Last year’s spring race at Dover International Speedway remains the most recent victory for Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team reeled off three wins early in 2017 but struggled to run up front for the rest of the season. Given Johnson’s past record of success, it is surprising that he has not found the path back to Victory Lane in almost a year.
Yet there are three more potential championship contenders who are still winless in 2018: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson. Given that all three racers outperformed Johnson at the end of last season, their lack of wins is an even bigger surprise.
Keselowski did open up the season with a victory in The Clash at Daytona, but his most recent points-paying win was at Talladega Superspeedway last October. In fact, the Talladega victory is the only one for Keselowski in the last year’s worth of races.
The strange thing is that he hasn’t been far off the mark, even if he has a lack of recent wins. Counting Sunday’s sixth-place finish at Dover, the No. 2 team has posted 10 top fives and 18 top 10s in the last 36 races. If Keselowski is able to finish in the top 10 about half the time he races, a victory should be right around the corner. On the other hand, Sunday was only the second race this season in which he led more than 40 laps. Put simply, the No. 2 team has the speed necessary to run near the front, but not enough speed to run in the lead frequently enough.
Meanwhile, Hamlin finished directly behind Keselowski, and his results over the last year have been even better. The No. 11 team scored two victories in 2017, although NASCAR ruled the most recent win at Darlington Raceway to be encumbered. While Hamlin has not won since, he has posted 18 top fives in his last 36 starts, including nine since his win at Darlington. He has also scored 24 top 10s.
Like Keselowski, Hamlin has led over 100 laps in only one race this year. But unlike Keselowski, Hamlin’s performance in 2018 has not matched up well with his teammates, particularly over the last month.
Among the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, Kyle Busch went on a three-race winning streak and remains the season-long points leader. Erik Jones got off to a better start than Daniel Suarez, but now both drivers have one top five and four top 10s each. They even have a nearly-identical average finish (17.1 for Jones and 17.3 for Suarez).
Hamlin is by himself somewhere in the middle, getting top fives more frequently than his younger teammates but not winning like Busch. Hamlin’s consistency at the end of 2017 appeared to set him up well for this season. Yet so far, the most memorable moments of Hamlin’s 2018 campaign have been a dumb joke about Adderall and the heated exchange it led to with Darrell Wallace Jr.
Then there is the case of Larson and the No. 42 team. Despite a rough finish to 2017, Larson figured to be right back in the thick of the championship hunt. After all, the California native earned four of his five career wins last year, including three within the last 36 races. He has also posted 13 top fives and 19 top 10s in that timeframe.
Larson’s run of misfortune at the end of 2017 kept him from challenging for a few victories. This year, Larson has had only two finishes outside the top 20, but the No. 42 seems to have lost a little speed. He led an even 200 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in a tough loss to Busch as well as 54 laps at ISM Raceway. Otherwise, Larson has not led a lap anywhere else this season. Compare that to the last 11 races of 2017, where he led 434 laps.
The good news for Larson is that the No. 42 team’s speed should improve as Chevrolet works out the details of the new Camaro body. While Austin Dillon may have the Daytona 500 victory, Larson and Chase Elliott have been the most productive Chevy drivers in terms of top fives and top 10s. If the No. 42 team can catch up to the Ford drivers and Kyle Busch, Larson will not be winless for much longer.
None of this is to suggest that Keselowski, Hamlin and Larson are struggling in 2018. It is because they have generally performed well that it is surprising to see them without wins this year. Barring a major collapse in the summer, all three will make the playoffs.
The real question is whether the trio can close the gap on drivers like Busch and Kevin Harvick before they get many more playoff points. Winning playoff races remains the most direct route to the championship. But if Keselowski, Hamlin and Larson find themselves in a tight points battle during the postseason, they might wish that some of those early season top fives had also been wins.
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