Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has some drivers who could steal a little thunder from the Chasers down the homestretch.
1. Kyle Larson
It’s really just a matter of time until Kyle Larson finds Victory Lane. The rookie has been strong all year, but in the last six weeks, he’s not finished worse than 12th and has posted three straight top-6 finishes. Larson has shown time and again that he’s not afraid to mix it up with anyone, and whether they’re in the Chase or not won’t matter. That’s not to say he’ll drive dirty; that’s just not his style. Larson won’t run everyone over on his way to the front, but he’s also not going to back down and he certainly won’t settle for second because of Chase implications to the competition.
It’s drivers like Larson who make the racing during the Chase interesting. Nobody wants to be “that guy” who wrecks someone right out of the championship picture, and Larson won’t be, at least not intentionally. But he will be a constant reminder that missing the Chase doesn’t make the rest of the field automatically irrelevant. That’s important, whether these guys take home a win or not. They haven’t suddenly dropped off the face of the Earth, and if they’re racing hard for position and gaining it, they deserve to be seen.
While the spotlight has shone on his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, McMurray has also shown that the organization as a whole is improving, and in another year, it’s unlikely that both its drivers will be on the outside looking in and entirely possible that they’ll both be contenders. McMurray finished 22nd at Dover, but that was on the heels of three top-10 runs, and prior to that race, McMurray has completed every lap from Loudon in the summer to the return trip in the fall. McMurray can be a bit streaky, and he’s peaking at a good time. He won at Talladega last fall as a Chase spoiler, and he also won the All-Star race at Charlotte in May. Those are the most likely scenes for a McMurray victory, but he definitely bears watching anywhere.
3. Clint Bowyer
of his issues this year have been self-inflicted by Bowyer or his team. Yes, restructuring at Michael Waltrip Racing set the organization back in 2014, and the loss of crew chief Rodney Childers has been a blow to the entire organization. But Bowyer is still a talented racer and his team can still put a fast car under him. If they can put things together, Bowyer can most definitely take a win and steal a little thunder for himself. The most likely tracks for Bowyer look like Talladega, Texas and Homestead, where he’s put up some strong numbers in the past.
Brian Vickers’ season, like Bowyer’s, suffered from internal changes – Childers was, after all, Vickers’ crew chief – and 2014 has been a bit of a struggle for Vickers, who turns 30 later this month. But there have been positives, and Vickers has shown that he can be lightning fast. If he and his team can put together the whole package, he could find winner’s circle yet, which would be a huge coup for his team. He’s also the type of driver who can find that special “something” at a track where he hasn’t been at his strongest in the past, so he could hit on it almost anywhere. Still, Vickers’ best bets are probably Talladega–where he already has a win–or Martinsville.
5. Kurt Busch
Yes, Kurt Busch was in the Chase for the first three weeks, but now he’s on the outside and looking to prove a point. Busch’s season has been maddening – he’s been easily capable of winning some weeks, woefully underpowered others. If they can put things together, he can win, and now he’s got extra incentive since being eliminated from title contention. He’s not going be satisfied to cruise around and help teammate Kevin Harvick win the title; he’s going to go out and take the bull by the horns. The most likely place for him to hit on it is Martinsville, where he won in the spring, but he’s also got a chance at Texas and Phoenix.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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