NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Up To Speed: The Best of the Rest Heading Into Sonoma

We say it every year, but I’m always amazed at how fast the racing season passes by. One day the excitement of the Daytona 500 sets upon us, providing much needed racing after a long, cold offseason. Soon after, it’s the first day of summer, Father’s Day weekend, the sun is beating down on most of the country, and the championship contenders have established themselves.

No one questions whether or not Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are the current drivers to beat for the title, even though there are still several more regular season races and point resets upon us.

But what about everyone else?

The first 15 races have brought 10 different winners, and there are several good teams that still haven’t made it to Victory Lane. Though I doubt that we will reach 16 different winners to fill up the full Chase Grid before the final regular season race at Richmond in September, there are several drivers it is very difficult to imagine the postseason without.

So on this Sprint Cup Series off weekend, we are going to do a little bit of pretending. There are 11 races left before the Chase field is officially set. That gives plenty of time for some winless drivers this season to score a victory and secure their place in the Chase field. Let’s pretend that six drivers win for the first time this season, filling a full 16-driver Chase grid in what would be NASCAR’s ultimate goal. Again, unlikely, but still technically possible.

From a statistical standpoint, who might those six drivers be?

Let’s crunch some numbers.

Kasey Kahne – Kahne is a Hendrick Motorsports driver, but perhaps is also one of the most quietly consistent drivers on the track in 2015. Kahne’s ninth-place spot in the current Sprint Cup Series driver standings might pale in comparison to teammate Johnson’s fifth-place spot with four race wins, but the No. 5 team is absolutely still capable of winning races.

Kahne has two top fives, five top 10s and one pole position this season. In fact, that pole position came in the series’ last race at Michigan International Speedway. In other words, the team has speed, but doesn’t have the results to show for it.

Is Kahne a threat for the championship? As of now, no, but a Chase spot is not out of the question for him. In his 12 years of Sprint Cup Series competition, Kahne only has three winless seasons and three finishes outside of the top 16 in the season-ending standings. When all he has to do is win one race to secure a spot in the Chase, he has to like those numbers.

In fact, it is not altogether out of the question for Kahne to win next weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Kahne won at the California track back in 2009 and finished sixth in the two most recent races there. Plus, the road-course races tend to make for a more level playing field, so perhaps Sonoma could be the determining factor in getting the No. 5 car into Victory Lane and into the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Jeff Gordon – This one is absolutely a no-brainer. With this being Gordon’s final full-time season, he is more motivated than ever to make it into the Chase and win a championship. There is no reason to think the No. 24 team won’t be a part of the 2015 postseason and at least make an attempt to get Gordon a fifth title.

Some of what has kept Gordon out of Victory Lane has been performance, but much of it can be attributed to bad luck. Eight top 10s in 15 races is no fluke, and of the 162 laps that Gordon has led this season, none of those have been at the checkered flag.

I don’t know of anyone who doubts that Gordon can get to Victory Lane this season, let alone before Richmond. Gordon has wins at literally every racetrack on the schedule except for Kentucky, and even there he has finished in the top 10 in every single race he’s competed in. That statistic could easily change this season.

However, he may not need to win at Kentucky. Gordon has multiple victories at literally every racetrack before (and including) Richmond, including five or more victories at Sonoma, Daytona, Indianapolis, Pocono, Bristol and Darlington.

Still not convinced? Consider this. Gordon has a breathtaking 92 victories throughout his career and has only endured three winless seasons in 23 years of full-time competition.

Yeah… it’s only a matter of when, not if, the No. 24 makes it to Victory Lane. I think it’s safe to reserve one Chase spot for this team.

Jamie McMurray – I don’t know that I really believe that McMurray will win his way into the Chase, but you have to give him some consideration since he is currently the highest driver in points without a win. At the very least, I believe he will score enough points to make it into the Chase, but a win is certainly not out of the question.

McMurray is higher in points than both Kahne and Gordon, but it’s the laps led category that has me a little concerned. Only 14 laps led all season means McMurray is capable of the top-10 consistency needed to make it into the Chase, but doesn’t spend enough time up front to really be a consistent contender.

However, McMurray is on this list because he has a tendency to pull off some major victories at the most opportune times. In only seven career victories, McMurray has won some of the biggest races this sport boasts, such as the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event, but a big victory nonetheless).

McMurray is also a severely underrated restrictor-plate driver. Four of those seven victories came at restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega), and the series heads to Daytona next month.

The regular season schedule also still includes Indianapolis Motor Speedway, another track where McMurray has had success.

Again, though McMurray hasn’t led a lot of laps this season, his results this season at least allows for some consideration and the No. 1 car would make for a great dark horse in any of the next several races.

Kyle LarsonLarson, McMurray’s teammate, is a long-shot I’ll admit. He’s 18th in points with only one top five. No one doubts his talent as a driver, but the Cup Series is tough on even the most seasoned drivers. This is only Larson’s second full-time season.

So why did I include him here?

Again I will emphasize the “win and you’re in” strategy that these teams employ, and one that Larson’s crew chief Chris Heroy attempted to capitalize on in a rain-shortened race at Michigan International Speedway last weekend. Had the rain started just a few laps earlier, Larson would have won his way into the Chase already.

Also, let’s not forget that Larson’s  18th-place standing is not necessarily a reflection of the team’s actual performance this season. Larson missed the sixth race of the season at Martinsville Speedway after he fainted during an autograph session during the race weekend. The team and doctors kept him out of the race as they continued to monitor his condition. It’s absolutely possible Larson would be up in the top 10 in points with his teammate if not for this one incident.

However, one of the main reasons I’m including Larson on this list is his lead lap total. McMurray has only led 14.

Larson has led 100. Yes, I am aware that 90 of those were at Bristol — which is on the schedule before the Chase starts — but Larson and this team are fully capable of either leading or strategizing their way into Victory Lane. Yes, again, it’s a bit of a longshot considering the competition, but Larson’s one top five and five top 10s could certainly translate into at least one victory.

Paul Menard – Yeah, yeah, I know. Go ahead and laugh. In 12 years in the Sprint Cup Series, Menard only has one victory. He’s only led one lap all season and is rarely a threat to win anywhere. What am I thinking?

Menard is one driver I can’t figure out. He usually starts out each season strong, running in the top 10, sometimes even the top five, and occasionally leads a handful of laps. He’s consistent and doesn’t tear up a lot of racecars. In 308 career starts, Menard only has 12 crash-related DNFs and has finished on the lead lap every race this season.

He isn’t as terrible as many fans like to say he is, but it would be hard to categorize him as a “good” driver.

Except for those races where, every once in a while, he surprises all of us. He has two top fives and four top 10s this season. Those certainly aren’t championship results, but could he pull out a random win and take a Chase spot away from a driver higher up in points? It would probably be cause for a few dropped jaws and raised eyebrows but he absolutely could. Let’s not forget that the Indianapolis win in 2011 was a fuel-mileage race, which we’ve seen a lot of this season.

Richard Childress Racing hasn’t had a ton of speed this season, but Menard is their highest-ranking driver right now (yes, really), and their current best shot at making the Chase. You have to admit, it would be one heck of a Cinderella story.

It’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Menard’s best shot at winning is. Though his lone win came at Indianapolis, his overall stats there leave a lot to be desired. Interestingly enough, of the remaining tracks left in the regular season, Menard’s best average finish comes at Bristol. However, Menard’s status as a longshot might mean that the Daytona July race might be his most legitimate shot.

Menard is going be the biggest long shot of anyone else on this list, but you can’t take away from him the fact that he is higher in points than several other drivers who you might otherwise consider to be a bigger threat.

Ryan Newman – Newman is Menard’s teammate and has been equally unimpressive, but it was his consistency that allowed him to be one of the four drivers competing for the championship at Homestead at the end of 2014. I don’t doubt that could be the case again this season, but Newman’s statistics are less than that of Menard’s.

Even so, Newman has something that Menard doesn’t: multiple race wins throughout his career. 17 to be exact. Plus, four top fives and eight top 10s this season best Menard’s statistics in those categories.

Newman’s experience in getting to Victory Lane might prove crucial if he finds himself in position to win later this year.

Newman has past victories at Daytona and Richmond, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say those are his only opportunities to get to Victory Lane before the Chase begins. Despite the fact that RCR has lacked some major speed this season, considering that Furniture Row Racing — a team that has an alliance with RCR — has been borderline dominant this season, Newman’s experience might give him the best shot at winning of anyone at RCR.

Of the six drivers on this list, the only two that I really expect to win are Kahne and Gordon. I think McMurray and Larson are certainly capable, but to expect both of them to win before Richmond is a bit of a stretch (if they both get to Victory Lane at all). Menard and Newman are both past winners, but will likely only be able to win based on a strategy race or at a crapshoot track like Sonoma or Daytona.

Do I actually think that all 16 Chase spots will be filled with regular season winners? No. But, from a statistical standpoint this season, these six have so far put up the best performance. Compared to that of Johnson, Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. though, it’s not much and they have a lot of work to do if they are going to make that happen.

What would a NASCAR off-week be, though, without a little bit of number crunching and wild imaginations? By the time Richmond rolls around, everything could have changed. For now, though, this is where we stand and potentially a few drivers to watch over the next several weeks.

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