Most will focus on the championship battle at this weekend’s Sprint Cup Series Homestead race — and why not? After a close Chase, a first-time champion could very well be crowned unless a five-time former champ can make some magic happen and overcome a hefty deficit in the final race of the year.
But that’s not all that’s at stake in Florida. From the time the season began in that very state to now, there have been 35 regular season races, meaning 35 different chances to claim a victory. A total of 15 drivers have won those events, with Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin at the top of the category with five wins apiece.
Last weekend at Phoenix, Kevin Harvick became winner number 15 with a relieving victory, one which marked a bright spot during an otherwise just-OK season. Had he not emerged victorious, Harvick would be a member of an undesirable community: 2012’s non-winners.
Granted, it’s impossible for all drivers in the series to win a race in a given season for a multitude of reasons. For starters, more than 36 drivers run each race, let alone an entire season. Plus, many racers drive for smaller, underfunded teams that would be thrilled with a top-20 finish much less a win.
Still, there is a handful of competitors whose zero-win status is more surprising. Let’s hit on a few of the most notable, going by a few specific categories.
Most surprising winless streak: Carl Edwards
Runner-up: Martin Truex, Jr.
After a misstep in 2009 during which he won zero races, Carl Edwards visited victory lane twice in 2010 and once in 2011. Both seasons, he was near or at the top of the championship standings, famously losing out to Tony Stewart last season via a tie-breaker: most wins. Through nearly eight full seasons of competition, the Roush Fenway Racing driver has 19 wins and heads to victory lane on a fairly regular basis when he competes in the Nationwide Series. So what happened in 2012? Not only did Edwards miss the Chase, but he finished in the top 5 only three times, two of which came in the first five races of the year, and his best finish all year is just a fifth place.
Edwards’ winless 2012 is not surprising because of him being close to victory often and not getting there, as his results indicate. Instead, it’s because, well, he’s Carl Edwards. The 32-year-old hasn’t triumphed since Las Vegas in March of 2011, something one wouldn’t expect from a series superstar. And even with the pressure of the Chase off him this year, he’s still been unable to perform over the last nine events. Few would’ve expected the guy who won nine races in 2008 and nearly won last year’s championship to be winless for nearly two years going into Homestead.
Martin Truex, Jr.’s winless season is also interesting given Michael Waltrip Racing’s success in 2012, with all three MWR cars competing for high finishing positions on a weekly basis. Unlike with Carl Edwards, the surprise here is that Truex has come close to wins on several occasions this year. Truex did make the Chase in 2012, but is now the only driver in it without a win. He’s been mighty close too, the high point being a second-place finish at Kansas during which he led 173 laps. One would’ve expected the chips to have fallen in his favor by now.
Who most needs a win: Jeff Burton
Runner-up: Kurt Busch
Jeff Burton has to be getting worried, and his recent interviews have shown such preoccupation, with Burton calling 2013 a make-or-break year for the 21-win veteran. The Dillon brothers are quickly approaching the Cup level (Harvick’s already bailing), and unless he can rattle off better results, the 45-year-old Burton could be the odd man out when a seat is needed for Ty Dillon. Burton hasn’t won since 2008, hasn’t made the Chase since 2010 and has scored only four top-5 finishes over the last two seasons.
Burton needs to show that he’s still a guy who can contend for victories, because there will be no need for him at Richard Childress Racing otherwise. He could help Austin and Ty Dillon with a little veteran advice and leadership, but at this rate, they’ll probably do better in their respective rookie seasons without him, given how he’s performing now. 2013 truly _is_ a make-or-break year for Burton, and a win at Homestead would be a nice precursor in that regard.
Kurt Busch has had a sub-par season in mostly sub-par equipment, but a streak of 10 straight seasons with a win (behind only Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson among active drivers) is on the line. Since he joined Furniture Row Racing, Busch has been stellar, with two straight eighth-place finishes coming into Homestead. The streak has to be on his mind, so expect the Las Vegas native to really go for it in the season’s final race.
Who has the best shot at winning this weekend: Carl Edwards
Runner-up: Mark Martin
With one race left in 2012, there’s a lot of room for many teams to make a last-ditch effort at victory, abandoning all pretense and throwing everything they have at being the fastest on the track. Going into Homestead, no Roush Fenway driver has a chance at the title on the Cup level; chances are most of RFR’s effort will be spent on Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.’s Nationwide championship effort.
Stenhouse is also racing in the Cup event, giving the team four horses in the show, but more attention can be afforded to Edwards, who unlike teammate Matt Kenseth will be back at the team in 2013 and has a great Homestead track record, nearly winning the event last year and winning in 2008 and 2010 for an average finish of 5.2, currently the best of anyone ever at the track. His past results, coupled with a winless streak approaching two years, gives him the best shot of any winless driver out there.
Like Truex, Mark Martin has been unable to score a victory during a season when Michael Waltrip Racing has come into a renaissance of sorts, with highly competitive cars and teammate Clint Bowyer winning three races. The 53-year-old has certainly come close in 2012, looking downright unbeatable at Michigan in August before a crash ruined his day. Martin has never won at Homestead, but does have four top-fives at the track, showing that he knows it well enough to have a good showing at the end of the day. A Martin win would be a rarity in NASCAR too, where few part-time drivers find victory lane in the Cup Series.
These aren’t the only drivers who will be gunning for victory this weekend. Several other former winners who have not yet found Victory Lane will be in the field, including Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Regan Smith, Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears, Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, Ken Schrader, Joe Nemechek and David Reutimann. While not all of them have the caliber of equipment needed, all will be anxious to end 2012 on a high note. The drivers who have never won will be looking to change that if they can.
The 2012 season might be over, but for some drivers it just won’t feel complete without a trip to the winner’s circle. Only one person can be there when the checkers fly, but it would not be a big surprise to see Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Martin Truex, Jr., or even someone different stealing the thunder.
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