Ryan Blaney

Despite Blaney’s win at Pocono and respectable playoff showing, he underachieved as a whole in 2017 considering the gap in his average running whereabouts and tangible race results. He completed 64 percent of his laps inside the top 15—creating an expectation of 23 top-15 finishes—but fell six short of the projection. A chief reason for the disparity is his 2.4-position average loss during the final tenth of each race, the biggest positional drop in the series during that time frame. If he eradicates the late-race drops, he’s poised for some robust stat line improvement.

Blaney established himself as an elite restarter during his final year with Wood Brothers Racing. He ranked as the third best preferred groove restarter, based on his 86.05 percent position rate, and the third best non-preferred groove restarter, protecting his position at a 63.54 percent clip. He netted 47 total positions in restarts from inside the first seven rows.

Chase Elliott

Though he missed out on chances to win late in the year at Dover, Martinsville and Phoenix, Elliott’s popularity soared. In 2018, his on-track accolades might finally catch up to his burgeoning fan base.

Elliott was a top-5 position defender from both the preferred and non-preferred grooves on restarts. He ranked as the second most efficient passer across all track types, with a plus-3.11 percent surplus passing value trailing only that of Jimmie Johnson (plus-3.78 percent). This netted Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports team 172 positions beyond what was expected from his average running position, which improved along with his speed during the playoffs.

Hendrick teams across the board operated with a speed deficit during the first 26 races, but Elliott’s car ranked as the third fastest in the playoffs, per timing and scoring data supplied to, up from sixth across all regular season races. Unclear is how teams under the Chevrolet banner will perform with the new Camaro body making its debut in 2018, but Elliott’s team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, can hedge with effective pit strategy. Gustafson’s crew retained Elliott’s running position on 67.39 percent of green-flag pit cycles and on 61.11 percent of green-flag stops when running inside the top 5. Both are rates above the series average.

Erik Jones

No, Jones didn’t win a race or qualify into the playoffs despite driving for Furniture Row Racing, but his passing ability on intermediate tracks suggests an immediate future rich in victories. In the 11 races on intermediates, Jones scored an additional 140 positions more than expected from his average running position, an average of 11.2 spots per 400 miles. That was the second highest rate in the Cup Series this season and over 13 positions per race better than the most effective 1.5-mile passer in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, for which he is now a part.

Crew chief Chris Gayle moves with Jones from Furniture Row to JGR and is a year wiser following a rookie foray of his own. His pit strategy output from Year 1 as a Cup Series race-caller needs improving. Gayle defended Jones’s running position on 48.78 percent of green-flag pit cycles (the series average was 63.58) and 16.67 percent of green-flag pit cycles from a top-5 running positions (series average was 40.41) for a 44-position loss despite Jones never earning a single pit road penalty under green all year.

A little natural improvement in 2018 would go a long way for Jones and Gayle.

Clint Bowyer

The perception of Bowyer’s first year at Stewart-Haas Racing was it proved to be underwhelming. He didn’t win and he missed the playoffs. There were, however, things to like about his 2017 campaign and a forthcoming career mile marker that should excite.

Bowyer ranked ninth in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a measure of a driver’s results independent of his team and car, and eighth in surplus passing value for a Stewart-Haas team that ranked just 15th in average green-flag speed for the entire season. Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz created a niche for themselves during the summer; they produced the third-fastest car on 2-mile, non-drafting tracks. Considering most playoff teams deemphasize R&D for races at facilities like Michigan and Pocono, this track type marks an opportunity for Bowyer to win in 2018, locking down an elusive playoff spot.

Additionally, Bowyer soon hits upon a magic moment in a driver’s life. He turns 39 in May, which is the peak age for an average Cup Series driver according to a 2014 Motorsports Analytics study.

Aric Almirola

One could argue that regression is on the horizon for Almirola after he overachieved in a season truncated by injury. Based on his 13.8 percent of completed laps inside the top 15, he was expected to score four top-15 results; he actually corralled 10 such finishes. That’d be a difficult trick for any driver to replicate.

Almirola moves from Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017, where drivers like Bowyer and Kurt Busch had no problem finishing inside the top 15, doing so 23 and 18 times, respectively. Almirola might not overachieve to the same extent, but it is not necessary. His stat line will swell based on the simple change of scenery.

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