Through 15 races in the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, we have seen many different drivers break through, fade away, or routinely come close without being able to seal the deal.
If you’ve watched racing for any amount of time, you know that once a driver starts routinely running and finishing in the top five, it’s usually not long after when they make it to victory lane.
Here are five drivers who we will likely see in the winner’s circle sooner rather than later …
1. Alex Bowman
Ever watch a young driver and realize it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through and wins? Bowman’s got that look right now.
The driver of the No. 88 started the year with an 18.3 average finish through the first nine races — certainly nothing to write home about. Bowman had a few solid races but didn’t crack the top 10.
And then came Talladega. The change couldn’t have been more night and day if someone had actually flipped a switch. In the last six races, Bowman has finished second three times and posted a 6.3 average. His worst run in that time frame? A 15th at Pocono in a race which Bowman had to hold the car in gear with one hand and drive with the other.
The hardest part of learning to win is closing the deal. It begins with leading laps and mixing it up with veterans, understanding how aggressive to be and when to push limits. Bowman is there, and his cars have speed. As long as the Chevrolets can keep up their recent speed, Bowman should be in the conversation.
2. Kevin Harvick
What a difference a year makes. After winning eight times in 2018, Harvick has yet to find victory lane this year. That’s going to change eventually; Harvick has too much stacked on his side to believe otherwise.
He’s the highest driver in points (fourth) without a win this year, he hasn’t gone winless since 2009 and his 11.5 average is the same as Martin Truex Jr., who has three wins under his belt. Harvick has been close, and unlike youngsters who are still learning to seal the deal, Harvick earned the nickname The Closer by knowing how to get it done late in a race. He should be winning, and it’s likely he will do so before the summer is out.
The one question mark might be Harvick’s age. At 43, is he on the edge of borrowed time. He’s just a couple of months younger than Jimmie Johnson, who has struggled the last couple of years. Johnson should be on the verge every bit as much as Harvick but he isn’t. It’s not necessarily that the skills aren’t there, but there is that point when a driver’s skill set is passed up by the cars and changes are made that he can no longer adapt to. There’s no real reason to think Harvick is there yet, but there wasn’t one with Johnson, either … until there was.
Eight-win seasons may be a thing of Harvick’s past, but expect at least one soon, and from there, a Stewart-Haas resurgence overall.
3. Daniel Suarez
Like Bowman, Suarez needs to learn to close. He has speed, and he’s been creeping up on better and better finishes this year. He’s already led more laps this year than in either of his first two years in the Cup Series and is on pace to post a career-best in top fives, top 10s and average finish.
Stewart-Haas Racing does look to be a step behind Team Penske among the Fords this year, but they’re still an organization to be reckoned with. Suarez has veteran teammates to lean on, fast cars, and is a strong communicator in his racecar. He’s posted top 10s in the last two races and led laps at Dover last month, a tough track for any driver.
Expect Bowman to be the next first-time winner, but don’t be surprised if Suarez grabs one this year too.
4. Chip Ganassi’s pair of drivers
Busch has been solid this year, and the No. 1 team has shown major improvements with Busch in the driver’s seat. His second-place run at Michigan was his second runner-up spot of the year, and he’s a solid eighth in points. He and crew chief Matt McCall seem to communicate well. Busch is often overlooked because of his younger brother’s accomplishments, but Kurt is firmly in Hall of Fame territory on wins and his 2004 title.
Then there’s Larson. He’s fast just about everywhere. He’s only 26. He’s already got five career wins but he only has one top five to his name this year to go with four DNFs. His average finish is 18th. Sometimes, teams make their own luck, and if that’s the case, Larson and Co. have made mostly the bad kind.
So why is he on this list? He’s too fast not to be, and he’s too talented not to be. He can lead laps, most recently leading 35 circuits at Pocono. The bad luck can’t last forever, and if Larson can find winning speed and avoid trouble in the same race, he can finish the deal.
5. Ryan Blaney
The only non-winning Team Penske driver in 2019, Blaney has a win in each of the last two seasons. He’s already led more laps this year than he did in all of 2017 and is on pace to lead more laps than a year ago. With the laps he’s logging, it should only be a matter of time until Blaney leads the one that counts.
What does Blaney have to overcome to get there? He has a pair of DNFs this year, but they’re not really concerning: a crash at Daytona (who didn’t crash at Daytona?) and an engine issue at Texas. More concerning? A lack of any momentum. Prior to finishing ninth at Michigan Sunday, Blaney’s last top 10 came in April at Bristol, where he finished fourth. Sonoma isn’t Blaney’s best bet to turn the tide his way, but he has a solid average at Chicagoland and over 140 laps led at Daytona. Blaney could easily heat up this summer; there’s too much on his side to believe otherwise.