Ranking the NASCAR Drivers Most Likely to Win Their 1st Race in 2015

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2015

Ranking the NASCAR Drivers Most Likely to Win Their 1st Race in 2015

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    Every race car driver dreams of his or her first checkered flag, especially in Sprint Cup, NASCAR's premier division. Unfortunately, those wins are tough to come by.

    There are 36 races on the Sprint Cup calendar, and last year, there were only two first-time winners: A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola. Allmendinger crossed the finish line first at the Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen, while Almirola made his inaugural trip to Victory Lane at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

    The truth is, the superstars of NASCAR are hogging all of the victories. Last year, Brad Keselowski won six races, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano won five and Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four. That doesn't leave a lot left for the rest of the pack.

    But in 2015, there will be plenty of drivers trying to make their dreams come true and get that first victory in a Sprint Cup race. Here are the candidates most likely to make that happen.

7. Ryan Blaney

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    Ryan Blaney will only be a part-time Sprint-Cup driver in 2015, driving at least 12 races in the No. 21 Ford Fusion for the Wood Brothers. 

    However, the 21-year-old had a victory in 2014 in both the Nationwide Series and the Camping World Truck Series, and I wouldn't be shocked to see his success translate quickly into the Sprint Cup. It helps that Wood Brothers Racing will be beginning a new partnership with a talented Team Penske this season, which will give Blaney a boost.

    As reported by Bob Pockrass of Sporting News, Blaney just wants to get as much Sprint Cup experience as he can in 2015:

    I hope we can get it upwards to 17 to 20 (Cup races). We’re working really hard to get that done. I’m going to be racing a lot next year and fortunate to be in great cars, so I can’t worry about it too much.

    My mindset is try to do more Cup races, just with that is the ultimate goal, obviously, and try to get more experience in that. I want to try to find more Cup races instead of Nationwide just because it progresses you a lot faster learning the cars.

    Blaney will likely be a force to be reckoned with in future years, and he should be driving full time in the Sprint Cup Series sooner rather than later. But he could make an impact even with a limited schedule this season.

6. Justin Allgaier

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    Justin Allgaier was the third-most impressive Sprint Cup rookie in 2014, and given that the rookie class was stacked with talent, that's not a bad place to be. He finished the year at No. 29 in the standings.

    Allgaier didn't have any top-10 finishes in 2014, but he got noticeably better as the year went on, notching four top-20 finishes in his final five races.

    Christopher Olmstead of Beyond the Flag points out that simply the fact that HScott Motorsports kept Allgaier on board for 2015, despite the many management changes in the organization, is a positive sign for his future:

    The new partnership is one that could greatly benefit Allgaier. First off, the fact that he was brought back speaks volumes as often times when we see ownership moves like this it often is followed by a team bringing in a new driver. The fact that they stuck with Allgaier shows that they believe in his abilities. The other good thing about the new partnership is that it will provide more resources to Allgaier in 2015 which could translate to better results on the track.

    With a year of experience and better equipment and resources at his disposal, Allgaier just might make a surprise trip to Victory Lane in 2015.

5. Danica Patrick

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    In her second full season as a Sprint Cup driver, Danica Patrick made a couple of noticeable strides.

    The Stewart-Haas Racing megastar had three top-10 finishes and 14 top-12 finishes and led 15 laps—all improvements over her 2013 season. She was inconsistent, though, and finished the season ranked 28th, a spot down from her 2013 finish.

    "The biggest thing that holds her back is her restarts,” her former crew chief, Tony Gibson, told Brant James of ESPN.com after Homestead, (h/t Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports). “She’s got to really figure out a way to race better and be more aggressive on restarts."

    If Patrick can improve on her restarts, a win is certainly not out of the question—she is more experienced now, and clearly the Stewart-Haas team has the firepower, as Kevin Harvick's championship in 2014 proved. 

4. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Much like his girlfriend, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't have a standout 2014 Sprint Cup season. But you might say that the 27-year-old, who won the Nationwide Series championship in 2011 and 2012 and was the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, was due for a season of growing pains.

    Stenhouse had only one top-five finish and five top-10s on the season, and he fell from 19th in the standings in 2013 to 27th in 2014.

    Still, Stenhouse has proved on the lower levels that he knows how to win, and it's only a matter of time before that translates to the Sprint Cup. His entire Roush Fenway Racing team had a down year in 2014, and if the cars can improve this season, Stenhouse should be able to use his talent and experience to get his first win in NASCAR's premier series.

3. Austin Dillon

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    Austin Dillon is coming off of a solid but unspectacular rookie season, and it's time for the 24-year-old 2013 Xfinity Series champion to step it up.

    Dillion is from a strong racing pedigree—he is the grandson of Richard Childress and the son of Richard Childress Racing general manager Mike Dillon. His familial ties to RCR gave him the right to drive the No. 3 car in the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's passing.

    He did the late Earnhardt proud in his first year in the car, winning the pole at Daytona and earning one top-five and four top-10s. He finished ranked No. 20, and if it wasn't for Kyle Larson's standout season, he would have been in the running for Rookie of the Year.

    Dillon and Larson were seen as peers coming into their rookie years in Sprint Cup, but Larson well outshone Dillon. I expect that Dillon will use that as a huge motivation to improve this season. With determination and experience, Dillon should have a much better season in 2015. It would not be a surprise to see him in Victory Lane.

2. Sam Hornish Jr.

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    This list is dominated by young drivers, but don't take your eyes off of Sam Hornish Jr. in 2015. The 35-year-old is getting a second chance at the Sprint Cup series with Richard Petty Motorsports, and he's bound and determined not to waste it.

    Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006 and was a three-time IndyCar champion before moving to NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series full time with Team Penske back in 2008. He struggled to fit in, both on and off the track, and has been mainly driving in the Nationwide Series since.

    However, with a new perspective, Hornish is ready to take on the Sprint Cup series again. John Oreovicz of ESPN.com points out that Hornish could be a big threat in the road races:

    He's getting a heck of a second chance at the Cup level, and he's developed into one of the best stock car road racers. The car he is stepping into was well-sorted by Ambrose, putting Hornish and Richard Petty Motorsports into position to spring a surprise at Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

    Hornish has been waiting a long time for his first Sprint Cup victory, and 2015 just might be the year.

1. Kyle Larson

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    In 2014, his inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Kyle Larson did everything except make it to Victory Lane. However, his eight top-five finishes and 17 top-10s did earn him Rookie of the Year honors.

    But in 2015, nothing less than a win will satisfy the 22-year-old driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.

    After all, last year, Larson was the runner-up in three races, including two in the Chase. After one of those races, Jeff Gordon walked up to Larson and called him a future star, as reported by Jerry Bonkowski of NBC Sports:

    I just told him how proud I am of him. I think this kid is the real deal. He’s going to be a star in this series for a long time. I really wanted to see him win because I like him and I know he’s going to win a lot of races, but I also didn’t want to see those other guys win.

    I’m a big fan. I like seeing young guys out there driving like that. That’s so much fun. That’s what this sport is all about. I just wanted to let him know what a great job I thought he did.

    If there's one sure thing in NASCAR next season, it's Kyle Larson getting his first victory.