Five winless drivers who could punch their ticket to the Chase

Now that the “Smoke” has cleared from Sonoma Raceway — and from the fireworks that followed — consider this: Tony Stewart’s win on Sunday has eliminated an opportunity for one driver to qualify for the Chase on points.

Five winless drivers who could punch their ticket to the Chase
Race winner Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Race winner Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Pit stop action
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, heads to the garage after a wreck
Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet
A.J. Allmendinger, JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet

No longer is it enough to be among the top 16 in the standings to transfer to the playoffs, and that's a familiar story. Last season, Kyle Busch earned a waiver and went on a tear, winning four races after missing the first 11 to secure a spot in the Chase.

As was the case with Busch, Stewart won't come close to cracking the top 16 in points because of the missed races, but Sunday's victory in his eighth start of 2016 makes the race to qualify for the Chase on points, without a victory, that much more difficult.

With 10 races remaining to determine the Chase field, only five spots are up for grabs by points. Yes, that could change between Daytona this weekend and Richmond on Sept. 10 as drivers are added to the win column. But of the winning drivers from last year, only Dale Earnhardt Jr. has yet to visit Victory Lane this season.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, currently is sixth in the standings — the top contender without a win and the highest-ranked driver from the HMS stable. Elliott enjoys a 75-point advantage over 15th-place Jamie McMurray, so unless Elliott has a massive meltdown between now and September, he should be a lock for one of those spots.

Still, as was intended with the Chase, win and you’re in. Elliott has shown flashes of brilliance this season. The potential is certainly there for winning. With a better pit crew, Ryan Blaney could be added to the list of drivers with a shot of earning a breakthrough win. Ditto Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, if they can turn their luck around.

But of the top 20 drivers that have won in the past, who has the best chance of returning to Victory Lane in the next 10 races?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt is currently 12th in the standings and trails points leader Kevin Harvick by 149. Although he has more top fives (five) than 10th-place Matt Kenseth (two) or eighth-place Martin Truex Jr. (three), Earnhardt, 41, hasn’t led half as many laps (53) as Elliott who’s 118 laps are the fewest of the drivers ahead of him. His average qualifying effort of 16.6 is the second worst of drivers in the top 15, however, the driver of the No. 88 Chevy has battled back to finish second four times. This weekend, Earnhardt returns to Daytona, where he has four of his 26 wins. Only Talladega has been a more successful track for Earnhardt. In addition to Daytona, Earnhardt has won at four of the 10 remaining pre-Chase tracks: Pocono, Michigan, Bristol and Richmond.

Ryan Newman

Newman trails Earnhardt by just 11 points. Although his qualifying average is two positions better, he’s led just three laps in the first 16 races and has yet to score a top-five finish this season. Newman has been the most consistent of the Richard Childress Racing cars but has just five top 10s this season and has yet to win since taking over the No. 31 Chevy in 2014. Younger teammate Austin Dillon has one pole, three top fives and seven top 10 finishes but has endured growing pains throughout the season. Newman has experience on his side. He’s won at six of the 10 remaining venues, including Daytona, Loudon, Pocono, Michigan, Richmond and his home track — Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the site of his last victory 104 races ago.

Jamie McMurray

McMurray won the Coke Zero 400 in 2007 and won the Daytona 500 three years later. This weekend could be his best chance to win, considering his only top five of 2016 came at sister restrictor-plate track Talladega, and his only other victory at the next 10 tracks was the 2010 Brickyard 400. McMurray, who dropped to 15th in the standings following Sonoma, has not led a lap all season. In addition to his fourth-place finish at Talladega, McMurray has top-10 finishes at Fontana and Michigan. However, if he hopes to make a return trip to the Chase this season, he’ll need some insurance. He currently trails Harvick by 164-points and has a 13-point advantage over 16th-place Kasey Kahne.

Kasey Kahne

For the fourth consecutive season, Kahne is bringing up the rear at Hendrick Motorsports. While 16th in the standings would have been adequate to qualify for the Chase in the past, that won't be the case this year. With Hendrick equipment, Kahne has no excuses. But in 2016, he has yet to lead a lap and hasn't been near a win. Kahne’s best results are a pair of fourth-place finishes at Dover and Richmond along with six top-10s. The schedule was more favorable for Kahne when Atlanta fell just before Richmond — the cutoff race. Although Kahne has a Richmond win, that came in 2005, and six of his top 10s at the .75-mile track came in the spring race. Still, with wins on half of the next 10 tracks, it would be difficult to count Kahne out.

AJ Allmendinger

After a hard-fought 14th-place finish at Sonoma, Allmendinger moved up to 18th in the standings. Still, Dinger trails 15th-place McMurray by 33 points and is currently 197 points behind Harvick. With a new managerial team calling the shots, Allmendinger is displaying his best qualifying effort in four years. His sixth-place starting position at Martinsville enabled the driver to finish a season-high second at the .526-mile track. The No. 47 JTG/Daugherty Chevy posted top 10s at Kansas and Fontana as well. Allmendinger’s best chance to win in the next 10 races will be at Watkins Glen — the site of his and the team’s only Cup victory two years ago. While the single-car squad would have a difficult time competing against NASCAR’s powerhouses, chances are they’ll be better equipped if the make a second appearance in the Chase.

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