NASCAR Drivers Not Receiving Enough Attention for 2014 Success
It's been a rather exciting season thus far in Sprint Cup. Through 21 races, plenty of different drivers have generated big headlines.
There's been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and two wins at Pocono.
There's been Jimmie Johnson's quest for a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship.
There's been the outstanding success from Team Penske's two drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Combined, the duo has won almost one-fourth of the races on the Cup schedule thus far.
There's been plenty of talk about drivers such as Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and others who have yet to win a race thus far in 2014. And the odds of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup are getting increasingly long—if not impossible—for guys like Stewart and Kahne to make the playoffs without a win.
But there have also been a number of drivers who have had great success and, for one reason or another, have not received the recognition they deserve.
Let's look at eight of those drivers and why they've flown under the radar thus far this season.
While it's hard to believe a guy who has led the Sprint Cup standings for the last eight weeks and 14 of the last 15 weeks has flown under the radar, Jeff Gordon has indeed done just that.
And why? Is it that the media and fans don't believe he can be a serious challenger for the championship this season?
After all, Gordon has not won a Cup championship since 2001. He's watched as Johnson has won six of the last eight—and is gunning to tie the record of NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, namely, both with the most career Cup championships (seven each).
For whatever the reason, Gordon has been like a stealth plane during the first 21 races. Other than his emotional win two weeks ago at the Brickyard 400, Gordon just hasn't gotten that much attention or publicity.
But given the way he's been going, he doesn't appear to miss the notoriety. And if that continues, especially in the Chase, Gordon may continue his stealth ways all the way to the championship, leaving Johnson and other contenders to ask, "What happened? How did Gordon win the championship and not me?"
Kenseth spent much of the first half of the season as one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit—with one exception: He didn't win a race.
Even now, with five races remaining to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kenseth is still in the same boat. For a guy who led the series with seven wins in 2013, the Wisconsin native still hasn't earned even his first win yet thus far this season.
While a win would help his and his team's confidence, Kenseth is still pretty much a lock to make the Chase on points.
Who knows, maybe he's ready to do a Stewart: go through the first 26 races without a win and then win five races in the Chase en route to the championship, which Stewart did in 2011.
Ryan Newman has the best shot of representing Richard Childress Racing in the upcoming Chase.
Even though Newman is in just his first season with RCR, he's looked very comfortable in his new home after several years with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Newman is up to fifth in the Cup standings, even without a win. He's practically in the same boat as Kenseth, who is one spot higher in the points, in fourth place.
While we're not quite ready to say Newman is a lock, top-five finishes in at least three of the next five races should assure he'll be in the Chase.
Of course, a win would make that task so much easier.
Even though he's slipped to eighth in the Sprint Cup standings, Carl Edwards, who already has two wins thus far this season, is still locked into the Chase, having clinched his spot two weeks ago in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But Edwards is not having a spectacular season, and that could be why he's not received that much attention.
In fact, the lion's share of media attention Edwards has received thus far this season is because he still has everyone guessing where he'll call home in 2015.
Edwards is in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing and is the most valuable free-agent driver still out there. He most likely will wind up at Joe Gibbs Racing, joining former RFR teammate Kenseth.
The amount of attention on where Edwards will wind up has reduced the pressure on him for his performance on the track. The big question, though, is whether Edwards and crew chief Jimmy Fennig can step up their cooperative game in the Chase.
For if Edwards is to win his first Cup championship—and in his last season with RFR, to boot—he's likely going to have to win at least two, maybe three races in the Chase.
Kyle Busch dropped the most places of any driver in the Sprint Cup standings following this past Sunday's race at Pocono, dropping from sixth to 10th due to early-race motor failure there.
But the younger Busch brother is all but guaranteed to make the Chase, so his first Sprint Cup championship hopes remain a work in progress.
Busch has generated a number of headlines this season, but many of those have been because of his extracurricular racing activities in NASCAR's other two minor league series: the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series.
If Busch is to truly make a run for the Sprint Cup championship this season, he's going to have to give up racing in the Trucks or NNS during the Chase, because it's only going to hurt him.
He needs to focus solely on the Cup in the Chase. Otherwise, it'll be yet another also-ran finish for KyBu.
Clint Bowyer is in such a precarious position right now.
Sure, he's ninth in the standings, but he's 14th in the pre-Chase rankings. If he has two bad races in the next five, he could very easily knock himself out of the Chase.
That's why a win is probably as crucial for Hamlin as any other driver. And what helps Bowyer's pursuit is he can win at any of the five tracks coming up, including the road course at Watkins Glen in New York this Sunday. He's already won a Cup road course race at Sonoma, and a win Sunday would not only give him his first W at The Glen, it would also all but secure his spot in the Chase.
But if Bowyer falls short at Watkins Glen, he can easily win at the other remaining pre-Chase events: Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
Brian Vickers was one of the more consistent drivers earlier this season, finding himself in the top 10 for five of the first 21 weeks.
But Vickers unfortunately has been in somewhat of a free fall when it comes to the Sprint Cup standings of late, falling from eighth after the Coca-Cola 600 in late May to as low as 20th, before rebounding to where he is at right now: 18th in the standings after last Sunday's race at Pocono.
Can Vickers still make the Chase?
Sure, but it's going to take a lot of work and maybe even more luck. Given that he's so far back in the points right now, Vickers has no choice but to earn a win to make the Chase.
Pretty much anything else—even if he were to record top-five finishes in each of the five remaining pre-Chase races—simply just isn't going to be good enough.
One other thing to keep in mind: While Michael Waltrip Racing believes in togetherness, when it comes to making the Chase for both Vickers and Bowyer, his MWR teammate, instead of all for one and one for all, it could come down to a case of every man for himself.
After dropping from 11th to 21st due to the post-Indianapolis penalties he, crew chief Darian Grubb and team owner Joe Gibbs suffered, Hamlin has one saving grace: Sure, he's 21st in the standings now, but he still has one win thus far in 2014, which should be enough to get him into the Chase.
Of course, a win at any of the five remaining Chase venues, particularly his home track of Richmond International Raceway in the final Chase qualifying tuneup, could help Hamlin overcome the Indy penalties.
With Grubb getting the heaviest penalty of all, including being suspended for six races, that means he likely will remain away from Hamlin's pit box through Atlanta.
But once Grubb returns for the final Chase qualifying race in Richmond, what better storyline would there be for Hamlin to bounce back and dominate the 10-race Chase?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski