The 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup season still is two races shy of the one-quarter mark.
However, the next two races could be among the most important of 2016 thus far for several drivers who have struggled and need major bounce backs if they hope to salvage their seasons.
This Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway and the April 24 Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway could go a long way toward making or breaking these five drivers’ overall 2016 campaigns:
1. Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer continues to go from bad to worse.
Although he’ll replace Tony Stewart in 2017 at Stewart-Haas Racing, for now Bowyer is a forgotten man in his single-season stint with HScott Motorsports.
Sitting 32nd in the standings, Bowyer is off to one of the worst starts of his Sprint Cup career. He’s finished 30th or lower in four of the first seven races of 2016, including a season-worst finish of 38th at Texas (also his first DNF of the year).
His best finish is 18th (Fontana), which is also his only top-20 showing thus far. His average start is 32.0 and average finish is 28.9.
He also hasn’t won a race since 2012.
Based on past history, Bowyer has a better chance of doing better at Richmond in two weeks at Bristol:
* Bowyer’s career record at Bristol: 20 starts, 0 wins, six top-fives, nine top 10s.
* His career record at Richmond: 20 starts, two wins, four top-fives and 12 top 10s.
2. Greg Biffle
The 2016 season was supposed to be a big comeback year for Roush Fenway Racing, especially for its most veteran driver, Greg Biffle.
Unfortunately, instead of things getting better, they’ve gotten worse – and we’re through only the first seven races.
Biffle currently sits 27th in the Sprint Cup standings. His best finish has been 12th (Martinsville), but he has finished 20th or worse five other times, including a season-worst 39th Saturday at Texas.
The Vancouver, Washington, native has had a decent average start (16.9), but his average finish of 25.1 – if it continues – is on track to be the worst of his 15-year Sprint Cup career.
Biffle has not won a Sprint Cup race since 2013. His season finishes have plummeted from fifth in 2012, to ninth in 2013, 14th in 2014 and tied his career-worst showing (20th) in 2015.
Biffle has a markedly better record at Bristol than he does at Richmond:
* Bristol: 26 starts, zero wins, six top-fives, 13 top-10s.
* Richmond: 27 starts, zero wins, two top-fives, six top-10s.
3. David Ragan
David Ragan was expected to lead BK Racing to new heights when he joined up for the 2016 season.
Unfortunately, the 30-year-old Georgia native seems as if he’s been stuck in first gear in the first seven races. His best finish has been 21st, while his worst showing was 33rd, incurred Saturday night at Texas.
He has an average start of 30.0 and an average finish of 27.6.
Unfortunately, if past experience is any indicator, Ragan’s struggles are likely to continue – at least at Bristol, where he has just one top-10 finish to show for in 18 career Cup starts there.
His chances may be a bit better at Richmond, where he has three top-fives in 18 starts – though the last in 2011.
4. Brian Scott
Though improvement was expected when he came on board, things haven’t gone much better for Brian Scott than with his predecessor at Richard Petty Motorsports, Sam Hornish Jr.
Scott is 25th in the standings. All but one of his finishes in the first seven races have been 24th or worse. He’s had just one top-20 finish, 12th at Fontana.
Scott’s average start in his first full Sprint Cup is 25.9, while his average finish is 24.9.
Even though he has 24 career Sprint Cup starts, Scott hasn’t raced in the series at Bristol and only once at Richmond (22nd, last summer).
Like fellow rookie Chris Buescher, Scott has made a number of starts in the Xfinity Series at Bristol (13 starts, five top-10 finishes) and Richmond (13 starts, four top-5s and five top-10s).
While the same kind of optimism about Scott coming into the season remains after seven races he definitely has his work cut out in the next two races – let alone the rest of the season.
5. Chris Buescher
While so much attention has been focused on two of the other three Sprint Cup rookies this season – Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney – Chris Buescher has been a forgotten man.
The defending Xfinity Series champion sits a lowly 36th in his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s finished 30th or worse in four of the first seven races.
His best finish to date has been 26th (Las Vegas), and he’s coming off a 28th in the most recent race at Texas this past Saturday.
Buescher has a 27.3 average start and a 31.0 average finish in 2016.
Some might question whether Buescher was ready for the jump to Sprint Cup. Maybe he would have been better off spending at least one more season in the Xfinity Series.
But when the opportunity arose to join Front Row Motorsports and make the jump to the big show, the Sprint Cup Series, Buescher really didn’t have much of a choice. If he passed on the shot and remained in the Xfinity Series, some other driver gladly would have taken the Cup ride. And Buescher remains under contract to Roush Fenway Racing, which might have a Cup opening for him in the future.
There is a sense of optimism for Buescher in the next two races:
* Bristol: In one prior Sprint Cup start, he finished 25th. But in the Xfinity Series, he has one top-five and three top-10 finishes at the half-mile bullring.
* Richmond: No prior Cup starts, but in five Xfinity races, he has three top-10 finishes.