Summer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been a diverse one in terms of winners. The last nine races have featured nine different faces in victory lane, which is great for the sport, sponsors and fans. But there are plenty of drivers without wins so far this season (and for some, ever).
With just four races to go before the playoffs, will anyone else join the exclusive Winners’ Club by taking the checkers? It’s a definite possibility, and while most of the drivers on this list will likely make the playoffs one way or another, they’re also the most likely to seal the deal with a victory in the last four races of the regular season. They can’t all take home a trophy before the cut, though, and it’s unlikely that more than one or two will. But the summer just might have another surprise or two up its sleeve, so keep an eye on these guys.
1. Erik Jones
Currently 13th in points, Jones has been red-hot this summer. In the last nine races, reaching back to Pocono in June, he has amassed seven top-10 finishes, more than half his 2019 season total. In the last four races, Jones has finished no worse than fourth, with two runner-up finishes. Since Kentucky, his third-place average finish is edged at Joe Gibbs Racing only by Denny Hamlin, who won at Pocono, and Hamlin’s average is exactly .25 of a position better.
Jones has been the most consistent driver in the field for the last month, and it could be just a matter of time before he makes something happen. Look for him to lock down his playoff spot and improve his playoff standing before the regular season is out.
2. Ryan Blaney
Blaney is currently 10th in points, second-highest among the non-winners this year, behind ninth-place Aric Almirola. Blaney has six more top-five finishes than Almirola, and his 362 laps led is easily the most among the non-winners, nearly double Kyle Larson’s 191. Blaney has four top 10s in the last four races.
So why hasn’t Blaney won already? He’s lacked consistency. He’s completed more laps than Almirola but finished on the lead lap less often. He has three failures to finish; only Chase Elliott has more DNFs among the current top 16.
Despite the inconsistency, though, you can’t really count Blaney out of these races because Team Penske as a whole has been strong all season, with all three drivers in the top 10 in points. He doesn’t need to win to make the playoffs, but a victory could give the No. 12 team some forward momentum and confidence going into the title run, and that could prove to be an edge. He shouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s bad luck to help him advance. He needs to make his own good luck, and that could start in the next four weeks if he can improve on his previous results at Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis.
3. William Byron
Byron’s biggest obstacle is still his relative inexperience in just his second full Cup season. He did gain the experience of veteran crew chief Chad Knaus, a seven-time champion head wrench. Nobody else in the garage has that behind him. Byron is 12th in points and has a better average start than Jones by four positions, which may be a big part of the reason for Byron’s 180 laps led, three times Jones’ total.
Both of Byron’s top fives this year have come in the last five weeks, showing improvement as the season goes on, and he’s had speed recently. He’s had two teammates see victory lane this summer, an indication that he has the equipment that can contend, if not every week, many of them. There’s a lot to be optimistic about here.
4. Anyone from Stewart-Haas Racing not named Harvick
Kevin Harvick has a win, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that by this time last year, the organization had nine victories between two drivers, and all four won by the end of the year, three of them before the playoffs.
And it’s because of that overall strength that Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez can’t be overlooked despite up-and-down seasons so far. Yes, as a whole, SHR is a solid step behind a year ago. Part of that, though, is luck not being on their side. It is true that you can make your own luck, but it’s also true that you can’t control what others do. If you’re racing in front of the pack, you avoid trouble, for the most part, and that’s where SHR has struggled.
They’ve run well, just not well enough to avoid everything. Almirola has been fairly consistent, but not brilliant. He’s ninth in points and will make the playoffs but needs to find a spark somewhere. A win would do that, but he hasn’t looked close. But he’s been steady. Bowyer and Suarez have not, and Bowyer holds onto a playoff spot by the skin if his teeth. Suarez is on the outside as the clock ticks down. Both have had runs that made it look like they were putting their troubles behind them only to have their racing demons catch them in the next turn.
So why are they on this list? Because it’s too hard to overlook the strength of their equipment and their past performance. With a little luck, any of the three could change his luck. They won’t all do it in four weeks but one is a possibility.
5. Kyle Larson
If it’s better to be lucky than good, it certainly explains Larson’s recent performance. He’s very good, but he makes SHR’s bad luck look like four leaf clovers and a leprechaun or two. But it’s also time for Larson to start making his own luck because the status quo is not working.
But again, you can’t count him out because he doesn’t lack speed and he certainly doesn’t lack the talent to win.
Larson’s numbers this year aren’t bad. He has more to 10s than a handful of the drivers ahead of him in points. He’s led 191 laps and won a pole.
What tells the tale is his lack of consistency and his struggles to finish races. In 22 starts, Larson has only been running at the finish 17 times. His 14 lead lap finishes are tied for the lowest among the current playoff drivers. And his summer reads like a game of chutes and ladders. A top 10 at Sonoma was followed by a second at Chicago, but then it’s like a roller coaster. From second to 20th to fourth to 33rd to fifth and eighth. And that’s been the case all year.
And yet Larson can look like lightning in a bottle almost every week. He has cars good enough to win; his teammate Kurt Busch has a win this year. Larson can make going fast and making moves look effortless, sometimes running so high on the track it defies logic. All he needs to do is close.