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    Stage points make qualifying more important. Ryan Blaney takes the field to the green flag at Phoenix.Associated Press

    Qualifying is a lesser art than racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but suffice it to say that one leads to the other. Getting the most speed out of a car in a single lap, and staying on what drivers call “the ragged edge” without crossing it, is among the early signs of budding greatness.

    The more advanced art of racing is a sign of natural progress, it being a more complicated matter than merely squeezing speed out of a car while running alone. On race day, with 39 other cars on the track, a driver must depart from the preferred line or groove in order to pass.

    Qualifying itself has become more complex in recent years. NASCAR qualifying takes place in three rounds. The first pares down the drivers eligible for the pole to the fastest 24. After the second round, 12 advance to the round in which the top starting spot is determined.

    Many drivers emphasize qualifying less as they grow older.

    Ryan Newman was once the sport’s qualifying master. In a six-year period (2002 to 2007), Newman accumulated 41 of his 51 career poles. Now he hasn’t won one since 2013. Newman’s average starting position fell from 6.3 in 2005 to 17.1 this season.

    Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s career-best average start was 8.2 in 2009. This year’s norm was 16.9. Kasey Kahne fell from 8.8 in 2012 to 17.9 this year. It’s a common occurrence.

    This, however, is devoted to drivers who get better with age. Many variables come into play. A driver may move to a team whose emphasis on qualifying is greater.

    All else being equal, though, these drivers make up the top 10 in “getting faster” over time.

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    Kenseth's exit is reluctant but sweet.

    Kenseth’s exit is reluctant but sweet.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Qualifying used to be a weakness for Matt Kenseth. He won four poles in his first 11 full-time seasons and 16 in the last seven.

    In Kenseth’s championship season, 2003, his average qualifying performance was 21.3. This year it was 10.4. He didn’t win the championship, but he wasn’t far from the mountaintop when he climbed out of his Toyota at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday.

    No performance-based reason exists for Kenseth to retire at age 45. He’s won 21 races in the last seven years. Yet he’s stepping away, unwilling to race for a team less competitive than the one, Joe Gibbs Racing, that is dropping him to cut payroll. It’s a crying shame.

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    Keselowski's judgment is impeccable.

    Keselowski’s judgment is impeccable.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    In his championship season, 2012, Keselowski’s average starting position was 16.2. He’s improved on that number in all five years since. He didn’t win a pole in 2012. He’s won 12 since.

    At age 33, Keselowski may be NASCAR’s best combination of driving skill and smarts. He’s won a championship. He had a shot at another this year. He made the postseason four years in a row and six times in seven years, with at least one victory in all seven.

    Keselowski is thoughtful, articulate, aggressive and mature. He is a canny judge of what can and cannot be done, and that’s on the track as well as off. He wins when he’s supposed to and gets the best out of his Ford when he’s not.

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    Blaney has come a long way in a short time.

    Blaney has come a long way in a short time.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It’s tough to chart improvement in Ryan Blaney, who’s been around Monster Cup as a regular for only two years.

    Oh, wait, maybe it’s not. As a rookie, the 23-year-old’s average starting position was 14.9. This year it was 10.3. Twice he started on the pole. This year he made the playoffs. This year he won a race. This year he won two poles.

    Furthermore, Blaney deserves great credit for infusing new life into one of NASCAR’s historic teams, the Wood Brothers. Next year, his ride will be better as he moves to join Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano at Penske Racing. It’s likely his performances will improve, too.

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    Denny Hamlin is overdue for a championship, but it won't be this year.

    Denny Hamlin is overdue for a championship, but it won’t be this year.Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin’s greatest flaw has been crucial mistakessometimes by him and sometimes by his crewduring races. No such weakness exists during qualifying. For four consecutive years, the 37-year-old Virginian has been an extraordinary qualifier. The average starting position was 14.5 in 2014, 11.7 in 2015, 6.3 in 2016 and 8.4 this year. He has won at least one race in 12 consecutive years and at least one pole in every season of his career except one.

    Always a solid qualifier, Hamlin is getting progressively better. Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in Monster Energy points 10 times in 12 years as a regular. One of the exceptions can be chalked up to missing four races due to injury.

    A championship is overdue at this point in Hamlin’s career. His average finish and average start in the last two seasons are the highest of his career.

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    Harvick is a consummate professional who has successfully made the switch from Chevy to Ford.

    Harvick is a consummate professional who has successfully made the switch from Chevy to Ford.LM Otero/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick clicks off qualifying laps as if he and his Ford are riding on rails. He is a consummate veteran who, at age 41, shows no signs of decline. This year, he won four poles, his best showing in three years. After going four seasons without a single pole, Harvick has won 16 since 2013. He’s won at least one race in eight consecutive years.

    This year, Stewart-Haas Racing switched manufacturers from Chevy to Ford. He was bidding for a second championship. The team’s other three drivers all slumped in the first year driving Fusions. Only one teammate, Kurt Busch, made the playoffs.

    Harvick’s average starting position over the last four years was 9.5. For the four years previous to 2014, it was 17.4.

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    Elliott's reached almost every goal except Victory Lane.

    Elliott’s reached almost every goal except Victory Lane.Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Chase Elliott’s inability to win a race is exasperating. He finished second five times this year at age 21. In two full-time seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott has finished in the top five 22 times without once crossing the finish line first. He’s won three poles.

    For the first time, no Chevy drivers made the final four. Elliott’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, won three times, but the seven-time champion has been beaten by the second-generation whiz kid in every other major statistical category. Two other teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, weren’t even close.

    Chevrolet has dominated NASCAR for most of the past five decades. Slumps are rare. Next year Elliott will race a new Camaro-based model. It will wear No. 9, the number made famous by his father, Bill Elliott. Had Elliott finished a position better at Phoenix, he would have been competing for the championship. His average starting position was 10.8. Last year, it was 11.3. He’s on the rise, and he’s bound to visit Victory Lane soon.

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    It was an off year for Joey Logano, but he's still a force in qualifying sessions.

    It was an off year for Joey Logano, but he’s still a force in qualifying sessions.Associated Press

    For the first time in five years, Joey Logano didn’t make the playoffs. He won only one race and two poles. In the three seasons prior to this one, he won 14 and 10, respectively.

    Logano competed full time at NASCAR’s highest level at age 19. Now he’s 27. Already he’s won 18 races and 19 poles. His ability is not in question. His team’s performance has fallen off. Two years ago, a feud with Matt Kenseth may have cost Logano the championship. This year, he slumped miserably after his one victory was “encumbered,” a politically correct designation that means NASCAR officials caught his team cheating.

    In 2015, Logano won six poles, and his average starting position was 6.9. He didn’t lose the qualifying knack. He didn’t slow down. The car did.

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    Larson's no kid anymore. He has emerged as one of NASCAR's stars.

    Larson’s no kid anymore. He has emerged as one of NASCAR’s stars.Colin E Braley/Associated Press

    Kyle Larson is 25 now. He just finished his fourth full season at the Cup level. When the playoffs began, observers in the know thought the Californian’s odds at winning the championship ranked right up there with Kyle Busch, Truex and Johnson.

    It wasn’t to be. Freak engine troubles, nonexistent during the regular season, plagued Larson.

    Still, he won four races and three poles this season. His average starting position, 11.3, was 4.3 positions higher than 2016. This was the year of Larson’s arrival. He will likely have many more opportunities to win a championship. He is a very young man in a very great hurry.

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    Truex has emerged as NASCAR's most successful driver.

    Truex has emerged as NASCAR’s most successful driver.Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Kyle Busch had more poles this year, but Martin Truex Jr.’s average starting position was an astonishing 6.8. In the past four years, that number has fallen from 20.1 to 12.5 to 9.1 to the aforementioned 6.8.

    The 37-year-old Truex has, the past two seasons, claimed eight of his 15 career poles and 12 of his 15 victories. The chemistry between him and crew chief Cole Pearn makes them the most successful tandem in NASCAR, clearly superior, at present, to the legendary relationship between Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

    When Truex moved to Furniture Row Racing, no one imagined the Colorado-based team could become NASCAR’s best.

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    Busch was seeking his second championship in three years.

    Busch was seeking his second championship in three years.Associated Press

    Busch, 32, started up front a career-best eight times this year. His average starting position was a career-best 7.2. He has been in single digits in four of the past five years. This was the sixth consecutive season in which he produced an average starting position lower than his average finish (11.5).

    The younger Busch brother has a knack for transferring qualifying success to checkered flags. Since becoming a regular at the sport’s premier level in 2005, Busch has won 43 races, 20 of which have occurred in the past six years.

    No driver is more exciting to watch than Kyle Busch, whether he’s squeezing every ounce of speed out of his Toyota during time trials or boldly working his way through traffic on race day.

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