Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Who Will Be the Next Driver to Snap a Long Winless Streak?

Who will be the next driver to snap a long winless streak?

The long wait for Kevin Harvick finally ended at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday (Aug. 7) in the NASCAR Cup Series, as he ended a 65-race drought for the 59th win of his Cup career.

It had been a long time coming for Harvick and the No. 4 team, especially when considering how many different drivers have visited victory lane during his drought. From his 58th win at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, 2020, to his Michigan triumph last weekend, 21 different drivers took a checkered flag in the Cup Series, a number that includes eight first-time winners.

With Harvick’s streak over, there are five active Cup drivers with a winless streak greater than 65 races: Austin Dillon (77), Cole Custer (78), Erik Jones (106), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (186) and Chris Buescher (217).

Of the five, Jones has the best chance of ending his drought.

After a disappointing 2021, Jones has had a bounce back year in 2022 for Petty GMS Motorsports, with two top fives and eight top 10s in 23 starts. At his current rate, he is close to equaling the number of top 10s he had in all of 2020 with Joe Gibbs Racing (13). He has also led 77 laps this year, the most in a season since 2019 when he scored his most recent win at Darlington Raceway.

The laps led total passes the eye test, as Jones has been a contender at the front of the field on a handful of occasions. At Auto Club Speedway, Jones led 18 laps, ran in the top five all day and capped it off with a third-place finish. At Talladega Superspeedway, Jones was close to ending his winless streak, as he led the white-flag lap before ending up sixth at the stripe. Jones is back with the team for 2023 in a multi-year deal, and if Jones and the No. 43 team can continue building off of these impressive performances, a win is not out of the question.

As for Stenhouse and Buescher, they each had surprising second-place finishes at Dover Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway this season, respectively. Buescher had an average running position of third at Sonoma. If either driver can continue to put together these impressive runs, perhaps their winless streaks will be over sooner rather than later as well.

See also
When Consistency Isn't Enough: NASCAR's 2022 Playoffs

Will the Cup Series get winner No. 16 at Richmond Raceway?

Harvick’s win busted the playoff picture, and the dream of 16 or 17 winners in the 2022 regular season is becoming more of a reality with three racing remaining. And if that happens, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. will miss the playoffs despite being second and fourth in regular-season points.

However, a 16th winner on Sunday could easily be one of them.

Richmond has historically been one of Blaney’s worst tracks, as he had just one top 10 (a 10th) in his first 11 starts at the track. However, Blaney surprised by winning the pole, leading the most laps and finishing seventh at Richmond earlier this season. If Blaney can recapture the speed he had at the track in the spring, he may very well punch his playoff ticket at what had previously been one of his weakest tracks.

Truex needs no introduction at Richmond. He has won three of the last six races at the track, and he has led 80 laps or more in nine of his last 11 starts at the track. Richmond has always been Toyota’s wheelhouse, and with every JGR driver locked into the playoffs except for Truex, the No. 19 team absolutely has Sunday’s race circled on its calendar.

Beyond the drivers duking it out for the lone playoff spot on points, 23XI Racing duo Bubba Wallace and Ty Gibbs has the best chance of crashing the party. Wallace is on a career-best streak of four consecutive top-10 finishes, and he won his first pole and finished runner-up behind Harvick last weekend at Michigan. Wallace and the No. 23 team are getting hot at the right time, and with Toyota’s dominance at the track, Richmond has the potential to be the race where he puts it all together.

Gibbs has become a quick learner in the Next Gen car. After two top-20 finishes to open his Cup career, Gibbs turned heads in his third start at Michigan. He led laps and ran in the top five through the middle stages of the race, and he recovered from a speeding penalty and drove from outside the top 20 to finish 10th on the final restart. Furthermore, Gibbs won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond earlier this year. Winning a Cup race would be a longshot, but with Toyota’s dominance at the track, it is certainly possible. It would also breathe a sigh of relief from Blaney and Truex, as a Gibbs win would not knock either driver out of the playoff grid.

Should anything be done about slower cars staying out front on restarts?

Last week’s competition caution at Michigan on lap 20 saw mixed pit strategy, as some drivers pitted for tires while others stayed out.

The result was a big, frightening crash.

JJ Yeley of Rick Ware Racing restarted inside the top 10 on lap 25 after staying out, but he was quickly swallowed up by the pack in the first two turns. He eventually lost the nose of the car, and the end result was a crash that took out more than a half-dozen cars and gave Austin Cindric one of the worst head-on crashes of the year.

If Yeley was further back in the back, the speed differences would have been negligible to where such a crash would not have occurred.

It was a poor decision on the team’s part to stay out, but NASCAR shouldn’t take any action against RWR or automatically send them to the back in these scenarios. Accidents happen, and it would not be fair to punish RWR or other small teams. They are on the racetrack competing for the best result, just like all the other teams on the grid.

But with that said, RWR and other teams that run toward the back of the field need to be smarter about staying out front in these situations. The reality is that they do not have the speed to match the powerhouses of the sport, and the disparity is even worse when they have a tire disadvantage like Yeley did. Yeley staying out ended up being a horrible call for the team as well, as its brief foray inside the top 10 ended with a totaled racecar.

Such a strategy would be manageable at tracks where it’s hard to pass and the field gets strung out easily after restarts. But when presented with a wide track like Michigan, Yeley was not going to have staying power up front.

If a driver in lesser equipment and on older tires is going to be a hazard to the cars behind them, a team and its strategists should know better than to leave its car in a vulnerable position. It usually does not end well for anyone involved.

See also
2-Headed Monster: Will Noah Gragson Make Cup Playoffs with Petty GMS in 2023?

How will Noah Gragson perform for Petty GMS next season?

Noah Gragson was announced this week to the No. 42 Petty GMS car for a multi-year deal starting in 2023. He leaves the No. 9 JR Motorsports car in the Xfinity Series, a ride he had occupied since 2019. In three-and-a-half seasons for JRM, Gragson has scored eight wins. He will continue to add to that total for the remainder of the season as he seeks his final opportunity to become a Xfinity champion.

While Gragson has three Xfinity wins in 2022, his first foray into the Cup Series has not seen the same success. In nine Cup starts this season, Gragson has an average finish of 27.2. He has a best finish of 18th at Kansas Speedway in May, but he has also failed to finish more than half of his starts, driving for Beard Motorsports and Kaulig Racing.

However, the rough beginning to his Cup career should not be much of a concern. Some drivers have had growing pains in getting adjusted to the Next Gen car, and Gragson is no different. In addition, Gragson showed great progress at Michigan. He qualified 12th, and at around the halfway mark, Gragson was one of the best cars in the race, as he was at one point running third while he battled with Kyle Larson and other drivers inside the top five.

The career race was cut short for Gragson on lap 110, as he crashed on the backstretch while running 11th. But the race showed that he has the speed and potential to succeed in the Cup Series.

Petty GMS still has a long road ahead in becoming a consistent contender for race wins. While Jones has had a career resurgence and sits 14th in regular season points, the departing Ty Dillon is 30th.

Given the current state of the team, a top-20 points finish and about six or seven top 10s would be an overwhelming success for Gragson’s first year.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021. He is a staff writer and the Friday news writer. Stephen also pens the weekly “4 Burning Questions” column and contributes to “Friday Faceoff” and “2-Headed Monster.” A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Anita

I was more impressed with Noah’s ability to get the car back to pit road than where he was running on the track. That thing was crab walking. 😂

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