16. Jamie McMurray
A few years ago, one of the biggest problems with Chip Ganassi Racing was reliability. In 2012 for example, Juan Pablo Montoya and McMurray combined for only 30 lead lap finishes. In 2010 the duo won four races including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 but both combined for 11 DNFs. In both years, neither driver made it to the Chase.
Fast forward a few years and a driver change. Both cars are making the Chase field even though McMurray hasn’t won since 2013 and Kyle Larson has only won one race. For McMurray, consistency was key and he was the final driver who made the Chase on that strength.
McMurray hasn’t had a lot of raw firepower- just one top five and nine top 10s are the worst in the Chase save for Chris Buescher. What he has had, however, has been consistency. Only five times has McMurray finished outside of the top 20, he has 19 lead lap finishes out of 26 starts, and his lone DNF was in a multi-car wreck at Daytona. He has also gained a lot of momentum recently, getting four top 10s in the past five races. A quiet ride to Homestead like Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jeff Gordon (before his win at Martinsville) last year could very well be in the cards.
But the Chase favors that raw firepower the No. 1 team just doesn’t have right now. Sure, Newman came one spot away from winning the championship without winning a race before Homestead, but he was flat-out more consistent than McMurray before the Chase. The Chase also has five 1.5 milers, a track type where McMurray has had one top 10 this season, at a track that isn’t in the Chase (Kentucky). Finally, he’s the only driver in the Chase that hasn’t led a single lap all season.
McMurray has momentum coming in and could very easily ride that to round two, then maybe get a surprise win at Talladega (Historically strong track for him and the site of his lone top five this year) to make it to round three. After that? I’m just not seeing him making it to Homestead. He was unimpressive at both Phoenix and Texas earlier this season while finishing outside of the top 20 at Martinsville.
15. Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon entered this season needing to improve. He had looked rather unimpressive in his rookie season in 2014 outside of winning the Daytona 500 pole and had regressed in 2015 with a much worse average finish. Then this year rolled around.
Dillon had four top 10s in the first six races of the season and finished that stretch seventh in points, compare that to 21st in the final 2015 point standings. By comparison, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also started the season off strong and was 11th in points after the third race of the season. But unlike Stenhouse, Dillon rode the wave of momentum well enough to make his first Chase.
As Richard Childress Racing’s lone hope in the Chase, no doubt Dillon will have even more of the team’s resources at his disposal. Dillon has also shown variation, having good runs on 1.5 milers, superspeedways, and short tracks. Finally, Dillon has a certain swagger about him not a lot of other young drivers carry. He’s used to having it his way, and sometimes that’s a good thing…
… And sometimes that’s a bad thing. Although he hasn’t had problems recently with his team, he has been known at times to get heated with crew chief “Slugger” Labbe over the radio this season. Dillon has also had consistency problems at times, never stringing together more than two top tens in a row this season. Like McMurray, the No. 3 Chevrolet also just hasn’t had the firepower other teams have had this season. That’s expected, however- the top RCR teams the last few years lack in wins but made up for it by being reliable.
Dillon is a noted Carolina Panthers fan. So using that, I’m going to say that his season so far has been like the 2014 Carolina Panthers; a losing team that ended up making the playoffs. His team is loaded with potential and has the chance to be as great as the 2015 Carolina Panthers someday, but they just aren’t there yet. Sure, he could make it past a round in the playoffs like the Panthers did that year but the moment he’s going up against a legitimate championship contender for a spot, he’s probably not winning. It’s more important instead that he builds on this season regardless of the result and has a good five years instead of an okay one.
14. Chase Elliott
No driver has entered their maiden season in the Sprint Cup Series with more pressure to perform than Chase Elliott. Sure, Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had Hall of Fame dads to live up to. But they didn’t have to replace another Hall of Famer and a top-five driver in just about everybody’s all-time list. On the flip side, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick started their Sprint Cup careers off taking the wheel from a legendary driver. But neither had Bill Elliott as a father as well.
So far, Chase has done a pretty decent job. No wins but tenth in the regular season points before the Chase seeding and arguably has been the most consistent Hendrick driver this season. He also has a better average finish and more top tens than Jeff Gordon had in his own rookie season, which had to be a goal set forward by the team before this season.
Chase has come close to winning a couple of times this season and has shown he can compete for wins. That already makes him a better choice to make the final four than the other three drivers profiled in this article. Elliott also had strong top ten runs at six Chase tracks earlier this season- Kansas, Phoenix, Texas, Dover, Talladega, and Charlotte.
Elliott just hasn’t broken out yet and gotten that first Sprint Cup win. Dillon hasn’t either, but Dillon has confidence in his abilities. Elliott doesn’t, as seen in his now infamously somber post-race interviews of blaming himself for not winning. A win would offset a lot of that- a successful, championship contending driver is also a confident driver. Hendrick Motorsports as a whole has been down this year, and although Chase has some momentum heading into the Chase, his team is largely still behind the Larsons and Toyotas of the world. Finally, to be honest, I’m not that sold on Alan Gustafson being Elliott’s crew chief of the future. He’s had two seasons where he was a top five crew chief- 2009 with Mark Martin and 2014 with Jeff Gordon- and he also had some good seasons with Kyle Busch early on, but his teams have been pretty mediocre otherwise. He also isn’t getting younger in crew chief years- most retire around year ten and he’s in his 12th season.
It’s remarkable just how much a natural Elliott is at driving a Sprint Cup car. He jumped into this car after just a handful of starts last year and after Richmond is higher in points than Gordon was after Richmond last season. But I don’t think he has the poise and the seasoning just yet to make it to Homestead like Gordon did last year.
13. Chris Buescher
Two months ago, nobody in a million years would have picked Chris Buescher to make the Chase, but here we are. Buesche and Elliott are the only two rookies in the Chase and are the first to be so since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
When the current Chase rules were announced in 2014, some feared that a driver would get a fluke victory and make the Chase that way. Not to throw shade at Buescher, but honestly, he is kind of the first driver to make it in like that.
Honestly, the only real pro that Buescher has right now is he’s playing with house money. Nobody, probably not even himself, thought he’d be in the Chase before this season. He’s going to be the ultimate gambler in the Chase because that’s probably the only way his underpowered and understaffed team is going to advance.
Outside of laps led, laps completed, and total starts, Chris Buescher has the lowest totals in all relevant stat categories heading into the Chase.
There’s always a possibility that Buescher can win a surprise race again and make it to round two, win a wildcard plate race at Talladega to make it to round three, then five cars get hit by lightning three weeks in a row and Buescher makes the final four at Homestead. There’s also always a possibility somebody could win the lottery after buying one ticket. Let’s be honest- barring anything I mentioned above actually happening, there’s very little chance Buescher will make it out of Dover still in the Chase. But just making the Chase, to begin with, might as well be a championship for his small Front Row Motorsports team.