Best driver: Kyle Busch
Busch suffered devastating injuries (broken right leg, fractured left foot) in the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona. While many believed it would take a year or more for him to fully heal, the younger Busch brother became a man on a mission. Just three months and 11 missed races after the worst wreck of his career, he returned to racing, quickly winning four races and qualifying for the Chase. The best medicine of all: winning the biggest race of his life in the season finale, capturing the Sprint Cup championship.
Best Moment: Jeff Gordon’s win at Martinsville
When Gordon crossed the finish line at Martinsville in late October, he displayed an emotional side that we hadn’t seen from him since he won his fourth Sprint Cup championship back in 2001. Not even his fifth Brickyard 500 in 2014 was as vocal or animated as his final Martinsville win. The way he jumped up and down, excitedly screaming “We’re going to Homestead!”, was from the deepest recesses of his soul. He struck a chord so much that even non-Gordon fans made him the overwhelming sentimental favorite going into Homestead.
Best Newcomer: Ryan Blaney
Granted, Brett Moffitt earned Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2015. But it was Ryan Blaney’s impressive performance in the fabled No. 21 Ford (just 16 starts, including one top-5 and two top-10s) – and in half as many starts as Moffitt – that prompted the Wood Brothers to commit to their first full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series in a decade (2006 with Ken Schrader behind the wheel). Blaney will not be eligible for Rookie of the Year in 2016, but he’s shown he’s ready for the full-time promotion.
Best Win: Joey Logano, Daytona 500
This was perhaps the hardest call to make, coming down to Jeff Gordon’s Martinsville win and Logano’s win at Daytona. But since Gordon already was our pick for “Best Moment,” we went with Logano for his season-opening victory at Daytona. It was a defining moment for the Connecticut native, and also kicked off his most successful season in Sprint Cup racing to date, with a series-high six wins. Logano also swept all three races in the second round of the Chase, but fell short of making a return visit to the championship round.
Best Crew Chief: Adam Stevens
If there was a Rookie of the Year award for first-year Sprint Cup crew chiefs, Adam Stevens would have won hands down. But this was not a case of beginner’s luck. Stevens was an exceptional crew chief in the Xfinity Series and rightfully earned his promotion to Sprint Cup in 2015. He spent the season making gutsy calls, as well as having to work with several other drivers during Busch’s injury recovery. Yet the No. 18 Toyota performed seamlessly, and it was due to Stevens’ expert strategy and leadership atop the pit box.
Unsung Hero: Cole Pearn
While Martin Truex Jr. got all the attention, it was crew chief Cole Pearn who was the real foundation of the team. In his first season as a Sprint Cup crew chief, as well as the first Canadian crew chief in Cup history, Pearn never wavered, panicked or stressed. His calm demeanor kept the team focused, even when there were setbacks, and made them believe they could achieve the impossible. This was truly NASCAR’s version of the Little Engine That Could – and it almost pulled off the impossible in the season finale.