DISCLAIMER: You won’t find names like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano here, as you don’t need me to tell you they deserve to be in your lineups every week. I am focusing on more under-the-radar drivers for the purposes of this particular article.
As rough as the 2016 season was for Clint Bowyer, he probably found solace in the fact that greener pastures would most likely lie ahead in 2017. And so far, that’s becoming a reality. Just seven races into his first season taking over for Tony Stewart in the No. 14, he finds himself ninth in the points standings with no finish worse than 13th, not counting his 31st-place finish at a wreck fest of a Daytona 500. You could make an argument that he has been the strongest Stewart-Haas driver so far this season, even though Kevin Harvick will continue to pose more of a threat to win and as a lap-leader overall.
Kyle Larson may be getting all the headlines, but his teammate Jamie McMurray has been no slouch to begin the season, either. Like Larson, McMurray has found some speed of his own, dramatically improving his average starting position (6.4) compared to past years. Minus Daytona (accident) and Martinsville, where he gambled with a tire rub that would ultimately ruin his day, he’s been solid, recording four top-10 finishes in the other five races.
Speaking of attention (or lack thereof), Ryan Blaney has struggled to capture his share of the limelight, despite last year’s rookie campaign. It appears he’s okay with it, however, and plans to make noise through his performance. He’s posted a driver rating of 80+ in all but one race this year, and has topped 100 three times. If there’s one issue he’s dealt with, it’s bringing the car home where he’s been running throughout much of the race. Part of this can be attributed to being overly-aggressive, and he may have to learn that the hard way at some point. But his driving style definitely makes him an intriguing driver to watch in the near future.
Rookie Erik Jones finished 22nd last week at Texas. His comments postrace were “There’s really nothing we can take as a positive from this race that we can apply for the next time we’re here other than the need to get better”. Now you can look at this two ways: You can argue he’s spoiled, or you can argue that, even as a rookie, he strives for greatness. This was the first race since Daytona that Jones’ average running position was not inside the top 15, so hopefully it’s merely an outlier not helped by a 36th-place starting position due to inspection issues during qualifying or a track that was repaved in the offseason.
Since his shocking victory at the 2011 Daytona 500, Trevor Bayne has struggled to maintain respectability. But in his third season driving full-time for Roush Fenway, he is beginning to work his way back onto the radar. His worst finish this season is a 23rd-place result at Auto Club, and he’s also running better in general, as he has run 52.3 percent of his laps inside the top 15. To put that into perspective, at this point last season, that percentage was a mediocre 17.2 percent. So he’s not finishing well by accident.
Other drivers to keep an eye on:
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished three of the last four races inside the top 14. Although until we see a more established record of sustainability, his main value right now remains in contests that award points for place-differential, as his qualifying performances are not always great.
Aric Almirola is another guy you can look to for place-differential points most weeks. Qualifying has not been this team’s strong suit, but he is currently one of only nine drivers in the Cup series with six top-20 finishes so far this season.
Ty Dillon has run about as consistently as you could possibly run to this point in the season. He has finished between 15th and 22nd in the last six races, and that should remain his level of success for the time being.