How long can NASCAR's winner's streak go?
April 09, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Will Darlington bring an eighth different winner to start the season?
Given how much race victories mean under this revised Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format, perhaps a simple sticker over the driver's side window opening isn't quite enough to commemorate the occasion. Perhaps this select yet expanding winner's club deserves something a bit more exclusive, like a secret lounge accessible only by a secret handshake, a place where members wear special blazers and sip cognac and laugh about all those poor suckers who haven't won -- yet.
That last word being the most operative, of course, because winners are coming at us from all directions, like cars on a green-white-checkered restart at Fontana. Joey Logano's victory in Texas made it seven different winners in as many different weeks to start the season, a trend that looms especially large given how paramount race victories are in qualifying for this revamped Chase. We're barely into April, and already we're down to just nine of those theoretical grid spots remaining available. Since the points leader also qualifies if he doesn't have a race victory -- and Jeff Gordon indeed fits that description at the moment -- half of those 16 playoff spots appear effectively spoken for.
As much as anything, this winner's streak has come to define the early stages of the 2014 season, which to this point speaks well of a Chase format a lot of folks were skeptical of when it was first unveiled. Every Sprint Cup Series weekend is dominated by the same series of questions -- how many winners do we have, who could win this week, and how high can we go before somebody makes a repeat trip to Victory Lane? Nothing, it seems, puts more of a focus on winning more than the unknowns surrounding who might win that particular week. It's all about who's in that secret club sipping cognac, and who's still banging on the door trying to get in.
Eventually, of course, somebody is going to repeat. We're not going to have 26 different winners, as much fun as it would be to watch such a scenario unfold. And yet, there's every indication that this current streak could linger on a little while longer before it comes to an end. Saturday night brings Darlington Raceway and one of the longest and most arduous events on the calendar, and of the first seven winners this season, only one -- Kyle Busch -- has previously tamed the Lady in Black.
Now, that's not to say any of the other winners to date are incapable of prevailing on Harold Brasington's egg-shaped wonder -- Kurt Busch famously lost there by an eyelash to Ricky Craven in 2003 -- but clearly, the opportunity is there for someone else to add a sticker above the window opening of his race car.
Matt Kenseth won at Darlington last season with a substitute crew chief, one of a league-best seven victories the championship runner-up notched a year ago, and he's still zero-for-2014. Gordon leads all active drivers with seven wins at Darlington, and thus far he's displaying a degree of consistency reminiscent of his blockbuster 2007 campaign, but as of yet has no victories to show for it.
Then there's a certain six-time series champion named Jimmie Johnson who delivered the 200th victory for Hendrick Motorsports at Darlington in 2012, and still carries the head-scratchingest of goose eggs in the victory column this season. Denny Hamlin won at Darlington in 2010, and Greg Biffle notched back-to-back victories in 2005 and 2006, and both drivers are still searching.
How good are the odds that one of those guys will break through again this season? Consider that only six current full-time Sprint Cup drivers -- Kenseth, Johnson, Hamlin, Gordon, Biffle and Kyle Busch -- have race wins at Darlington, a nod to both the track's difficulty as well as the youth movement taking place at the sport's top level.
And as previously mentioned, only one of those guys has won already this season, certainly increasing the odds of another member being indoctrinated into the winner's club this Saturday night. After that? Well, as we certainly saw last September, any kind of havoc is capable of unfolding at Richmond. And then there's Talladega, a roulette wheel that's 2.66 miles in circumference. It's completely reasonable to think that NASCAR could carry a streak of 10 different winners in 10 races into Kansas -- the kind of intermediate track where no one is going to bet against the Penske boys, given what Brad Keselowski and Logano have shown on 1.5-milers so far this season.
And even when one driver finally does roll into Victory Lane for the second time this season, who's to say the fun will stop there? If anything, the pool of potential winners seems as deep as it's been in some time -- not only are there traditional powers like Johnson and Tony Stewart waiting to break through, but the likes of Brian Vickers and Paul Menard have been lurking week after week, rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon have certainly shown potential, and Marcos Ambrose is making the most of a contract year. Go down the list, and there are probably 25 or 26 drivers who could legitimately win given the right conditions -- and how many weeks are there in the regular season again?
OK, OK, enough pipe dreams. Everyone is waiting to see how this new Chase format plays out when the serious money is on the table, and we begin kicking drivers out of the party rather than welcoming them in. But for the time being, this win-to-get-in stuff has created quite the roller coaster ride. Having covered the 2001 season when there were 19 different winners, and the 2003 campaign when nine different guys won the first nine events, yours truly can unquestionably attest that those years didn't feel nearly as unpredictable as this one, simply because all those race wins really didn't translate beyond Victory Lane.
Now, they do. The application of that winner's sticker is a tangible validation that the driver will carry beyond one fleeting moment in the sun. If there was one real issue with previous versions of the Chase, it was that the week-to-week victories -- which, to be honest, are ultimately what drivers strive for and spectators pay to see -- were constantly overshadowed by jockeying for playoff position. Now, one is fundamentally a part of the other. The system requires it. The grind of a NASCAR season demands that any celebration be a relatively brief one, but those smaller triumphs on Saturday nights or Sunday afternoons have become the building blocks of a much larger one in South Florida.
So enjoy those race victories. Show that secret winner's handshake, have a seat in that secret winner's lounge, swirl that winner's cognac and maybe take a puff of a winner's cigar. You've earned it. But with so many other strong candidates for membership, just don't expect your club to remain very exclusive for very long.