Opinion: Must Win In 2017
By: Pete Pistone - @PPistone | MRN.com on February 8, 2017 | 9:52 A.M. EST
MRN's Pete Pistone says Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among a group of five drivers who cannot go through the 2017 season without visiting Victory Lane. (Photo: Getty Images)
Winning at NASCAR’s top level is not an easy proposition. Throw in this year’s new race format and the stages drivers must navigate, and taking a checkered flag becomes increasingly more difficult.
But for five drivers, a goose egg next to the win column when the season ends in November will be unacceptable.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The sport’s most popular driver missed half of last season due to his concussion so for obvious reasons, his winless campaign made sense. But Earnhardt won seven times combined in the two prior seasons and if he is back to full strength and health, he should be competitive in 2017. Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman showed that the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was potent enough to compete for victories last year during their fill-in stints. The best way for Earnhardt to put to rest any whispers about lingering health problems will be to put a win or two or three on the board and become a serious threat in the playoffs.
Here’s another Hendrick driver with enormous pressure to win. It’s going on three years since he last visited Victory Lane and to say the heat under the seat of the No. 5 ride is building is an understatement. By his own admission, Kahne understands how much more competitive he has to be this year and there is reason to believe that can't happen based on the way he finished 2016. But if the winless drought hits a full three years after Homestead, look for the speculation about Kahne’s future with Hendrick to heat up.
Speaking of Victory Lane droughts, Newman is also in the team photo. The Richard Childress Racing driver hasn’t won a Cup race since 2013, 125 races ago. While consistency has been his calling card, getting him within an eyelash of winning the 2014 championship, Newman has not been an impact player for wins in quite some time. It’s a challenge for the entire RCR team this season, but the most pressure among the organization’s three drivers is on 17-time Cup winner Newman.
The talented young driver finally scored that elusive first Cup win last season and fulfilled the promise so many saw when Larson landed the Chip Ganassi Racing ride. However, he has to follow that performance with at least another win this season and not put himself in the "one-and-done" discussion. There’s reason for optimism in the CGR camp that Larson will elevate himself to the new level after a third season that included 10 top-10 finishes to go along with his initial win. But for Larson’s star to continue rising, he can’t afford to take a step back and get shut out of Victory Lane in 2017.
Yes, a third member of the Hendrick camp is in the must-win category and it’s the reigning Rookie of the Year Elliott. His team owner predicted Elliott would win a race in his freshman season and he came very close a couple times. If anything, Elliott needs to win just to give himself a break given how hard the young driver is on himself, at times. That more than anything would relieve a great deal of internal pressure for Elliott, who appears destined for stardom.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.