Playoff pressure begins to mount for winless NASCAR stars


 

DOVER, Del. — Twelve races, nine winners, one asterisk.

With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaching the mid-point of the regular season on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, numerous historical race-winners have yet to clinch a playoff berth with a win. Who is in a more perilous position — those drivers or the group holding transfer spots on points who are not gluttonous winners — depends not only on their overall performance, but the other unexpected events that happen in a racing season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose first career Cup win came at Talladega Superspeedway, was one of those surprise winners, though his Roush Fenway Racing program had been improving. Occasional winner Ryan Newman, who claimed a victory at Phoenix Raceway on a worn-tire gamble, was another, as was Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, whose fuel-mileage strategy led to a triumph last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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So who among the non-victorious is most likely to secure a playoff berth and ease the pressure in the next 14 races? Just 16 spots are available for the 10-race playoff, and eight remain, open to race winners or those highest in points among the top 16 come cutoff time in September. Five drivers to keep an eye on, beginning with Sunday’s AAA 400 (1p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1):

Kyle Busch

The 2015 series champion had won three races by this time last year, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s 0-for-2017 among its four-car contingent figures to be pretty annoying by now. Whether his post-race interview mic drop after one-question at Charlotte — after finishing second to Dillon — is all part of it is unclear. Five top-five and six top-10 finishes have him snugly positioned at fifth in points, but he figures to nab at least one victory to assure a postseason spot.

PHOTOS: 2017 NASCAR CUP SERIES WINNERS

Kevin Harvick

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch nabbed the team’s first win with Ford in the Daytona 500, but the 2014 series champion seems likely to snag his own eventually after posting four top-fives and seven top-10s. Recent performance suggests it could happen soon, despite a loose wheel problem and losing positions to fuel-gamblers in an eighth-place run from the pole at Charlotte. He’s fourth in points.

Joey Logano

The Team Penske driver has technically won, but a post-race Laser Inspection Station rear suspension infraction at Richmond International Raceway negated the right to use the win for playoff entry. Tenth in the standings, Logano has won five, six and three races each season since 2014, respectively. There should be more ahead, although he’s crashed out of two of his last three since Richmond.

Denny Hamlin

There was encouragement in JGR’s collective performance on Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600, as the entire contingent, including rookie Daniel Suarez, raced atop the leaderboard and saw Busch finish second, Matt Kenseth fourth, Hamlin fifth and Suarez 11th. It was just the second top-five of the season for the 29-time Cup winner, so he’ll take it. Eleventh in points, Hamlin is in the tenuous zone of anxiety if more Chris Buescher (Pocono, Aug. 2016), Aric Almirola (Daytona, July 2014) AJ Allmendinger (Watkins Glen, Aug. 2014) anomalies happen in the summer.

Ryan Blaney

The second-year full-timer just feels close to breaking through for what would be a first career win. The Ford camp has been consistently fast and Blaney is 12th in points but seventh in laps led, meaning he has a chance to put his Wood Brothers (Team Penske aligned) No. 21 in the playoffs with a win or otherwise. 

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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