When NASCAR announced changes to the race format late last month, it made consistency relevant again. Winning is still going to have its virtues, including an automatic playoff berth, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not the end-all, be-all it often has been.
Like other changes NASCAR has made in the past, the best organizations will likely find a way to beat the system early on. It’s likely that not much will change as there were only 13 race winners last season. It has the potential to be the same faces in the same place: Victory Lane.
Every driver would like to win a race as NASCAR is arguably the most competitive sport, but certain drivers need a victory, and do it at any cost.
Seventeen months ago, it was confirmed that Clint Bowyer would be taking over the No. 14 car for Tony Stewart following his retirement tour in 2016. During the waiting process, it has been the lowest point of the Kansas native’s career as he comes off a season in which he tallied three top-10 finishes, by far the worst mark in his career. His previous low was 11 in 2007 during his rookie season for Richard Childress Racing.
But change is something to which Bowyer is accustomed. After all, 2017 will mark the third straight season in which he has competed with a different race team and car manufacturer.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since his last victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a season in which he had a career-high three victories. Despite finishing running-up in the championship that season, things have never been the same for Bowyer, which makes 2017 a crucial season. He has been placed in one of the top cars with one of the top teams in NASCAR. Working with former Cup Series champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch should enhance his chances of being consistent yet again, something for which the 37-year-old is known.
Sticking with the Stewart-Haas Racing theme, Danica Patrick is in must-win season. She is nearing the end of her contract with her current race team and is also in a precarious situation regarding sponsorship, as The Associated Press reporteded late last week that the team is suing Nature’s Bakery, which served as the primary sponsor for the No. 10 car in 2016.
This comes two years after GoDaddy.com announced it would end its partnership, which dates back to her IndyCar days, with Patrick.
Is performance the issue? Quite possibly. In four full-time seasons with SHR, Patrick has six top-10 finishes, with a career-best sixth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2014. In the 144 races over the last four seasons, she has 16 DNFs, among the highest of full-time competitors.
Patrick has seemed to be most competitive on restrictor plate tracks, including sitting on the pole of the 2013 Daytona 500. However, in 17 career plate races, she has a pair of eighth-place finishes at Daytona International Speedway and in 2016 didn’t finish higher than 20th at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway.
Besides the plate tracks, nothing has looked too promising, at least enough to challenge for wins. And victories might be what it takes for Patrick to further her career and sign another contract with either SHR or another race team.
The same race at Atlanta in which Patrick finished sixth was the last time Kasey Kahne ended a race in Victory Lane.
Five years have come and gone, with Kahne piloting the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports in that span of time, during which he has five victories. However, in each of the past two seasons, the Keith Rodden-led race team has come up short of making it to the playoffs.
In 2014, Kahne has had only three top-five finishes in each of the last three seasons, compared to his 23 combined in his first two seasons in the Chevrolet stable. Midway through 2016, Kahne admitted that he felt like the team had hit “rock bottom” and that it wasn’t fun going to the racetrack any longer.
But though he missed the Chase, the team was hitting on all seven cylinders early on in the playoffs. In the last 12 races of 2016, Kahne had seven top-10 finishes, finishing third at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October, a season-best. That said, in the 36-race season, the No. 5 failed to lead a single lap.
Everyone knows that Kahne can win; he’s done so 17 times in his career. But going into a contract season, 2017 is the biggest year of his tenure at HMS as the team has William Byron, among others, waiting for an opportunity in the Cup Series.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
There is no doubt about it: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn’t walk into Roush Fenway Racing under the best circumstances.
After winning back-to-back XFINITY Series championships with the organization, he replaced a Cup Series veteran, Matt Kenseth, in the No. 17 car. And during his four full seasons in the Cup Series, expectations were set much higher than what has been delivered, but it could be argued that it’s not entirely his fault.
Over the last three seasons, RFR has been in a bit of rebuilding stage, even more so heading into 2017 after losing Greg Biffle, who had spent his entire NASCAR career with Jack Roush’s team. The struggles of the team now falls on Trevor Bayne and Stenhouse’s shoulders, as the once five-car organization has shrunk down to two Cup teams.
In 148 career starts, Stenhouse has 17 top-10 finishes, including a career-high six in 2016. The peak of his 2016 came at Bristol Motor Speedway in August, finishing second to Kevin Harvick.
Throughout his career, Stenhouse has excelled at Bristol with an average finish of 10.6, his best at any track. He’s also performed well in plate races; Stenhouse finished in the top five in two of the four plate races in 2016. He also had a top-five finish at Auto Club Speedway in March.
However, in his four seasons, Stenhouse has never finished above 19th in the championship standings. He will likely need to outperform the equipment again this year, though RFR dropping to two cars could work wonders for the organization.
He’s the most surprising on the list for sure, but think about it this way: Erik Jones has been labeled the next big star of NASCAR, and there are expectations that run with that distinction.
Jones enters his rookie season in the Cup Series, competing with Furniture Row Racing, which had four victories in 2016 with Martin Truex Jr. Adding Joe Gibbs Racing to the mix, Toyota won 16 races in 2016, the most of the three manufactures.
Who would have though even two years ago that Furniture Row Racing would have two competitive teams in the Cup Series? Yes, Truex won at Pocono Raceway in 2015 and made the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but this is an old-school way of becoming a top organization.
Jones has limited experience in the Cup Series, competing in three races in 2015, subbing for Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. But the 20-year-old has had high praise from just about everyone around the sport.
Consistency is something that Jones’ XFINITY Series race team could not find in 2016. It led to him finishing fourth in the championship, despite having the most victories of XFINITY Series regulars. The poor consistency throughout the playoffs almost disallowed him from competing for the championship, having to race his way in at Phoenix International Raceway last fall.
The talent is there, but with the enhancement to the point standings, Jones needs to be consistent in order to win a race in his rookie season.
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