes in 2008, the transformation from the nickname given to him by Tony Stewart of “dart without feathers” is almost complete. Is Ragan a future Cup champion? Quite possibly; but for now, the jury’s out as they say.
Brian Vickers: When Vickers left Hendrick Motorsports, there were plenty in the garage (and the journalist pack) who were willing to write his premature racing obituary. But after missing a third of the races (13) in 2007 with his brand spanking new Red Bull team, Vickers regrouped and came out strong in 2008. He missed the Chase, but not by much, and you can bet he’s got the top 12 in his sights this year. Still only 25, Vickers has one (contentious) win in 177 Sprint Cup races – but the signs are that he is most definitely moving on up.
Brad Keselowski: This one’s a pick for the future, without a doubt, as Keselowski boasts a grand total of two Sprint Cup races under his belt. But respectable finishes of 19th at Texas and 23rd at Homestead, not to mention the likelihood of stepping into the No. 5 car full-time either in 2010 or 2011, give every reason to stay upbeat for the prospects of the Rochester Hills, Michigan native.
So, there’s my list. I’m sure I’ve caused some conniptions so, as I say, tell me why I’m wrong (or right) below. Over to you folks…