Under-the-Radar NASCAR Drivers Who Could Make the 2015 Chase
Ah, the underdog. Every sports fan's favorite rooting interest and unlikely hero. They exist in every sport, but their chance of rising to championship contention is always a rarity worth watching.
NASCAR is not void of these under-the-radar drivers, and that was evident last season. By virtue of their wins, A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola became implausible Chase contenders under the new points system.
Following Allmendinger and Almirola's runs to the Chase last season, they can't be included in the under-the-radar discussion. And though they didn't make it last year, big names like Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle won't be featured, either.
With just 16 spots, consistency or one huge win is a must to reach NASCAR's postseason. Heading into Las Vegas, let's take a look at five drivers who have a great chance of making the Chase.
At the age of 36 and with 13 years of Sprint Cup experience, Casey Mears has always been under the radar. During that time, Mears has won only one race and has finished in the top 16 just once.
If that doesn't scream underdog, I don't know what does.
Given those numbers, what makes Mears a driver to watch with a chance at the Chase? Most of that optimism has to do with his strong opening to the season at Daytona and Atlanta.
Mears almost missed the Daytona 500 entirely during the Budweiser Duels, but he narrowly made it after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. beat out Brian Scott. The Germain Racing driver turned that into a sixth-place finish.
“I don’t know how much that pass earned us,” Mears said of Stenhouse's late pass, via Al Pearce of AutoWeek. “But it’s got to be several hundred thousand dollars. To get a good payday and bring our car home in one piece—I mean there’s not a scratch on it—really helps us stay in the game.”
There was no letdown at Atlanta the following week, as he clinched a top-15 result. To put that in perspective, he hasn't finished that high at Atlanta since driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
Even on a single-car team, Mears has friends all over the sport thanks to his journeyman status prior to landing with Germain Racing. If he can remain persistent at intermediate tracks and drive to top-10s at superspeedways, Mears might find his way into the Chase at the end of 26 races.
At the start of the season, David Ragan was a member of Front Row Motorsports, hoping and praying to simply earn a spot in the Daytona 500.
Not only did he make it, but Ragan finished 17th in the illustrious race.
With Kyle Busch out for the foreseeable future with a broken leg and foot, Ragan has now taken over his Joe Gibbs Racing ride. Already having eight years of full-time experience in the Sprint Cup, Ragan couldn't have landed in a more perfect situation.
Front Row certainly has the resources to compete, but it's clear JGR has excelled recently in the sport. Last year, for example, all three Gibbs drivers made it into the Chase despite having just two combined wins.
Carl Edwards, who was a teammate of Ragan's for five seasons with Roush Fenway Racing, knows the 29-year-old driver has what it takes to make a strong run in the No. 18 car.
"David has a lot of experience," Edwards said, per Jared Turner of Fox Sports. "He's a great teammate, and when his name was brought up—a lot like when they brought up Matt Crafton (Busch's Daytona 500 fill-in), I thought, 'Man, that's a great guy to be in that race car.' So, yeah, my vote was to put David in the car, and the way I understand it, everybody felt the same way."
Already in contention for a Chase spot after two races, Ragan still has some of his best tracks ahead of him. If he can keep the M&M's machine up near the front at Las Vegas and potentially pull out a win at Daytona or Talladega—tracks where he has won in the past—Ragan might find himself in the Chase.
He'll likely be back with Front Row, which would make for an even more intriguing story to watch.
Sam Hornish Jr.
Sam Hornish Jr.'s second Sprint Cup stint has already gotten off to a steady start. Though he hasn't driven to a top-10 result yet, Hornish sits 12th in points after finishing 12th at Daytona and 21st in Atlanta.
After his career stalled with Team Penske in 2010, Hornish has yet to race a full season at the Sprint Cup level. Now that he's getting a chance with Richard Petty Motorsports, he's already an early contender for a Chase spot.
Inheriting the same seat that Marcos Ambrose had last year, Hornish comes into the season as a much more mature stock car driver. A three-time IndyCar champion, it's clear Hornish knows exactly how to drive to Victory Lane.
Richard Petty simply believes Hornish has matured from his previous experiences.
"When Sam came in from IndyCar, they just put him in the Cup racing and it was just overwhelming for him and the crew to figure out what was going on," Petty said during NASCAR's media tour.
"Talking to the Penske people, they thought they raced him into [it] a little too quick. Going back and watching him, how he’s matured, he’s settled down and he’s old enough that he knows what he wants and what he can do, and that’s going to be a big plus for us."
If you're not excited about this slide, don't worry—neither is Paul Menard.
One of the most even-keel drivers in the Sprint Cup, Menard simply goes about his business and tends to string together strong results. Often forgotten among his teammates, Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman, he is the highest-ranked RCR driver after two races.
That doesn't mean he'll be the only driver with a chance, but it certainly helps moving forward. The good fortune won't stop at Las Vegas, either, as he's driven to three straight top-10s with RCR at the track. In fact, his season high last year was a third-place result in Sin City.
Now that he's gotten comfortable with new crew chief Justin Alexander, Menard should see his results improve even more moving forward.
Coming off a year where he set career highs for top-fives (five) and top-10s (13), Menard is teeming with confidence in 2015. He might not be in the Chase standings yet, but that could all change after this weekend in Vegas.
Martin Truex Jr.
Several drivers have faced adversity over the last few seasons. Martin Truex Jr.'s misfortunes, however, have come in several different forms.
Before the 2014 season ever started, Truex nearly didn't have a ride after scandal ripped his Michael Waltrip Racing ride and NAPA sponsorship away. Just when things seemed to stabilize at Furniture Row, his longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
In terms of trying seasons, Truex's 2014 campaign ranks up near the top.
So far in 2015, he's seen a complete turnaround. Truex started 10th in the Daytona 500 and turned in an eighth-place result. At an Atlanta track where he finished 23rd last year, Truex finished sixth.
What all of that has led to is Truex sitting at fifth in points—which, oh by the way, is the highest any Furniture Row driver has ever been in the standings. Jason O. Boyd of Sporting News notes Truex's success started prior to this season:
Truex showed signs of progress even late last season. He placed in the top 15 or better in six of the last 10 races, including a fourth-place finish at Kansas and a seventh-place finish at Dover.
Going into Vegas has been a hit-or-miss experience for Truex, placing as high as sixth for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2011 and as low as 32nd for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2009. Last season for Furniture Row, he placed 14th after starting the race 12th.
As Boyd points out, this weekend will prove to be a crucial one in his 10th full-time season. If Truex's gamble in Vegas pays off, he might be able to go all-in later this year in the Chase with Furniture Row.
How's that for a rebound from last year?
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
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