NASCAR Drivers 1 Improvement Away from Contending for a Sprint Cup Title

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IDecember 9, 2013

NASCAR Drivers 1 Improvement Away from Contending for a Sprint Cup Title

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    Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are both championship contenders heading into 2014.
    Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are both championship contenders heading into 2014.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth dominated the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Between the two of them, they recorded 13 wins, and one or the other was the point leader following all but two races during the year.

    While Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick all put themselves in championship contention at some point during the Chase, the fight for the title was clearly a two-man battle the entire time.

    With the 2014 season just around the corner, teams are gearing up to take another shot at Johnson and attempt to unseat him as series champion.

    For some drivers, only minor improvements are needed to become legitimate title contenders. 

    In the slides ahead, I will take a look at eight of the sport's top drivers who qualified for the Chase in 2013, but because of Johnson and Kenseth's dominance were never really in the hunt to win the title. I will dissect one area where each of these drivers needs to really focus on if they have any chance of dethroning Johnson and becoming series champion.

Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick won a pole in 2013 for the first time in seven years.
    Kevin Harvick won a pole in 2013 for the first time in seven years.Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Qualifying

    Kevin Harvick has never been known for his qualifying prowess. After all, he did not earn his nickname of "The Closer" by starting up front and dominating races.

    While Harvick's 11.2 average finish in 2013 was second best in the series, his 15.3 average starting position was third to last among his fellow Chase competitors.

    His tendency of poor starting position allowed Harvick to lead just 269 laps during the year. That was only better than two other championship contenders. 

    The lone qualifying bright spot for Harvick during the 2013 campaign was his pole-capturing run at Kansas late in the year. It was his first pole win since 2006 and just the sixth of his career.

    Starting out front that day allowed Harvick to lead a race-high 138 laps en route to a dominant win.

    The old saying is that it does not matter where you start; it matters where you finish. But in Harvick's case, he would be well served to both start and finish well. Starting closer to the front of the field would give him an opportunity to lead more laps and collect extra bonus points that will go a long way in aiding him on his quest for his first series championship.

Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch has always struggled in the Chase.
    Kyle Busch has always struggled in the Chase.Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Chase Finishes

    It may seem obvious to say that for a driver to be a legitimate championship contender, he or she must run well in the Chase. In the case of Kyle Busch, a strong Chase performance is something that everyone has been waiting a long time to see.

    For some reason, regardless of how good a regular season he has, Busch cannot get the postseason figured out. 

    In 89 career Chase races, Busch has just one victory, and that came in his rookie season of 2005 while he was not a playoff participant.

    The 2013 edition of the playoffs was easily the best in Busch's career, but it still was a far cry from what anyone would expect from a driver with his talents.

    Busch scored seven top-10s during the final 10 events of the year, including a pair of runner-up finishes to open the Chase, but an accident at Kansas derailed any title hopes that the 28-year-old driver may have had.

    If Busch is ever going to challenge for a series championship, he has to find a way to turn around his playoff woes. All the regular season wins in the world mean very little if you cannot back them up with wins in the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just two wins since 2008.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has just two wins since 2008.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Lack of Wins

    Another obvious statement is that to be a championship contender, a driver needs to get to Victory Lane from time to time.

    Sure, every driver contending for the title could stand to win a little more frequently, but no competitor boasts a win percentage over the last six years as low as Junior's.

    Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has won just two races. While wins have been tough to come by for the sport's most popular driver, all of his other statistics have steadily improved.

    Each of the last four years has seen Earnhardt's top-10 production improve. The 22 that he posted in 2013 were a career high.

    If not for a blown engine at Chicago in the first race of the Chase, Earnhardt would have been in contention for the title. Over the last nine events of the year, he posted the second-most points in the series. The 353 points he accumulated over that span trailed only series champion Jimmie Johnson's 367.

    While Earnhardt has continued to improve each of the last four seasons, he needs to find Victory Lane more than once every three seasons if he has any chance of ever scoring that elusive title that his legion of fans desperately desires.

Jeff Gordon

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Superspeedway Finishes

    After getting into the 2013 Chase at the 11th hour, Jeff Gordon made the most of his opportunity. Following his only victory of the season at Martinsville, Gordon got as high as third in the championship standings.

    The last three weeks saw Gordon fail to post a top-10 finish, and he ultimately finished the season in sixth place.

    While the last handful of races did not go the way Gordon could have hoped, the biggest area of concern for Gordon entering 2014 should be on the sport's superspeedways. 

    When it comes to tracks two miles in length or longer, Gordon has been average at best in the last two years.

    Since the start of 2012, the series has held 20 races on superspeedways. Gordon has scored one victory and just six top-10 finishes over that stretch. Only one of those top-10s has come in the eight restrictor-plate races held during that period.

    The fact that Gordon has struggled as much as he has on the superspeedways is a big surprise. Twenty-five of his 88 career wins have come at Daytona, Talladega, Pocono, Fontana, Michigan and Indianapolis; the six tracks two miles or longer that host a Sprint Cup event.

    The saving grace for Gordon is that only one of these tracks, Talladega, is featured in the Chase. Even still, earning some wins on a type of track that he has always been strong on would give him much needed bonus points going into the postseason.

Greg Biffle

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    Greg Biffle had no success on mile-and-a-half tracks in 2013.
    Greg Biffle had no success on mile-and-a-half tracks in 2013.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Mile-and-a-half tracks

    Greg Biffle finished the season ninth in the standings. Had the entire 36-race schedule been contested on mile-and-a-half tracks, he may have finished outside the top 25.

    Biffle struggled mightily on NASCAR's cookie-cutter speedways. In 11 starts, he scored just one top-10 finish, a fourth-place effort at Texas, the second such track of the season. His best mile-and-a-half finish of the Chase was a 12th-place result, also at Texas Motor Speedway.

    With no changes to the Chase schedule in 2014, Biffle needs to vastly improve his finishes on this type of track if he can seriously contend for the title. Five of the 10 playoff races are on intermediate ovals, including the postseason opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

    Biffle's struggles at mile-and-a-half facilities were very surprising considering the success he had the previous year. In 2012, Biffle scored seven top-10s in 11 starts, and six of those seven ended inside the top five, including a win.

    Overall, 2013 was an uncharacteristically tough year for Biffle. His top-five production was the second worst of his full-time career, but more than anything, his lack of quality starts on the intermediate tracks is what really had us scratching our heads.

Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch will move to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014.
    Kurt Busch will move to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014.Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Finishing the Deal

    Like Dale Earnhardt Jr., the win column was left empty for Kurt Busch. 2013 was the second consecutive season that he failed to find Victory Lane after scoring at least one win in every season from 2002 through 2011.

    Busch and his Furniture Row Racing team were the Cinderella story of the 2013 season, as they became the first single-car operation to qualify for the Chase. Busch helped transform this team into a weekly race-contending team.

    The only thing Busch failed to do was score a victory. He came close many times as his 11 top-five finishes tied for fourth most in the series. He was one of only three Chase drivers that went winless on the season.

    Seven times Busch led at least 20 laps in a race, but he was never able to turn that into a trip to Victory Lane.

    Busch is moving over to Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2014 season. Driving as part of an established multi-car team, he may be in a better position to close out some of those races and score his first win since Dover back in late 2011.

Kasey Kahne

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    Kasey Kahne had a miserable Chase in 2013.
    Kasey Kahne had a miserable Chase in 2013.Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Chase-Opening Race

    Kasey Kahne is a four-time qualifier for the Chase. Only once has he posted a finish inside the top 10 in the first postseason race. The other three times he put himself in a hole that he was never able to dig himself out of.

    In 2012, Kahne finished third in Chicago, the first Chase race. That momentum carried on throughout the playoffs as he ultimately finished a career-best fourth in the standings.

    His other three results in the Chase opener as a playoff competitor are 16th, 38th and 12th. This lack of success has led to his eighth-, 10th- and 12th-place finishes in the standings.

    Even as a non-participant in the Chase, Kahne has struggled to kick off the postseason on a positive note. In nine full-time seasons, 2012 is the only season where he posted a top-10 finish. He has never led a lap in that race.

    It is tough for any driver to contend for the title when he or she struggles in the opener. Putting oneself in an early hole all but eliminates that driver right off the bat.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved that very point this past season. After blowing an engine in the Chase opener, he went on to post the second-most points over the final nine races. Even that was not enough to get him back into the battle for the championship.

    Should Kahne race his way into the Chase again in 2014, getting over that first-race hurdle is something he absolutely must overcome.

Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards has finished 15th and 13th in the last two seasons.
    Carl Edwards has finished 15th and 13th in the last two seasons.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Area to Improve: Track Time

    Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but since Carl Edwards stopped running full-time schedules in both the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series at the same time, his points finishes have suffered.

    In his first seven years as a Sprint Cup regular, Edwards never finished worse than 12th in the standings, and four times he finished fourth or better. He was also a full-time Nationwide Series driver in each of those seasons.

    In the last two years, a time when Edwards has run a total of one Nationwide Series race, he has finished 15th and 13th, respectively, in the Sprint Cup standings.

    It is possible that there is no connection, but the lack of extra track time has seemed to affect Edwards' Sprint Cup career.

    The 29 top-10 finishes and 12 top-fives that he has posted since the start of 2012 are the fewest he has amassed over any two-year span.

    Some drivers fare better focusing on just one series while others benefit more from extended track time. Edwards appears to be one that does best with all the seat time he can get.