The White Zone: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not After Five Races

“The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading…” and I need to unload on who’s been performing and who’s been lacking so far in 2016.

After a wild first five races of the 2016 NASCAR campaign, we’re taking a weekend breather for Easter. Since I haven’t done one of these in awhile, I decided to climb atop my soapbox and tell you whom I believe is hot so far and who’s not so far.

For this list, I’m only counting drivers that weren’t expected to be driving at the level they are as drivers who are hot. I won’t include drivers like Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson because we all expect them to perform well. For drivers who are not, I’m only including those who were expected to perform better than they are at the moment. That means you won’t see Danica Patrick on this list.

Without further ado, let’s begin.

Who’s hot #1: Austin Dillon

Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images
Austin Dillon is looking great so far. Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images

I think it’s safe to say that 2016 is looking to be a career season for Austin Dillon.

The driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet has had finishes of ninth, 11th, fifth, ninth and 24th to start out his third full season in the Sprint Cup Series. He had an average finish of 17.5 in 2014 and 21.0 in 2015 through the entire 36-race stretch. In 2016, his average is 11.6 through five. At this point in 2014, he had just one top-10 finish and no top-five. At this point in 2015, he had neither a top-10 nor top-five finish. He’s easily bested both through five races in 2016.

This would appear to be a sign that RCR is finally making ground and becoming a competitive organization again, but teammates Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have been lagging toward the back-end of the front half of the field with a finishing average of around 20th for both drivers.

Either way, I have no reason to believe Dillon won’t continue his strong run as we head into Martinsville. I even believe that he’ll finally break through and win a race or two this season.

Who’s not #1: Kyle Larson

2016 has not been too kind so far to Kyle Larson. Photo: Getty Images
2016 has not been too kind so far to Kyle Larson. Photo: Getty Images

While things are looking great for one driver of the 2014 rookie class, Kyle Larson has been unable to mount any great drives.

After a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500, the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and 2014 rookie of the year was looking to rebound from a disappointing 2015 season with the low downforce package that many said would favor drivers like Larson. This, however, has not been the case.

With finishes of seventh, 26th, 34th, 12th and 39th, 2016 is looking to be a continuation of 2015. But by this point in 2015, he already had two top-10 finishes and those were at tracks other than Daytona.

After starting out with so much promise in 2014, he seemed to regress in 2015 and it’s not looking to be any better after five races in 2016. While he’s signed on with Ganassi through 2017, I believe he’s getting to the point where he’s about to be declared the NASCAR equivalent of an NFL draft “bust.” In a nutshell, it means someone who probably had tremendous potential, but it never materialized.

Who’s hot #2: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Photo: Getty Images
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is showing signs of life early in 2016. Photo: Getty Images

The upgrade in performance from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. appears to be a sign that Roush Fenway Racing is starting to turn the ship around.

While teammates Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle continue to lag behind, the driver of the No. 17 RFR Ford is potentially showing that the organization that once put all five of its drivers into the Chase is starting to return to competitive form.

Now if you look at his finishes of 22nd, 10th, 12th, 37th and fifth, you might think this is par for the course for Stenhouse. When you look at his career statistics, the answer would appear to be yes. However, after five races in each of his previous three seasons, he never had more than one top-10 finish and only once did he have one top-10 finish in the first five races.

I’m not ready to say if the two-time XFINITY Series champion is ready to fight for a win just yet, but if he continues to have strong runs like he’s had in the first five races of 2016, he’ll continue to accumulate top-10 finishes.

Who’s not #2: Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth has been dealt awful luck so far in 2016. Photo: Noel Lanier
Matt Kenseth has been dealt awful luck so far in 2016. Photo: Noel Lanier

The last driver I’ll talk about is one Matthew Roy Kenseth.

I almost didn’t include the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on my list because I could chalk up his lousy start to the season to incredibly bad luck. When you look at all his bad finishes after five races, there was a reasonable catalyst that was beyond his control in almost each of them and he was running up front in most of those races. But as I stated in my criteria for this list, I’m looking at drivers that had high expectations and have so far fallen short.

Let’s go back to the start of the season in Daytona Beach, Florida. Kenseth had the race lead on the final lap and was in good position to score his second Daytona 500 victory. With two laps to go, however, teammate Denny Hamlin broke formation and moved to the high line. By the time the field was in turn 3, Kenseth moved up to block Hamlin. By that time, Hamlin got under Kenseth who came down, got loose and fell back to a 14th-place finish.

Then came Atlanta where he had a car that could win. Unfortunately, he fell afoul of an unusual rule when his gas man placed a wrench on the back deck lid of the car while the fuel can was engaged. NASCAR deemed this “improper fueling” and Kenseth was shown the black flag. While crew chief Jason Ratcliff argued the call, nobody relayed the penalty to Kenseth. After three laps, he was shown the black flag with white cross marks which meant he would no longer be scored until he served his penalty. This process took him from fourth in the running order to 31st two laps down. The best he could do was rally back to a 19th-place finish.

In Las Vegas, Kenseth was running toward the front when he was sent up toward the wall and rear-ended by Chase Elliott near the end of the Kobalt 400 and finished 37th.

In Phoenix, he finally did enough to post his first top-10 of the season with a seventh-place finish in the Good Sam 500.

Last week in Fontana, Kenseth was largely a non-factor as he finished 19th.

Unlike Larson, I don’t expect the 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion to continue having rotten finishes. His team will find a way to have more consistent finishes and get him to victory lane. In the month of April, he’ll be visiting four tracks at which he has a combined eight wins and an over 50 percent top-10 average at two of the next four tracks.

Now five races is, by no means, a representative sample of the 36-race season. If I were to do this again in five weeks time, this list could look very different. So don’t freak out if your driver isn’t living up to his expectations after five races because it could all change for better or worse on any given Sunday.

My plane is about to take off, so I must wrap this up. Until next time, I’ll leave you with this fact. Most toilets flush in E flat.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author. They may or may not be shared by SpeedwayMedia.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com

Tucker White
Tucker White
I've followed NASCAR for well over 20 years of my life, both as a fan and now as a member of the media. As of 2024, I'm on my ninth season as a traveling NASCAR beat writer. For all its flaws and dumb moments, NASCAR at its best produces some of the best action you'll ever see in the sport of auto racing. Case in point: Kyle Larson's threading the needle pass at Darlington Raceway on May 9, 2021. On used-up tires, racing on a worn surface and an aero package that put his car on the razor's edge of control, Larson demonstrated why he's a generational talent. Those are the stories I want to capture and break down. In addition to NASCAR, I also follow IndyCar and Formula 1. As a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee, I'm a diehard Tennessee Volunteers fan (especially in regards to Tennessee football). If covering NASCAR doesn't kill me, down the road, watching Tennessee football will. I'm also a diehard fan of the Atlanta Braves, and I lived long enough to see them win a World Series for the first time since 1995 (when I was just a year old). I've also sworn my fan allegiance to the Nashville Predators, though that's not paid out as much as the Braves. Furthermore, as a massive sports dork, I follow the NFL on a weekly basis. Though it's more out of an obligation than genuine passion (for sports dorks, following the NFL is basically an unwritten rule). Outside of sports, I'm a major cinema buff and a weeb. My favorite film is "Blazing Saddles" and my favorite anime is "Black Lagoon."

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