Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: (Seemingly) Unlikely Drivers Who Could Get to Victory Lane in 2016

  1. Austin Dillon

OK, so this one’s not really a stretch.  Dillon has been strong this season, he’s got the resources (his grandfather owns the team, so there might even be a little extra incentive), and the former Truck and XFINITY series champ has shown he can run with just about anyone. Dillon’s numbers are already on track for this third Cup season to be his career best — his two top fives in the first seven races equal his total from the previous two seasons combined, and his next top 10 will tie his career-best five for a season.  Only a handful of drivers have a better average finish than Dillon’s 11.6 on the season, including a few who have championships under their belts. Dillon’s road to Victory Lane may be shorter than you think.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
(Photo: Amy Henderson)
  1. Ryan Blaney

Why Blaney and not fellow rookie Chase Elliott?  Elliott could just as easily be on this list, and his day is coming, but it wouldn’t be as surprising as a Blaney victory. Elliott is driving a car that won races as recently as last fall and competes for a team that’s one of, if not the, best in the sport running the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Blaney, by comparison is driving for a single-car team that hasn’t run a full slate of races in several years. Elliott is 14th in points; Blaney is 20th.  Yet the No. 21 has been fast, capable of running with the big teams and does so despite a different set of resources. While Elliott looks like he could reel off the top 10s and top 5s, Blaney has had the look of a driver who could bust out a win if things lined up right on a given Sunday.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
(Photo: Amy Henderson)
  1. AJ Allmendinger

Yup, he struggled at Texas. So did every other small team, yet Allmendinger still outran most of them and some bigger teams, too. The week before, he nearly won at Martinsville and his 8th-place finish at Fontana ties a career best there. Allmendinger does have a Cup win at Watkins Glen in 2014, and that’s most likely where he’s at the top of the list to grab another one (his statistics are better there than Sonoma). However, the team could put it all together on an oval this season as well. A win by Dillon would benefit Allmendinger’s outfit, who gets cars and engines and shares information with Richard Childress Racing. If that organization can find its winning ways again, it will only help its satellites, of which the No. 47 is currently the strongest.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
(Photo: Amy Henderson)
  1. Kyle Larson

Again, a Larson win shouldn’t be a surprise, because it’s looked tantalizingly close at times in his still-brief career. The real question is why he hasn’t gotten there? It’s easy to say Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing team is just a step behind the bigger ones and he doesn’t quite have the stuff. But remember when we all said the same of a young Jamie McMurray?  He left CGR for the seemingly greener pastures at Roush Fenway Racing and didn’t do much better. Oh, by the way, McMurray eventually returned to Ganassi’s fold. So pinning everything on the organization isn’t necessarily accurate. Larson is a very talented driver, of that there is no doubt, and he’s aggressive enough that if the win is within reach, he can certainly capitalize. Larson’s also had some very strong finishes so far this year. The problem is inconsistency keeps cropping up: twice already we’ve seen Larson finish 34th or worse. Despite the ups and downs, it’s hard to say that Larson isn’t going to find his first win eventually, because he’s had definite flashes of brilliance.

(Photo: Mike Neff)
(Photo: Mike Neff)
  1. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

Yes, that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.  No, really.  Stenhouse has always been a streaky driver, and he’s always come with a very steep learning curve. Remember his early XFINITY Series days? So does everyone he crashed into… But he did eventually come around, winning a couple of titles in that series. And Stenhouse, in a contract year is off to a surprisingly good start to this season with Roush Fenway Racing. He’s a full 10 positions ahead of where he was in points last year and is a top 10 away from equaling last year’s total. Keep in mind that’s the case even though he got beat up at Martinsville and crashed in Phoenix … just mediocre finishes on those two days and he’d be eyeing the top 10 in points. And guess who has the best average finish at Bristol among active drivers with five or more starts? No, really.

(Photo: Amy Henderson)
(Photo: Amy Henderson)

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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It’s nice to see that Chase Elliott has made it to the big time – he already has haters, including Amy. That can only bode well for the young Awesome One.


Where do you get that Amy is a hater of Chase Elliott? She said that it wouldn’t be a surprize to see Chase make it to Victory Lane in this, his Rookie year, whereas, it would be a surprize to see Blaney make it to Victory Lane in his Rookie year. Wow! Talk about reading things into a story that aren’t there! Give the “haters” line a rest!

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