SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Hembree tells us why Martin Truex Jr. is a threat to win the Overton’s 400 on Sunday.
USA TODAY Sports
JOLIET, Ill. — The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is nearing its midway point, and zero is one of the biggest numbers in the sport’s swarm of statistics.
A surprising number of NASCAR’s top drivers have reached the tough summer stretch with worksheets that hold no victories. That list includes such generally proficient drivers as seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2012 champion Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and promising newcomers like Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.
This sort of dynamic occurs when a select and small group of drivers dominates the entrance to victory lane. Only six drivers own Cup victories this year, and three of them (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.) have combined for 12 wins in 16 races. In 2017, 15 drivers won races. In the previous season, there were 13 winners.
The halfway mark of the season officially arrives next week at Daytona International Speedway, and there are only 10 races remaining to the start of the playoffs.
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It’s not necessary to win races to make the playoffs, of course, but it’s clear that some teams are underperforming and/or failing to finish off races when they’re running well. As things now stand, five drivers — Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and McMurray — who were in the 16-driver playoffs last year are out of that loop.
It isn’t that most of the winless drivers haven’t run well. Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Hamlin and Larson have nine top-10 finishes apiece, and Blaney and Elliott have eight. Blaney is third on the laps-led list, and Larson is fifth.
But, in a time when victories virtually pave the way to the playoffs, the checkered flags have been elusive.
Harvick said he was more surprised by the multiple winners of the past two seasons than in this year’s results to date.
“I think there were some surprise winners in unique situations — at superspeedway races, with fuel mileage, at road courses,” he said. “As you look at the way this year has played out, I don’t feel like it’s a whole lot different other than maybe the 48 (Johnson) is not running as well as in the past. But the past few years it’s pretty consistent as to who the good teams and cars have been.”
Elliott, in his third full season driving in the Cup series for Hendrick Motorsports, is still pursuing his first series win.
“Getting into a race and pushing all you can push and it not be for the lead is certainly not the easier thing to accept,” Elliott said. “We’re all working hard. I hope this weekend is a different story.”
Elliott has a runner-up finish at Richmond, third-place results at Phoenix and Talladega and a fourth-place finish at Sonoma.
“I can think back through a few races throughout the year where I thought we were in the ballpark, but, for the most part there’s been a big gap on the 1.5-mile and two-mile tracks,” he said.
Larson has three second-place finishes — at Fontana, Calif., Bristol and Pocono. He said the gap between the winners and those still waiting isn’t huge.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a big separation, but there’s definitely a separation,” he said. “The top three guys (Truex, Busch, Harvick) are fairly close. Any of them can win any weekend. Then there’s a step to myself, Keselowski, Clint Bowyer. Bowyer (who has wins at Martinsville at Michigan) is maybe a little better than we are. But I feel like we’re right there.
“All you ask for is to get your stuff running better and developed a little nicer. We just need to get the job done.”
Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree