The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series just came out of its first “off” weekend of the 2014 race season and heads into Richmond (Va.) International Raceway for night racing this upcoming Saturday. The first eight races saw seven different winners in the first year of a new NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup system that places more emphasis on winning when it comes to getting into the Chase.
The new “win and you’re in” mentality is probably at least partly to credit for the high number of different faces showing up in victory lane early on in season. The string of different winners to start the year extended to seven, the most of any season in the Chase era, before Kevin Harvick snapped it to become the first two-time winner of 2014 in the most recent event at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
Before Harvick snapped the streak, there was some talk that maybe “win and you’re in” wasn’t quite accurate. Maybe it should change to “win and you have a pretty good chance of getting in.” What I’m getting at is the possibility that one win won’t be enough.
I realize I posed that question in this blog space recently. This time around, though, I’m going to look at the possibility in terms of which other drivers will win in the next 18 races (number of races remaining before the Chase cut-off).
Even if the winning driver tally doesn’t make it to 15 or 16 (15 if the points leader after 26 races doesn’t have a win, 16 if he does, as the points leader gets in, win or not), there are sure to be at least a few more drivers to add to the winners’ list come Chase time. Just look at some of the names of have yet to visit victory lane. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have to be at the top of that list. After all, Johnson is a six-time champion and has won in every season he’s competed at the Sprint Cup level. And then there’s Kenseth, the driver who led the way in wins a year ago with seven trips to victory lane. I’d definitely be beyond surprised if one or both of those guys don’t make it to victory lane sometime within the next 18 races.
Okay, those drivers are as close as one could possibly get to being givens, so I thought I’d throw those names out there first. For reference, here’s the list of winners, so far, in 2014: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Then, I added Johnson and Kenseth as drivers I’m sure will win in upcoming races. That brings my tally to nine.
Let’s say that the points leader come the Chase cutoff will have a win; that means there would need to be more than 16 race winners for some race winners to find themselves on the outside looking in. That would mean there woould need to be more than seven more winners besides the seven who have won already and my two easy picks of Johnson and Kenseth.
Once you throw Kenseth and Johnson into the mix with the already-won crowd, it wouldn’t really be all that surprising to me to not see any of the other remaining drivers make it to victory lane. And by that, I’m not suggesting that no other drivers will win or that there aren’t any other quality drivers out there. Actually, I believe just the opposite. I think there are several other drivers who could and have the ability to win within the next 18 races. I’m just not so sure that seven of them will.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt that a winner will be shut out of the 10-race Chase. But I do think that Johnson and Kenseth won’t be the only other drivers added to the winners’ list. I’m thinking it would be a pretty good idea to add Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin to this potential winners’ list.
Gordon leads the way in the points standings. He, along with Kenseth, rank ahead of race-winning drivers as far as the points standings go. Gordon is first and Kenseth is one point back in second, followed by five of the seven race winners. Gordon holds that top points spot thanks to three top-fives and six top-10 finishes in eight races. Those stats are none too shabby. Running that close to the front so often, he’s making a good case for a trip to victory lane sooner rather than later.
Hamlin, meanwhile, finds himself in the top-15, despite missing a race early on in the season. After winning the 2013 season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, Hamlin looks to have put his 2013 woes behind him and is on a mission to put himself back in championship contention this year. And 2013 aside, how often is Hamlin NOT a championship factor with a string of wins? Not very often.
There is talk of possibly 16 or more race winners in the first 26 races, but is that realistic? Yes, I think it could happen, but I have my doubts. I’m guessing that number will be closer to 10 or 11 when you add the likes of Johnson, Kenseth, Gordon and Hamlin to the list. There may be one or two others, but I’m thinking not that many.