Related: Five breakout candidates in 2018
Though the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season didn’t offer these drivers much to celebrate, the season on the horizon provides an opportunity to start anew. Fortunately, there is enough data to support their candidacy for bouncing back in a big way:
Bowyer hasn’t parked his car in Victory Lane since 2012. His leap to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017 was supposed to end his dry spell, but he tacked on another winless campaign.
He returns to Stewart-Haas with his team intact and a young crew chief in Mike Bugarewicz, who protected his running position on 70.73 percent of green-flag pit cycles. That was the fourth-highest rate among returning driver-crew chief pairings and gained him 20 positions. Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford ranked as the third-fastest car on 2-mile, non-drafting tracks, signaling the most likely track type on which to end the five-year win drought.
Improvement could come in Bowyer’s closing habits. He averaged a 0.4-position loss in the final one-tenth of races in 2017, though he crashed during that time frame on four separate occasions, the fourth-highest, late-race crash total in the series.
Hendrick Motorsports armed its seven-time champion with the ninth-fastest car overall, per timing and scoring data supplied to NASCAR.com, and the 10th fastest during the playoffs. He won three times, more than the teams of Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones combined, all of whom ranked directly above him in the green-flag speed category. No driver with a slower car than Johnson’s won more often.
Still, there isn’t anything appealing about a 16.8-place finish, which Johnson, Chad Knaus and the legendary No. 48 team tallied in 2017, the worst full-season average in the team’s existence.
Johnson was partially responsible for the downturn. His Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 0.736 was the worst single-season mark of his illustrious career and, at age 41, it came on the downside of the average driver’s career arch. There is good news, though; despite his lackluster results, Johnson was still the best passer.
He ranked first in surplus passing value, which was good for 272 additional positions on the track beyond what was expected from a driver with his average running position. For comparison, the second biggest surplus pass differential was plus-184, belonging to Kyle Larson. Johnson, it seems, still has game but is in need of speed capable enough to turn a season into a serious championship bid.
Logano’s green-flag speed ranking across the first nine races of 2017, which culminated with his win at Richmond, was 7.1. His speed ranking for the remainder of the season — following NASCAR’s decision to encumber that win, a penalty for altering the rear suspension — was 14.2.
In the three years prior to 2017, Logano ranked first, first and third in Production in Equal Equipment Rating among all Monster Energy Series drivers. His 9.2-place average finish in 2015 would’ve topped the series in 2016 and ’17. He was a minus passer overall this past year and an average restarter who performed mindbogglingly well in clutch situations, retaining his position 13 times on 13 late-race restart attempts from within the first seven rows.
Logano can make a fast car faster, but struggles to eek out results from a mediocre machine. Factor in the 96-position loss he and crew chief Todd Gordon amassed during green-flag pit cycles and it’s easy to find all the track position that eluded them in an aberration of a season.
Busch won the Daytona 500, but underachieved from that point forward, earning 18 top-15 finishes when his 62.8 percent of completed laps spent inside the top 15 suggested 23 such results. His 0.44-per-race crash frequency was the third highest among playoff qualifiers and his team’s 2.2 positions-per-race drop in the final one-tenth of races made him the second-worst closer among full-time Monster Energy Series drivers.
Positive regression is likely to occur as Busch, 38, is smack in the middle of his prime production years, remains a stone wall on restarts — his seven positions lost on 73 restarts from the non-preferred groove was the smallest positional drop among drivers with at least 10 attempts — and receives a new crew chief in Billy Scott, who was dutiful in his green-flag pitting habits on behalf of Danica Patrick in 2017, providing her 51 additional positions on non-restrictor plate ovals. That’d represent a 74-position increase over what Tony Gibson provided him.
Kahne’s 19.4-place average finish was his personal worst of the last 10 seasons, partly why his value as a driving commodity depreciated enough for Leavine Family Racing to swoop in and sign the fan-favorite driver.
Turning 38 in April, Kahne is in his prime, and as a passer he matters on 1.5-mile intermediates, NASCAR’s most prevalent track type. In 2017, his plus-2.99 percent surplus passing value on intermediates yielded 32 positions beyond the expectation of a driver with his average running position. While Leavine is in the process of growing its infrastructure, it isn’t quite the fluid machine Hendrick Motorsports is; Kahne will be asked — and in at least 11 races, be able — to supply his own track position and neutralize some of the team’s speed disadvantage.
Kahne is a long shot to make the 2018 playoffs, but it is possible he bests this past year’s average finish. For Leavine, Michael McDowell scored a 22.2-place result on average. Is Kahne three positions better than McDowell? The Leavine family must think so, which is why they invested in him.Follow Us On Social Media: