Will anyone claim NASCAR's first triple crown?
June 04, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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It's Triple Crown season, when horsepower is on full display. Carl Edwards was in bluegrass country Tuesday when he visited with famed jockey Steve Cauthen at a horse farm to promote the NASCAR weekend coming up later this month at Kentucky Speedway. A chestnut thoroughbred named California Chrome will go for the biggest trifecta in the equine world Saturday outside New York City. And 100 miles west of Belmont Park, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will compete Sunday at a Pocono race track that features its own pair of twin spires.
For all the recent talk about the double, which Kurt Busch last month became just the fourth driver to undertake, among auto racing railbirds there isn't much argument about NASCAR's version of the triple crown -- probably because the odds of anyone ever achieving it seem about as remote as a claimer winning at Churchill Downs. California Chrome will try to become the first horse in 36 years to sweep its sport's top three races -- will NASCAR have to wait that long before one driver takes championships in each of its top three series?
As it is, it's been 20 years since NASCAR added a third national circuit in the form of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1995, and really only once during that span has a driver truly approached pulling off this elusive hat trick -- 2005, when former NASCAR Nationwide Series and Truck Series champ Greg Biffle finished tied for second in Sprint Cup points, 35 behind eventual victor Tony Stewart, and perhaps a few dropped lug nuts at Texas short of a title. Before or since, no one has really come close.
Perhaps that will change in the years ahead, given that the Truck and Nationwide ranks each boast a wealth of young talent -- with likely more to come, given what we're seeing in the K&N Pro Series -- and it's quite conceivable others might follow the model set by Austin Dillon, who competed in both circuits and won both titles before graduating to NASCAR's top level. Today, though, we're looking at a short field. Even so, have Pocono's resident bugler sound the call to the post, and let's load the most likely candidates into the starting gate.
Stable: Richard Childress Racing
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championship in 2013; won Camping World Truck Series championship in 2011
Morning line: 20-1
Handicapper's report: Very competitive as a Sprint Cup rookie, at 15th in points in a season where he attracted a lot of attention by bringing back the No. 3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt. Won the pole for the Daytona 500 and could very well win a race on a restrictor-plate track, even though he's led just one lap all year. Still, a season-long championship is a much bigger step, and Dillon needs more seasoning at the sport's top level before that becomes a realistic goal. Even so, all the pieces seem to be in place, and at 24 he would appear to have plenty of time ahead of him to pursue the lone national series trophy not already on his mantle.
Stable: Roush Fenway Racing
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championship in 2002; won Camping World Truck Series championship in 2000
Morning line: 30-1
Handicapper's report: As previously mentioned, came very close to completing the collection in 2005, and then finished third in final points three seasons later. But Biffle hasn't been a serious championship threat since, and he's in the midst of a slow start that has him 16th in points. Still, this is a team that should make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and each time he does, he gives himself a chance at the lone national series title he's missing. Yet at 44 and in a contract year, Biffle is facing a potential career crossroads that could define how much longer he's competitive at NASCAR's top level -- and how much longer he'll realistically be able to chase the sport's triple crown.
Stable: Team Penske
Lineage: Won Sprint Cup Series championship in 2012; won Nationwide Series championship in 2010
Morning line: 80-1
Handicapper's report: Would seem to have the most difficult step already behind him, given that he claimed the sport's premier series championship two seasons ago. But would Keselowski really want to take a (perceived) step backward at some point and race for a Truck title? At just 30, he would seem to have plenty of time ahead of him to do whatever he wants. And, he does own a team in Brad Keselowski Racing that fields entries in the Truck Series. Can we envision a time, many years from now, when Keselowski has achieved everything he wanted at the Sprint Cup level and decides to race his own truck for a title, just for kicks? Oh, we can only hope so.
Off the board
Stable: HScott Racing (part-time)
Lineage: Won Sprint Cup Series championship in 2000; won Nationwide Series championship in 1991
Morning line: None
Handicapper's report: Was left without a full-time ride at the Sprint Cup level when JTG Daugherty Racing turned to AJ Allmendinger prior to this season, and started the Daytona 500 this year for the former Phoenix Racing team now owned by Harry Scott Jr. Like Keselowski, he has the hardest part out of the way, and late last year seemed open to the prospect of jumping in a truck and going after the lone national title that's eluded him. He did win a race in that series at Martinsville in 2005, after all. But nothing ever materialized, and these days Labonte has been working as an analyst for NBC and NASCAR.com.
Johnny Benson Jr.
Stable: Grand Rapids, Mich.
Lineage: Won Camping World Truck Series championship in 2008; won Nationwide Series championship in 1995
Morning line: None
Handicapper's report: Won a Sprint Cup race at Rockingham in 2002, but competed in only one more full season at the sport's top level after that. Won the Truck Series in 2008 for Bill Davis, but didn't have a full-time ride the next year. Benson was always a capable driver who seemed plagued by lack of funding, whether it was on the car in which he nearly won the Daytona 500 in 2000, or during the latter stages of his Truck career. These days he's gone back to his roots, racing super late models in the northeast and Midwest. Given that he hasn't started a national series race of any kind since 2010, his days in NASCAR would appear to be over.
Stable: Brad Keselowski Racing
Lineage: Race winner in both Nationwide and Truck series
Morning line: 50-1
Handicapper's report: If there's a leading candidate right now to follow the Dillon route and climb into the Sprint Cup Series on the heels of titles in the two lower circuits, then it has to be Blaney, just 20 and already with race wins in Trucks and Nationwide. He's currently seventh in Truck points, 19 off the lead. If he ends up running full-time Nationwide next year for Penske (to which he's under contract), he'll be with the team that won the 2010 title with Keselowski and finished as runner-up last year with Sam Hornish Jr. After that? Who knows. It's a long-term bet, but one worth making.
Stable: Joe Gibbs Racing
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championship in 2009
Morning line: 100-1
Handicapper's report: An elite driver who's proven he can win in everything, even if he's still lacking a Sprint Cup crown. Might already have a Truck title if not for NASCAR's relatively recent rule that drivers must choose only one series in which to accrue championship points. But at just 29, Busch has plenty of runway ahead to chase anything he wants. Like Keselowski, he owns a Truck Series team, and given his urge to get behind the wheel and compete, who knows what he might do if he ever claims the premier series title. If there's a leading candidate to be racing Trucks at 50, it's Kyle Busch.
Stable: Stewart-Haas Racing
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championship in 2006
Morning line: 200-1
Handicapper's report: Seems very close to a Sprint Cup championship, given that he's finished third in final points in three of the last four seasons, and is currently tied for the series lead with two race victories. With SHR, he's in equipment capable of leading every lap barring breakdowns or mistakes that have been too frequent to this point. But another hardcore racer who once owned a Truck Series team (and has 14 wins in that series), and another driver who later in his career may very well be tempted to chase that last remaining championship should he finally break through and lay claim to NASCAR's biggest prize.
Stable: Roush Fenway Racing
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championship in 2007
Morning line: 500-1
Handicapper's report: Top-flight Sprint Cup competitor with a proven record of title contention -- he's third in points this year, and has finished second or third four times in his career at NASCAR's top level. Like his teammate Biffle, in a contract year that could go a long way toward shaping his future, yet with almost certainly more leverage due to performance, and a decade younger at 34. Has a background in the Trucks, with six career wins and a fourth-place finish in 2004. But with two kids at home and a likely second career in television ahead of him, it's natural to think that the Sprint Cup trophy is the last big championship Edwards has in his sights.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Stable: Hendrick Motorsports
Lineage: Won Nationwide Series championships in 1998 and 1999
Morning line: 1,000-1
Handicapper's report: Two-time Nationwide Series champion and Daytona 500 winner who is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, showing a degree of consistency not seen since his heyday at Dale Earnhardt Inc. At fifth in points and with a race victory, expected to be a serious contender for the Sprint Cup title come playoff time. But if he ever checks that rather large box, would Earnhardt really be tempted to one day try the Trucks -- a series in which he has zero career starts? Probably not. Maybe he could be enticed by the idea of accumulating a few more wrecked vehicles for the collection in the woods on his property.