The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season has been a wild ride, but if you look closely you will find some clear trends as we near the mid way point of the regular season.
Matt Kenseth is the Driver to Beat
When Joe Gibbs signed Matt Kenseth last off-season he was looking for a veteran champion who could pass on patience and maturity to his young stars, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. What he got was a rejuvenated driver on his way to the best year of his career. Kenseth already has 3 wins in just 12 races and has been in contention to win at least 3 more. No one has come close to the dominance of the #20 team race in and race out.
It was strange seeing a veteran who had only driven for one team his career to switch, but obviously it was the right move. Makes you wonder if a change for other drivers would bring life back into their careers to the same magnitude. Could you imagine Jeff Gordon driving for someone else with a new number? Fans are having a hard enough time not seeing DuPont on his car. Or how about Carl Edwards? We’ll see how well people adapt to Kevin Harvick outside the #29 next year.
12 races have been completed in the 2013 schedule, 3 have been won by the mentioned Matt Kenseth and Johnson, Harvick and Ky. Busch each have 2. Three quarters of the races have been won by 4 drivers. Kahne, who only has one win, has finished runner up 3 times already and is likely to join the list soon.
So many repeat winners so early already causes you to look towards the Chase. Currently Kenseth would receive the first seed followed by Johnson and Harvick, then Kahne and Edwards, leaving the rest of the top 10 in points without any bonus points. Busch is currently 11th in points and almost a lock for a wild card with his two wins, and likely to make the top 10 in points and be up with Johnson and Harvick.
The question becomes who else could earn bonus points. Many of the top 10 haven’t shown the speed to earn wins besides those drivers. Could have the Chase field have such a significant advantage while the other half gets in on consistency?
Hot Starts, Falling Fast
Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle. All have been inside the top 5 in points, all now find themselves 10th or lower.
As mentioned, Kyle Busch already has two wins this season, dominating both the Auto Club and Texas races. He has also had a string of bad luck (Who has a camera cable land in front of their car!?) which has dropped him outside of the top 10 in points. Again, with two wins he’s a lock for the Chase, but he needs the bad luck to go away to take advantage of the bonus points.
The defending Champ has had many ups and downs already this season. It seemed for the first few races that he was inches from multiple victories himself, but came up short in every one. Texas saw massive penalties from NASCAR, and even though they’ve been reduced, the loss of Paul Wolfe has clearly effected his performance, and the points seen much more valuable now that he’s 10th with no wins. I expect to see the blue deuce back up front soon and inside the top 10 for the Chase.
Biffle’s season is a bit harder to predict how it will end up. The Biff started out hot and was as high as third in points, but has fallen all the way to 13th after a few consecutive poor showings. As it currently stands the Biff sits only a dozen points ahead of his rookie teammate Stenhouse, and well behind 2nd place, Carl Edwards. If he can get into victory lane he could be secure, but it will probably take at least 2, or a return to the top 10 in points.
I guess you could say that the greatest equalizer this season for all the competition has been the lack of consistency by most of the teams. Those three, who’ve had great success followed by terrible finishes, have found themselves in the same company of drivers who have been fighting constant inconsistency all year. Gordon, Newman, Stewart, Logano, Kurt Busch, and McMurray are all in the teens, constantly jumping up and down each race in a very tight battle for the last positions in the Chase.
Some of these drivers are fighting their team’s deficiencies – Busch, McMurray – others keep trying to overcome bad luck and disappointing finishes – Gordon, Logano – and Stewart-Haas teammates, Stewart and Newman, are both attempting to get a handle on the Gen-6 car and have shown improvements.
It’s unclear as to which of these drivers will start getting the finishes they’re accustomed to. If any of them can win a race or two it would go a long way towards making the wild card, and consistency could propel them inside the top 10 at the expense of some of the surprise teams of 2013.
Little Guys Making Big Strides
The reason why so many of those big names are outside the top 10 is due to the surprising performances by drivers like Menard, Truex, and Almirola. Many, myself included, expected Menard to slowly drift back outside the hunt, but his average finish of 15h has been consistent enough to place him 8th in points ahead of all the drivers who have struggled early. If the other drivers are able to pick it up I don’t see a 15th average place finish keeping him in the top 10, but Richard Childress obviously believes in him, signing a contract extension this week.
Truex Jr. started the year off slow after a Chase appearance last season but has turned it up as of late. His average finish is just behind Menard, 16th, and he’s one spot behind him in points. If he can continue to place consistently he could once again make the Chase. However, having not won since 2007 he needs to stay in the top 10 as he’s not likely to win a wild card.
The real surprise so far is Aric Almirola in the #43 Richard Petty Ford. His average finish of 17th has him 12 in points, and as it stands holder of the second wild card. I have been truly impressed with Almirola’s performance this season, and would still be in the top 10 if not for being involved in a wreck triggered by Mark Martin in the 600.
Then there’s the moves forward by Furniture Row and Kurt Busch, the upset victory by David Ragan at ‘Dega and the strong runs by the Phoenix Racing team. A.J. Almendinger’s 4 starts in the 51 have an average finish of 14th and Regan Smith has an average finish of 16th in his 6 starts in the #51. The Nationwide contender Austin Dillon has been the weak point in the team’s rotation, finishing 33rd at Texas. All told the #51 team is 15th in owner points. Sad news is James Finch has announced he doesn’t plan on keeping the team going and most likely won’t finish out the season for lack of sponsorship.
If these trends continue for the second half of the regular season we could see another Richmond miracle like Gordon last year or Mayfield in 2004, as there will be plenty of teams, bug and small, fighting for those last couple transfer spots into the Chase.