NASCAR Tracks Where We'll Most Likely See a 1st-Time Winner in 2016
There’s an old saying in NASCAR that the first win is always the hardest.
Once a driver visits Sprint Cup Victory Lane for the first time, typically the second time is not as difficult—in many cases, it doesn’t take as long to attain as the first one did.
As we prepare for the 2016 season, there are eight drivers in particular still seeking their first career Sprint Cup wins.
Some have been at it for two or three years, while others are attempting to do so in their first full seasons in NASCAR’s premier series.
Let’s look at each driver and the track most likely to provide him or her that first-time winning experience.
What’s taking Kyle Larson so long?
That seems to be the refrain heard from fans, media and even other drivers about the talented California native.
After winning Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2014, Larson struggled the following year, which was the most recent example of NASCAR’s notorious sophomore jinx.
Will his third full-time Sprint Cup season finally be the charm? Will the 23-year-old be able to break through and begin knocking out wins as much as he knocks into walls?
I know, bad joke.
So where does Larson earn his first win? Looking at the schedule, the limited success Larson has had to date has typically been at a 1.5-mile or two-mile track.
In the first part of the season, we have Atlanta and Las Vegas in the 1.5-mile range and the two-mile Fontana.
WHERE HE WINS: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. He almost won there two years ago, and it’s in his home state. Frankly, the sooner he knocks out his first Cup win—particularly in familiar environs—he likely won’t have to worry about making the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career, as well. Simply put, the sooner Larson wins, the better.
The anticipation of Chase Elliott replacing Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is at hand.
The 2014 Xfinity Series champion (and he finished runner-up in 2015) is set to make his debut as a full-time Sprint Cup driver in less than three weeks, following in the footsteps of his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
Yet despite all the hype and the legacy he’s following, don’t be surprised to see Elliott have a difficult season in 2016. If you could call it such, the 20-year-old will have his sophomore jinx in his rookie Cup season.
I predict it to be that bad.
WHERE HE WINS: Elliott does not win at any Cup track this season. He does not make the Chase, he does not pass go and he does not collect $200.
BUT: When the new driver of the No. 24 finally does win (in 2017), it’s likely to be a short track like Martinsville or Richmond—places where a number of today’s top drivers earned their first career Cup wins.
Now entering his third full season in the No. 3 Richard Childress Chevrolet, there are no more excuses and no more waiting for Austin Dillon.
His time has come to win and live up to his grandfather’s high expectations of multiple wins and potentially championships, too.
Let’s not forget that RCR has not won a Sprint Cup championship in 22 seasons, with the last being Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and final crown in 1994.
The problem with Dillon thus far is there really hasn’t been a pattern of which type of track leads him to success.
Is he a potential first-time winner on a short track, or a one-miler, 1.5-miler or two-miler? Or how about a superspeedway like Daytona or Talladega? And what about a road course?
Bottom line, Dillon will likely be more successful at a shorter track for his first win. Sure, winning the Daytona 500 would be great, but I don’t see the 25-year-old getting win No. 1 there.
WHERE HE WINS: Dillon wins at New Hampshire, a flat one-mile track that plays to Dillon’s strengths as a driver, being fast, a fairly flat track and one he can maneuver around much better than other short tracks like Martinsville, Bristol, Richmond or even Phoenix.
The original plan was for Chris Buescher to spend another season in the Xfinity Series in 2016, attempt to defend last season’s championship and then move up to the Sprint Cup circuit in 2017.
But thanks to a unique partnership with fellow Ford team Front Row Motorsports, team owner Jack Roush has indirectly lent Buescher to drive the No. 34 in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016.
Don’t be surprised, though, if Buescher returns to the Roush Fenway Racing fold in 2017 when he potentially replaces one of its three current drivers (no, I’m not going to mention any names of who I think will go, but it should be easy for you to figure out).
WHERE HE WINS: Much like Chase Elliott, I don’t see Buescher winning a Sprint Cup race in 2016. Sure, the 23-year-old has great talent, but he’s not ready for prime-time Cup racing yet.
But when he does win (most likely in 2017), look for it to be at a high-speed track like Texas Motor Speedway in his home state.
Brian Scott never won a race in more than 200 Xfinity Series starts. That’s not a dig; it’s what the record book says.
He drove for a premier team (Richard Childress Racing) and had a number of close finishes, but the fact remains: He still has yet to earn a NASCAR checkered flag.
And if he didn’t win in the Xfinity Series, what makes anyone think the 28-year-old can do so in the Sprint Cup Series?
No one less than NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty—that’s who.
While Scott got his ride in the No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion with significant financial help from primary sponsors Albertsons and Shore Lodge, the fact of the matter is he still has a great deal of talent, as well. And, The King believes in him and his talent, too.
Scott has a lot to prove to a lot of people, starting with whether he can be competitive in Sprint Cup before he can prove he can win a race in that series.
WHERE HE WINS: Scott’s best chance to win will come at Talladega—but only if he gets some help from his fellow Ford drivers pushing him to the front in the final lap.
The odds aren’t necessarily in Scott’s favor, but if other drivers such as Brad Keselowski (early in his career), Brian Vickers, David Ragan and Regan Smith (Xfinity Series race) could pull out big career wins at Dega, there’s no reason Scott can’t do the same.
The only question is, will that first win be this year or next—or maybe even in 2018?
Ryan Blaney has enjoyed success at every level of racing he’s been at. Now it’s time for the big time.
Blaney is so good that Wood Brothers Racing has decided to cast its fate for its first full-time season in Sprint Cup in a decade.
WBR has complete confidence that Blaney is going to be a big star in Sprint Cup. And with the backing of benefactor Roger Penske, the 22-year-old has all the tools, personnel and experience he needs to succeed.
When will he succeed? This year? How about 2017 or maybe even 2018?
In speaking with several of my media brethren, they seem to be convinced Blaney will not only win a race in 2016, he may even win more than one.
I may not have been born in Missouri, but Blaney will have to show me something to make me feel that way.
WHERE HE WINS: Good question. Blaney is one of the most promising young drivers in the sport. I’m not fully convinced he will win in 2016, although he will give Chase Elliott and Chris Buescher a run for their money to earn Sunoco Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors.
If Blaney indeed is to win his first career Cup race in 2016, it’ll be at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I don’t see it happening in the Coca-Cola 600, but the 500-mile fall Chase race may indeed present Blaney his best shot at a win this season.
Danica Patrick enters her fourth full season in Sprint Cup racing in 2016. She’s made 118 starts in the last three seasons and has come close to winning a time or two, but she still has yet to seal the deal.
There are some observers and fans that believe she’ll never win a race in her career.
On the contrary, I predicted when she first made the jump to Sprint Cup full time in 2013 that she’d win a race sometime between her third (2015) and fifth (2017) seasons.
I still believe that.
And while some believe the 33-year-old will potentially earn her first Cup win at a big track—like a Daytona, Talladega or perhaps Fontana—I think just the opposite.
She’s shown the most grit and determination on short tracks. While her record may not show it, Patrick seems to have a better knack of navigating short tracks than bigger tracks.
WHERE SHE WINS: While Richmond could certainly be the site of her first win, it’ll come a couple hundred miles to the southwest at Martinsville Speedway.
She’s looked good at times at the half-mile bull ring. Now all she has to do is put together a full race and cap it off by grabbing the lead late, and she will make worldwide news.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is potentially in a make-or-break season in 2016.
Like his significant other, Danica Patrick, Stenhouse is entering his fourth season in Sprint Cup and has little to show for his efforts.
Team owner Jack Roush is not going to tolerate another season of 25th place or worse. If Stenhouse doesn’t show significant improvement in 2016—including winning a race—Chris Buescher is waiting in the wings to replace Stenhouse in 2017.
So, too, is Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. and potentially Ryan Reed, if Roush decides to call either up from the Xfinity Series.
The onus is on the 28-year-old Stenhouse. What does he do?
WHERE HE WINS: Stenhouse won back-to-back Xfinity Series championships, so he knows how to win races and titles. He just has to do that in the Sprint Cup circuit.
Initially, I was going to say Stenhouse wins his first race at a place like Phoenix or Las Vegas, but the more I thought about it, the more Michigan International Speedway kept coming to mind.
It’s a track where almost every driver Roush has employed in the last 15 years or so has won at least once. If Stenhouse can win in either June or August at MIS, it wouldn’t only be his first career Cup triumph, it would also likely qualify him for the Chase—and potentially save his ride in the process.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.