This weekend the 2015 NASCAR season has its unofficial start as the Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) will run the Unlimited, an annual short exhibition/warm-up race in Daytona as a kickoff to Speedweeks. Now, while I'm giddy at the thought that I get to see cars on the track for the first time in three months, I can't help but ask: How can this season possibly beat the last?
2014 was quite easily Sprint Cup's best showcase in the last 10-15 years. It introduced the new Chase format, which allowed for 16 drivers to qualify for NASCAR's version of a playoff. By the time the finale at Homestead rolled around, the contenders were whittled down to four: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, and Denny Hamlin. It was a winner-take-all situation, with Harvick winning his first Sprint Cup championship in his inaugural run with Stewart-Haas Racing.
The new Chase format proved to be an incredible improvement over the stale process that hadn't made many major adjustments since it was originally implemented in 2004. By implementing a "win and you're in" stipulation into the sport's top flight series, NASCAR's brass made for an entire calendar year of exciting races, even at some of the more boring venues (see: Kansas, Chicagoland, just about every 1.5-mile track).
And now, we turn to a brand new year, where not a whole lot has changed from the previous season. There are some rule and car package amendments to take note of, most importantly because of the horsepower cut that aims to level the playing field between the upper-crust teams and the lower-budgeted ones.
There are also a few driver and crew changes that are worth a look:
- The biggest seat change during NASCAR's silly season was without a doubt the departure of Carl Edwards from Roush Fenway Racing (the team that he had been with his entire career), to Joe Gibbs Racing, which now boasts a very healthy roster including perennial Cup contenders Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch.
- The void left by Edwards is being filled by 2011 Daytona 500 winner, and possible future Spiderman alias, Trevor Bayne. Bayne will take the wheel of the now resurrected #6 team, of which Jack Roush made his name, with the help of Mark Martin in the 90s-00s. RFR now consists of veteran Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Bayne (who drove part-time for Wood Brothers Racing since 2010).
- Some smaller moves include a crew chief swap between Kurt Busch's and Danica Patrick's teams at Stewart-Haas Racing; a third car is being added to the stable at Front Row Motorsports (which now includes David Ragan, David Gilliland, and Cole Whitt); and Sam Hornish Jr. gets another shot at the Cup level with Richard Petty Motorsports, as he takes the wheel of the #9 being vacated by Marcos Ambrose.
- Oh yeah, and Jeff Gordon is retiring from full-time Cup driving at season's end. He will hand the reins of his legendary #24 over to Rick Hendrick's next golden child (and second generation driver), Chase Elliott, in 2016.
But enough of the formalities, lets dive right into who will be the teams to beat, and who will ultimately win the 2015 Sprint Cup Championship in November. I'll break the contenders down into three groups, based on how realistic their shots at glory may be.
If I'm being 100% honest with you, I see about 19 drivers with a legitimate shot at making the Chase, but about two-thirds of those guys don't have that closing ability that it takes to make waves once we get deep into October.
- I'll start with AJ Allmendinger, who has become a very popular driver, both inside the garage and out in the stands. He's an expert road-racer, who finally made it into Victory Lane after winning a fantastic event at the Watkins Glen road course (both left AND right turns... crazy, right?) last August. He drives for a single car team (basically a unicorn nowadays), JTG Daugherty, and has made significant strides in improving his stock-car skills since his 2012 suspension for using Adderall.
- Martin Truex Jr. saw a down year in 2014, his first with Furniture Row Racing (a black sheep, who remains based in Colorado, despite the sport's hub being in North Carolina), but I can see him rebounding because of his great ability on the circuit's short and 1-mile tracks.
- Aric Almirola always seems to be around. He consistently hovers near the top-15 every week, and makes some decent horsepower on the larger tracks, including Daytona, where he got his first career Cup win last July.
- Clint Bowyer did something really stupid in 2013, and it cost his teammate (at the time it was Martin Truex Jr.) a Chase berth, that karma seemed to carry over into 2014 and the team never seemed to catch a break anywhere. He ultimately missed the Chase. Bowyer is exceptionally talented, and with the arrival of his first child, I think this guy will be on a mission in 2015.
- Kurt Busch has been in the news quite a bit this offseason. I don't see this helping him, or his lack of determination. The '04 champ finally got another win under his belt at Martinsville last spring, but I don't see him being a serious Cup contender anytime soon.
- Greg Biffle is the last glimmer of hope for a title at Roush Fenway. He's now got two kids under his wing (Bayne and Stenhouse), but after last season's struggle for RFR to make much speed at any venue, I'm not sure Biff has the right machine under him for a deep run in '15.
- Ryan Newman surprised damn near everyone last season by finishing runner-up to Kevin Harvick in the Chase, mainly because he didn't win a single race and only finished in the top-5 five times. I can see him repeating last year's performance, but only if he finds his way to the top a couple times over the course of the year.
- Kasey Kahne is an oddity, at least to me. He's the fourth car at Rick Hendrick's powerhouse, which basically deems him the red-headed stepchild of the bunch, but he more than any other RHM guy goes unnoticed every weekend, though he posts good finishes pretty easily due to being savvy at most of the series' intermediate tracks.
- Carl Edwards has a new ride and a new chance to become a force in the Cup series, but unlike Harvick and his successful change of scenery, I don't see Carl being a factor come Homestead.
- Denny Hamlin, my personal favorite, also surprised quite a few people last year en route to a third place finish in the Chase. He outperformed his JGR teammates despite missing a race in March due to a sinus infection, and only winning once. I love the guy, but he can be terribly inconsistent from week-to-week, and I think that holds him back.
- Tony Stewart didn't really have a great 2014 for a multitude of reasons, but I don't want to delve into that issue again. I know a formal announcement hasn't been made yet, like Jeff Gordon's, but I have this gut feeling that Smoke may hang it up after the season ends. He's become a very competent team owner with the help of Gene Haas, and because of his co-owner's foray into Formula 1, I think he may need to become a more full-time shirt and tie, and less a full-time firesuit. Because of this, I think Tony goes bananas in 2015, but falls a bit short of his fourth Cup title.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is everything that I still love about NASCAR. He's still just like his dad because he never fails to speak his mind, but he doesn't quite live up to the surname because of his lack of Cups in his trophy case. Losing Steve Letarte as his crew chief also hurts his case for a championship. Having two other teammates with 10 Cups between them also doesn't help.
- Yes, Jeff Gordon is technically riding into the sunset and has nothing left to prove, but if 2014 was any indication, he's got a lot left in the tank. He's a real threat to take down his fifth championship in 2015 purely because he can win anywhere.
- Team Penske was damn close to winning just about every pole position and every race last season. I'm not joking. They were fast Every. Single. Week. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are young, insanely gifted behind the wheel, and just the right amount of smug to know how good they really are. While I can't personally stand either of them (and it seems no one outside of each other can either), they'll both be challenging for titles for easily the next decade.
- Jimmie Johnson is the best driver of the last 15 years. Six titles, including five in a row from 2006-10, and 70 wins since he began driving at the NSCS level, make him the most prolific wheelman of the 21st Century. He's always around in the final 10 laps, and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, is arguably the best setup man in the garage every weekend. His 11th place Chase finish in 2014 was the product of some terrible luck and untimely mechanical failures. Don't expect a repeat of that this year, or something went horribly wrong.
- Kyle Busch is the best driver of the last 15 years. Wait... I said that already. Okay, Kyle Busch can drive anything better than anyone in any series that NASCAR promotes. He can take something with four wheels and sub-optimal power and make it a top-5 car, as long as (and this is a major stipulation) he stays out of trouble. I will always believe him to be a contender until he retires, gets banned from NASCAR events altogether, or drives to the Moon.
- Matt Kenseth somehow didn't win one race last season. Not one. He came so close in 2013 to winning his second championship, but fell short to Jimmie Johnson, and then came back the next year and really failed to make anything click. Despite all that, he managed to finish seventh in the Chase.
- In 2014 Kevin Harvick, like both Team Penske cars, was fast everywhere. He had some bad luck early in the campaign after winning at Phoenix in February, and then failing to finish in four of the next five races. Then he won at Darlington after starting from the pole (which might just be the most difficult thing in the sport to do). After a few bumps in the road during the summer, Harvick went nuts from mid-July up until he won his first Cup at Homestead. He finished outside the top-20 once in the final 17 races of the season. As the defending champ, he is Public Enemy No. 1, and will be hard to beat again this year.
Harvick, Johnson, Gordon, and Keselowski
Jimmie Johnson. I think Ol' Six-Time becomes Ol' Seven-Time and ties Richard Petty and Dale Sr. for most Cup championships when 2015 is all said and done.