Ranking the Non-Chase Drivers Most Likely to Play Spoiler in Final Races of 2014
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this past Sunday at Martinsville, he flexed his muscle as a now-former member of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
In earning his fourth win of the season, Earnhardt proved that non-Chasers are still bound and determined to win races even if they're no longer are able to contend for the 2014 championship. It's a scenario that has played out before.
Tony Stewart—who failed to qualify for this year’s Chase for the second consecutive season—remains the top spoiler in Chase history. After winning his second (of three) Sprint Cup championship in 2005, Stewart fell short of making the 2006 Chase by 16 points.
But instead of sticking his tail between his legs, Smoke went out and literally stole the show in the 2006 Chase by winning three of the 10 races in that year’s playoffs.
Granted, we’re seven races through this year’s 10-race Chase, and Earnhardt was the first non-Chaser or eliminated Chaser to win a Chase race this season.
But there are still three opportunities for more spoilers to steal wins away from the eight drivers still left in the Chase.
And in doing so, those non-Chasers or eliminated Chasers could significantly affect the outcome of not only the current Eliminator Round, but also the final four drivers that advance to the championship-deciding season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Here are five drivers who still can have a lot to say about how the final three races of this year’s Chase play out.
5. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson, the likely Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, has knocked on the door of his first career Cup win numerous times this season.
That includes runner-up finishes at Fontana, New Hampshire (fall race) and Kansas (fall races), and a third in the summer New Hampshire race and the Chase opener at Chicago.
I’ve been saying ever since that runner-up showing at Fontana that Larson is a win waiting to happen, and I still believe that.
His best chance? Phoenix. He’s had a great deal of success on short tracks throughout his career, and if he’s going to win any of the three remaining races, the Valley of the Sun next week provides him the best opportunity to do so.
4. Tony Stewart
We’re still waiting for Tony Stewart to win a race in 2014, which would extend a streak that dates back to his rookie campaign in 1999 of winning at least one race per season.
Granted, what Stewart has gone through the last two seasons—breaking his leg in a sprint car race in 2013 and the Kevin Ward Jr. tragedy this August—it would be understandable if Stewart ultimately didn’t win a race this season.
But after finishing fourth (tied his season-best finish) last Sunday at Martinsville—which earlier in his career was one of his worst tracks—there is renewed hope that a win might be just around the corner for Stewart.
It could happen as early as this Sunday at Texas. He loves racing fast, has won at Texas Motor Speedway before and would give his team and the entire Stewart-Haas organization a huge shot in the arm.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As hard as it may seem to believe, with his four wins this season (including Sunday at Martinsville), Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the winningest driver who has been eliminated from the Chase.
Even teammate, six-time and defending Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson—who was eliminated from the Chase along with Junior after the Contender Round finale at Talladega—has only three wins.
I likely wouldn’t have ranked Earnhardt so high in this poll if he hadn’t won at NASCAR’s shortest and oldest track Sunday. But by earning that fourth win, Earnhardt made it very clear that he’s going to try to end the season on as high a note as possible. That’s especially key with the fact that this is also crew chief Steve Letarte’s last season (he's moving to NBC as an analyst next season).
Earnhardt may no longer be in contention to win the championship, but it appears he’s determined to be the most successful (and potentially winningest) driver not to win the championship this season.
"I could care less about all the points now," he said on the live telecast after his victory on Sunday. "We love winning races. Winning races is the best thing. I ain't worried about points no more, trying to get trophies."
2. Kyle Busch
If it hadn’t of been for the 40th-place disaster at Talladega, Kyle Busch would likely have advanced to the Eliminator Round and potentially gone all the way to the final round of four at Homestead.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the younger Busch brother was eliminated at ‘Dega and has nothing left to race for but pride.
And what better way to pump up his chest and show that pride than by winning at least one of the three races left this season.
Busch could be in one of the best positions of any non- or eliminated Chaser to grab a win.
The reason? Busch seems to love high-speed 1.5-mile tracks like Texas (this Sunday) and Homestead (the season finale in two weeks).
And that he’s won already once at Texas shows he can win there, although he’s still looking for his first career Cup win at Homestead.
It’s time for Busch to explode and dominate like many expected him to do in 2014. Don’t be surprised if he starts this Sunday.
It’ll be better late than never.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Just because he was surprisingly eliminated from the Chase after Talladega doesn’t mean Jimmie Johnson is done with the Chase or done with winning in 2014.
Johnson and his fans came into this season with so much anticipation that Johnson would defend last year’s championship and go on to tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most career championships by a driver (seven).
Unfortunately, Johnson’s bid for seven will now have to be delayed until next season.
Still, Johnson winning six championships in eight seasons is arguably one of the greatest accomplishments in NASCAR history. And the fact he was eliminated from this year’s Chase should have no impact upon that achievement.
Johnson is still without question the most dangerous driver in Sprint Cup, the driver with the best chance of winning every time he climbs into his No. 48 Chevrolet.
Johnson has only won three races this season—somewhat of an off year when you consider since the Chase began in 2004, there’s only been one season where he’s won fewer than four (and as many as 10 in 2007) races in a season.
That was 2011, when he won just two races and failed to win a sixth consecutive championship, finishing a career-worst sixth in the final standings.
But mark my word. Johnson is ticked that he didn’t advance after Talladega. He can say all he wants about beginning early preparations for 2015, but don’t sell the six-timer short.
He could very easily go out and win the last three races and prove that while he wasn’t a champion this season, he’s still one of NASCAR’s biggest winners.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski