The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been filled with photo finishes, strong on-track racing and a long list of winners. In just 15 races there have been 10 winners — Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.
A win virtually grants a team a berth for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, so who will be next? NASCAR.com’s Jessica Ruffin and Maggie MacKenzie debate the next driver to join the elite list.
RUFFIN: As incredible as the 2016 season has been thus far, it’s about to get even better the next few weeks. All of our 10 winners this year are veterans of the sport who have notched a ‘W’ in the win column at some point during their careers. But watch out for the young stars of our sport, who have gotten closer and closer to victory as the season has progressed. The leader of that charge? Rookie Chase Elliott. Based on his recent performances — most notably a runner-up at Michigan last weekend — Elliott will be celebrating in Victory Lane sooner rather than later.
MACKENZIE: I agree with you, Jessica, that we need to look out for the young stars. They are the future of the sport and many are already contenders for the win week-after-week. However, as strong as Elliott has been thus far — in that famous No. 24 — I believe Austin Dillon will beat him to the checkered flag in his equally famous No. 3.
Dillon is in his third full-time Sprint Cup season for Richard Childress Racing and sits quite comfortably in 13th on the Chase Grid thanks to a slew of top-10 finishes — and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
RUFFIN: Dillon has surprised me this season. After recording only one top five last season, he’s certainly bounced back with a vengeance. But while his top 10s have been impressive, he hasn’t done as much to contend for the win — which is really what counts. Elliott has been up front week after week, and if it hadn’t been for a shaky restart, he might have clinched a Chase berth last weekend with a win at Michigan.
MACKENZIE: Despite having opportunities to lock in the win, Elliott has yet to head to Victory Lane and this will remain true if, as you stated above, he cannot master restarts. Dillon, too, has been toward the front of the pack plenty of times — he was the polesitter at Fontana and started on the front row at Talladega as well. And let’s not forget, Daytona is coming up and Dillon has been quite successful here with a top five, four top 10s and a pole in just six starts.
RUFFIN: The final laps at Michigan were simply a glitch for the No. 24 team, it seemed. Crew chief Alan Gustafson told me afterwards that the team got “98 things of 100 right” in the Irish Hills. With ample resources and skilled personnel, they’ll use the off-week to regroup and come back swinging. And Elliott is just hungry for a win: The 20-year-old has a fire under him that allowed him to pull off his recent string of six straight top-10 finishes. Even without a win, he’s sitting sixth in the standings, the highest of all winless drivers and above all three of his veteran Hendrick Motorsports teammates. When you’re ahead of a six-time Sprint Cup champion like Jimmie Johnson, I’d say your near future is pretty bright.
MACKENZIE: I couldn’t agree more with you about Elliott’s bright future, but checking “98 things” off the list doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win. I’m looking ahead at the schedule and Dillon has proven strong at many upcoming tracks and his experience will benefit the No. 3 team when it comes to taking the checkered. And, let’s not forget, he has crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe in his ear.
And, hey, Dillon’s hungry for a win, too; which should make for strong on-track racing for the rest of the summer stretch.