Column: Past NASCAR Cup Series Champions Try To Join ‘Big 3’ In Title Conversation

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Deservedly so, there is a lot of buzz about the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ “Big 3” as Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have been dubbed for their 15 combined wins through the opening 20 races of the season.

Truex is the reigning series champion and Harvick (2014) and Busch (2015) have hoisted the big trophy as well. With their dominating efforts there’s been a lot of buzz about how long they can carry on this effort. And it’s also raised deserving questions.

Which fellow members of the past-champion’s club will be next to win? And assuming these three advance all the way to the Homestead-Miami season finale with a shot at the title, who will be that fourth driver eligible to challenge for the Cup?

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson arrives for Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as prepared as ever to snap a career-long winless streak and more importantly guarantee his position in the upcoming playoffs. He has three Pocono wins, but the last came in 2014 and he’s only led two laps of competition there since.

Johnson is ranked 14th in the playoff standings right now – 53 points behind 13th-place Aric Almirola and with only a precarious two-point edge over his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott. Their teammate Alex Bowman is 16th and in the final transfer spot.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Monster Energy champion, also has three wins at Pocono, the last coming in 2016. And similar to Johnson, he hasn’t led a lap since that victory. The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford does have seven top 10s in the last 11 races at the Tricky Triangle, but was 19th in June. Busch is ranked a solid eighth in the playoff standings and brings two top-10 finishes in the two races prior to Pocono.

Brad Keselowski is in playoff-prepared form points-wise, minus that automatic berth from a victory. In fact, in the seven previous seasons, the Team Penske driver had already hoisted a trophy by this point on the calendar. He seems perpetually ready to do so this season, just hampered by some uncharacteristically bad fortune of late. In the last four races, the 2012 series champ has two top-10 finishes and two finishes of 30th or worse.

The good news is he was fifth at Pocono last month and led 10 laps. He has a perfect six top-five finishes in the last six races at the track, including runner-up efforts in this particular race in 2015 and 2016.

New Hardware

The U.S. Cellular 250 at Iowa Speedway (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a historic opportunity for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. There have been eight different winners in the last eight runnings of this race. And the only previous winner entered on Saturday is also the most recent winner, Justin Allgaier, who won here in June.

Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler, who is now third in the points standings, would love to snap a 57-race winless streak with a victory in Iowa. He boasts the top average finish (7.40) among those seeking their maiden win at the track.

Should Allgaier win, it would mark the first time in his career he’s scored a season sweep at a venue.

Winning Form

Two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton would love to score his first career win at Pocono Raceway in Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 150, not just to become a new winner at the track, but to snap a 25-race winless streak. He hasn’t gone winless in a season since 2012.

Crafton has five top-10 finishes in eight Pocono races, including a career best third-place showing in his first race there in 2010.