Top five drivers with pressure to perform in 2017
By Taylor Goins
January 16, 2017
As we turn the page on 2016 and look ahead to 2017, it is reasonable to say that every single Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver has pressure to perform this season.
Whether you’re the defending Champion like Jimmie Johnson or a rookie like Erik Jones, there are expectations to succeed that are inherently attached to racing in America’s top motorsports series.
In today’s world of racing where sponsorship dollars are more valuable than ever and competition is fierce, everyone must deliver solid results to feel secure.
However, it’s natural that some drivers are feeling the heat of the pressure-cooker more than others going into the 2017 season. The following are the top five drivers with the most pressure to perform this year:
No. 5 Trevor Bayne
Winless since his incredible upset victory in the 2011 Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne enters the 2017 season as a veteran driver with seven years of experience and 130 starts under his belt in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Known for his positive attitude, Bayne brings a smile with him wherever he goes in the Cup garage.
At times during 2016, Bayne had reason to smile: he nabbed two top-five finishes and five top-ten finishes. However, the struggles that the entire Roush-Fenway Racing team experienced last season plagued Bayne as well, as the Tennessee-native finished 22nd in the season standings and fell short of the Chase once again.
With RFR downsizing in the 2017 season as they transition from a three-car team to a two-car stable, one should expect better performance from Bayne and the No. 6 team. They have a committed, long-term sponsor in Advocare and more resources should be directed towards them due to the dropping of RFR’s No. 16 team.
Should Bayne break through and earn his first career Chase birth in 2017, it could possibly ignite the start of a comeback for the whole Roush-Fenway organization.
No. 4 Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR’s premier series and she has shown flashes of brilliance over the course of her five-year MENCS career.
Loved by her loyal fan base and sponsors, Patrick has been great for the sport and she has proven to be a worthy driver. Therefore, the pressure that she faces in the 2017 is not likely the kind of pressure related to keeping her ride, but instead pressure to deliver the results expected to go with the high-caliber Stewart-Haas Racing equipment that she drives.
For the first time ever since driving full-time in the Cup series, Patrick failed to finish inside the top ten in any of the 36 races in 2016. In contrast, her three SHR teammates earned a combined 31 top-five finishes and 56 top-ten finishes.
If Patrick manages to secure her first win or her first Chase appearance in 2017, it will go a long way toward establishing her name as a weekly contender.
No. 3 Kasey Kahne
10,355: that’s how many laps Kasey Kahne completed in the 2016 MENCS season.
The problem is that Kahne didn’t lead a single one of them. It’s a statistic that will make anyone do a double-take, as Kahne is one of the more talented drivers in the series and has a top-notch ride for Hendrick Motorsports.
2016 was not a failure for Kahne or the No. 5 team, as he raced his way to 13 top-ten finishes and earned an average finishing position of 15.6. More has to be expected from Kahne in 2017 than solid finishes, though. Kahne has missed the Chase two consecutive seasons and has not won since 2014 at Atlanta.
His current contract with Hendrick Motorsports runs through the 2018 season, and with newly-signed HMS prodigy William Byron waiting in the wings, Kahne must get back to his winning ways sooner rather than later.
No. 2 Chase Elliott
Despite being a rookie with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Chase Elliott had the best 2016 season of all the drivers listed in this pressure-packed top five.
After inheriting the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Jeff Gordon made famous, Elliott had an impressive debut season, scoring ten top-five finishes, seventeen top-ten finishes and two pole awards.
The son of 1988 Cup champion and 44-time race winner Bill Elliott, the younger Elliott knew that he would have high expectations placed upon him from the moment he stepped foot in a MENCS car.
Elliott’s successful rookie season did nothing to tamper these expectations, and in fact his performance just fueled the fire going into 2017.
After challenging for wins multiple times in 2016 and seeing victory narrowly slip away, look for Elliott to be itching to reach the winner’s circle. His performance up to this point in his career has set the bar very high, and don’t look for him to shy away from this pressure whatsoever.
No. 1 Clint Bowyer
It’s no secret that Clint Bowyer did not have the season of his dreams in 2016, his first and only campaign driving for HScott Motorsports. Bowyer entered the year already being tabbed as the replacement for Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing starting in 2017, but that doesn’t mean that anyone viewed 2016 as a “throw-away” year.
Unfortunately, Bowyer struggled to build chemistry with his new team throughout the year and the results simply never materialized. The No. 15 team earned no top-five finishes during the entire 2016 season and only three top-ten finishes.
For a driver used to contending for the Chase for the Cup, finishing 27th in the final standings has to provide plenty of motivation for Bowyer entering the new year. He inherits great equipment in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Ford Fusion, and the expectations have to be for Bowyer to break his winless streak that dates back to 2012.
Honorable Mention: Ryan Newman
When Ryan Newman broke through and finished second to Kevin Harvick in the 2014 season standings during his first year driving for Richard Childress Racing, one could see bright things in the future for Newman.
Unfortunately, those expectations failed to materialize over the course of the next two seasons, as Newman finished eleventh in the 2015 standings and missed the Chase completely in 2016.
In fact, Newman is winless since the 2013 Brickyard 400 and has not visited victory lane as a member of RCR yet. Despite these recent struggles, Newman has shown potential and signed a contract extension at the end of the 2016 season to remain as the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet in the future. With Stewart-Haas Racing switching manufacturers from Chevrolet to Ford for the 2017 season, look for Richard Childress Racing and Newman’s No. 31 team to receive more resources from Chevrolet this season.
With teammate Austin Dillon on the upswing, Ryan Newman will be expected to join him in the 2017 Chase and hopefully in victory lane. DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.