Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! 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. With Amy busy this week, Frontstretch Assistant Editor Aaron Bearden looks ahead to the 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races remaining before the Chase to determine which tracks could yield a new winner.
1) Daytona International Speedway
This one was obvious, wasn’t it? While familiar names like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon are favorites when the series heads to a restrictor-plate track, pack racing always offers a chance for an upset winner.
Aric Almirola played the role of Chase spoiler last year, taking a rain-shortened win at the Daytona Beach, Florida track. While the odds of rain shortening the race two years in a row is low, any driver in the field could theoretically rattle off a victory at the end of the 400-mile race.
Most likely to get their first win: Gordon or Tony Stewart. Gordon is still looking for a Chase-clinching – and merchandise selling – first victory in his final Cup season, and the rainbow warrior has six victories at the track.
Stewart, on the other hand, is a bit of a wild card. He’s struggling with this year’s rules package, running 26th in series points with only a single top 10 at Bristol. However, the Columbus, Indiana native has four wins at the track, and proved at Sonoma and Talladega that he can still wheel the car when the effects of the rules package are negated.
Darkhorse: David Ragan. Ragan made headlines for all of the wrong reasons after bad accidents with Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards at Sonoma. However, Ragan has proven himself to be an above-average restrictor-plate driver in the past, scoring his only two wins at Daytona and Talladega. Michael Waltrip Racing desperately needs a driver in the Chase, and Ragan winning this weekend might be their best chance to make it happen.
2) Kentucky Speedway
Two months ago, the July 11 race at Kentucky Speedway would’ve just been another event on the schedule for drivers and fans. That all changed on June 16, when NASCAR announced plans to test next year’s rule package at the race.
The new package, which includes a reduced spoiler and wider splitter, combined with the heat of a Kentucky summer, should take grip away from the cars, leaving drivers sliding around the bumpy 1.5-mile oval. Of course, that’s just what everyone expects to happen. The lack of track time with the new rules package effectively makes the race an unknown for drivers and teams.
Most Likely to Get Their First Win: Kasey Kahne. While the Enumclaw, Washington native has yet to win at the Sprint Cup Series’ newest track, his 8.2 average finish is fifth among active drivers. Kahne’s won in each of his three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, and Kentucky appears to be his best bet to keep that streak alive.
Darkhorse: Jamie McMurray. While McMurray has only managed one top 10 in four races at the Sparta, Kentucky track, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver finished second in 2013.
3) Indianapolis Motor Speedway
The Brickyard 400 used to be one of the biggest races on the NASCAR circuit for fans and drivers, and while the fans have begun to drift away from the Indianapolis, Indiana track, drivers continue to rank it among the likes of Daytona, Martinsville and Darlington because of its unique layout and rich history.
The name of the game at IMS is track position. With the quick, low-banked turns and long straightaways, passing proves difficult for stock cars. The inability to pass forces teams to use pit strategy to advance their position. Many races in the 21-year history of the event have come down to tire or fuel strategy, offering a chance for drivers like Ricky Rudd and Paul Menard to earn unexpected victories.
Most Likely to Get Their First Win: Gordon or McMurray. Gordon, whose parents moved to Indiana when the California driver was young so he could race go karts, is the winning-est driver in track history, with five wins at the 2.5-mile track. McMurray (seventh) is the highest driver in the points standings without a win, and has already kissed the bricks once back in 2010.
Darkhorse: Richard Childress Racing. It’s hard to pick a specific driver, but the organization has a great chance in this race with all three teams. RCR has shown speed throughout the year on superspeedways, which usually translates well to the Brickyard. The organization also has two former winners of the race in Ryan Newman and Menard, and 2011 race-winning crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe atop the box for Austin Dillon. If RCR is still winless when they head to Indianapolis, expect them to pull out every trick they have to try to score a victory.
4) Watkins Glen International
As Kyle Busch showed at Sonoma Raceway, road course races offer a great chance for drivers to break into victory lane and steal a Chase berth. In recent years, races at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen have ended with surprising winners, including Truex, Clint Bowyer and AJ Allemendinger.
With talented drivers behind the wheel and nothing to lose, teams like Allmendinger’s JTG Daugherty Racing group throw everything they have into road-course races to win and score a Chase berth. This year’s race should see multiple teams do just that, as the last road-course race for the Cup Series falls just four weeks before the final regular season race at Richmond.
Most Likely to Get Their First Win: Allmendinger. The Dinger has always been a good road course driver, but the Northern California native has stepped his game up in the last year, scoring his first-career win at the Glen last season, and sitting on the pole last weekend at Sonoma. Without Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya to contend with, Allmendinger should be the class of the field.
Darkhorse: Sam Hornish Jr. Hornish, a three-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion, showed how well he can run on road courses in Sonoma, coming home in 10th after running towards the front for most of the day. Richard Petty Motorsports wants to put at least one team in the Chase, and WGI has been the sight of two of the team’s last three wins.
5) Richmond International Raceway
Since the beginning of the Chase in 2004, NASCAR’s second yearly race at Richmond has served as the finale for the regular season. The event has thrilled fans with timeless races over the last decade, including Jeremy Mayfield‘s drive to the win and Chase berth in 2004, Earnhardt Jr. coming just shy of advancing in 2007 and the “Spingate” fiasco in 2013.
While no driver has won at Richmond to advance since Mayfield’s triumph before the inaugural Chase, the race shows teams at their most desperate. Drivers will work their way to the front with bold moves, strategy, and perhaps even the application of the chrome horn.
Most Likely to Get Their First Win: Bowyer. The Emporia, Kansas native came close to snagging his first win since 2013 at Sonoma, finishing third behind the Busch brothers. Plus, he has two wins at the Virginia short track. Bowyer’s never fully recovered from his “arm-scratching” scandal in the 2013 Richmond race. A Chase-clinching result on the same track would go a long way towards reversing Michael Waltrip Racing’s struggles.
Darkhorse: Newman. Newman appeared to be cruising to the victory in 2013 when Bowyer spun to help teammate Truex make the Chase. The 37-year-old driver hasn’t won since moving to RCR, but considering the South Bend, Indiana native has managed at least one win in nine of his 13 full seasons in Cup, history says he should make his way to victory lane soon.
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I see Jamie Mac as more of a threat to win at Daytona than at Indy. He’s a pretty decent R.P. racer, and the cars are more equal there than they will be at Indy. Of course, anyone could steal a win at Daytona.