The third year of Sprint Cup’s current “Win And You’re (Basically) In” Chase format appears on paper to be on pace with past seasons. There have been 10 different winners in the first 15 races, equal to the pace we saw last year and down nine percent from 2014. The breakdown of those victories is hardly surprising, a slight downside during a time where the rules package has upped excitement on-track surrounding the sport. You have Team Penske’s two full-time drivers, the four-car Joe Gibbs Racing organization, single-car Furniture Row Racing (think: JGR offshoot), plus three former Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick) earning their way into the field at this point.
It’s clear the cream has indeed risen to the top so far in 2016; the sport’s inability to fill its playoff field with 16 winners in the past makes that list fairly secure with their bids. But unlike past iterations of this format, where it felt by Richmond almost all drivers who should have won during the regular season walked away with a trophy there’s a strong list of drivers right now still knocking on the door. NASCAR needs seven fresh faces to crack Victory Lane over the final 11 races to thicken the plot, create a little Richmond drama and remove the well-worn argument this format keeps the door open for a winless driver to capture the championship at Homestead.
How can the sport jump from 10 winners to 17? It’s actually a little easier than you think; let’s have a little fun and play out a scenario here.
Sonoma. This race, which in 2014 felt like AJ Allmendinger’s to lose at one point is circled for the No. 47 JTG Daugherty team every year. Before the ‘Dinger, it was Marcos Ambrose who put them in position to win late only for a weird fuel-saving glitch to kill the engine under caution and cost them a shot. You’ve got to think the bad luck that’s plagued them in recent years clears out at some point; their win at Watkins Glen in 2014 proves they can get the job done. Let’s put the ‘Dinger in Victory Lane here. Winners: 11.
Daytona. This race produces a potential merry-go-round up front. Yes, Joe Gibbs Racing was like a freight train for most of the 2016 Daytona 500 but they’re not the only ones capable of leading laps. You know who was a surprise contender during the sport’s last plate race, Talladega? Trevor Bayne, leading a season-long tick upward for Roush Fenway Racing led 22 laps, wound up 10th and has the experience needed (see: 2011 Daytona 500) to prevail if put in position to win. It’s not inconceivable to see Bayne, like plenty of other mid-level drivers top the field in the most unpredictable race left on NASCAR’s regular season schedule. Winners: 12.
Indianapolis. For young Kyle Larson, Indy’s been one of his better tracks during a short Cup career. His average finish of 8.0 includes two top-10 finishes in two tries, driving for a Chip Ganassi No. 42 team who by all accounts should have earned a Brickyard 400 trophy at least once with former driver Juan Pablo Montoya. In case you’ve been living under a rock lately, Larson’s been knocking on the door of Victory Lane with 94 laps led and two top-3 finishes in his last four series starts. What better place to score his first one than at a track his owner has experienced major success, both on the NASCAR side and in open-wheel? Winners: 13.
Watkins Glen. This one is probably the hardest sell, considering Clint Bowyer has yet to lead a lap all season and his team, the No. 15 at HScott Motorsports is clearly a step behind most of the major contenders. But Bowyer, ever so quietly has proven to be adept on road courses; he was top 10 at both Sonoma and the Glen last year while earning a 2012 victory (Sonoma) with Michael Waltrip Racing. During that 2012 race, Bowyer outran an upstart Kurt Busch whose No. 51 car ran third that day. Where did Busch’s car come from? The former version of this very team. Yes, it’s absolutely the most unlikely of these seven scenarios but stranger things have happened in this sport. What road courses do is put outcomes back in the hands of these drivers and my guess is Bowyer, primed for the No. 14 ride come 2017 hasn’t forgotten how to drive. Winners: 14.
Pocono. There’s another young driver, in this case a rookie driving so well these days he’s on the verge of becoming a darkhorse title contender. Chase Elliott has mastered the week-to-week consistency of running up front; what he hasn’t done is figured out the right moves down the stretch to hold on to the aerodynamic advantage of first place. One such blunder at Pocono this month took his No. 24 car, which was the fastest that day and giftwrapped a victory for Kurt Busch instead. Great drivers rarely make the same mistake twice; Elliott, for all we’ve seen so far has a chance to be great. Winners: 15.
Michigan. You know who we haven’t mentioned yet? The sport’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who easily remains the most surprising name still winless so far in 2016. It’s hard to see that drought extending over a full, 26-race regular season and Michigan has been one of Earnhardt’s best tracks since moving over to Hendrick Motorsports. If not here, I’d think Bristol the following week but either way Junior’s going to break through at some point. Winners: 16.
Darlington. There are only two major tracks on the current Sprint Cup schedule where Tony Stewart has yet to win: Kentucky and Darlington. It’s been a rocky final season for this three-time Cup Series champ but you figure by Labor Day Weekend, winless and desperate to make the Chase his No. 14 team will throw everything but the kitchen sink at one of the sport’s crown jewel events, the Southern 500. Stewart has shown signs of life lately, pushing inside the top 10 at Michigan and at least showing well initially at Pocono before a self-induced wreck ruined his chances. Longtime fans remember NASCAR Hall of Famer Terry Labonte’s final win occurring at this race way back in 2003; could we see lightning strike twice? Winners: 17.
So there you go, a scenario that gets us to 17 winners one week before the regular season finale at Richmond. It also doesn’t include Austin Dillon, another young driver who’s flexed some muscle up front this season; Kasey Kahne, always under consideration when driving Hendrick Motorsports equipment; and former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, never to be counted out on restrictor plate tracks and even a place like Bristol where he’s run well in the recent past.
Has the 2016 Cup season gone according to script? Yes, you can’t argue that. But during a year where the rules package has upped the parity and level of competition within the sport there’s still plenty of time left for diversity in Victory Lane.