Which NASCAR Drivers Are Most Desperate for a Win as the Chase Draws Near?
With three races remaining to make NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, several drivers are in must-win situations—most notably those that need a win to make the Chase.
Heading into this Saturday's race at Bristol, there are four spots still open for those drivers who have yet to win a race in 2014.
If no driver wins a race for the first time this season in the next three races, then the expanded 16-driver Chase field will be filled out by drivers that are highest in the points, albeit without at least one win.
We already know who those drivers are: Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle.
But there are also drivers who are desperate for a win for other reasons, as well. Those who, even if they don't make the Chase, could heighten their season with at least one visit to Victory Lane.
Even if that were to occur in the 10-race Chase, and even if they are not qualified Chase entrants.
Here's the drivers that we think need a win the most, even to the point of desperation:
Why He Needs a Win? After making the Chase the last two seasons, Kahne is in dire need to win one of the next three races to keep that string going. Since the Chase began in 2004, Kahne has qualified for NASCAR's marquee playoffs just four times, including the last two seasons (2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013). That's a pretty poor batting average, so to speak.
Last Win: Pocono, August 4, 2013.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: In the three remaining pre-Chase races, Atlanta, where he has two wins and eight top-10 finishes in 17 starts. In the 10 Chase races, his best shot would be at Charlotte, where he has a career-best four wins, nine top-5 and 12 top-10 finishes in 21 starts.
Why He Needs a Win? If Austin Dillon is to have any chance of making the Chase in his first full season on the Sprint Cup circuit, it has to be with a win. Sure, he's close in the points standings right now, but his season to date has been like a yo-yo, with some success tempered by even more disappointment.
Last Win: Dillon has never won a Sprint Cup race in 36 career starts.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: In 23 races this season, Dillon has managed just one top-5 finish. Unfortunately for him, that came at Daytona, which the series doesn't race on again until next season. And as for top-10 finishes, he has three, both times at Daytona this season as well as Indianapolis. If we had to make a guess, we'd say it would be the Chase opener at Chicagoland, where he has three top-5 finishes in four career Nationwide Series starts. Sure, the NNS is not the Cup Series, but there's not much in terms of other ways to compare where he might finally break through with his first Cup win.
Why He Needs a Win? A win, especially in the next three races, would not only secure Kyle Larson's bid to make the Chase, but also likely earn him eventual Rookie of the Year honors.
Last Win: Larson has not won a Sprint Cup race in his career yet. He's come close, though, finishing second at Fontana and third at Loudon.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: Larson is a short track whiz. He's got five great chances to earn a win at one of the remaining short track races on the schedule. A win at either Bristol or Richmond would get him into the Chase. Otherwise, his other best chances would be Loudon, Martinsville or Phoenix.
Why He Needs a Win? Because he has yet to sign a contract renewal with Richard Petty Motorsports, one must wonder if Marcos Ambrose—who turns 38 on Sept. 1—will be returning to NASCAR next season. If he doesn't come back in 2015, it would be nice to have somewhat of a going away win at one of the 13 upcoming tracks.
Last Win: Both of Ambrose's two career Sprint Cup wins have been at Watkins Glen, the last being on Aug. 12, 2012.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: With no additional road courses remaining in the last 13 races, Ambrose would have to do something he hasn't done to date in the Cup Series. Namely, win on an oval. And his best chance comes Saturday night: In 11 Cup starts to date, he's had three top-5 and three other top-10 finishes. He likes beating and banging, and he'll get more than his fill on Saturday night. If this will be his last-ever race at Bristol, what better way to spend it than in Victory Lane.
Why He Needs a Win? Paul Menard started off strong this season, including breaking into the top-10 in the standings twice. Unfortunately, his stays in the top-10 were only one week each. All told, he has four top-5 and an overall 10 top-10 finishes in the first 23 races. He's a win waiting to happen. The question is when that win will occur, and if it will be in 2014 or perhaps 2015.
Last Win: It's been more than three years since Menard's first, last and only Sprint Cup win, July 31, 2011 in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: Menard's chances for making the Chase are marginal at best. But anything could happen in the next three races. Looking at his overall record at all of the 13 tracks remaining on this year's schedule, his best shot would be at Bristol on Saturday night (14 career starts, one top-5 and five top-10s) or Kansas (11 starts, one top-5 and four top-10s).
Why He Needs a Win? Brian Vickers had a good first third of the season, sitting in the top 10 in the standings for five of the first 12 weeks. But after finishing eighth at Charlotte, his season has come part. He's dropped as far down in the points as 20th; he's ranked 18th the last three weeks. Vickers has the talent to win any time he takes the green flag. For this to be a good season, he needs to visit Victory Lane at least once.
Last Win: July 14, 2013 at Loudon.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: If he were to win before the Chase, Atlanta (16 starts, eight top-10s) appears to be the best chance for Vickers. If it's during the Chase, Talladega (15 starts, 1 win, five top-5 and seven top-10 finishes) holds the best opportunity for him to still get at least one win in 2014.
Martin Truex Jr.
Why He Needs a Win? Martin Truex Jr. had high expectations moving to Furniture Row Racing this season. Unfortunately, those expectations haven't even come close to being met. He's struggled at most races he's been in and has no wins or top-5 finishes, and just three top-10s in the first 23 races. His Chase chances are all but done; if he's to salvage any part of the season, it would be with a win during the Chase.
Last Win: June 23, 2013 at Sonoma.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: Honestly, we don't see Truex reaching Victory Lane this season. It's just been too difficult, particularly since he races for just a one-car team. But playing devil's advocate, if he has any chance of earning a win this season, it would be at the only other track he has a Cup triumph in his career, his home track of Dover International Speedway.
Why She Needs a Win? Now in her second full season on the Sprint Cup circuit, Danica Patrick continues to both struggle—and improve. Admittedly, the improvement has continued to be slow, but she is showing some signs of becoming a better driver. It would be a pleasant surprise to see her win a race in 2014. The question is, will she?
Last Win: Patrick has never won a Sprint Cup race in her career.
Best Chance to Win in 2014: Patrick has done well on restrictor plate tracks (primarily Daytona, where she has earned two of her three career top-10 Cup finishes) so we're pointing at Talladega during the Chase. Also keep your eyes on her at Martinsville and Miami, where she might surprise a few people, in the season finale at Homestead.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski