Article Written By: Chris Caraveo
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Three of NASCAR’s prominent drivers missed out on last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for various reasons—some more gruesome than others. As a result the 2013 Chase lost out on a more competitive field of contenders.
Here is a list of the top five drivers who were not in the Chase last year but are likely to make an appearance this year.
1. Brad Keselowski
Defending Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski had everything going right for him at the start of the 2013 season. He began with four top 5’s and seven top 10’s in the first eight races.
But Keselowski could not do what he did five times last season: win. That did not help him when he averaged a 19.6 finish with six 30th or worst races from the first Richmond race heading into the second one before the Chase started.
And he needed a win to make the Chase with Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Newman having at least one victory for the two wildcard spots.
After leading 142 in the regular season finale at Richmond Keselowski pitted under green when a Jimmie Johnson crash brought out the caution and kept Keselowski far from the lead. He finished 17th and without a win was out of the Chase.
Keselowski compiled seven top 10’s and a Chicagoland win during the last 10 races. He proved that he can be a contender given he makes the Chase. Now all he needs to do is win more in the 2014 regular season to give himself a chance.
2. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin’s season ended on a good note with a win at Homestead, but the rest was horrible, Hamlin said. It began when he sustained a compression fracture in his lower back after a crash with ex-teammate Joey Logano in February at California. He missed the ensuing four races and his Chase chances appeared all but lost.
But he returned and finished in the top eight in three of his first five races back. At that point he was 76 points behind 20th in the standings with 12 races until the Chase and needed to win at least two races (which would have put him in the Chase).
He did neither, as he had an average finish of 26.67, with a best of 18th at Indianapolis.
Hamlin will have the full 2014 season—barring another freak injury—to prove that he is still a dominant force in NASCAR. He is capable of winning five-plus races and remains one of a handful of drivers who can keep up with Jimmie Johnson in pursuit of the Cup.
3. Tony Stewart
The half-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing would most likely have been off this list had he not been injured from a crash he was involved in during a sprint car race early August.
Prior to his injury, Tony Stewart was 11th in the Cup standings with a win at Dover. The season was in its summer phase, in which Smoke thrived historically. He still had a shot to make the Chase on points, but he had himself set for at least a wildcard with a potential win at Watkins Glen next on schedule.
But then the injury happened and eventually his season ended.
Stewart starts the 2014 season with a number of things on his mind. How he performs post-injury will be on the top of the list. He will also have to deal with the incoming talent of Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch—who earned his way back to a top-tier team after his time with Furniture Row Racing. Not only will all three be teammates, but they will all be vying for Chase spots. Then there is Danica Patrick.
Stewart may get a pass if he does not return to the postseason with everything that will be on his mind this season.
4. Martin Truex, Jr.
Truex, Jr. was the odd man out of the Chase after NASCAR settled the Michael Waltrip Racing fiasco at Richmond. He had one win heading into the regular season finale and needed to win or outrank Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon in the standings if none of them won the race.
Newman was in the lead with seven laps to go when Clint Bowyer’s car spun—for whatever reason is your opinion—and brought out the caution.
When Newman failed to win the race and Truex, Jr. got in the Chase, the investigation ensued.
NASCAR ultimately removed Truex, Jr. from postseason contention and inserted both Newman and Gordon. Bowyer remained in the Chase even though his car was the one that caused the whole dilemma.
With a new season ahead Truex, Jr. can put Richmond behind him. He was a contender for numerous wins last season and showed that he doesn’t need something as ridiculous as that race to help him get in the Chase.
5. Austin Dillon (Dark horse)
A rookie has not made the Chase since Denny Hamlin did in 2006, and for good reason. The seasoned veterans of NASCAR receive the necessary equipment and support from their teams that are needed to field competitive cars each race.
In comes Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress—the owner Dillon will drive for in his rookie season.
Dillon should get considerable help with his cars due to the fact that his car number, three, once belonged to one of NASCAR’s two most iconic drivers, Dale Earnhardt. Expectations to perform well—and soon—with the revered Chevrolet should give Childress reason to equip the 2013 Nationwide Series Champion with the best resources Richard Childress Racing has.
With teammates like Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman past their primes, Dillon should be RCR’s prime focus. As a result Dillon could win a race or two and make the Chase as a wildcard.