A few weeks ago, I wrote an article stating there was no way there would be more than 16 winners by the time we got to the Chase, and that points still mattered, along with consistent finishes. With Joey Logano’s win at Texas on Monday (that I predicted three weeks ago over at Athlon Sports), I might be forced to eat a little crow here come September.
Okay, a bucket of Extra Crispy Crow, with a side of mac and cheese.
Seven races in – seven different winners. This is actually setting the stage for a break neck last few weeks heading into Richmond, which in the past really only affected those on the outside looking in; and what was more nail-biting than watching cars typically racing for 15th or 20th, going for 12th to 10th?
1. Marcos Ambrose This one is kind of a no brainer, really. He won Watkins Glen two years in row in 2011 and 2012, but missed out on the three-peat last year after having led 51 laps, after contact from Max Papis sent him into the Armco in the esses. Richard Petty Motorsports as a whole has been markedly stronger this year, and has rivaled their Roush Fenway engine and chassis supplier in most races this year. He also has a pair of Top 5s this year at Bristol and Martinsville – so he’s not just some one-trick pony. Downforce tracks unfortunately have been this team’s downfall, along with the Roush Fenway group as a whole. Fear not though; the last time the RFR group was having similar troubles, it was the Petty camp that came to the rescue back in 2010.
2. AJ Allmendinger A bit of a sleeper, but this team has been knocking on the door of relevancy all season long. 20th in points but an eighth place run at Fontana, and an 11th at Martinsville after running in the Top 10 at times, this team could be a threat to win at Sonoma. Two top 10s in five appearances there, though he was absent last year while on the Road to Recovery program and preparing for his run in the Indianapolis 500. The No. 47 team has a storied past in wine country, after Marcos Ambrose’s notorious fuel saving efforts gone awry, and Bobby Labonte not even rolling off the grid last year when the green flag dropped. This season things seem to be headed in the right direction after a switch to Chevrolet and a technical alliance with RCR that is already paying dividends.
3. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. While the Roush Fenway Fords have looked a little off compared to their Penske counterparts this year, the No. 17 team has shown flashes of brilliance. A seventh place finish at the Daytona 500 was a good omen, and had there been another restart at Bristol, it may have been Stenhouse in victory lane rather than teammate Carl Edwards. The last few weeks have been most unpleasant – finishes of 34th, 40th, and 26th – but that’s not to say things can turn around mighty fast at a restrictor plate track, or at the Bristol Night Race in August. The Roush Cars have always been dangerous on the big tracks, particularly the second time around in recent years, and the No. 17 has a pretty stellar record too, particularly at Daytona. I say Stenhouse rings in the Fourth of July with his first career win and a Chase birth at the Coke Zero 400.
4. Kyle Larson While Chase Elliott made all the headlines last week with his first career Nationwide Series win at Texas, it was Kyle Larson who had the similar honor a week earlier. Maybe it didn’t generate the same buzz because his Dad doesn’t have the prefix “Awesome” as his official nickname, or a siren that sounds upon him winning a race, but Kyle Larson has quickly ascended to the favorite for the Rookie of The Year battle in the Sprint Cup Series. A second at Fontana to Kyle Busch was reminiscent of their first showdown at Bristol last year – a harbinger of things to come or a premature passing of the torch? Okay, it wasn’t exactly Petty and Waltrip at Darlington (yet), but the No. 42 is big track fast one again, and gets better the longer a race goes on. With that being said, what race is longer than the Coca-Cola 600? Charlotte loves a first time winner, and a Ganassi Chevrolet went to victory lane there in 2011 with his teammate Jamie McMurray. Larson goes Gordon, and Back to the Future, winning his first race at the Coke 600 in May.
5. Casey Mears Don’t look now but the No. 13 GEICO car that was one lapped before the first yellow has made a similar leap forward as the JTG-Daugherty team of A.J. Allmendinger. Might this have something to do with their RCR Technical alliance? Yeah, probably. Okay all of it. Either way, the results have been inspiring: a tenth in the Daytona 500, Top 15s at Phoenix and Fontana, and no DNFs to speak of. Recall back to 2012 when Mears was steaming towards the front on the last lap at Talladega, pushing Michael Waltrip to the front, before Tony Stewart moved down slow their roll – and 30 car pile-up ensued? Pretty sure that same scenario could play out again with RCR power under the hood and their history of superspeedway heroics. David Ragan slew Goliath last year at Talladega, so why can’t the Gecko get over this time around? Against all odds, the sum of all Mears comes to fruition at Talladega, with Casey and company snatching a win and being the Cinderella story of The Chase.