Every year, there is a group of drivers who, for a variety of reasons, needs to step up the game. It could be a contract year, a need for a comeback from a slump, a matter of living up to expectations. Sometimes it’s all three, sometimes it’s a self-inflicted pressure that simply stems from not meeting one’s own expectations. But whatever the reason, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency for some, a bit more of a fear factor. This year, the pressure is as high as ever, and here are five who have something to prove:
1. Danica Patrick
No, Danica Patrick‘s not struggling to find sponsorship, nor is she in a contract year. In fact, there’s no concrete reason she faces a critical juncture in her career. She’s popular, she has a sponsor, is a media darling and has a lengthy contract with an elite team.
So what’s on the line, exactly?
Patrick, an IndyCar race winner, came to NASCAR with a ridiculous amount of hype on her petite shoulders — hype that no driver could have been expected to live up to. There is a steep learning curve between Indy cars and stock cars, and better open-wheelers than her have retreated with their tails between their legs. Patrick hasn’t, which actually speaks volumes. But with three years now under her belt, she should be showing more than the occasional flash of talent than she has if she’s really going to be more than a mid-pack driver.
And if she is never more than a mid-pack driver? That’s perfectly OK; plenty of drivers have made careers out of just that. But if she’s going to be more, she needs to show it this season.
2. Austin Dillon
Like Patrick, Austin Dillon is in no danger of losing his ride; his grandfather owns it. Dillon is a fairly talented driver whose biggest mistake might have been choosing to drive the car number last sported by one of the best ever to grace the seat of a stock car. Reasoning aside (the No. 3 belonged to Richard Childress long before Dale Earnhardt entered the picture, and that’s why Dillon chose it), it left Dillon standing in a pair of shoes that very few drivers ever, let alone in this era, could ever begin to fill.
Dillon has done a decent job, but in his third full season, it’s time to show some chops if he’s going to be seen as more than a kid who got a top ride based on nepotism. He’s got talent, but he has yet to find the consistency that will put him in the Chase alongside his less-touted teammates, and he has yet to seriously look like he’s going to find Victory Lane.
3. Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray doesn’t have the luxury of several years left on his contract or family connections to keep him in the seat. He doesn’t have time on his side, either, like he once did as the young up-and-comer who just needed a little something more — a little more horsepower, a little more setup — to put him over the hump of winning races and contending for titles. McMurray had decent success early in his career with Chip Ganassi, left for greener pastures at Roush Fenway Racing, and returned to the Ganassi fold.
What that stint at RFR showed was that equipment wasn’t an issue. McMurray isn’t a bad driver by any stretch — he has seven Cup wins, which is more than many drivers have enjoyed, including a Daytona 500. But at age 40, he’s made the Chase just once and never made it past the first round. His contract’s up at the end of the season, and with a backlog of young drivers looking for a chance, McMurray really needs to step up his game if he’s going to stick around past November.
4. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Contract year, struggling organization and a lack of appreciable success at the Cup level? That’s a recipe for worry, and, well, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. should be worried. Yes, Roush Fenway Racing has had its problems across the board in the last couple of years, but that might actually be even more of a reason for Stenhouse to be looking over his shoulder. The organization has some talented youngsters waiting in the wings, and patience has to be wearing thin with Stenhouse, who has more career DNF’s than top-5 finishes.
He struggled early in his XFINITY Series career to the point of almost losing his ride before bouncing back to win a pair of titles in that series, but he hasn’t shown the degree of improvement in the Cup cars that he did in the XFINITY machines, and time is running out. Tick, tock.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Yeah, that Jimmie Johnson — six-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson needs to pick it up. In Johnson’s case, he has nothing to prove. He’s the best driver of his era whether he wins another title or not, and he’s got a ride as long as he wants one. But that elusive seventh title? If Johnson doesn’t outright win it this year, he has to at least prove he can contend under a point system that some feel was designed to keep Johnson from winning titles like they grow on trees.
In two seasons with the current format, Johnson hasn’t delivered, and he’ll be 41 by season’s end. Time’s no longer on his side for tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt on top of the title heap, and even less so for bypassing them. Remember when it was all but a foregone conclusion that Jeff Gordon would win five, six, seven titles? It never happened, and what once seemed inevitable for Johnson is on the brink of falling apart as well. If he doesn’t win title number seven this year, it’s probably not going to happen. If he fails to make the final four again, the once-inevitable changes drastically — from tying the record to falling just short.