By Jerry Bonkowski
Just when it seemed NASCAR couldn’t top how the 2014 season played out, 2015 did just that. From Kyle Busch’s horrific season-opening wreck to his near-miraculous season-ending championship, and from Jeff Gordon’s retirement to Kevin Harvick’s uncanny consistency, it was a year of great memories.
Get ready for even more in 2016.
- Can Kyle Busch Repeat?: Despite missing the first 11 races due to a broken right leg and fractured left foot, the younger Busch brother rallied to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in 2015. With a full season ahead of him this year, can Busch be even more dominating and repeat his title? On paper, at least in the first part of the season, Busch is definitely the man to beat.
- Saying Goodbye to “Smoke:” Last season, Jeff Gordon retired. Tony Stewart is next in line to hang up his helmet with 2016 being his final season as a driver in the Sprint Cup Series. Stewart hasn’t won a race since 2013 and has missed the Chase the last three seasons. Still, his loyal fans would like nothing better than to see him go out on top with a fourth championship.
- A Shiny New Package: NASCAR goes full time with its celebrated low-downforce rules package this year. After two successful tests in races last season, drivers are eagerly anticipating how the LDP will put more race car control in their hands. Some may need a while to get used to it, but if it makes the racing better as promised, it’ll be as much a winner as the driver who earns the championship.
- Is It Finally Junior’s Time?: As he begins his 17th season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still in search of his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Is this the year he breaks through and rewards his ever-so-patient fans? Look for the relationship with crew chief Greg Ives to get even stronger in their second year together. Junior is in the best place in his life both personally and professionally. All that’s missing is that elusive title.
- It Won’t Be the Same: For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, Jeff Gordon will not be behind the wheel of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Now retired from driving, Gordon has traded in his steering wheel for a NASCAR On FOX microphone. It’ll likely take some getting used to the change, but let’s not forget all the great memories, wins and championships he left us with.
- The Chase Elliott Era Begins: As Jeff Gordon departs, Chase Elliott enters and begins his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. Driving Gordon’s iconic No. 24, Elliott is among four drivers in contention for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors this season. But don’t put undue pressure or overly high expectations on him just yet. It took his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, eight years before he won his first Sprint Cup Series race.
- Will the Train Keep Rolling?: Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing were NASCAR’s version of the Little Engine That Could in 2015. In reaching the championship round, Furniture Row Racing advanced the furthest of any single-car team in the 12-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Switching from Chevrolet to Toyota and an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing will be an extra bonus as Truex Jr. and his team attempt to win it all.
- Will Danica Continue to Improve?: Danica Patrick enters her fourth full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. She’s coming off her best finish yet, 24th in 2015. While longtime sponsor GoDaddy.com has departed, Patrick could very well have a breakout season. We predict she’ll potentially finish in the top 20, and with a bit of luck, might even earn her first NASCAR victory.
- Bowyer’s Layover: Clint Bowyer will be like a traveler with an airport layover. He flew out of Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of 2015, will spend 2016 with HScott Motorsports, and then land to replace Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2017. How will Bowyer fare in his one-off season at HScott Motorsports? With support from SHR and Hendrick Motorsports, he’s seeking his first win since 2012.
- A Turnaround for RCR?: Richard Childress Racing hasn’t won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship since Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and last title in 1994. That’s a 22-year championship drought. Look for Ryan Newman to finally win his first race since 2013; Paul Menard to make the Chase for a second straight year; Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon to have a breakout year; and grandson Ty Dillon to contend for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship.
- Will Roush Fenway’s Struggles Continue?: It’s been a rough few years for Roush Fenway Racing, but none more difficult and trying than 2015. The team not only failed to win a Sprint Cup Series race, but none of its three drivers made the Chase. One consolation was Chris Buescher claimed the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship. Offseason changes in several departments offer promise of a better Cup Series season.
- Will JGR Continue to Dominate?: With 14 wins and the Sprint Cup Series championship, Joe Gibbs Racing was the most dominant team in 2015. That’s after just two total wins in 2014. While team officials have shaken up the crew chief lineup, look for JGR to be just as strong as it was a year ago. Don’t be surprised if two, maybe even three JGR drivers reach the championship round.
- Who Is the Next Driver to Retire?: Jeff Gordon retired at the end of 2015. Tony Stewart will retire at the end of 2016. Who’s the next driver to hang up his/her helmet? Odds are it’ll be Greg Biffle (46 years old), most likely after his current contract expires at the end of 2017, followed potentially by Matt Kenseth (44). We are definitely seeing a changing of the guard in NASCAR.
- It’s Kyle Larson’s Turn: His fans have patiently waited two seasons for Kyle Larson to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. With his immense talent, Larson is long overdue and we predict he finally breaks through with that first win this season. In fact, don’t be surprised if the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet wins two, maybe even three races in 2016.
- Kenseth vs. Logano, Round 2: Race car drivers never forget if they feel an opponent has wronged them. The Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano rivalry was one of the sport’s biggest stories last year. Sure, Kenseth was suspended for two races for pile-driving Logano into the wall at Martinsville, and both drivers have been talked to by NASCAR officials. But boys will be boys: Look for this rivalry to flare up at least a few times this season.
- Will Johnson Earn No. 7?: Jimmie Johnson makes his third straight bid for a seventh championship in 2016. If he wins it, he’ll tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup Series crowns by a driver. Johnson was uncharacteristically eliminated after the first round of the 2015 Chase. Look for him and crew chief Chad Knaus to figure out how to beat the new Chase format and reign supreme again in November.
- Can Harvick Maintain His Consistency?: Kevin Harvick was like a machine in 2015, with three wins and 23 top-five finishes, including an uncanny 13 runner-up showings and four third-place results. He did everything he could to repeat his 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship, but came up short in both the final race at Homestead and the overall title race to Kyle Busch. Look for the Harvick-Busch rivalry to be a big story throughout the year.
- Can Logano Be better?: Even though he fell short of making the final round of the Chase, Joey Logano unquestionably had a spectacular season in 2015. Starting with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and adding five more visits to Victory Lane, Logano had the breakout season many had long expected. But there’s bad news – for other drivers that is: Look for Logano to be even better this season, and maybe cap things off with the championship.
- Kurt Busch’s Comeback: It was a 180-degree year for Kurt Busch in 2015. He was suspended for the first three races for domestic violence accusations, only to see the 2004 Sprint Cup Series champ kick things into high gear and enjoy his best season since 2009. He finished eighth in the standings with two wins, 10 top-five finishes and 21 top-10 results. Look for Busch to be a big surprise in 2016.
- Two-for-Two for Jones?: Erik Jones won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship and Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 2015, earning him a promotion to the NASCAR XFINITY Series for Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones could be one of the most talented young drivers NASCAR has seen since Jeff Gordon. Even though he’ll be in a new series, we won’t be surprised if he makes it two championships in a row.