Top-five drivers needing
strong runs at Indianapolis

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Tony Stewart talks with Danica Patrick prior to the start of the 2013 Daytona 500.






By Brandon Caldwell
Staff Reporter
July 26, 2015
bcaldwell@theracingexperts.net

 

 

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the 20th race of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season. The current Chase Grid of 16 holds drivers like Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray, both of whom have never qualified for NASCAR’s post-season in their careers.

But even more surprising are the names that are outside of the Grid. Most notably, three-time winner Kyle Busch needs to make it into the top-30 to be guaranteed a Chase spot. But there are other names, too, which most fans would recognize that aren’t within striking distance.

As the regular season starts to winds down, chances to make the post-season are dwindling. Below is an examination of five drivers who need a good run the most at Indianapolis.

 

 

No. 5 Kasey Kahne

This name may be surprising to some on this list, but seriously, do you remember Kasey Kahne doing anything special this season? A crew chief change was made at the beginning of the season after Kahne and former crew chief, Kenny Francis finally separated and he was replaced by Keith Rodden, who was with the No. 1 team last season.


The reason why Kahne needs a good run at Indianapolis is, yes, he is twelfth in points, but he has the least top-ten and top-five finishes at Hendrick Motorsports this season. Kahne is in pretty decent shape Chase-wise, but if he wants to start his Chase off on the right foot, and with five of the ten Chase races being intermediates, it would be a nice start for Kahne.



Photo by Brian DeGruchy/TheRacingExperts.com

Kasey Kahne rolls off of pit road at Phoenix International Raceway.

Team owner Rick Hendrick invested a lot in Kahne’s future once Jeff Gordon announced his retirement before the season by inking Kahne’s new contract to a new multi-year deal. Kahne is believed to be a driver who can compete for championships year in, and year out, but hasn’t shown that kind of success at Hendrick Motorsports yet. A win at Indianapolis would sure put that belief back in the minds of many race fans.

 

 

No. 4 Danica Patrick            


One of the most popular drivers in the garage area is Danica Patrick. Patrick’s season started off okay, at best, after a seventh place run at Martinsville and a ninth place run at Bristol. In the eleven races since Bristol, her calculated average finish is 24th. She has significantly fallen over the last 11 races, and sits now 22nd in points. After Bristol, she was 13th.

This has been a downward spiral but Indianapolis is a track she’s had some success on in her racing career. In her NASCAR career, her best finish at Indianapolis is 30th in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.

There is some hope though for Danica lovers. This new rule package that Brian France is foaming at the mouth about would seem to benefit a driver like Danica. 



Photo by Brian DeGruchy/TheRacingExperts.com

Danica Patrick rolls off of pit road at Phoenix International Raceway.

More downforce and more drag would be more similar to a package she would have raced in Indy car, where she had much more success than she’s had in NASCAR so far.

Danica is in need of a good run at Indianapolis for a lot of reasons. One, she still mathematically has a chance at the Chase. As much of a long shot as she may have, another top-10 would help her no question. 

It would also breathe new life for her fans, who have seemed to be rather stagnant lately as her performance has dwindled some.

And most importantly, nothing has been announced for Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing for beyond this season. It was announced earlier in the season that her long-time sponsor, GoDaddy.com would be moving in a different direction, and decided not to sign on as the primary sponsor for her after this season. So a new sponsor is needed.

Although there is no doubt a new sponsor will sign on, and something will get done, a strong run at Indy will help that sponsor sign on quicker or for more dollars.

And finally, this is Danica’s last shot at a win before the regular season is out. Everyone points to the restrictor plate races, and Indianapolis as places Danica should run well at. Well the plate races are done for the regular season, and this is her last shot at a win to make the Chase. Danica may unbeknownst to her, certainly has some pressure going into Indianapolis this weekend.

 

 

No. 3 Kyle Larson

One of the hottest young drivers in the sport in recent years has been Kyle Larson. Drivers, media members, and fans have seen the skills that Kyle Larson possesses inside a race car. There was a lot of hype and excitement when Larson made the jump to full-time Sprint Cup competition before the 2014 season, and everyone expected him to be the next star in NASCAR.


That hasn’t happened, and Larson isn’t to blame at all. Kyle has a world of talent, but his team at Chip Ganassi Racing w/Felix Sabates is in the upper-middle class of teams, even on their best day. Still, his teammate, Jamie McMurray sits much higher in points than he does.

McMurray is currently ninth in points, and is the highest seated driver without a win this season. 


Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR via Getty Images

Kyle Larson turns laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Larson is 21st in points. Now Kyle did miss the race at Martinsville due to an illness, but Kurt Busch has missed 3 races, and is eighth in points.

I think we were all expecting Larson to break into the win column by now, and the fact that he hasn’t is shocking and disappointing for everyone involved. His sponsor Target, and his team, I believe, were expecting more when they brought Larson aboard.

Still, there’s a chance, and if you know anything about Chip Ganassi’s organization as a team owner in Sprint Cup, his cars are usually pretty stout here at Indianapolis. Kyle finished seventh here last season, and should be a threat for the pole, and another top-ten run this weekend, maybe even his first win… but we’ve said that oh so many times.

Kyle needs to have a good run for a lot of reasons. Number one, on the list of reasons, is to secure the future of crew chief, Chris Heroy, who undoubtedly may be on the hot seat after the season the 42 car has had all year. If he can win at Indy, and get this 42 in the Chase, they’ll keep him through the Chase at least because starting the Chase with a new crew chief is a silly thing to do. If Larson does end up missing the Chase, expect a change for those final ten races.

This race is important to Chip Ganassi Racing as an organization too. A talent like Kyle Larson only comes once in a blue moon, and if he continues to struggle at Chip Ganassi Racing and they continue to not put a race car fast enough for him to win, and compete for championships with, he’ll be looking for other places to go, and I’m not sure of one car owner who wouldn’t find a place for Larson somewhere. A win would fix all of that for the time being.

 

 

No. 2 David Ragan

The only non-Chevy driver on this list is David Ragan, which is foreshadowing who the next driver is (although you’ve all already looked ahead before reading).


There was a time this season where we all thought that David Ragan could make the Chase based solely on his points. That is no longer the case now that Ragan is 24th in points behind Danica, and even the single car team of JTG/Daugherty Racing and driver, A.J. Allmendinger.

The 2015 season has been a struggle for Ragan. He started off the season in the Daytona 500, with Front Row Motorsports with the No. 34 team. 


Photo by Brian DeGruchy/TheRacingExperts.com

Brian Vickers turns laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. David Ragan took over the No.55 at Kansas Speedway in May.

After Kyle Busch was hurt at the Xfinity Series race in Daytona, Ragan jumped into the No. 18 Toyota at Atlanta, the second race of the season, and drove it through Talladega. Since then, he’s been in the No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

The move made sense for MWR at the time because their previous driver, Brett Moffitt, was not eligible for the Chase because he did not run in the Daytona 500. Also, bringing in the more experienced Ragan would give them a better shot anyway, and the fact that he’s a very good superspeedway racer, gave him a real shot to win at Daytona.

He has been having strong runs, but has failed to finish the races in the same positions, although the team has had three straight top-20 finishes on the lead lap, they’re going to need to be FAR better than that to make the Chase on their points, a win is really the only thing that will get Ragan in.

Probably the most disappointing race of their season was last week at New Hampshire. After practice and qualifying, Ragan and the 55 team seemed to have one of the best cars there, but during the race, the team had one bad stretch, and ended up a measly 18th, and couldn’t regain the track position they had lost.

David Ragan needs a good run at Indianapolis for a lot of reasons. He failed at Roush Fenway Racing in his first big chance in the Sprint Cup Series. Some have attributed that to rawness, some say it was a lack of leadership at the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing. Whatever the reason, he worked his way back into a competitive ride this season at Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, and although he’s the nicest guy in the garage area, there’s been more of the same from the 29-year-old.

If David can sneak a win out of this car at Indianapolis or just roll off a top-5 finish, that would do great things for this team, points wise, and confidence wise. They need to have a strong run to build those back up. And even if he doesn’t end up making the Chase, a strong finish to his season, with a win maybe even in the final 10 races would be a big deal for Ragan, and his career and this MWR team, which is looking to start a third car for Ragan in 2016. If he finishes strong, a sponsor would be a much easier sell for the team, and Ragan’s personality, they would sign on without even thinking about it.

 

No. 1 Tony Stewart

To no surprise to anyone, Tony Stewart is first on this list, and to anyone who follows this sport on a weekly basis, no one was even close to coming to No. 1 on this list other than Stewart.


To those of you who don’t follow this sport on a weekly basis, let’s outline the struggles of Tony Stewart, and the downfall that has been quicker and harder than anyone could have ever imagined for a driver who once dominated this sport.

It all started in 2013. In the first 11 races of the 2013 season, Tony Stewart only recorded one top-10 finish that was until the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 


Photo by Brian DeGruchy/TheRacingExperts.com

Tony Stewart rolls off of pit road at Phoenix International Raceway.


Tony finished 7th that day, and headed into Dover with a breath of fresh air, and new confidence.

On the final restart of the race, Jimmie Johnson jumped the restart, and Tony Stewart was able to steal the win from Jimmie Johnson. Right then and there, myself and a lot of the fans, thought the small struggle that Tony was going through was completely over, and that he was back, and going to contend for the championship. Oh, how wrong we were.

Five top-ten finishes in the next eight races proved that Tony was going to make a run for a championship in 2013, and I asked myself the same question Ned Jarrett asked Richard Petty after his 200th win, “Are you gonna keep winning races forever?”

That question was soon answered with the loudest “no” I’ve ever heard. The downfall started the next weekend following the GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono. I remember waking up that morning with my brother telling me that Tony Stewart had just broken his leg in a terrible crash in a dirt car. Stewart’s season was over.

The 2014 season started with a still recovering Stewart still wheeling his No. 14 Chevy, and needing a few more surgeries. It was sponsors and the Chase that Stewart knew he needed to run the full schedule that forced him to start 2014.

If it weren’t for those factors, Tony may not have raced until maybe the mid-way point of 2014. Things seemed promising for 2014 for the three-time Sprint Cup champ, as a new crew chief Chad Johnston joined the fold, coming over from MWR and two new teammates in Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch were thought to possibly make the organization better as a whole.          

Harvick started out on fire. Busch looked good with a win at Martinsville, and both had Chase births. We all thought it was only time that Tony Stewart would win and get his way into the Chase as well.

But that didn’t happen. The struggles that he experienced in 2013 were prevalent once again in 2014, and we all figured it was because either Tony was still injured, or a little gun-shy after the accident that nearly ended his racing career.

Then just like in 2013, Tony once again had an issue after that same Pocono race.

Tony was running a dirt race at Canandaigua Speedway in New York State, the night prior to the race at Watkin’s Glen, when he inadvertently hit Kevin Ward Jr. on the race track, resulting in Ward’s death.

Tony missed the next three races of 2014, and got back in the car and finished the season. We all again understood that the incident that Tony went through was extremely traumatic, and he wouldn’t be right until 2015.

This season started off no different than any other season in Tony’s career, again not winning the Daytona 500. But things didn’t get much better for Stewart.

He hasn’t missed a race. He hasn’t had any turmoil. It’s just simply been an absolutely horrendous season for Stewart. He’s 26th in points, hasn’t had a win since that race in Dover in 2013, and hasn’t had a top-five since he finish since his fourth place run at Martinsville last fall.

It’s gotten to the point this season that before the race at New Hampshire, Tony actually held a press conference to talk about his season and how tough it’s been and telling his fans to stick with him and this race team, and taking the blame himself. Yikes, some place I never thought we’d see Tony Stewart.

Sometimes rock bottom is the best place for someone, but that’s only if they can climb out of it. Darrell Waltrip was a lot more tolerable for race fans when he was running up front in DEI’s Pennzoil car, after his downfall.

That’s about where Tony is right now. He’s 44-years-old, and is in the midst of his worst season ever. Whatever the reason is, whether it’s his relationship with Chad Johnston, whether it’s Tony being a good car owner, and being in lesser stuff, and having a less pit crew than his drivers, the Kevin Ward thing, or his injury, what’s a better place for Tony to put all of those feelings behind him than home? A track he used to drive past as a kid dreaming of winning at.

Home is the place we all go when things are going bad, when we don’t know where else to turn. Home is the place we all feel the most comfortable. This race track is home to Tony Stewart, and a new rule package could help the veteran driver. Indy is a place he can put everything behind him, and use his talent, some of the best we’ve ever seen, to get his car into victory lane.

I’ve never been one to shy away from my opinion, and I will not on this topic either; I’m pulling for Tony. Probably the fourth biggest fan base in the sport behind Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Jeff Gordon, that’s a huge fan base that will feel rejuvenated for a Chase run. Having Tony Stewart in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs can only benefit the sport.

This would be the biggest win in Tony Stewart’s career, and for a guy as brash a Tony has been in his career, we actually would probably see tears.

Tony is number one on this list because this would be the biggest win of his career, and could turn not only his season, but the last stretch of his career around. But with the way he’s been running lately, don’t put your money on the 14, it would be something though.

Which driver will finish highest Sunday at Indianapolis?
 
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