Chase Elliott won the last race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. Elliott is also the defending race winner of the inaugural Cup race at Road America last July. Makes sense that he’d take his No. 9 Chevrolet back to victory lane in Wisconsin following Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN) too, right?
Well not so fast my friend. Hendrick Motorsports is winless in each of the 2 road course races this season and quite honestly, they’ve honestly not looked like themselves not only on the twisty circuits in 2022, but also on the season in general lately too.
Kyle Larson still only has 2 top 5’s over his last 7 races run. Elliott has 3 over the last 11 but 2 of those are wins however.
Alex Bowman and William Byron are sliding backwards. Bowman has 1 top 5 in his last 11 including recent finishes of 13th, 16th and 36th respectively. Byron hasn’t scored a top 5 since his Martinsville win (9 races) with 4 out of his last 5 finishes being outside the top 15.
I feel like Elliott and Larson are close but Byron and Bowman have some work to do.
In saying that, all 4 HMS drivers have reached victory lane this year and can swing for the fences during Sunday’s race. On a day that will see split strategies and a lot of drivers electing for track position over stage points, HMS can go for broke. They don’t need stage points as all 4 are solidly into the postseason. They would rather go for more race wins.
We’ve had 12 winners through the opening 16 races run and as many are questioning the very real possibility of us getting to at least 16 regular season winners, I’m starting to think otherwise.
Sure, we may get to 16, but will we get MORE than 16 is the question.
Ryan Blaney (+112), Martin Truex Jr. (+73), Christopher Bell (+37) and Kevin Harvick (+9) hold the final 4 wildcard spots into the postseason. Aric Almirola (-9), Tyler Reddick (-52), Austin Dillon (-53), Erik Jones (-58), Michael McDowell (-97), Chris Buescher (-127), Justin Haley (-128), Bubba Wallace (-139), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-143), Ty Dillon (-176), Cole Custer (-179), Harrison Burton (-199), Todd Gilliland (-200) and Brad Keselowski (-217) are all on the outside looking in.
So does anyone new bump their way in?
Among the 14 below the cutline, 10 of which have reached victory lane on the Cup level before. However, a lot of the 14 are going in the wrong direction now which is why I wonder if any of them will find victory lane.
Almirola has 1 top 10 in the last 9 starts on the year and hasn’t won in his last 31 starts.
Reddick has 3 top 10’s (2 are runner-ups) in his last 11. 6 of his last 8 have seen him finish 16th or worse.
Austin Dillon has 1 top 10 in his last 7.
Jones has 1 top 10 in his last 6.
Buescher has been 16th or worse in 4 out of his last 5.
Haley, Wallace and Ty Dillon each have 1 top 10 all season. Custer, Burton and Gilliland have none.
The best chances could reside from someone like Keselowski, Stenhouse Jr. or McDowell but 2 of the 3 have a combined 3 wins in their careers.
On the flipside, the guys on the good side of the bubble are starting to heat up. Blaney has 3 straight top 6 results and was in the top 6 in both road course races run this season. Bell has 6 top 10’s in his last 7 and was in the top 5 here last year, 3rd in COTA back in March and his lone win resides on a ROVAL at Daytona. Harvick has 6 top 10’s in the last 8 and has a pair of top 11 finishes on road courses in 2022. Truex has cooled some but the speed is there despite the finishes not being so.
I can see these 4 separating themselves more and more over the next month and possibly win on Sunday, which leads me to believe most of those below the cutline may be forced to win because at this rate.
If that’s the case, do you trust anyone below the cutline to actually go out and win?
July is the month to do so. Among the 10 who’ve won, 5 of them have seen their last win come in the month of July.
Almirola and Austin Dillon each only have 3 career wins a piece with Almirola last coming in July of last year and Dillon’s last coming in July of 2020 (Texas). Jones’ last win came 100 races ago. Buescher’s only win came 212 races ago. McDowell was 1-for-463 after his Daytona 500 win but 0-for-52 again since. Haley’s 1 and only Cup win came at Daytona in July of 2019. Custer’s lone win came in July 2020 at Kentucky (72 races ago). Keselowski hasn’t won in his last 43 races but the team he’s driving for hasn’t reached victory lane in the last 180 races (July 2017) which is the last time Stenhouse Jr. won.
Reddick, Ty Dillon and the 2 rookies are winless.
Which is why I go back to how you race this track. Other than Almirola, I think 18th on back in the playoff standings position themselves for track position and not focus on stage points. Same can be said for all 4 Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
However, you do have a few intriguing points battles to watch to see who does sneak in and grab those stage points at the end of the line.
Elliott leads Ross Chastain by 30 in the overall points standings. Ryan Blaney is 31 back with Kyle Busch -47. There’s 15 playoff points on the line for the regular season champion. These 4 can go for stage points.
You also the 1 playoff point on the line for each stage win. 3 drivers are tied for most playoff points right now in Elliott, Chastain and William Byron each having scored 13 of them. Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin are next up with 12. No one else has more than 7.
Hamlin has made it clear he’s going for stage wins and playoff points. Despite being 20th in the overall standings, if Hamlin can pick up a pair of stage wins and sweep the stages on Sunday, he’d be the No. 1 seed for the playoffs as we sit here today with 2 more playoff points. That’s all dependent of course if Elliott, Chastain, Byron or Logano don’t win the race.
But I feel maybe Chastain, Byron and Logano join Hamlin’s plan by electing for stage wins on Sunday which means they may not be in a position for the race win in the final stage.
Another aspect to this is, we have seen some fluke type winners on road courses lately too. AJ Allmendinger picked up his 2nd career victory on the Indy road course last August. Chastain and his Trackhouse Racing teammate of Daniel Suarez each picked up their 1st career Cup wins at COTA and Sonoma respectively in the only 2 road course races this season. Only Kyle Larson in the last 4 road course events had more than 1 Cup win at the time of his victory.
That’s why the sweet spot is really for Bell this weekend but Tyler Reddick (top 5 last year) is another one to watch.