After Kahne, who’s next?

A review of the bubble drivers’ chances of being next to lock into the playoffs

By Jonathan Fjeld
July 28, 2017

Kasey Kahne’s win last Sunday at the Brickyard was a breakthrough win for a driver and team who has otherwise been struggling this season.

Entering the weekend, Kahne and his team were looking to rebound from a tough race at Loudon where Kahne started fifth but fell to a 28th place finish after they fell behind on adjustments throughout the race.

This result was one of nine consecutive finishes outside of the top 12 and Kahne found himself 22nd in points, well outside of contention for the playoffs barring a win.

However at the Brickyard 400, winning was exactly what Kahne was able to do. Thanks to some good timing and staying out long enough, Kahne finished his pit stop right as the caution flew for a multi-car incident exiting turn four and onto the frontstretch on lap 151.

After multiple contentious and challenging restarts which saw Kahne fight tooth-and-nail to hold on to the lead, Kahne found himself in victory lane (first in 102 races) and with a playoff berth (first since 2014).

So who is next? Certainly there are many possibilities in a year where there have been 12 different winners counting towards the playoffs, including surprise winners like Kahne, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, and Ryan Newman.

No. 18 Kyle Busch (13th in the Playoff picture, +140 points; seven top-fives, 10 top-tens, 1040 laps led, 13.6 avg. finish)

Entering the 2017 season, Kyle Busch was undoubtedly projected to win a race this season, as well as to be a championship favorite by many.

However, with just six races to go until the playoffs begin, Busch has yet to go to victory lane, despite being very close on a number of different occasions and leading over 1,000 laps.

Among the different occasions was the last time the series visited Pocono. Busch led 100 of the first 150 laps but was passed by Ryan Blaney with just 10 laps to go.

Blaney and others behind him had taken four tires on the final pit stop while Busch took two and fell to ninth.

This weekend, when the series heads back to Pocono, things will be different from that race. Busch will have crew chief Adam Stevens and two pit crew members on pit road, who were all previously suspended.

These three may be the difference between Busch once again being in contention and going to victory lane.

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (14th in the Playoff picture, +66 points; six top-fives, 11 top-tens, 16 laps led, 13.2 avg. finish)

McMurray has had a quiet 2017 but certainly a solid one. McMurray has only had three finishes outside of the top 20.

However, in those three races, McMurray ran well before encountering problems, like at Martinsville when he crashed out after a tire cut while running in the top 10 and Pocono where he earned two stage points before a brake failure and crash.

Not only has McMurray finished well, he’s also started well, as he has an 8.2 average start, tied with Brad Keselowski for third-best in the series.

While McMurray has had a quiet but very solid season, and one of the best of his career, he still lacks a win, and it’s now been over 125 races since his last points win at Talladega in 2013.

McMurray has not been known to be a frequent winner in the Cup Series but certainly with his performance, if one of these races comes to him just right, he could find himself in victory lane very easily.

Nevertheless, McMurray is in a good spot to make the playoffs, being the second-best driver currently in on points, but a win would certainly help him lock a spot up.

Chase Elliott (15th in the Playoff picture, +55 points; six top-fives, 11 top-tens, 173 laps led, 14.1 avg. finish)

Like with Kyle Busch, it certainly seemed like, early on in the season, Chase Elliott would find his way to victory lane very soon with some strong performances at Daytona, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Martinsville.

Like Busch, it is now just six races from the playoffs and Elliott still has not won yet this season. Unlike Busch, Elliott does not have the same points advantage, being just 55 points above the cutoff.

However, like McMurray, Elliott has had a solid season with 11 top-10 finishes in 16 races, not including a four-race stretch of misfortune for him. With six races left until the playoffs, Elliott has some good tracks ahead, including Michigan which has become his best track.

Michigan could once again be another opportunity to see Elliott and fellow young gun Kyle Larson race for the win, and an opportunity for Elliott to lock up a Chase spot.

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (16th in the Playoff picture, +33 points; five top-fives, eight top-tens, 214 laps led, 16.2 avg. finish)

After announcing his departure from the No. 20 ride, a weight seems to have been lifted off of Matt Kenseth’s shoulders.

In the three races since the announcement, Kenseth has scored stage points in all six stages and has been in contention for the win at Loudon and Indianapolis.

For everyone on the No. 20 team and his fans, these kinds of runs have been a relief after Kenseth crashed out of three of the first five races and has had misfortune take him out of contention for the win in races like Richmond (led 164 laps) and Michigan (was second before a pit road mistake).

This summer already seems to be shaping up to be a Matt Kenseth 2005-esque summer where Kenseth jumped from 20th to ninth in points from race 16 to race 25.

Kenseth has already jumped from 18th to ninth in points in the same amount of races, from race 11 to 20. With a few more summer races still yet to come and Kenseth’s performance on the upswing, it would not be a surprise to see Kenseth win one of the next few races with his best shot likely coming at Richmond.

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (17th in the Playoff picture; -33 points; four top-fives, eight top-tens, 17 laps led, 13.4 avg. finish)
Whether you like Clint Bowyer or not, you have to admire that this season has been a return to form for a driver that, in 2012 and pre-“Spingate” 2013, was shaping up to be a serious championship contender and winner for years to come.

This season, Bowyer is on his way back but he still has some ground to make up. Bowyer has been finishing races well with the sixth-best average finish among all drivers but is on the outside looking in, likely due to only have 53 stage points this season, the second-fewest among drivers in the top 15 in points (fewest is Ryan Newman with 33).

This goes to show just how important the stage points are as in any other format, Bowyer would be solidly in the playoffs at this point.

Nevertheless, Bowyer has two very good chances at winning with Watkins Glen and Bristol coming up.

Bowyer has been known to be both a good road course driver and a good short track driver. With Kenseth having an uptick in performance and outperforming Bowyer recently, a win may be just what Bowyer needs to do to get back in the playoffs.

He hasn’t been there since 2015 and it’s been over 165 races since his last win at Charlotte in 2012, so a win could do wonders for not only Bowyer’s season, but his career as a whole.

No. 22 Joey Logano (18th in the Playoff picture, -51 points; 1 win (encumbered), eight top-fives, 11 top-tens, 257 laps led, 15.1 avg. finish)

For Logano, it’s hard to believe he is in this type of situation, given that he’s been a fixture of the championship conversation over the last three seasons.

It’s even harder to believe for Logano more than Busch and Elliott since Logano won at Richmond, but due to an inspection violation, the win was encumbered and didn’t count towards the playoffs.

At that point in the season, the penalty was thought to be a drop in the bucket of sorts for Logano and the No. 22 team.

Logano had finished in the top-six in the eight out of the first nine races with 240 laps led and appeared to be solidly in the playoffs at that point with a fifth place points position, even following the 25-point penalty.

Since then, Logano has scored just four finishes inside the top 20 and has only led 17 laps.

The stats don’t lie, that extra speed that Logano had early on in the season has seemingly gone away and time is running out for him to get a win, as well as to point his way into the playoffs.

Luckily for Logano, Bristol and Richmond are coming up which saw him have two of his best performances this season. Those two racetracks may provide Logano with the opportunity for him to reclaim a currently lost playoff spot.

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.


Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts

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