There’s a few indisputable truths about the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season. Perhaps the most important, cloaked within a playoff system that rewards trips to Victory Lane, is the lack of winners dotting the current Chase for the championship. Just six drivers have earned a first-place trophy through the first 11 races, the lowest number through this stretch in nearly a decade (2007). Joe Gibbs Racing has won six times in 11 starts, its four-car operation excelling at each type of track, while Hendrick Motorsports chassis (three wins) and Team Penske (two wins) have cleaned up the rest. So much for parity in the current version of the playoff format.
But I digress. All that dominance at the top makes it that much more difficult for drivers looking to save their jobs. After a few dormant Silly Season years the series is due for a shakeup in 2016; Tony Stewart’s retirement is already forcing one change (Clint Bowyer will take over the No. 14 next season) and several other contracts will be up come Homestead in November. The long list of goose eggs in the win column has led to several early-season disappointments, and the short regular season (just 26 races) means time is running short to pull a Chase upset. Yes, in theory one win is all it takes to turn a snoozer season into a playoff dream, but there’s only a handful of tracks left (Sonoma, Daytona, Watkins Glen) that are potential game-changers for teams already too far behind the curve. How do you do it when JGR has you lapped by the first green-flag pit stop?
That said, here’s a list of drivers fighting that proverbial hot seat heading to the crucial middle portion of the season. For most, their future NASCAR employment will be contingent on beating the odds and snatching a victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Greg Biffle. For years, the school of thought was that Biffle got held back by staying loyal to the Roush Fenway team that brought him to the dance. His Cup Series career has consisted of one car and one car only – the No. 16 – since ascending to NASCAR’s top level full-time in 2003. But now, at age 46 we could be seeing Father Time taking his toll. Teammates Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. are leading an RFR resurgence at Ford this season while Biffle has yet to score a top-10 finish. When your best run is at your worst track (12th at Martinsville) you know it’s a forgettable season; he already sits 53 points outside the final Chase spot. Fontana, a track at which Biffle once destroyed the competition? 37th. Kansas, a place at which he once won despite crossing the line third? 27th on Saturday night.
Sponsorship has proved difficult to come by when Ortho bailed during the offseason and a long-rumored contract extension never materialized. Technically signed through the end of 2017, limited funding could provide RFR the out it needs to kick this once-formidable veteran to the curb.
Casey Mears. One of the sport’s nice guys, Mears is the employee who brings you coffee, asks about your kids, the role model everyman you don’t want to fire. But at some point, the actual resume trumps personality… right? AJ Allmendinger has taken Richard Childress Racing chassis to a Chase bid with a single-car team; so far this season he’s shown signs of a second effort. Mears? 28th in points, zero laps led and just one top-15 finish for single-car Germain Racing. When’s the last time he ran top 5 outside of Daytona and Talladega with this team? Keep thinking; the answer is never.
Kasey Kahne. Here’s where it gets interesting. Kahne has shown signs of life lately, a fourth at Richmond just his third top-5 finish in a year. Crew chief Keith Rodden, lucky to survive a second season, has shown signs of breaking through a feedback channel on the radio that’s devolved at points to long stretches of quiet followed by nearly incomprehensible yelling. Kahne’s communication, viewed as lovable and endearing off the track, has never been quite so pleasant to decipher on it.
It’s a transition year for Kahne’s HMS program, no doubt, with the departure of teammate Jeff Gordon. But zero laps led? A paltry average finish of 18.4? Could this type of competitive performance be tolerated a second straight year? Especially if Kahne misses the Chase there’s enough young options out there to make his 2018 contract reworkable. That’s considering…
Kyle Larson. Larson, a driver connected to Chip Ganassi Racing (an HMS affiliate… just sayin’), has failed to achieve his full potential. A man once compared to Jeff Gordon hoped to match the latter’s title-winning season in his third year but has instead found himself hitting walls, both literally and figuratively. Different crew chiefs have made little difference; journeyman teammate Jamie McMurray surprisingly outruns him at times. The promising performances, when they do come, are often wiped out with an untimely wreck or a simple mistake which undermines the confidence Larson sorely needs.
Sound familiar? I see Joey Logano raising his hand in the audience. What Sliced Bread needed was a change of scenery to fulfill his destiny of slicing through the Sprint Cup field on a weekly basis. More and more, you wonder if Larson, just age 22, needs the same lest he risk becoming the next Reed Sorenson.
Ryan Newman. Newman, two years removed from an unlikely Cup Series runner-up in the standings, has to see the writing on the wall. Here’s Ty Dillon, owner Richard Childress’ grandson, who’s toiling in the XFINITY Series and can’t secure proper sponsorship to move up. Yet when he does get the chance, Dillon shines (sixth at Talladega filling in for Tony Stewart). All he needs is a ride. You know who has one? With sponsorship? Who happens to be unrelated to the owner and has an expiring contract in 2016?
You fill in the blanks from here. Newman has put in a yeoman’s effort but has also showed decline every year with RCR; this season’s run to 17th in points leaves him vulnerable and on the Chase bubble. Nothing short of a handful of wins will prevent the inevitable from happening, it seems, unless…
Paul Menard. Menard, the benefactor of family money would seem to have a Sprint Cup ride however long he wants it. Childress certainly benefits from the money this man, Newman’s teammate, brings to the table. But Menard, a 2015 Chaser, may have peaked with that lone playoff performance after toiling at NASCAR’s top level for nearly a decade. He’s earned just one top-10 finish this season, an eighth at Martinsville, and has an uncharacteristic three DNFs through 11 events. That’s already one short of his career high and there’s two-thirds of a season left.
At age 35, Menard isn’t getting any younger, and there’s a chance (however remote) he could choose a fresh start or even retirement. The latter would potentially open the door for Dillon, but seems unlikely. It’s easy to keep yourself out of Silly Season when you’re capable of writing your own check, right? The sign of the NASCAR times.
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