Is a revolution about to take place in the Sprint Cup Series?
As young drivers excel, it becomes more likely there could be multiple first-time winners this season — something that hasn’t happened since 2014 when A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola each scored their first series victory.
Chase Elliott’s fourth-place finish Monday at Pocono marked the eighth time in the past 10 Cup races that a winless driver placed in the top five.
Elliott is one of five drivers seeking their first series win to score a top-five finish this season. The others are Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. They are a part of a youthful rise as the series transitions from an era dominated by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others.
“There is a lot of competition out there right now between the group of young guys, who is going to win the first race, and you want to be a part of that and … prove yourself,’’ Dillon said.
Many will view Elliott as the favorite to score his first series win this year. His five top-five finishes is the most among drivers seeking their first Cup win and tied for most by a rookie after 14 races with Dale Earnhardt’s start in 1979. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports car has been strong at a variety of tracks from Pocono (fourth) and Texas (fifth) to Dover (third) and Bristol (fourth). With return trips to each this year, Elliott could be in position to win at any of those tracks, if not somewhere else.
Larson also has shown he’s close to winning in the last month. He teased fans with three runner-up finishes as rookie in 2014 but had struggled until earlier this year. He placed third at Martinsville and in the last month finished second at Dover and challenged for the win in the Sprint All-Star Race.
“We started the year off not great, but everybody stayed positive and kept digging,’’ Larson said recently. “Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close.’’
Dillon has had his ups and downs this season but was third at Talladega, fourth at Martinsville and fifth Las Vegas, showing that he and his Richard Childress Racing team are moving closer to scoring a win.
“Hopefully I can keep proving myself on the track each and every weekend,’’ he told NBC Sports.
Blaney’s Wood Brothers Racing team benefits from its alliance with Team Penske. Blaney was fifth at Kansas. The Penske cars have shown more speed lately. Brad Keselowski won at Talladega and Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“The Penske organization has always been one of the best, I think, at being ahead of the game as far as rules changes and being prepared for it,’’ Blaney said last month. “That’s a great part about being kind of a satellite team to the Penske group. We get a lot of info from them and, hopefully, (can) be ahead of the ball with these new rules changes.”
Stenhouse has shown progress as the Roush Fenway Racing cars improved. He had a season-best finish of fifth at Auto Club Speedway.
While they will still have to beat Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and others to win this year, should more than two first-timers do it, it would make the most prolific year for new winners since 2011 when five made their first trip to victory lane in the Cup series.
That year featured new winners Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400), David Ragan (July Daytona) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).
When does the revolution begin? Will it be this week at Michigan International Speedway, later in the summer or further away? And who will lead it?
After finishing sixth Monday at Pocono Raceway, a question for Kasey Kahne and his team is if they can score back-to-back top-10 finishes this week at Michigan.
It seems like an easy question. Why wouldn’t a Hendrick Motorsports car have consecutive top 10s? Especially at Pocono and Michigan where horsepower and aerodynamics mean so much and Hendrick cars often are good in both categories. Also, with a rule change this weekend that will reduce downforce and sideforce, shouldn’t that play to the top teams, including Hendrick, and be good for Kahne?
Maybe it will. Maybe for only the second time in the last 65 races — going back to Aug. 2014 — Kahne will score two top-10 finishes in a row this coming week.
Monday was a positive sign for Kahne despite a pit road speeding penalty. He radioed his team early in the race: “Car feels really good. Like really good.’’
Although the penalty during the competition caution dropped Kahne briefly to 37th, he worked his way into the top 10 before halfway in the 160-lap race. He bounced outside the top 10 for a spell before running the final 20 laps in sixth.
It’s these types of performances — and better — car owner Rick Hendrick had in mind when he signed Kahne to a contract in Aug. 2010, more than a year before Kahne would drive for the team, replacing Mark Martin in 2012.
Kahne finished fourth in the points in his first year for Hendrick. He made the Chase each of his first three years with the team. The performance earned Kahne a contract extension through the 2018 campaign.
Yet, there have been struggles. Kahne and his team have searched for better performances. Crew chief Keith Rodden replaced Kenny Francis before the 2015 season.
Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has won five times in 158 races. Jimmie Johnson has 22 wins during that time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has eight and Jeff Gordon had eight before retiring last year.
Progress won’t come in giant steps but several small ones. A key for Kahne and his team will be to follow the Pocono performance with a top-10 result at Michigan.
Only two drivers have each scored three top-five finishes in the past five races: Former champion Brad Keselowski and rookie Chase Elliott.
Keselowski won at Talladega, finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 and was third Monday at Pocono.
“It was a pretty strong weekend,’’ Keselowski said. “The last four or five weeks have been strong runs.’’
Elliott was fifth at Talladega, third at Dover and fourth at Pocono.
“We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year,’’ said Elliott, who led a career-high 51 laps Monday. “I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day was great.’’
Kyle Busch’s 31st-place finish marked his third consecutive finish of 30th or worse.
He had not gone three consecutive races without a top-five finish in the last 24 races — the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.
Busch’s chances of winning ended when he was mired in traffic and clipped by Ryan Newman, who had moved up the track after Kasey Kahne went under him.
The contact sent Busch into the wall.
— Josh Wise finished a season-high 27th at Pocono.
— Regan Smith’s 22nd-place finish was his best finish of the year in a non-restrictor-plate race (he was a season-best eighth in the Daytona 500).
— In the last five races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished 16th (Talladega), 13th (Kansas), 14th (Dover), 15th (Coca-Cola 600) and 15th (Pocono).
— After scoring one top-10 finish in the first eight races, Matt Kenseth has had five top-10 results in the last six races.
— Kevin Harvick’s average finish on tracks 1.5 miles or larger (not including the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega) is 5.4.
— Tony Stewart lost 11 points on 30th in the points standings Monday after his crash at Pocono left him with a 34th-place finish. He’s 71 points out of 30th in the standings with 12 races to go. He needs to be in the top 30 in points should he win to be eligible for a Chase spot.