Five Cup Drivers with Something to Prove in 2017

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By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

With the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremony complete, few events remain for the sport’s stars between now and the season-opening Daytona 500.

You know what that means: racing season is almost upon us once again.

For most, a new season brings a fresh start – a chance to begin anew with a clean slate. However, for a select few drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the tone for 2017 has already been set.

Whether returning from injury, preparing for an unexpected rookie season or just trying to live up to the expectations that come with good equipment, a handful of drivers are entering 2017 with something to prove, both to their peers and to themselves.

In no particular order, here are five drivers that need to make a statement in the upcoming season.

Kasey Kahne

(Photo: Bob Leverone / NASCAR via Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh championship did a lot of good things for Hendrick Motorsports, but it also amplified the struggles of his teammates, and most notably Kasey Kahne.

When Kahne first came to Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) in 2012, the expectation was that the Enumclaw, Wash., native would blossom into a consistent winner and championship contender. But, save for Kahne’s impressive fourth-place run in 2012, the 36-year-old has yet to live up to the hype amid a flurry of inconsistency.

Kahne ended 2016 with his second-straight winless season, and in doing so failed to make the Chase for the second time in his five-year tenure with HMS.

Should Kahne go winless again in 2017, he’ll have as many consecutive seasons without a victory (three) as he had total in the 11 seasons before the streak began.

Kahne isn’t quite on the hot seat just yet –he’s signed through 2018– and there are signs of hope both within his recent performance (the veteran had 12 top 15s in his final 14 starts of 2016) and within the history of HMS. Fans need look no further than teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to see a successful career renovation accomplished amid worse circumstances.

Still, sitting at 36 years of age, and running for an organization with young drivers like William Byron and Alex Bowman showing Cup potential, Kahne would serve himself well by returning to winning form.

Clint Bowyer

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After a handful of years running for two separate collapsing organizations, former weekly contender Clint Bowyer is finally back with a championship-caliber team in Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).

However, with that move comes championship-level expectations.

It’s been five long years since Bowyer’s three-win, runner-up performance in the 2012 season with Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR), and those years have proven tough for the Emporia, Kan., native.

First came the controversial “spin gate”, where Bowyer appeared to spin purposefully in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway so then-teammate Martin Truex, Jr., could take advantage of the ensuing caution and race his way into a Chase berth.

Bowyer largely got away with the move without recourse –it was teammate Truex that was stripped of a Chase berth, leading to the loss of his sponsor and ride weeks later– but the incident ultimately proved to be the death knell of MWR, starting a downhill trend that ended with a full-on collapse just two years later.

In the years since that move, Bowyer has suffered through increasingly dreadful results as the level of equipment trended in the wrong direction, with the ineptitude reaching an all-time low last season in a one-off 27th-place slog with HScott Motorsports.

After the most trying season of his career, Bowyer has finally found reprieve in 2017, taking over the No. 14 formerly wheeled by boss and likely first-ballot Hall of Famer Tony Stewart.

Bowyer may be given a slight mulligan – SHR is making a transition to Ford, and Bowyer may need some time to transition to his new team. But in the end, Bowyer was brought to the team with the expectation that he will eventually join teammate Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch as a race-winner and championship threat.

A good debut would go a long way toward meeting that expectation.

Brad Keselowski

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This may seem like a surprising pick, but hear me out.

With 11 victories in the last three seasons, Brad Keselowski can proudly stake his claim as one of the paddock’s most successful drivers since the implementation of the new Chase format in 2014.

However, with only two Chase victories and zero opportunities to compete for a title in the Championship 4, Keselowski and the No. 2 team haven’t lived up to the standards set by both their 2012 title run and teammate Joey Logano’s mercurial rise.

Keselowski’s been among the sport’s best in the regular season, tying Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson with nine victories apiece during the MENCS tour’s opening seven months.

However, while Busch and Johnson have gone on to follow those results with championships in each of the past two seasons, Keselowski has failed to advance beyond the Round of 8.

Part of the Rochester Hills, Mich., native’s struggles can be attributed to luck. Keselowski was eliminated by a blown motor last season, and fell just short of a Championship 4-clinching victory at Texas Motor Speedway in 2015 when Johnson displayed a bit of the late-race brilliance he’s shown throughout his career to pass Keselowski in the closing laps.

Still, part of the blame goes to the No. 2 team’s inability to either find consistency or get to victory lane when it counts most.

Keselowski’s name rings large in Chase lore because of his incredible playoff-advancing victory at Talladega Superspeedway in 2014, but what many may not have noticed is that the 32-year-old has since failed to earn a single victory in NASCAR’s postseason.

In the meantime, teammate Logano has become the Chase’s biggest threat, earning a series-best seven Chase victories over the past three seasons and making the Championship 4 in all but one season – when Matt Kenseth sent Logano and his Chase hopes crashing into the outside wall at Martinsville Speedway.

Logano has also been the more notable of the two teammates in the regular season, claiming wins in the Daytona 500, All-Star Race and at road course Watkins Glen International to add to his ever-growing resume.

At times, it’s been easy to forget that Keselowski is the driver with a championship on Team Penske. However, the eight-year Cup veteran knows as well as anyone how to contend for a big wins and championships. His team just needs to display the winning form when it counts as much as they have when the stakes aren’t as high.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

(Photo: Sarah Crabill/NASCAR via Getty Images)

After spending the second half of the year worrying, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s many fans were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief on Dec. 8, 2016, when they got the news they’d been waiting for.

Earnhardt will be back on-track in 2017.

Coming off of his second string of missed races due to a concussion in the last five seasons (Earnhardt was also out for two races in 2012), fans aren’t entirely certain what to expect when the 42 year old returns to the No. 88 Chevrolet for the Daytona 500.

Optimists are hopeful that Earnhardt can contend for a third Daytona 500 victory in his first race back. Realists understand that he may take longer to readjust to the machine.

At 42, Earnhardt’s remaining hopes for a championship and other career-defining accomplishments may well rest on which group is correct.

If the Kannapolis, N.C., native proves successful in 2017, as he has recently with seven victories and two Chase berths in the last three years, then Earnhardt could continue to be a force in the Cup Series for five or more years.

However, with his growing concussion history and increasing age, a few bad seasons or an unfortunate crash could push the son of seven-time Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt into retirement.

The sport of auto racing is safer than it’s ever been, and NASCAR’s biggest star enters 2017 still firmly in the midst of what many would consider a career renaissance, albeit one that he hasn’t been able to enjoy for the past six months.

Whether or not Earnhardt can continue to find success in 2017 will be a storyline that persists throughout the season.

Why?

Because when you’re the sport’s most popular star, all eyes are focused on you; regardless of results.

Daniel Suarez

(Photo: Bob Leverone/ Getty Images)

Fresh off of a historic XFINITY Series (NXS) championship run –the first ever for a latino driver in one of NASCAR’s top three series– Daniel Suarez got the surprise of his life when he inherited Joe Gibbs Racing’s (JGR) No. 19 Toyota for the upcoming MENCS season following Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement.

Now, suddenly, Suarez is primed to be a Cup star a bit earlier than JGR and Toyota intended him to be, and, for better or worse, he will once again be compared to rising star and fellow rookie Erik Jones for 2017 and likely the rest of his career.

We’ve seen this story before, albeit without the surprise retirement. Back in 2000, both Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth made their way to the Cup Series after dueling in the Busch Series (now XFINITY Series) for the previous two seasons.

At the time, Earnhardt held the advantage, with a litany of victories and back-to-back championships in NASCAR’s second series.

However, over the course of their Cup careers, Kenseth has gone to to become arguably the better driver of the two, tying Earnhardt’s mark of two Daytona 500 victories while also throwing in a 2003 Winston Cup Series (now MENCS) championship.

Suarez and Jones were the top two prospects in the NXS last season, dueling all the way down to the Championship 4 along with veterans Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier. While Jones entered the Chase as the presumptive favorite courtesy of his four wins, it was Suarez that stole the show in the playoff, earning a pair of victories and claiming the series crown.

A few weeks ago it appeared that 2016 would be one of the final times the two drivers were compared against each other in such a way, with Jones going to Cup to run with Furniture Row Racing for a limited time ahead of what many believe will be a jump over to JGR in 2018 or later.

However, courtesy of Edwards’ retirement and Jones’ existing commitment, it’s now Suarez that has the first shot at a JGR ride.

With that opportunity comes a base level of expectations.

Suarez is being moved along the NASCAR ladder quicker than anticipated, and while he appears more than ready from the outside looking in, the Mexican’s current lack of experience with Cup Series cars could lead to a significant learning curve.

Whether fair or not, Suarez’s results will likely be measure against the finishes tallied by Jones, in much the same way that rookies Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott were compared throughout a portion of 2016.

Both drivers could realistically be included in this final slot in this article, but in the end Suarez feels more fitting because Jones is going to a brand new second team with FRR, while Suarez is now in a position where he needs to succeed in order to prove his move up was warranted and not just gifted by Edwards’ retirement.

Given the recent history of JGR equipment, Suarez should have all of the tools he needs to contend for a Chase spot and perhaps even a race victory somewhere along the way.

If the 25-year-old can deliver with the same level of talent and poise he showed in a consistent drive to the 2016 NXS championship, then 2017 will likely be remembered as a surprising first season in a long, decorated career. However, if Suarez struggles and fails to adjust to Cup over the next couple seasons, then he risks being yet another driver whose career was thrown away by being moved up before he was ready.

Suarez’s character and results thus far seem to indicate that his odds of success are much higher than failure. A solid rookie season would go a long way towards making sure that initial perception proves true.

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