Did You Notice? … In a NASCAR Cup Series season that’s tied a modern era record with 19 winners, there’s still plenty more top-tier contenders getting shut out?
A total of six winners from 2021 have yet to reach victory lane this season, an unusually high number with just two races left to break through.
Considering the Championship 4 finale has been won by the eventual title winner every year since 2014, when the format began, Martinsville Speedway may be the last chance for anyone besides Ryan Blaney to break through. Here’s a closer look at who’s still winless and why they failed to cash in thus far in 2022.
2021 Wins: 3
2022 Best Finish: 2nd – Talladega Superspeedway (October)
2022 Laps Led: 527
Technically, Blaney has won a race this year, earning a cool $1 million bonus, but it was the NASCAR All-Star Race back in May. That made him a favorite to repeat a few weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, but Blaney lost the handle after a stage two victory, fading to fourth.
That’s been typical this year for a driver who’s earned a Cup Series-best eight stage wins. Over the course of the race, Blaney’s car typically gets worse; his average finish (14.3) is nearly four positions lower than his average start (10.5).
But it’s the way his car fades in the final stage that sticks out. Twenty-two times in 34 races this year, Blaney has earned stage two points. Six times, he’s been the stage two winner (more than any other driver). But he’s ended up improving his position during the final stage in just four of those 22 events, posting a disastrous -155 position differential in those races.
You read that right; 155 positions lost during the final stage. There have been some mistakes in key moments, like the spin after a green-flag pit stop at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend, but really, the key for Blaney and crew chief Jonathan Hassler is to keep up with the racetrack.
Can he win Martinsville? Absolutely. Blaney has five top-five finishes in his last seven starts there, leading 232 laps. And he’s one of only two drivers on this list with a realistic shot at Phoenix Raceway: Blaney has three career poles there and was fourth two times in a row, including last November, when he was the first non-Championship 4 driver in the running order.
This time around, Blaney has an outside shot of pulling a Daniel Hemric and winning his first race of the year and title all at once. He’ll need some help, sitting 18 points below the cut line entering Martinsville. But considering his capacity to dominate stages? Don’t count him out.
Martin Truex Jr.
2021 Wins: 4
2022 Best Finish: 4th – twice (Richmond Raceway spring race and New Hampshire Motor Speedway)
2022 Laps Led: 572
It’s still hard to believe Truex didn’t even make the playoffs, let alone factor into the Round of 8. Despite all the bad luck he’s experienced this season, the 42-year-old would rank sixth in the points standings without a postseason reset. Just five drivers have led more laps than Truex’s 572 this season, and four of them would make the Championship 4 if the season ended today.
Indeed, it’s been a year of almosts, where Truex’s season could have been so much better. In the end, his four top-five finishes are the worst total for him since 2014, back when he was running for Furniture Row Racing, but there’s at least four races he could have won.
In fact, Truex could have won three times in just these playoffs. Truex appeared to have the fastest car and was leading at Darlington Raceway before a water pump failure. At Texas Motor Speedway, he was out front before a blown tire ended his day.
Then, of course, there’s the contact with Kyle Larson during the final pit stop at Homestead that spun him out. Larson himself said he couldn’t have caught Truex without that final caution that changed everything with 20 laps remaining.
Other races that come to mind: Daytona 500 (won both stages), Richmond spring (led 80 laps), New Hampshire (led a race-high 172 before late-race pit strategy doomed him). One could argue this team should have had more victories than last season, when Truex was runner-up in the championship to Larson.
Can he win Martinsville? Eh. On paper, you’d think Truex is a shoo-in to be a threat: he’s won three of the last six races held here, blossoming into a short track specialist later in his career. But he was 22nd in the spring, the first race held here with the Next Gen, and hasn’t been a great qualifier this year for a chassis where you need to start up front at this track type.
2021 Wins: 1
2022 Best Finish: 2nd – Watkins Glen International
2022 Laps Led: 29
Allmendinger earned the biggest victory of his racing career last summer, winning the first NASCAR Cup race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. After another strong part-time season that’s included six straight top-10 finishes, Kaulig Racing announced this month Allmendinger will be driving their No. 16 full-time at the Cup level in 2023.
Really, Allmendinger’s two best shots at a victory this year have been bookended by Ross Chastain. In March, the ‘Dinger was livid after a game of on-track pinball shoved Alex Bowman into him on the final lap. Chastain’s move allowed him to scoot ahead to a first career win at Circuit of the Americas.
Back then, the ‘Dinger said it “doesn’t matter” if he was OK with Chastain’s aggression, adding “everyone’s got to be comfortable with the move they make.” It was the leading edge of what would spark a spring and summer of controversy surrounding Chastain’s rough driving.
But at Homestead, where the battle between the two kept Allmendinger from seriously challenging Larson for the win, it was a whole different vibe altogether. Losing out again to Chastain and running third, Allmendinger called the battle “fun as sh*t” and sent a clear signal respect between the two had been restored.
Can he win Martinsville? Probably not. Allmendinger’s never won at a short track in his Cup career, and it’s unlikely to start now at a place he ran just 24th this spring. Owning two career top-five finishes in 22 starts, don’t expect his name to get crossed off this list before 2023. But once we get to next season? Watch out.
2021 Wins: 1
2022 Best Finish: 5th – Homestead
2022 Laps Led: 224
Leading a race-high 67 laps in this year’s Daytona 500, Keselowski looked like he’d pull a gargantuan upset in his first full points-paying event as driver/owner. But as his No. 6 RFK Racing Ford wound up faltering down the stretch, crashing across the finish line in ninth, it was an omen of catastrophes to come.
By the spring, he was already in win-or-bust mode after a 100-point penalty for modifying one of NASCAR’s generically supplied Next Gen parts. The team went a dozen races without leading a single lap; their second top-10 finish didn’t come until Sonoma Raceway in June. Other than the Daytona regular season finale, Keselowski was pretty much an afterthought when it came to a potential postseason bid.
But RFK has quietly become one of the best-performing teams in these playoffs. Teammate Chris Buescher won at Bristol Motor Speedway in September, a race that could have gone Keselowski’s way if not for a tire problem during the final stage. He won the pole the following week at Texas, running eighth, and followed that up with a fifth-place finish at Homestead last weekend.
Can he win Martinsville? Unlikely. Despite a decent track record at the paperclip and some recent momentum, Keselowski was just 17th in this race back in April. He’s led only eight laps since his last Martinsville victory, which produced the most laps led in a single race since 1992 (446, spring 2019).
There’s more on the line for Keselowski, though, than anyone else on this list. He’s won a Cup race every year since 2011, the second-longest active streak behind Kyle Busch (18).
2021 Wins: 1
2022 Best Finish: 3rd – twice (Sonoma, Talladega fall)
2022 Laps Led: 67
McDowell’s Cinderella-like Daytona 500 win sparked a dream 2021 season for the perennial underdog. But in 2022, I’d argue the year overall has been better with a Front Row Motorsports program that’s stepped up in class.
34 races in, McDowell has 12 top-10 finishes. That’s more than potential Cup champion Chase Briscoe (eight), former playoff driver Austin Cindric (nine) or Bubba Wallace (nine). McDowell’s average finish of 16.4 is better than either Kyle Busch (16.6) or Tyler Reddick (16.9).
Unfortunately, McDowell’s step up in class hasn’t included getting up front, although 67 laps led are a career high. He’s clearly a threat to win any pack race or road course, but the extra bit of luck and circumstances FRM needs never quite fell their way in 2022.
Can he win Martinsville? No. 25th in the spring, McDowell’s never had so much as a top-10 finish there in 23 career starts. It’s one of his worst tracks.
2021 Wins: 1
2022 Best Finish: 5th – twice (Daytona 500, World Wide Technology Raceway)
2022 Laps Led: 81
Almirola is the weakest of all six drivers on this list (yes, even behind McDowell). He’s led just four races this year and really only been in contention in one or two events outside of the pack races at Daytona and Talladega. At Gateway, his No. 10 Ford ran near the front all race long, running fifth, and he also led 36 laps at Bristol in September after winning a surprise pole.
That seems to be how it is for this driver who retired, then unretired over the course of the season. Every once in awhile, a potential winning car pops up out of nowhere before Almirola crawls back to the obscurity of about 20th place. But as far as primary sponsor Smithfield is concerned? That’s good enough for them, giving Almirola a ride pretty much as long as he wants to stay in Cup.
Can he win Martinsville? No. Almirola’s led just one race at the paperclip since 2013, although you shouldn’t discount a top-10 finish; he qualified second and wound up eighth back in April. Four of his seven career top-10 finishes here have come since joining Stewart-Haas Racing back in 2018.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- What happens if William Byron makes the Championship 4, Larson battles for the owner’s title and the best driver at Hendrick Motorsports all season, Chase Elliott, fails to advance altogether? It’s a realistic possibility with Byron a potential contender for the season sweep at Martinsville while Elliott has just two (count ’em, two) top-10 finishes in eight playoff races. But without the postseason? He would be on the verge of clinching the season title a race early over Joey Logano.
Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs were hoping to get their rookie seasons started off right with some quality starts in top-tier equipment on the Cup side. The results between them: 31 starts, one top-five finish, two top 10s and just two laps led. That’s a flashing yellow warning sign for how they might do in Cup next season, especially in Gragson’s case. Remember, he’s taking over a No. 42 Chevrolet that doesn’t have a single top-five finish this year with Ty Dillon behind the wheel.
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