Post-Easter Break Sprint Cup Previewby Kyle Pokrefky April 3, 2016 0 comments
After a week of rest for the Easter holiday for the Sprint Cup Series, the garage is ready to get back at it for a stretch of 11 straight race weekends before another break for the Father’s Day weekend.
10 of those weekends will be points races, leaving 11 races until the Chase once the action gets back underway in late-June.
Before the cars hit the track once more with Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, The Fourth Turn previews the upcoming action and reviews what we’ve seen so far.
Who will lead the charge through June?
The two organizations to keep an eye on in this run through June are Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. While Hendrick has more wins than Gibbs this year with the score tally being two-to-one, the Gibbs crew have three of their drivers in the top-five of the standings with Matt Kenseth bringing up the rear in 15th. Jimmie Johnson, the winner at Atlanta and Auto Club, is presently second in the standings with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in eighth followed by teammates Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne in 17th and 18th.
Earnhardt Jr., Elliott, Kahne and Kenseth’s current placings in the standings aren’t necessarily indicative of the pace they’ve showcased through the season and one could expect them to improve until the Father’s Day break.
The current points leader, Kevin Harvick, doesn’t drive for either team. He’s leading the charge for Stewart-Haas Racing presently with teammate Kurt Busch hanging around in the back half of top-10 of the standings. The other half of the SHR group, however, is yet to show any real signs of life though.
Who needs a rebound?
We’re still only five races into the new season, yet some drivers have already found themselves behind the eight ball already. Of the drivers who need to pull through and make some moves up the standings during this stretch, I’m taking a look at Greg Biffle, Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman.
Biffle and Newman are both part of teams that are experiencing resurgences of sorts – both drivers respectively driving for Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Biffle, the driver who’s been the face of the Roush Fenway organization in recent years, is currently the lowest RFR driver in the standings by virtue of sitting 27th in the points. Newman, at least a Contender Round driver in the last two years, has yet to score a single top-10 this year.
Larson, a driver who many thought would greatly benefit from the new aerodynamics package, has been treading water early into the season. Recording only one top-10 in a race that has delivered poor results for him in the past (Daytona 500), Larson’s pace has been surprisingly off not only his 2014 pace, but his 2015 speed as well. Perhaps he needs to become more accustomed to working with crew chief Chad Johnston, because as evidenced by his teammate Jamie McMurray, the speed in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable didn’t fall off a cliff over the offseason.
Of course, with ‘win and you’re in’ being the mantra of the current Chase format, all a driver needs is a single victory to clinch their ticket into the Chase; however, if you’re to go deep in the Chase, you’re going to need to string strong runs together, not turn in a ‘one and done’ effort.
Of the ‘surprise’ drivers near the top of the standings, who can keep up the momentum?
2016 has proven to be Austin Dillon’s year as the third-year driver has been rattling off top-10s with ease in comparison to his first two full-time seasons in Sprint Cup. Outside of last week’s result at Auto Club, the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet has finished in the top-20 in every single race. Dillon has proven in the past that he’s a consistent driver – particularly during his respective championship-winning Truck and XFINITY campaigns in 2011 and 2013 – and is finally showing that he can hang with the big boys at the premier level of stock car racing.
Another driver that’s off to a career year thus far is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who currently sits 14th in the standings. Outside of a tire failure that relegated him to a 37th-place finish at Phoenix, Stenhouse Jr. is yet to finish outside of the top-12 on a non-restrictor plate track. While his Roush Fenway teammates Biffle and Trevor Bayne are lagging behind him in the standings, Stenhouse Jr.’s off to an early season that already has him besting his career benchmark in terms of his average finish.
It’s taken several years, but both Dillon and Stenhouse Jr. are now showing that they have what it takes to run towards the front of the Sprint Cup field.
Can the rookies reach victory lane?
Ryan Blaney and Elliott have been putting on quite the show this year with both drivers combining five top-10s in 10 combined starts. We’re still into the early stages of the season, but it appears that the stage has been set for perhaps the tightest rookie of the year battle in a full decade.
In a season with a new downforce package, Blaney and Elliott are running at the same level as some of the top faces in the sport. Their respective average finishes don’t represent the speed they’ve shown on the track as both drivers have made their home in the top-10 regularly throughout races. With the speed they’ve shown – at a variety of different track layouts mind you – it’d be no surprise to see either driver make it to victory lane this year, dare I say possibly before the All-Star weekend?
The spring run for the Sprint Cup Series kicks off on Sunday afternoon with the STP 500 at Martinsville. Live coverage will be provided by FOX Sports 1 and MRN at 1:00 p.m ET.
Photo Credit: Robert Laberge/Getty Images