Before the 2016 NASCAR season began, I made a series of predictions about how the year would unfold. Most of those predictions centered around which drivers would ultimately qualify for the Chase. There are currently 11 races to go before the Chase begins, so now is a good time to check up on those predictions. In this post, I will list the 16 drivers whom I identified as the future Chasers of this season. I will give a brief recap of how each of their seasons have gone and what the outlook is for each of them in terms of making the Chase, or even winning the championship.
Predicted points position: 1st
Current points position: 5th
How he got here: Logano had a solid start to the season by getting strong finishes at most races and bouncing back from early race troubles. He had a short run of bad luck last month that came to a screeching halt after he won his first All-Star Race. Logano also became the tenth different driver to win a points-paying race this year when he took the checkered flag at Michigan.
Outlook: Logano is not on pace to match his superb 2015 numbers, but he is in great shape to make the Chase. In past years, the 22 team has proven it can step up its game near the end of the season. There is no reason to think that Logano will not be a championship contender once again.
Predicted points position: 2nd
Current points position: 2nd
How he got here: For someone who has been such a lightning rod for controversy in the past, Busch has had a quiet, but still very good, season. He leads all drivers with 13 top tens and is the only competitor to complete every lap thus far. Busch is also another recent winner, capturing a victory at Pocono a few weeks ago.
Outlook: Busch has (hopefully) left all the controversy behind him and found a home with Stewart-Haas racing. He is looking like a bigger championship threat than he has in years. Can Busch keep up the positive momentum?
Predicted points position: 3rd
Current points position: 7th
How he got here: Johnson flexed his muscles early in 2016, becoming the first driver to win multiple races. He steadily built his case as a title favorite in the opening weeks, but then the 48 team began to stumble. Crashes at Talladega, Dover, and Pocono have turned good runs into lousy finishes. Johnson’s 3rd place effort in the Coca-Cola 600 is his only top ten finish in the last six races.
Outlook: Johnson never stays down for long, and the next 11 races do not matter much for him with two wins already in the bank. Yet the 48 team will have to make sure all the bugs are worked out by September to avoid another disappointing result in the elimination-style Chase.
Predicted points position: 4th
Current points position: 13th
How he got here: Hamlin kicked off the year by winning the closest Daytona 500 in history. He has also started 13 consecutive races in the top ten. The trouble is, Hamlin has not been able to finish in the top ten that much lately. In a year where Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated the win column, Hamlin has not been back to victory lane since Daytona. He has also led only 33 laps since his big win.
Outlook: Even though he won the biggest race of the year and locked himself into the Chase almost immediately, Hamlin looks like the weakest of the four JGR drivers right now. If he really is going to get all the way to the final round of the Chase, the 11 team must find a little more speed.
Predicted points position: 5th
Current points position: 3rd
How he got here: You can always count on Keselowski to make things exciting. A late charge to the front of the pack at Las Vegas netted him his first victory of the year, and he picked up another win after a chaotic day in Talladega. When Keselowski has not won, he has usually finished well. A 29th at Phoenix is his only finish outside the top 20 this year.
Outlook: Keselowski will easily make the Chase and has the strength to make a championship run as well. However, the third round of the Chase has been a thorn in his side for the last two seasons. Only four drivers get to race for the Sprint Cup at Homestead, so Keselowski will have to keep up his good results to be one of them.
Predicted points position: 6th
Current points position: 9th
How he got here: The 2015 Sprint Cup champ picked up right where he left off. Busch was a top five machine early in the year, cranking out nine of them in 11 starts. Then the wheels came off in a big way. Busch’s last four races have included three crashes and a blown engine, resulting in four straight finishes of 30th or worse. However, he still leads the Sprint Cup Series in wins and top fives.
Outlook: If Busch can get his early season form back, he will be tough to beat. His current string of bad finishes is not a big problem for the regular season, but sub-30th results are not going to fly in the Chase.
Predicted points position: 7th
Current points position: 1st
How he got here: In his third season with SHR, Harvick is still fast everywhere. A picture of consistency, Harvick is a frequent sight at the front of the pack and has no finish worse than 17th this year. It is no surprise to see him at the top of the standings. The fact that his only win is a narrow victory at Phoenix is a good problem to have.
Outlook: It is a problem, though. Harvick can rack up great finishes, but he has let a few potential wins slip away from his grasp. He remains the only driver to reach the final round in both years of the elimination-style Chase, and doing it again will be a tough task. But betting against Harvick to do that may prove foolish, especially if he can get back to victory lane.
Predicted points position: 8th
Current points position: 10th
How he got here: Kenseth and the 20 team experienced an entire season’s worth of bad luck in ten races. After a tough loss in Daytona, Kenseth fell victim to bizarre crashes, pit road mistakes, and faulty parts. He finally secured a victory at Dover last month by holding off Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in the closing laps. Since then, Kenseth has once again become a regular top ten finisher, but the 20 team seems to have lost a little speed from early in the season.
Outlook: Kenseth’s victory essentially cancels out all the bad finishes he had early in the season. He could compete for the championship if the 20 team can keep putting complete races together, but right now it is hard to tell what Kenseth’s level of performance will be like come September.
Predicted points position: 9th
Current points position: 4th
How he got here: Edwards started off the season by taking a banged-up car to a top five in the Daytona 500. That was the beginning of an excellent nine race stretch for Edwards, which culminated in back to back short track wins at Bristol and Richmond. He had a few lackluster races following the pair of wins, but the 19 team appears to be back on track after top tens at Pocono and Michigan.
Outlook: Edwards has been the consistently strongest JGR driver. His improvement over the second half of 2015 has carried on into this year. Like Kurt Busch, Edwards looks like a bigger championship threat than he has in several years. He could go much farther into the Chase than what I predicted.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Predicted points position: 10th
Current points position: 11th
How he got here: Earnhardt Jr. bounced back from a crash at Daytona with a run of solid finishes. He steadily climbed his way up the points standings until running into trouble again at Talladega. Since then it has been an up and down season for Junior, who has four second place finishes but only six total top tens and just 53 laps led.
Outlook: Junior is currently 30 points above the Chase cutoff. His level of performance has been good enough to make the postseason whether or not he gets a win in the next 11 races. The bigger question is if Junior can advance any further than the second round of the Chase.
Predicted points position: 11th
Current points position: 15th
How he got here: The bad news is that Newman has not found any more speed than he had in his first two years with Richard Childress Racing. The good news is that he is making progress in securing a Chase spot. Newman was 25th in points after four races and without a top ten finish. Since then he has posted four top tens and climbed ten positions in points, but Newman’s long winless streak shows no signs of ending.
Outlook: Once again, Newman will probably be one of the last drivers to squeeze into the Chase, and he will get there on points. Yet being only 16 points to the good of the Chase cutoff, Newman cannot afford to have many bad days.
Predicted points position: 12th
Current points position: 21st
How he got here: The third-year driver has been agonizingly close to his first Sprint Cup win this season. Despite three top three finishes and an uptick in performance over the last month, getting a win could be the deciding factor for Larson’s presence in the Chase. Too many poor runs at the beginning of the year put Larson in a big hole points-wise, and a 15 point penalty following the Michigan race does not help matters.
Outlook: To make the Chase, Larson must either win or make up a 38 point deficit in the next 11 races. If the 42 team keeps bringing fast cars to the track, that will not be a problem. Otherwise those 15 points that Larson lost could have huge consequences.
Martin Truex Jr.
Predicted points position: 13th
Current points position: 8th
How he got here: Furniture Row Racing did not lose any speed after switching to Toyota, but the team still has a habit of not closing races well. Truex lost the Daytona 500 by inches and had other great runs at Texas and Kansas spoiled by bad strategy and bad luck. Truex and the 78 team finally had a mistake-free race at Charlotte, winning the Coca-Cola 600 with an historic level of domination. He leads all drivers in laps led this year.
Outlook: Truex would have been in the Chase with or without a win, but having that postseason spot locked up allows FRR to focus on the last ten races. The Denver, Colorado team has not missed a beat since forming a technical alliance with JGR. Truex has the potential to go a lot farther in the Chase than what I originally thought.
Predicted points position: 14th
Current points position: 17th
How he got here: For the second season in a row, Kahne has struggled to keep pace with his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. In most races this year, he has either run mid-pack or had a problem that put him too far behind to recover. Two of Kahne’s last four races have resulted in top tens, and he will need a few more if he wants to make the Chase.
Outlook: I have more uncertainty about Kahne making the Chase than I do for Larson. Kahne is only 11 points behind the Chase cutoff, and he has the skills to be a part of NASCAR’s postseason. But Kahne had a run of bad finishes late last summer that ended his Chase hopes. Will history repeat itself for the 5 team?
Predicted points position: 15th
Current points position: 6th
How he got here: You read that correctly; Elliott is the highest Hendrick driver in points. After a bumpy start to his rookie campaign, Elliott has posted no finishes worse than 12th in the past nine races. It is a remarkable run of consistency that has been the talk of the NASCAR world. With three top fives in the last four races, Elliott’s first Sprint Cup win could be right around the corner.
Outlook: It is not a matter of if Elliott wins, it is a matter of when. He is on track to make the Chase regardless, and would be the first rookie to do so since Hamlin did it ten years ago. The postseason is a whole different ballgame, but conventional wisdom about what rookies can do has not applied to Elliott thus far.
Predicted points position: 16th
Current points position: 12th
How he got here: After two average years, Dillon is finally looking like a Chase contender and a driver who can lead RCR. Six races into the season, he was 7th in points on the strength of four top tens. Things have not gone as well for Dillon since then, but he has earned three more top tens and sits 28 points to the good of the Chase cutoff.
Outlook: If Dillon winds up making the Chase, it will be because of his great start to the season. Talk of him winning a race soon has died down, and if he does not get that victory, he will have to watch his advantage over 17th place.