NASCAR 2015: Drivers Most in Need of an Early Season Win
NASCAR 2015 is just a few short weeks away. In many ways, it feels like Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 car just crossed the line at Homestead.
He’s off the hook for needing an early win this season, but there are several drivers who need to win early for confidence, for posterity, for legacy and to ease the pressure that will inevitably come in the late summer.
NASCAR, always making little tweaks to its rules, will leave the new Chase format alone.
"One of the magical parts of this Chase is the simplicity of it—win and you get in," said NASCAR president and CEO Brian France sad, via Pete Pistone of MRN.com.
And that puts the pressure on the drivers to take all the fuss out of making the Chase: Just win, baby.
So let's define "early" as it applies to the NASCAR season. Deadline for early qualification ends on May 3 at Talladega, the 10th race of the season.
Read on to see who could benefit most from winning early.
Greg Biffle is all that remains of the smoldering ruins that is Roush Fenway Racing. Now that Carl Edwards is gone, Biffle must take up the mantle.
“There wasn't anywhere we were good at last year, really,” Biffle said, per Zack Albert of NASCAR.com. “All across the board, our performance was down. Pit stops were good, but you gain two or three spots on a pit stop and you lose them when they throw the green flag, it doesn't really help you.”
Biffle has wins at a few of the early race tracks, including Daytona, Auto Club and Texas Motor Speedway, so it’s certainly possible that he could get into the Chase with a win this year instead of getting in on points.
Getting a win would go a long way toward setting the tone for an organization that just lost its best driver in Edwards. It’s on Biffle now, and that early win would do wonders for everyone’s confidence in the garage.
It’s too bad Loudon isn’t in the first half of the season for Ryan Newman, because he could really use an early win. He’s got three at Loudon, but he’ll have to wait until July 19 for a crack at No. 4.
Even Dover, where he also has three wins, doesn’t hit the schedule until May 31.
Does the man who finished second in the Chase in 2014 even need to win? After all, he didn’t win in all of 2014—and hasn’t won a race since July 28, 2013—and he still nearly won the championship.
ESPN’s Brad Daugherty famously said during a television broadcast that Newman is harder to pass than a kidney stone. Nobody needs that kind of pressure of having to point into the Chase. Why not win and get it over with early?
Newman has one win at Texas Motor Speedway, and that comes up on the schedule April 11.
Harvick doesn’t need an early win, per se. Homeboy is eating at JJ’s and drinking Budweiser on the company dime for perpetuity.
Here’s the thing for Harvick: He’s the champ, and they’re all gunning for him. An early win will cement him as a driver who can repeat and a driver who isn’t resting on his laurels.
In fact, he cites winning early in 2014 as a reason for his team’s championship run.
"Our success came all from winning races," Harvick said, via Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com. "In the end, it was winning the last two races; winning early in the season and getting ourselves in the Chase. Pretty much, if you're going to look at the root of our success, it wasn't about consistency. It was really about winning for us."
Harvick has won five career races at Phoenix, and come the Ides of March (the 15th, for those of you who slept through freshman world history), he could seal up an early win and a spot in the Chase six long months away.
Carl Edwards made the biggest offseason move of any driver when he abdicated the Roush Fenway throne to form a new fantastic four under the banner of Joe Gibbs.
"I'm very excited about what's coming,” Edwards told Zack Albert of NASCAR.com, “but I'm very proud of what we've done. In some ways, I feel like I'm stepping off of a ledge and I don't know what's down there. We haven't done anything yet in 2015. I know we have a lot of expectations and a lot of hopes, and now we've just got to do it."
The tendency when you're the new kid in school is to prove yourself right away to justify the attention, money and accolades.
Early in this schedule, Edwards could get his chance to win, specifically at Atlanta, a track where he has won three times. If he fails there, a week later he goes to Las Vegas, where he has two wins.
Jimmie Johnson won four races in 2014, but he didn’t reach the final rounds of the Chase.
There has been some friction between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, but it's nothing out of the ordinary. When you’ve won six championships, the bar is impossibly high. And in 2014, it took half of the regular season for Johnson to finally snag a win.
The driver told Zack Albert of NASCAR.com:
At times, we felt like, "Man, we found it, we got it," and then other times, it seemed so far away. We know our cars are capable of going fast. We look at the performance the 24 (Gordon) had all year and then obviously the 4 car (Harvick). We've got the same stuff as those boys, so just getting the ingredients right and getting the feel that I need in the car is key.
Johnson has won five races at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. That race is slated for March 23, the fifth race of the season. With four career wins at Texas too, the race coming up April 11 is another in which Johnson could land an early victory.
Tony Stewart’s 2014 season could not have been more up and down, but it was mainly down.
He spent most of the year simply recovering from a badly broken leg he suffered in 2013. Then there was the incident in August, where the sprint car he was driving struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. at a dirt track in upstate New York. Follow that with Stewart-Haas Racing's best driver, Harvick, winning the Sprint Cup championship.
Stewart, a winner of 48 career races, needs to reassert himself as one of the sport’s premier drivers. Looking at the schedule, he could score an early win at Richmond, a track where he’s had three wins.
Stewart also has four wins at Daytona, though not the big one at Daytona, the Daytona 500. What better race to land that early win than the sport’s most iconic race?
Matt Kenseth had the second-best season of the drivers who did not win a race in 2014. The No. 1 honors go to Newman, who, despite going winless, managed to finish second in the Chase.
Now that Kenseth has a new teammate in Edwards, the pressure to win is greater. Joe Gibbs expanded his roster to four, but he could just as easily excise a driver who isn’t performing well.
With new changes taking away horse power, Kenseth feels that it will help his team’s chances.
“Hopefully that will make it a little easier to pass in traffic,” he said, via Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com. “Hopefully it will make the cars a little freer. They just had so much spoiler on them last year and were always so tight. I'm hoping that will help. It's the same for everybody but hopefully it will help."
March 8 could be Kenseth’s best chance at notching an early win. The Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas, and he has had some of his best success there, with three wins.
Kenseth also has two wins at Charlotte, and the circuit hits up that track in mid-May.
Jeff Gordon is calling it quits after the 2015 season. With 92 wins, four championships and three Daytona 500s on his curriculum vitae, what more could the man want?
Definitely a fifth championship, but what about 100 wins? Eight wins is very tough, but Kenseth won seven in 2013, so it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility, is it?
This is why Gordon needs to win early. His best chance could come March 1 at Atlanta, where he has five career wins. He has six wins at Talladega, and the circuit hits that track up May 3.
"I was really excited about the year and how things went and it built a new confidence I have in myself as a driver and a new confidence in my team and we will definitely take that into 2015,” Gordon said, per Holly Cain of NASCAR.com.
In addition, Gordon has eight career wins at Martinsville, and he’ll be there on March 29.
It will be a huge hill to climb and will take all the focus he can conjure, but he could have three wins by the first weekend in May on his way to 100.
All driver win stats came from Racing-Reference.info.
I hang out on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.