The Final Word – 2016’s NASCAR Contenders, Pretenders, and Participants

by Ron Thornton On Mon, Feb. 08, 2016

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Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/GettyImages
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/GettyImages

Starting in ten days, just about every week the engines will roar to life and 43 cars will take the green flag. However, we all know that not all race drivers and teams are created equal. A half dozen will come from the part-time ranks, and only a couple of dozen will have any kind of hope of even challenging for a win. To put it in culinary terms, you have your steak, your hamburger and, to fill out the field, your hamburger helper. Here is a look at who is who on the menu, with the Daytona 500 less than two weeks away.

TIER I – THE CONTENDERS

Few can question that the 2016 champion could well come out of the top tier of drivers. In fact, half of them already know what it is like to claim the crown.

2 – Brad Keselowski
4 – Kevin Harvick
11 – Denny Hamlin
18 – Kyle Busch
19 – Carl Edwards
20 – Matt Kenseth
22 – Joey Logano
31 – Ryan Newman
41 – Kurt Busch
48 – Jimmie Johnson
78 – Martin Truex, Jr.
88 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

The odds might favor Kyle Busch repeating in what we hope, this time, will be a healthy full campaign though Harvick had the best season from start to finish. Well, almost to the finish. Johnson has already claimed the trophy six times, and seems to always be in contention even in those years he falls short. If one was going to pick a potential winner, race in and race out, chances are the favorites would come from this list.

TIER II – THE PRETENDERS

There are those you expect to have a good shot at being victorious every week, and then there are those who, if they did, probably would not come as all that much of a shock, either. In fact, I would expect at least four of these drivers to make it into the Chase, where a pretender could get hot and become a true contender themselves if things fall into place at the right time.

1 – Jamie McMurray
3 – Austin Dillon
5 – Kasey Kahne
6 – Trevor Bayne
13 – Casey Mears
15 – Clint Bowyer
16 – Greg Biffle
24 – Chase Elliott
27 – Paul Menard
42 – Kyle Larson
43 – Aric Almirola
47 – A.J. Allmendinger

In this case, a pretender is one with tons of talent, one with a good chance of claiming a Top Ten, but just not a driver you expect taking the checkered flag on a regular basis. I have always liked McMurray, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to clear that final hurdle. Biffle should be rated higher and in previous years he no doubt would have been, but Roush Fenway has not been an outfit on the rise. Kahne has the ability, but not the results in recent seasons. Dillon and Larson are touted as future stars, and just maybe this is the year they meet expectations. Elliott has things to prove, and a lot of eyes with be watching Jeff Gordon’s former ride to see if the rookie can break out in his rookie campaign.

TIER III – THE PARTICIPANTS

43 cars hit the track each event, with some having pretty good odds of finishing high in the running order when things are said and done. Some others are not as fortunate.

7 – Regan Smith
10 – Danica Patrick
14 – Tony Stewart
17 – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
21 – Ryan Blaney
23 – David Ragan
32 – Jeffery Earnhardt
34 – Chris Buescher
38 – Landon Cassill
44 – Brian Scott
46 – Michael Annett
83 – Matt DiBenedetto
95 – Michael McDowell

Stewart is on the mend, again, and could be out for quite a spell at the beginning of his final season. Some tend to believe we won’t see him for months as he recovers from his recent back injury. If only Patrick could emerge as the next Jamie McMurray that would be something, but thus far cracking the Top Twenty has been a struggle every week. There is nothing I would like more than to see someone from this group emerge as a pleasant surprise, but they are going to have to prove it for me to believe it. Sure, Stewart could mend enough to rise by the end of the year and Patrick could finally cash in on all of those resources to take it to the next level, but my money would be on Blaney and the Wood Brothers as they return to running a full schedule.

** The opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the publisher. All comments other than website related problems need to be directed to the author. (c)SpeedwayMedia.com. **

A former radio and television broadcaster, newspaper columnist, Little League baseball coach, Ron Thornton has been following NASCAR on this site for 13 seasons. The fact he is referred to as a Senior Writer has little to do with his ability or length of service, but more about just how old he has become. It is anticipated that before the end of this campaign, he will be promoted to Ancient Scribe.

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