Can Jeff Gordon end his career on top? Will Kevin Harvick repeat? How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. adjust to a new crew chief? What about Danica Patrick and her quest to become the first woman to win a major NASCAR race? And can Tony Stewart put the past two turbulent years behind him?
All of these questions and more are answered in detail as SB Nation previews the 2015 Sprint Cup season.
If there is a lesson to be learned from last year it's that the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format is unpredictable and unforgiving.
One bad race can literally cause a driver to be eliminated, as was the case with Kyle Busch, who was second in points heading into the third elimination race. He then wrecked and was knocked out of the playoffs. And as Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon showed, regular season dominance means little, with neither advancing to the final round. Ryan Newman, on the other hand, went winless and nearly won the championship.
That means highlighting one driver as the preemptive favorite is no easy task. Legitimate cases could be made for a dozen different drivers in 2015, and that's not even taking into account those capable of replicating Newman's surprise title charge of a year ago.
When in doubt, however, there is no safer fallback than six-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Though he won four times in 2014, by his own standards Johnson suffered a down season as he struggled to adjust to a new rules package. But after getting unexpectedly bounced from Round 2 of the Chase, the No. 48 team focused its attention on using the remaining races to prepare for this season.
Expect that jumpstart to pay dividends with Johnson again factoring heavily in the championship outcome. Also working in his favor is the unfamiliar position he finds himself in -- thanks to Gordon's pending retirement and Earnhardt getting a new crew chief, Johnson is flying under the radar. Without the usual demands on his time, Johnson can devote more attention to winning a record-tying seventh title.
Absolutely, provided Gordon can replicate his 2014 performance where he won four races and collected more points than anyone -- minus, of course, the heartbreaking Chase elimination.
Between a ghastly injury and being involved in the death of another driver, it's been two years since Stewart completed a full Cup schedule. Last season saw him fail to win a race for the first time in his career and more often than not, he did not look like himself on the track. Stewart was not just hindered by his leg, either. He also dealt with a car not suited to his driving style and a lack of chemistry with a new crew chief.
Stewart underwent a fourth surgery described as "routine" in December and will have to go under the knife again after the season to remove the rod in his right leg.
Despite the setbacks, Stewart should still be better in 2015 thanks to improved health and more familiarity with both his team and the car. And even as he struggled last season, there were still moments where Stewart looked like a three-time Cup champion, including a near-victory at Auto Club Speedway.
Let's be honest, is anything going to top an offseason featuring Gordon's retirement announcement and Kurt Busch's allegations of dating a black-ops assassin? Likely not. But considering Stewart has been involved in major events during the first week of August the past two years, anything is possible.
Of the two, Gordon's decision to retire at the end of the year will have an impact throughout the season. Every week as he visits another track, there will be stories about Gordon moments from the past. If he ends up being in title contention, his quest to win a fifth championship in his final season will garner major attention. It may have already transpired, but it is the story of 2015.
Other storylines to be mindful of include:
-Carl Edwards' transition to Joe Gibbs Racing after 10 years at Roush Fenway Racing
-Danica Patrick and her continued efforts to be consistently competitive
-Tony Stewart trying to overcome a disastrous two years on and off the track
-The relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and new crew chief Greg Ives
-Brad Keselowski's take-no-prisoners attitude
-Jimmie Johnson's quest for a seventh championship
-Chase Elliott's debut
-Whether Kyle Larson can transform into NASCAR's next great superstar
Not often is the defending Sprint Cup champion overshadowed, yet the talk this season is not about whether Kevin Harvick can defend his title. In fact, Harvick isn't even the biggest newsmaker on his own team, with Kurt Busch, Stewart and Patrick all garnering more attention thus far.
In case you need a reminder, it was Harvick who won five races and led a series-best 2,137 laps last season. And he accomplished all that in his first year with a brand-new team.
Assuming he is not charged for assaulting his ex-girlfriend and subsequently suspended by NASCAR, Kurt Busch is the obvious answer. In his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing, Busch may have won a race, but he also woefully underachieved. He never found the needed consistency and was eliminated in the Chase's first round.
But after working with an inexperienced crew chief not prepared to deal with Busch's capricious behavior, he'll be paired with veteran Tony Gibson, formerly with Patrick. Gibson is no stranger to working with high-strung personalities and he's exactly the kind of crew chief -- old school and less engineering-minded -- that Busch has had great success with previously.
A year removed from winning four races, including the Daytona 500, what's NASCAR's most popular driver going to do an for an encore? That's the dilemma facing Earnhardt, who prior to 2014 had won four times in the previous nine years combined.
Further complicating matters is the loss of Steve Letarte, now an NBC Sports analyst, who resurrected Earnhardt's career when he took over as crew chief in 2011.
A very good driver with an outstanding team, Earnhardt will reach Victory Lane at least once. Expecting a performance similar to last year, however, seems a tad unrealistic.
Judging by recent comments where Keselowski seemingly embraced the role of NASCAR's No. 1 villain, the answer is no. And if that happens, it won't bother Keselowski or car owner Roger Penske, who encourages his drivers to aggressively pursue wins.
What you saw in 2014 from Patrick is what you should expect out of her in 2015. There were times when she looked quite competitive, with strong efforts in the spring Kansas Speedway race and at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And quite frequently there were races when the No. 10 car ran towards the back, with its driver uncertain on how to improve.
There are signs, though, that Patrick is slowly figuring out the nuances of NASCAR. Her average starting position improved by nearly eight positions from her rookie year. And she has adapted to restrictor-plate racing, regularly running towards the front at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway. A win at either track would not be at all surprising.
Although NASCAR stressed the importance of winning to qualify for the Chase, only 13 spots of 16 went to drivers who won during the 2014 regular season. That opened the way for Newman, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle to get in via their points ranking.
So in the second year of the new Chase with all involved having better learned the ins and outs of the system, does that mean drivers and crew chiefs will be more or less conservative pursuing victories? The thinking here leans toward latter. Because while consistency still matters to some degree, winning trumps all as that is the only direct methodology to securing a Chase berth.
When the regular season concludes the following 15 drivers will have won a race to earn a Chase bid: Johnson (five victories); Harvick (four); Keselowski (four); Kyle Busch (three); Edwards (three); Kenseth (three); Joey Logano (three); Kurt Busch (two); Gordon (two); Kyle Larson (two); Clint Bowyer (one); Earnhardt (one); Denny Hamlin (one); Kasey Kahne (one); and Stewart (one). The final slot goes to Newman, who again goes winless but scores enough points to get in.
The void will never be completely filled. The occupant of the now-vacated seat will never quite measure up to the legend he replaced.
NASCAR, however, will carry on and in all likelihood thrive despite the loss. That's just how it goes. It was that way when Richard Petty retired and after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. A group of young, talented drivers will step into the void to become household names and, in some cases, legends.
And that will happen this time. As Jeff Gordon, 43, embarks on his 23rd and final season in NASCAR's premier division, a burgeoning crop of drivers await their opportunity. The sport is flush with those ready to leave their mark similarly to how Gordon left his when Petty retired.
Nowhere is NASCAR's current youth movement more apparent than within the same organization which Gordon departs. Hendrick Motorsports announced that 19-year-old Chase Elliott will drive Gordon's iconic No. 24 car beginning in 2016.
That Elliott was selected to replace Gordon seems appropriate. Like Gordon, Elliott -- the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott -- is highly touted, viewed as a can't-miss prospect and future Sprint Cup champion. Last season he not only became the first rookie to win a NASCAR national touring series championship, but also the youngest when he drove away with the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series title.
"Chase brings the kind of intangibles that make him the total package as a driver," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "Not only is he a special talent inside the race car, but there's a natural combination of competitiveness, work ethic and smarts that you rarely see."
Further perpetuating NASCAR's circle of life is the fact that Gordon's 1992 Cup debut came in a race Bill Elliott won, which also marked Petty's final start. As one great career draws to a close, another begins.
"I cannot think of a better driver out there to get behind the wheel of that 24 car and make all those 24 fans proud of who's taking over the reins," Gordon said. "I think it's pretty obvious that he knows I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing him in (the 24 car).
"He's so talented. He's the total package."
Elliott isn't the lone blue-chip prospect brimming throughout the ranks. Among those viewed as future stars are Ryan Blaney, brothers Austin and Ty Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Erik Jones.
But the young driver held in the highest regard is 22-year-old Kyle Larson. His ability has drawn comparisons to Gordon and Tony Stewart, each of whom has lauded the defending Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year.
Following a spirited back-and-forth battle during the September race at Chicagoland Speedway, Gordon rushed over to Larson's car on pit road to offer some words of encouragement. Later in the post-race press conference, Gordon emphatically offered Larson praise.
"I think this kid is the real deal," he said. "He's going to be a star in this series for a long time."
An unabashed Gordon fan growing up, Larson followed his idol's career path. From go-karts to dirt sprint cars, he eventually transitioned to NASCAR. His move to Cup last year was met with some skepticism, as it appeared that Chip Ganassi Racing was rushing him before he was ready.
That notion was quickly dispelled when Larson posted three second-place finishes and several near-wins. It was the kind of performance validated the consensus that he is likely a future champion several times over.
"I want to thank all the people that told us we were bringing him along too fast last year," Ganassi said.
Even as one of its legendary figures prepares to say goodbye and head into retirement, NASCAR's future is bright thanks to the rapid rise of its young drivers. Just as Petty handed the torch off to Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Rusty Wallace, Gordon is set to do the same to Chase Elliott, Larson and others.
"Every 10, 12 years you get turnover and you'll see a four or five of these guys decide we're not going to driver anymore," Petty said. "And then you got Chase Elliott, Larson and those boys coming up -- they're going to take up the gap, and as they do it will just take the sport forward."
At first glance, it almost looks like the newest thing for in-home video gaming. And in some aspects it is, considering the massive simulator is designed to replicate almost perfectly what it feels like to drive a stock car.
But the simulator's purpose goes beyond offering a driver an opportunity to hone his skills -- though it is that, too. Based inside Ford's vast 33,000-square-foot Technical Support Center in Concord, N.C., the simulator is the latest in NASCAR technology and is dramatically altering how teams function.
With NASCAR enacting a testing ban this offseason and limited testing during the season, the simulator allows engineers to test chassis setups for nearly every NASCAR track be it a superspeedway, an intermediate oval, a short track or a road course.
And unlike on-track testing, which usually takes place in conditions often quite different than what teams face on a race weekend, programmers can fine-tune the simulator's weather and track conditions to the exact detail of what drivers and crews will face. Gone are the days when a team would spend money to test at a particular track in the summer for a race that wasn't taking place until the fall.
The majority of NASCAR teams already use simulators, but those have a computer acting as the driver. Ford's simulator, however, was designed specifically so that a driver, not an engineer, would be operating the controls and choosing his preferred line around the track. When a driver turns the wheel, the full motion simulator, built on a rotating platform, goes up-and-down and side-to-side. A large wraparound projector screen completes the realism.
For a driver, nothing will replace being on the track physically, but the simulator comes close and has already proved advantageous.
An Xfinity (formerly Nationwide) Series rookie last year, Chris Buescher had never competed at the Mid-Ohio road course. To better prepare, he spent extensive time in the simulator getting acclimated to the 13-turn track. That familiarity helped Buescher reach Victory Lane, his only win of the season.
"The biggest help for me is just more seat time," Buescher said. "It's a very useful tool, and it's not complete yet, either."
Said Trevor Bayne, Buescher's teammate: "What I was impressed by was the fact that it actually felt like a race car. A lot of times you get in a simulator and it's all visual, but you have no feel or grip (like in an actual car). They've done a great job of making that realistic."
In addition to the simulator, the center also houses research and development equipment and a theater. Ford personnel will gather here on a race weekend to watch practice, qualifying and races with live timing and scoring, as well as having other data available to them instantaneously.
While purposely built in the Charlotte area to be close to Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske, Ford's two flagship NASCAR organizations, the Technical Support Center was constructed to help Ford's racing programs across all motorsport platforms as well its consumer line of vehicles.
Ford executives declined to state the cost of the complex. The emphasis is clear that Ford believes the NASCAR adage of "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" is the best way to market its brand.
"It is part of our overall strategy at Ford to ramp up our investment in performance and racing to take advantage of a growing market worldwide for performance vehicles," said Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer. "Most importantly, the full-motion simulator was installed with the thought that it will help us develop not just better race cars, but better Ford performance vehicles for our customers across the world."
Ultimately, the season may have ended with an early exit from the Chase for the Sprint Cup in large part due to a blown engine while Aric Almirola was running sixth at Chicago. No matter, because just by earning a playoff berth Almirola and the entire Richard Petty Motorsports operation achieved a great deal.
That Almirola got into the Chase came via a career-first victory in the summer race at Daytona International Speedway. A win also made special because it was the first for the popular No. 43 car since 1999 and came on the same track – nearly 30 years to the day – where the team’s namesake, Richard Petty, had won his 200th and final race.
With his playoff ticket punched, Almirola hoped to play the role of Cinderella and propel his underdog and underfunded RPM team to heights not achieved in eons. And as he ran sixth in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, that wish seemed to be a possibility until a motor failure sent his car limping to the garage.
Although he would bounce back with a sixth-place effort the next week, the points hit was too great – Almirola would be dropped from the Chase in the first round of eliminations.
“It was a good year for us,” Almirola said. “We won a race, made the Chase and we did all the things we set out to do. But, we also have a lot of room to get better.”
While still considered a midsize team, RPM is on much more stable ground financially than in years past. Sponsor Smithfield Foods has a contract through 2016 while Almirola inked an extension last year. That gives RPM a nice base which to build from, and the next step in the growth process is establishing some consistency.
Almirola finished in the top-10 all of seven times in 2014 and only once consecutively. And as indicated by leading just 23 laps, the No. 43 car is in need of more speed. Both problems wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Roush Fenway Racing, whom RPM gets its motors and cars from, improves its program after a substandard season and delivers more oomph to their horsepower.
As for in-house gains, Almirola needs to do a better job of staying on the track; six times he crashed out of races, a number that must be reduced.
“We would be a dangerous race team if we could figure out how to get the speed out of our cars week in and week out,” Almirola said. “We do it some weeks and then other weeks we aren’t able to do it, so I’m sure this offseason all the guys will go to work and figure out how to make our cars better and we’ll hopefully have more consistent speed throughout next year.
“Hopefully we’ll go win another race and get this car back in the Chase. Now that we have a little experience with it we’ll be able to make the most of it.”
Considering its history the question of whether last year was a fluke is more than fair. After all, while its Daytona victory was nice, it did come on a restrictor-plate track where luck and happenstance is just as paramount to winning as sheer speed and execution.
Whether it’s on a plate track or somewhere else, if Almirola can grab a win and earn a Chase berth for a second consecutive year, that would be an impressive feat.
A lack of speed results in Almirola continuing to overdrive and without a victory, he is an outsider when the Chase field is set.
A driver looking for redemption and underdog team united to become quite a story in 2014. Back in the Sprint Cup Series full-time after a failed drug test two years before, AJ Allmendinger and JTG Daugherty Racing enjoyed a successful first season together.
The highlight was undoubtedly Allmendinger’s ardent last lap fight with Marcos Ambrose to win victory at Watkins Glen, both his and the organization’s first. That win put him in the Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, and though he didn’t move out of the first round, the significance wasn’t lost with JTG Daugherty becoming just the second team to qualify.
“To get that victory was enormous,” Allmendinger said. “It gave our race team and myself so much confidence to be able to do that together and have our first Sprint Cup victory. But at the same point, we weren’t as consistent as we wanted to be.”
Allmendinger is a talent, especially on the Watkins Glen and Sonoma road courses, and him snagging a win at either track is realistic. But if that victory doesn’t transpire, the path back to the playoffs is going to be tough for a team not awash in resources nor has the consistency – Allmendinger had 11 finishes of 25th or worse last season – to challenge for wins regularly on ovals.
Which means much like last year, JTG Daugherty’s focus will again primarily be on road courses. That is where the team can compete on a much more level field playing field, and, most importantly, where Allmendinger excels.
“He’s a road-course ringer,” said crew chief Brian Burns of Allmendinger. “This year is our turn to make sure that we’re consistent at all the tracks we go to. Our biggest focus is being consistent. We know that being part of a championship team, everywhere that you unload, you want to have the expectations that you can win.”
Emphasizing Watkins Glen and Sonoma is a sound strategy, but it comes with risks. If a victory doesn’t occur, is the No. 47 team strong enough to win on a speedway? His 2014 results indicate not. He led a mere four laps on ovals and an endured an 11-race stretch, where he finished no better than 18th.
The consistency never comes, but it doesn’t matter as Allmendinger goes back-to-back at Watkins Glen to punch his Chase ticket.
For any number of reasons Allmendinger fails to win at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen, and NASCAR’s Cinderella team doesn’t make a repeat playoff appearance.
Systematically moving up the NASCAR ladder, Austin Dillon won the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title and two years later the Nationwide Series championship. That progression brought him to the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 where he was tabbed by Richard Childress Racing to replace Kevin Harvick. Behind the wheel of the No. 29 (renumbered to No. 3) car, Dillon was seen as the popular pick to win Rookie of the Year.
As expected, Dillon turned in a fine freshman season placing in the top-five once, the top-10 three times and finishing 20th in the standings. But while respectable, it wasn’t good enough to take the top rookie honors and paled in comparison to what Kyle Larson accomplished in his first year, which included three runner-ups. Whereas Dillon failed to challenge for any victories and was regularly outpaced by his counterpart.
Steady improvement and a higher level of consistency are Dillon’s goals for 2015, both of which are obtainable. The 24-year-old grandson of team owner Richard Childress is a steady driver who isn’t flashy and has a knack for avoiding trouble and logging laps (only Jeff Gordon completed more laps last season). These traits indicate Dillon will continue to develop and as he gets more experience will find himself in the top 10 with more regularity, which would well to fulfilling his playoff aspirations.
“We need to be in the Chase,” Dillon said. “We need to be a part of the chaos at the end of the year.
“I know it takes more than what I gave it last year. The good thing is we had a decent year last year. When you know what those things are, you should be able to take those and make them better.”
Because Dillon has proven to be a good restrictor-plate racer – he finished no worse than 15th in the four events in 2014 – a win isn’t out of the question either. An effort aided by the emphasis RCR places on performing well at Daytona and Talladega.
Was what held the No. 3 team back last season a lack of speed or a rookie driver? Even if Dillon improves as expected, if RCR doesn’t give him better cars there is a clear ceiling on how much he can be expected to do.
Solid gains throughout the season lead to Dillon contending for, but narrowly missing out on, a Chase spot. And in a best-case scenario, the sophomore is able to get a surprise win at either Daytona or Talladega to sneak into the playoffs.
With RCR making no gains over the offseason, Dillon struggles just to duplicate his results of last year and closes with him winless and ranked lower in points.
Coming off a year where he failed to earn a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski rebounded nicely in 2014, as no driver won more races (six) or finished in the top-five (17) with greater frequency. The dominance was such it seemed a foregone conclusion at times that a second championship was a given.
A second title in three years never materialized, however, even as Keselowski surged in the playoffs, winning twice and finishing seventh or better five other times.
What undid his championship bid were a pair of subpar results in the Chase’s third round, first at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then two weeks later at Martinsville Speedway. The latter of the two was especially heartbreaking as a mechanical failure sent Keselowski to the garage prematurely and created a must-win scenario in the next event. And when he couldn’t win in the second-to-last race of the season, Keselowski was bounced from the Chase sooner than expected.
“I’m obviously a little disappointed,” said Keselowski of being eliminated. “I’m not disappointed with the effort, just disappointed it didn’t work out. We just couldn’t overcome the Martinsville hurdle … we needed a win to overcome the week we had at Martinsville where we broke the gear. We just weren’t quite fast enough to pull that off the last two weeks and that’s what it was going to take.”
Despite how the disappointing conclusion, Keselowski reestablished himself last season and along the way produced some indelible memories. Chief among them was the must-win Talladega victory in October to stave off Chase elimination and, of course, being the lynchpin in two post-race altercations involving the normally mild-mannered Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. Both incidents followed Keselowski attempting aggressive moves, neither of which he expressed remorse.
“I made guys mad racing for the win, it wasn’t racing for 20th,” Keselowski said. “You get in a wreck and a fight racing for 20th, that doesn’t make SportsCenter. You get in a wreck and a fight with a previous champion, racing for a championship, going for a win, you’re probably doing the right things. In some ways it’s kind of a compliment. Most people might not see it that way, but I do.”
If you were to draw up a list of championship favorites Keselowski would be at or near the very top. And deservedly so, considering he’s only 30, has one of the best, if not the best, crew chiefs in Paul Wolfe, with Team Penske one of the premier organizations with a wealth of resources at its disposal.
There are concerns regarding Keselowski’s title hopes and they are twofold. Firstly, it’s realistic to think Penske loses some of the advantage it owned on the track with other teams closing the gap over the offseason. And it’s not unfathomable to think the animosity building towards the 2012 Cup champion continues to boil over costing Keselowski potential victories.
“What last year taught me is there’s a new era coming in this sport with this Chase,” Keselowski said. “It’s already arrived. You have to be very aggressive to win championships under this format. There’s no playing defense anymore.”
But even if the above occurs, Keselowski is still going to win his share of races and be a factor in the playoffs. Bottom line: Driver and team are simply too good of a combination not to have a season that mirrors 2014.
There are no glaring weaknesses within the No. 2 team, though Keselowski’s predisposition to rile up the competition could backfire at some point. Even then, as proved by winning Talladega, you don’t necessarily need friends to be successful. This is especially so in the case of Keselowski, who almost thrives off the vitriol directed his way.
For the second time in four years Keselowski is holding the championship trophy at the end of the season. And really, anything less would be construed as a disappointment.
Much like 2013 when he failed to deliver after winning the title, Keselowski suffers a rash of bad luck, becomes distracted by pointless feuds and lets a multitude of wins slip away.
After an out-of-nowhere victory in the summer of 2013, Brian Vickers was rewarded with a full-time ride with Michael Waltrip Racing for the following season, something he hadn’t had in three years.
But Vickers’ return to the Sprint Cup circuit didn’t go quite as planned. Still reeling from record penalties for manipulating a race the year prior, the defection of flagship sponsor NAPA and several key employees, including Vickers’ crew chief, MWR could never sustain any consistency.
A strong start, which saw Vickers place ninth or better five times in 12 races, gave away to a cavalcade of disappointing results. He finished 43rd and 42nd in two of the next three weeks and quickly plummeted down the standings. When the year closed Vickers ranked 22nd with the early season promise long gone.
“An already tough road to earn a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth was made tougher when it was announced Vickers would miss the first two races of the year following December heart surgery and not return to competition March 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think from a health standpoint, my doctors have insisted on giving me enough confidence that I’ll be healthy and ready to go and strong as ever,” Vickers said. “Mentally, how do I feel about it? I’ve gone through this several times now and I feel just fine, but until Las Vegas I won’t know.”
Granted a medical exemption by NASCAR, Vickers can still earn a playoff spot provided he wins a race and finishes 30th or better in points. He should have little issue accumulating enough points, but MWR’s woebegone performance of a year ago gives doubt whether Vickers will have the speed to reach Victory Lane.
“Not a lot of people have gone through what that young man has gone through,” said MWR co-owner Michael Waltrip, who will fill-in for Vickers in the Daytona 500. “His determination and his desire to be a champion in the Sprint Cup series is something that motivates our whole team.”
Though given a clean bill of health, it’s impossible to ignore that Vickers has missed significant time due to medical reasons three times since 2010. For a team attempting to build towards the future and an organization needing some semblance of stability, Vickers needs to be in the 55 car weekly.
With his health issues permanently behind him Vickers returns, and much like he did in 2013, scores a surprise victory.
While Vickers returns rejuvenated and hungry, MWR continues to struggle to life as a two-car team and can’t provide its driver with race-winning equipment.
In a lost season where Roush Fenway Racing greatly underachieved, the lone bright spot was Carl Edwards displaying his prowess and lifting the organization to Victory Lane. The Sonoma win was especially meaningful as it proved to be Edwards’ last with Roush and came amid negations with Joe Gibbs Racing, a move he eventually announced two months later.
The pair of victories assured Edwards a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and though expectations were low considering his forthcoming departure and Roush’s struggles, the No. 99 team performed respectably. Despite a deficiency in speed, Edwards scored three top-10s, including a fifth at Kansas Speedway and made it past two rounds before being eliminated.
“The last few weeks (of the season) were really tough,” Edwards said. “They were tough for a couple of reasons – competitively we didn’t have the speed that we needed so for us to just keep digging down and making something out of those races, that was an amazing performance. My pit crew was basically flawless, (crew chief) Jimmy Fennig made perfect calls, I felt like I did a really good job, and at the end we just weren’t fast enough.”
“After 11 years, 23 victories and twice runner-up in the championship, Edwards has left Roush and signed with JGR where he will drive for a brand-new fourth team. The change will be drastic, as Edwards goes from being the focal point to having equal stature with new teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who also used to drive for Roush before leaving two years ago.
At JGR, Edwards is stepping into an ideal situation, one which should afford him the opportunity to win races and consistently challenge for the championship. Due to a lack of familiarity and chemistry within their new teams, drivers switching organizations wouldn’t be expected to perform well right away and would be granted a period of transition.
However, moderate expectations no longer exist. As since 2012, Clint Bowyer, Kenseth and Kevin Harvick all won three or more races and finished second, second and first, respectively, in points with new team. That same high-level production is expected of Edwards, a championship-caliber driver who will be behind the wheel of top-notch equipment. Multiple victories aren’t just possible, they’re expected.
“I feel like I’ve really got to prove myself,” Edwards said. “I feel a little anxious, a little nervous about it and that’s nice. I haven’t had that feeling for a long time and it’s a motivator. I’d say I’m as focused as I’ve ever been and I am as excited as I’ve ever been. This is a neat opportunity for me.”
Aiding Edwards’ effort to replicate the success of Bowyer, Kenseth and Harvick, JGR smartly aligned him with Darian Grubb, one of the better crew chiefs on pit road. Grubb guided Tony Stewart to the 2011 championship – ironically over Edwards, who lost on a tiebreaker – and won five times in his first season working with Hamlin and the No. 11 team. Edwards and Grubb will be a formidable duo. This will be especially true on intermediate speedways (1.5–2 miles in length) as Edwards excels on long green-flag runs, while Grubb is adroit on improving a car’s performance to peak in the closing laps.
“Darian Grubb is an amazing crew chief, just amazing,” Edwards said. “I feel like I’m in the best form I’ve ever been in as a driver. We should have good opportunities to go perform at a very high level.”"
Edwards isn’t known for being a great teammate. During their time together at Roush, Kenseth and Edwards had an uneasy relationship with Kenseth taking exception to the preferential treatment Edwards received. Both say any animosity is in the past and are looking forward to their reunion, but it’s going to be an adjustment for Edwards not to be the clear-cut No. 1 driver in the JGR stable.
Similar to Kenseth in 2013, Edwards wins a series-best seven races and puts forth a serious championship effort. And considering his ability along with the capabilities of JGR, Edwards winning a first series title isn’t unobtainable.
Not used to being challenged by teammates just as proficient as him, Edwards struggles to adapt on and off the track to his new surroundings. Although he records a win and snares a Chase bid, Edwards’ first season with JGR is viewed as substandard.
Very much under the radar, Casey Mears turned in a fine year for underfunded Germain Racing. Making the most of the parity that exists on restrictor-plate tracks, Mears finished 10th in the Daytona 500, fourth in the July Daytona event and 10th in the fall Talladega race. He also produced solid finishes at Phoenix (14th), Fontana (15th), Sonoma (13th) and Pocono (12th) – all tracks where the single-car team is often at a disadvantage.
An ability to avoid ghastly finishes – he saw the checkered flag in all but one race – and a strong restrictor-plate track program enabled Mears to post more top-10s than the past four years combined. That performance will be hard to replicate due to the volatile and unpredictable nature of racing at Daytona and Talladega. However, having proven capable of being competitive on a variety of tracks, Mears should again have occasional opportunities to be competitive.
Only so much can be expected from a small team on a limited budget, but as other single-car organizations have demonstrated, a Chase for the Sprint Cup bid is possible. Is that a realistic goal for Germain, despite its inability to run up front and never having seriously challenged for a victory?
Mears stays on the track and out of the garage, while continuing to mix in solid finishes on non-plate tracks.
The luck, which played a large part in Mears success on plate tracks in 2014, vanishes and with it so do the positive results. More troublesome is the No. 13 team fails to build off of last season, spiraling even farther down the standings.
A year removed from being at the center of the biggest cheating scandal in NASCAR history, what Clint Bowyer needed was a quiet and rewarding season. Well, he got one of his two wishes and unfortunately it was the former and not latter of the two that the Michael Waltrip Racing driver received.
Severely thwarting Bowyer in 2014 wasn’t just one thing, it was several. Not only was he saddled with a woefully uncompetitive car, and suffered mechanical failures which caused him to finish 42nd or worse three times, but the restructuring MWR was forced to undergo in the wake of last year’s misdeed crippled the organization. Embarrassed by MWR’s actions, NAPA withdrew its multi-million dollar sponsorship, forcing the team to cut loose several key employees and downsize from three full-time teams to just two.
Those personnel losses plus a Toyota engine lacking power and reliability combined to produce a season Bowyer would love to forget. He had just five finishes of fifth or better, led a scant 109 laps, produced the lowest average finish (17.1) since his 2006 rookie year and placed a career-low 19th in points.
“Looking at last year, it was frustrating,” Bowyer said. “It was so frustrating, because we just couldn’t find the answer. It was literally to the point you’d go the race track and it was like, ‘Man, this is all we’ve got’ and it’s not for lack of effort.”
Between the cheating controversy of 2013 and last season’s ineptitude, things can’t get much worse for Bowyer and MWR. The good news is Bowyer is proven to be an above average driver and someone who you can build a successful team around.
But the great unknown is the caliber of equipment Bowyer will have at his disposal this season. MWR lost a lot of brainpower over the past 18 months, including driver Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Rodney Childers, who went to Stewart-Haas Racing and won the championship with Kevin Harvick.
If MWR can regroup and Toyota can provide a much improved motor, Bowyer is a good candidate to bounce back and be one of the surprises. If not, well, 2015 could easily resemble 2014.
“I haven’t won in two years, and this is a big year for me,” Bowyer said. “I need to prove myself and I need to prove our race team. We’ve got to get back to those winning ways and running up front.”
Entering the year everything about MWR is a giant question mark right now. Will its cars stay together? Will its engines have enough horsepower? Is the organization, which not long ago was on a great upswing, immersed in a losing battle vs. irrelevancy?
Making the most out of cars that are actually competitive, Bowyer snaps a two-year losing streak and gets back to Victory Lane. And in doing so, he returns to the Chase for the Sprint Cup after a one-season hiatus.
The mediocrity which consumed Bowyer and MWR doesn’t relent, and in fact the results get much worse.
Even as Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded into one of the more consistent high-level finishers in recent years, the knock remained that NASCAR’s most popular driver simply lacked the moxie or luck to win with any regularity. A notion that carried some semblance of truth when you consider Earnhardt won all of four races from 2005-13 and never more than twice in a season.
But the forces that were conspiring to keep Earnhardt out of Victory Lane were shattered four times over in 2014. The first salvo came with a resounding win in the Daytona 500, followed later by sweeping both Pocono races and a long sought win at historic Martinsville Speedway.
In addition to the winning, Earnhardt also notched 12 top-fives and 20 top-10s, accruing more points during the regular season than anyone but teammate Jeff Gordon and easily compiling his best season in 10 years. By any measure a triumphant year even if a series championship continued to prove allusive, with Earnhardt unexpectedly among the second group of eliminations in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Winning races is what it’s all about,” Earnhardt said. “You want the best feeling of everybody in the garage, you need to get the checkered flag. Everybody puts so much into it, you work so hard – we all do – everybody traveling so damn much, running like crazy. We’ve been working like hell all year on and off the track. It definitely feels good to be able to get some victories.”
The underlying theme of Earnhardt’s 2014 was the impending departure of crew chief Steve Letarte, who announced in January he would be leaving the No. 88 team at the end of the season. Tasked with reviving Earnhardt’s once sagging career when they were paired together in 2011, Letarte did just that and more.
The challenge of the 88 team now falls on the shoulders of Greg Ives, a longtime Hendrick employee who as an engineer, played a pivotal role in Jimmie Johnson winning five consecutive championships. Though lacking experience as a Cup crew chief, Ives guided 18-year-old Chase Elliott to the Xfinity Series title a year ago and is highly regarded within the garage.
“I think it’s going to be great,” said Earnhardt of Ives. “There may be a little time for us to learn how to communicate and get the jargon down to handle how he talks and how I explain the car. But once we get that done, I think the cars will have the speed. I’m excited.
“He is a details guy and that’s been very entertaining for me and you know that’s going to be a positive going into the relationship, that he’s that particular. You want a guy who is a perfectionist.”
A rule change prohibiting offseason testing hinders Earnhardt and Ives from developing rapport, but the new Chase format provides them time early in the season to built chemistry and Earnhardt should again easily qualify for the playoffs.
Just making the Chase, however, is not the goal for Earnhardt – nor should it be. The coming season is about winning a title, or at the very least putting forth a serious attempt, something Earnhardt hasn’t seriously done in over a decade. Letarte helped push Earnhardt back toward the top of the summit, now it will be up to Ives to take him the rest of the way.
With Earnhardt it almost always comes back to winning and 2015 is no exception, even in spite of the events of a year ago. Can he again put a crooked digit in the win column or was last season merely a byproduct of fortuitous luck and happenstance?
On the surface the transition from Letarte to Ives should be rather seamless, but Earnhardt has struggled previously under similar circumstances. When Letarte took over in 2011 it took 18 months before the two broke through and grabbed a victory.
A similar period of futility shouldn’t be expected this go-round, but it cannot be ignored that Earnhardt won more races in 2014 than he did in the previous 10 years combined. No, that success isn’t all attributed to Letarte, but his role was substantial.
Earnhardt comes close to replicating 2014’s victory total, while also making a more sustained championship push.
For the seventh time in nine years Earnhardt fails to win a single race. More worrisome, despite the pedigree and the strong backing of everyone within Hendrick, Ives cannot make the adjustment to being a Cup crew chief.
Coming off her first full season in NASCAR’s top division, Danica Patrick entered 2014 looking to improve on what was a below average rookie year. In some areas she did just that, while in other facets she continued to struggle mightily.
The positives included three top-10 finishes, as opposed to just one the year prior, including a career-best sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway, completing more laps, lowering her average finish by nearly three positions, improved week-to-week consistency and becoming a much better qualifier.
But like she did in 2013, Patrick again failed to maximize the level of her equipment while demonstrating a lack of car control. Most indicative of her struggles were the 10 finishes of 30th or worse, a high number for a driver who doesn’t balance that with a high level performance, and placing 28th in points, a woeful position considering the quality of equipment at Patrick’s disposal.
“I feel there was drastic improvement,” Patrick said. “Although the overall championship position didn’t really show that, there was a lot of improvements in areas we wanted to. So, I consider that a success.”
The coming season will be a pivotal one for Patrick, who enters 2015 needing to show even more progression than she demonstrated last year. What that entails is more consistency and fewer weeks where the No. 10 lacks speed, something that occurs with too much frequency.
Although few expect Patrick to sneak into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, her winning a race to do so wouldn’t be a complete shock considering how competitive she’s been at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
More realistically, Patrick should be expected to double her top-10 total and record a career-first top-five and most importantly, move up in the point standings. That Kevin Harvick won five times en route to the championship, while Kurt Busch won once, indicates SHR’s cars and engines are strong enough to contend and the only thing holding Patrick back is her own limitations.
In an effort to elevate Patrick’s results, SHR initiated a crew chief swap late last season, moving Tony Gibson to Busch’s car and teaming Patrick with Daniel Knost. The exchange was prompted by Patrick wanting more data feedback and a more engineering-minded crew chief, something she’s used to from her time in IndyCar. While not a description fitting Gibson, who has a more old school approach, Knost holds master of science and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.
“I’m used to someone that has an engineering approach to what they do, and I don’t think that it has to be that way, but I think that everybody is looking for some magic and a relationship that takes you to the next level,” Patrick said. “And maybe getting back to something that I haven’t really had in NASCAR yet, will be something that will work better. I don’t know.”
A free agent at the end season, Patrick in all likelihood signs a contract extension to remain with SHR and driver of the No. 10 car. But until she does there will be questions about her future – concerning both with SHR and whether she stays in NASCAR.
She makes continued progress and an increased presence running in the top 10. If things break favorably, a win at either Daytona or Talladega, as Patrick has shown an aptitude for restrictor-plate racing, is possible.
The results don’t improve and Patrick continues to lag mid-pack more often than not.
A year removed from a back injury that sidelined him for four races, Denny Hamlin rebounded nicely, advancing to the championship finale and nearly winning his first Sprint Cup title.
That Hamlin made it that far in the Chase for the Sprint Cup came as surprise following a regular season where he was fairly ordinary and struggled with inconsistency. Yet when the playoffs began, the No. 11 took on a different look, continually getting better every week, frequently running up front and regularly finishing in the top-10. It wasn’t an overwhelming effort, but as others self-destructed, Hamlin avoided any catastrophic results and did just enough to make it through the first three rounds.
In the final race of the season, Hamlin led 50 laps and was in control in the latter stages until a questionable bit of pit strategy kept him on the track with older tires. Shortly thereafter Hamlin would be passed by Kevin Harvick, who sped away to grab the victory and the championship.
“We haven’t had the speed to run with (Harvick) all year long, and we did tonight,” Hamlin said. “… So very proud of what we brought to the racetrack and were able to compete with, but strategy is part of winning and the strategy for us didn’t work out with what happened with the cautions. But it’s a part of racing, and you can’t predict those things.”
Despite what ultimately was as a successful 2014, the lack of success during the regular season prompted a change within the No. 11 team. Joe Gibbs Racing shifted Hamlin’s crew chief Darian Grubb to Carl Edwards’ new team, while bringing Dave Rogers over from Kyle Busch’s car.
That pairing of Hamlin and Rogers should help solve the communication issues that hampered the 11 team in recent seasons. Hamlin has shown in the past he can quickly gel with a new crew chief – he and Grubb won five races in their first season together – and with the exception of a road course, Hamlin on any kind of oval.
“I think (Rogers) uses a lot of what he worked with Kyle and had success with and I’ll bring a lot of what me and Darian had success with and hopefully it pairs up to be something very, very good,” Hamlin said. “I’m just as confident this year as I’ve ever been, but Dave is a guy that can definitely take us to the next level.”
The Virginia native is especially proficient on the majority of the tracks which make up the Chase, so assuming he qualifies (a near given) Hamlin should again contend for the championship.
“In my mind it’s a championship or nothing,” Hamlin said. “But you’ve also got to think that if you come up short in the last race after a 10-win season, it’s still been a pretty good year. You always upgrade your goals, but the pinnacle of actually being a Sprint Cup champion is always the highest bar you can possible set and that’s where I set my standards.”
From year to year you never know which version of Hamlin will show up. Will it be the driver who three times has won four or more races and led more than a thousand laps? Or will it be the driver who’s won just a single race in three of the past four seasons and often struggles with adversity?
From the beginning of the year to the final checkered flag of the season, Hamlin puts forth a dominate effort leading the series in wins and culminating with his first Sprint Cup title.
Much like he did in 2014, Hamlin lags through the regular season grabbing just a lone victory. But unlike last season, he never finds an extra gear in the playoffs and is eliminated rather anonymously.
Give Greg Biffle solid cars and in return he’ll produce solid results. Neither of which occurred in 2014, as Roush Fenway Racing failed to provide him with good equipment and the corresponding results reflected that futility with just three top-fives in 36 starts – matching Biffle’s career low.
The issue inhibiting the No. 16 team was the same dilemma – no speed – that inflicted the entire Roush operation. It was a problem attributed to misguided engineering approach, which while steps were made to correct in the spring, still wasn’t enough to save the season.
“We felt like we weren’t giving the drivers the equipment they needed to succeed,” Roush president Steve Newmark said. “We had talented drivers, but we weren’t giving them the equipment to maximize their talent.”
Although Biffle struggled, the season wasn’t a complete loss. A five week summer stretch where he finished 10th or better did earn him a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth, Biffle’s sixth in seven years.
A second consecutive down year has prompted Roush to make considerable changes including the hiring of two key engineers. Then there was the loss of driver Carl Edwards to Joe Gibbs Racing, a move which elevates Biffle to the role of team leader.
Optimism abounds within Roush that an overhauled staff, new simulation software and an increased focus on engineering will push the team back to its customary position near the front. Biffle even recommitted to Roush long-term, signing a contract extension last summer.
If the moves pay dividends and Roush’s armada of Fords have speed again, Biffle will surge. And even if Roush doesn’t greatly improve, as Biffle proved last year he’s still good enough to make the playoffs.
“I think the guys working in the shop right now, they are all pulling the string in the same direction and we feel we have it under control,” Biffle said. “I think we will show up at Daytona and be really prepared and at the first four or five downforce races of the season. I hope Roush Fenway is back in the game and competing in that top level again.
“We really feel like we have found some things we have done wrong and feel we have righted those things. I’m excited and I can’t wait to get going.”
Multiple high-profile defections (Edwards, Matt Kenseth) and decreasing performance indicates Roush is a team in decline. And though everyone involved says the organization has a blueprint to recapture past success, words don’t equate to speed.
The restructuring behind the scenes takes hold, which results in Biffle winning a couple of times during the regular season. Unlike last year, he easily makes the Chase without complication.
Instead of progress at Roush, things in fact get worse for everyone involved. The problems are so pronounced by mid-season a winless Biffle is reconsidering his decision to stay.
A cursory glance shows Jamie McMurray’s 2014 with an all too familiar look. For the third time in four seasons the Chip Ganassi Racing driver went winless in a points race, and has he’s done every year of his career, failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Upon deeper inspection, though, McMurray’s 2014 was better than average with the potential to be more were it not for rotten luck. As the No. 1 car was among the fastest on the track during the sprint races at Bristol Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway when accidents not of his own doing sidelined McMurray. And he did lead a career-best 386 laps, in addition to winning the non-points All-Star Race.
“I thought overall our performance every week was really good,” McMurray said. “We ran well at a lot of races, but like a lot of team we had a lot of tire issues last year that hurt your chances of making the Chase. But overall speed-wise, it was probably my best season at a lot of different type track.”
For the second consecutive year McMurray will roll into Daytona with a brand-new chief, as Matt McCall takes over for Keith Rodden, who left to rejoin Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 team. Rodden’s departure hurts with the No. 1 car showing more consistency and McMurray far more competitive than in years past.
Had Rodden stayed, McMurray would be a good bet to be in the Chase for the first time. As it is, he’ll be replaced by Matt McCall, an engineer on Ryan Newman’s team last year that finished runner-up in the championship. Like Rodden, McCall comes to Ganassi never having been a crew chief before so it will take some time before he becomes completely acclimated.
Entering his 13th year, McMurray is what he is and any deviation is doubtful. He is a streaky driver, who will look good some weeks and ordinary many others. The 38-year-old is capable of winning on just about any style of speedway, but is most proficient on restrictor-plate tracks with four of his seven career wins coming at either Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.
“I’m ready to get going,” McMurray said. “I feel very good about Matt. He’s come in – he’s been there a month but it seems like he’s been there forever already. I feel really good about getting everything started."
Because he’s not known for his consistency, McMurray would seem to benefit from the revised Chase format where winning can take precedence over being good week-in, week-out. But if he’s to qualify for the playoffs that means McMurray is going to have to win, and that is no given. Too often whether it’s due to bad luck or other factors, he doesn’t maximize finishes when his car is capable of placing near the front.
The upswing Ganassi experienced last year carries over to 2015 with a reenergized McMurray winning a couple of times to finally lock himself into a Chase spot. Whether he does anything come playoff time is inconsequential, as just getting in is considered a plus.
The crew chief change sets the No. 1 team back and McMurray can never find the speed he had in 2014. As always there are moments, but per usual the results don’t match the level of performance and McMurray comes nowhere close to making the playoffs.
After consecutive seasons of having to scramble his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon returned to prominence and with it, emerged as a title contender for really the first time since 2007 when he finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the championship.
Gordon’s four victories and 1,083 laps led were his best marks in seven years. A fifth championship was no longer just wishful thinking, but became a distinct reality as he was atop the point standings in 17 of 26 weeks during the regular season.
But as much as Gordon accomplished in 2014, it’s how the year ended that will leave a lasting impression and a bit of a sour taste in his mouth. After advancing solidly out of the first two brackets of the Chase, Gordon encountered trouble in Round 3.
While racing for the lead in the closing laps at Texas Motor Speedway, Gordon and Brad Keselowski tangled leaving Gordon with a cut tire. The subsequent spin dropped Gordon from a surefire top-five to 29th, a result which proved costly as he missed advancing to championship finale by a single point.
“It hit me hard when I crossed the line at Phoenix,“ said Gordon of being eliminated. "I think I was just really in disbelief for a good 24 hours that we did everything so right and didn’t make it.”
Rejuvenated and aligned with the best overall organization, there is every reason to think Jeff Gordon is capable of replicating 2014. He’s fast on every type of track, but particularly on the abundance of intermediate speedways that clutter the schedule, the No. 24 crew is among the best on pit road. Although Gordon tends to struggle on restarts, over long runs few are as smooth and consistent as the four-time champion.
If anything, with a few breaks Gordon could have an even better year in 2015. He let several potential victories slip away a year ago as second-place finishes at Texas, Richmond, Charlotte and Martinsville could have turned into wins were it not for late bobbles on restarts.
Of course Gordon won’t be lacking motivation to win a fifth championship following the announcement he will retire at the conclusion of the season. That the 43-year-old is calling it a career isn’t a complete surprise. Reoccurring back spasms forced him out of the car during practice for the May Charlotte race and he has spoke openly about yearning to spend more time with his two young children.
Instead of waiting until the 2015 season was over, Gordon elected to go public with his decision in January so as not to create continued speculation regarding his future. Without the distraction and with a replacement, Chase Elliott, already named, Gordon hopes the 24 team will be focused and motivated to send him out on top.
“I want to have a great year,” Gordon said. “Right now I feel good about it because of the way we ran in ‘14, but if we don’t, it’s still a heck of a career. I’m going to try to go out and enjoy myself more than I normally do. I want to enjoy this season to the fullest. I want my family around me, being a part of it, enjoying it.”
Unlike other star drivers who’ve walked away, Gordon will forgo the weekly ceremonies that accompany a farewell tour. His reasoning is to be able to focus exclusively on racing and then in 2016 he will visit each track to say goodbye. In theory that’s a noble plan, but there will be no escaping the pomp and circumstance that will be Gordon’s 23rd and final full season at NASCAR’s highest level. How he and the entire No. 24 go about handling that hoopla will go a long way to determining just how successful of a year 2015 is.
Ideally, Gordon’s dream final season would entail him winning a coveted fifth title. That’s realistic, but if that doesn’t materialize just winning multiple races and advancing to the final race of the year with a shot at the championship would constitute a successful year before he says goodbye.
Instead of leaving on top, or reasonably close to it, Gordon’s final season sees him reverting to a mad scramble approach he used in 2012 and ’13 to just to sneak into the postseason. If this occurs, it means Gordon isn’t winning nor does he have the consistency needed to be considered a viable championship threat.
By his lofty standards Jimmie Johnson started off the 2014 season quite slowly, as it took until May for the defending Sprint Cup champion to score his first victory. But then came Charlotte and a dominant win followed by wins in two of the next three weeks, giving the appearance a march to a seventh championship was in full effect.
Another title, which would have tied Johnson with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all-time, never came to fruition. Instead, Johnson uncharacteristically bumbled through much of the remainder of the year – it would be 19 races before he returned to Victory Lane. That stretch included repeated tire-related issues, which attributed to poor finishes at New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono, and a car, thanks to a bevy of rule changes, that didn’t fit Johnson’s driving style.
Whereas in past years Johnson was able to round into form by the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, that wasn’t the case in 2014. When playoffs opened the No. 48 Chevy lacked speed. Though Johnson advanced it out of Round 1, three consecutive poor finishes saw him surprisingly eliminated in the second bracket. Overall, he posted a career-low average finish (15.3) and the fewest amount of top-fives (11) since his rookie year.
“The way we finished up the ’14 season isn’t something we’re happy with,” Johnson said. “We need to be better.”
After a trying season, the continued emergence of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and others, Kevin Harvick’s dominance and Jeff Gordon’s rejuvenation and now, pending retirement, Johnson finds himself in the very unusual position of being under the radar.
That’s not a bad position for the six-time Cup champion, however. Once eliminated from the Chase, Johnson and Knaus spent the end of last season committed to figuring out how to get Johnson more comfortable in the car. The effort paid off with a resounding victory at Texas Motor Speedway, providing confidence 2015 could be a return to normalcy for the 48 team.
Outside of a better understanding of the car, the key to Johnson’s reemergence is improved rapport with crew chief Chad Knaus. As the frustration mounted last season so too did the tension between driver and crew chief. The deterioration was such there was open speculation about Knaus’ future.
Winning is a cure-all, though, with the Texas win was huge for all involved. And despite whispers otherwise, Knaus will be back for a 14th consecutive season.
“Last year we weren’t as connected and clicked like we needed to,” Johnson said. “We’ve worked hard on all winter to identify and get back in that space.”
The long relationship between Johnson and Knaus has been filled with many contentious moments, including the infamous milk-and-cookies meeting following the 2005 season when team owner Rick Hendrick informed both to stop acting like children. What followed from that summit was a run of five straight titles.
But what if there is another prolonged stretch where Johnson isn’t winning and the speed isn’t there? Will Johnson and Knaus see a breakdown in their communication, and if so, what does that mean about Knaus’ status going forward?
Wins are nice, but 2015 will only be deemed a succes if Johnson is holding the Sprint Cup trophy for a record-tying seventh time.
Though the 48 team scores a couple of victories, the infighting between Johnson and Knaus becomes even more pronounced with Johnson again a Chase nonfactor culminating in him again getting bounced in Round 2. After the season Knaus, citing burnout, steps down.
When Team Penske signed Joey Logano two years ago, it was taking a flyer on someone who had underachieved in four seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning just twice and never earning a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth. Logano repaid that faith by winning once and advancing to the playoffs in his first season driving the No. 22 Ford, but he further justified the decision with an even more resounding 2014.
Setting career marks in wins (five), top-fives (16), top-10s (22) and laps led (993), Logano nearly won the championship making it all the way to the final Chase round. And had his pit crew not bundled three consecutive stops late, including one where the 22 car completely fell of the jack, Logano could have claimed the Sprint Cup trophy.
Regardless, in every way 2014 was a breakout season, establishing the 24-year-old as one of the sport’s budding superstars.
“We finished fourth in a season I feel we had a great championship run going,” Logano said. “At the same time, we can’t hold our heads down. It is frustrating after all that to say you finished fourth when I feel like this team deserved a lot better.”
How does one improve upon five victories and spot in the final four? That’s the dilemma facing Logano and the No. 22 team this season, as anything short of another championship run will be viewed as a disappointment. It’s a kind of expectation neither driver nor crew have dealt with previously.
And yet there is reason to think Logano and company will again thrive. Logano really came into his own last year, fulfilling the promise that once earned him the nickname “Sliced Bread” – as in the best thing since. He was particularly strong on 1.5-mile tracks, earning a pair of wins as well as on short tracks, with two victories and five finishes of sixth or better in six starts.
Also boding well is that Logano is just 24 and already has a wealth of experience having competed in NASCAR’s top division since 2009. There is no reason to think he won’t continue to develop, a scary proposition considering last season’s accomplishments.
“It is nice to say, ‘OK, we’ve proved ourselves that we belong here,’” Logano said. “We’ve raced for a championship now. That’s nice. Does that change the amount of pressure we put on ourselves to win a championship? No. Not at all. I want to win it just as bad as I did last year, and I know the whole team does.”
In the past when saddled with high expectations, Logano has frequently struggled, and that could be an issue considering what is now expected after an outstanding 2014. If he really wants to cement himself as a topflight driver, Logano will need to show last year wasn’t an aberration but merely the foundation for something greater.
Winning five times may be a bit much, however if Logano can come reasonably close and advance deep in the Chase, 2015 will be viewed positively.
Every year some driver inexplicably goes from winning a handful of races to getting shutout the next season. The worst-case scenario is that Logano is that guy in 2015.
Rookie drivers are expected to struggle, especially those joining small teams lacking an abundance of resources. And that was exactly what Justin Allgaier experienced during his freshman Sprint Cup season, failing to record a single top-10 finish, crashing out of six races and ending the year 29th in points.
But 2014 wasn’t a complete disappointment. As he gained experience, Allgaier showed promise and the exact kind of progression rookies are expected to make, closing the year with four finishes of 20th or better in the final five races.
“I look at 2014 and I look at some of the things that I did as a driver, some of the times that I maybe got too excited – too aggressive, maybe not aggressive enough in certain aspects,” Allgaier said. “There are a lot of things I look back on and think, ‘Man, I wish I would have done that differently.’”
There certain steps Allgaier must take in his maturation, foremost is better preserving his equipment and cutting down on the number of accidents. This is particularly critical because HScott Motorsports is not a big money organization and cannot afford to expend itself continually rebuilding cars. The team was forced to skip the non-points All-Star Race last season due to Allgaier wrecking its intermediate track chassis the week before.
Helping Allgaier’s development is the addition of a second full-time HScott entry, as Michael Annett joins the team for 2015. Having a teammate to exchange information and gather feedback is vital, especially for a young driver.
Another benefit is the organization will continue getting its cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, and has begun a technical alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing.
“To have a teammate allows the opportunity to try new things and grow,” Allgaier said. “But also, Michael and I are a lot alike and very similar as far as our on-track driving abilities, our thoughts and what we want in a race car. That excites me because we can work together and really grow.”
HScott’s expansion was made possible because Annett brought funding with him, whereas Allgaier’s car is lacking sponsorship in 12 races. If Allgaier again starts slowly and tears up a lot of equipment, questions will arise regarding HScott’s viability to continue as a two-car operation.
The progress from last season continues with a more consistent Allgaier wrecking less and producing better results, including mixing in some top-10 finishes. He ends the year with a respectable points ranking somewhere in the low 20s.
The optimism quickly dissipates into a pile of destroyed cars, calling Allgaier’s job security into question. And eventually without enough sponsorship and strong finishes to point towards, the No. 51 team shuts down.
By any metric, Kasey Kahne endured a disappointing season with just a single win, finished in the top-five on three occasions and posted a career-low for laps led (218) and average starting position (17.2).
Making Kahne’s struggles all the more apparent was the rapid success enjoyed by teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who each won four times apiece and easily made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Whereas Kahne didn’t qualify didn’t for the playoffs until the second-to-last race of the regular season and once in the Chase didn’t finish better than 10th.
“I’d say our season was just okay,” Kahne said. “We didn’t have a lot of speed this year. A few races we ran up front, but not often enough.
“Hopefully we hit on something a little better (in 2015) that fits my driving style better than we did last year. This past year we just never hit on it like I’d like to.”
It came as no surprise that as Kahne slumped, questions arose about his future with Hendrick. However, somewhat surprisingly, Kahne and Hendrick agreed on a three-year extension shortly after the season ended, though longtime crew chief Kenny Francis was reassigned within the organization.
There is no doubting the quality of Hendrick’s equipment, nor is there any doubting Kahne’s ability as he’s more capable of winning on any kind of track. The one issue which has always hindered the 30-year-old is consistency, both week-to-week and season-to-season. Never has Kahne finished better than 10th in points in consecutive years and is susceptible to prolonged stretches of futility.
But while Kahne lacks consistency, he doesn’t lack speed and is a sure bet to grab at least a victory at some point in 2015 and with it, a spot in the Chase. Can Kahne do more and flash the form he showed in 2012 when he placed fourth in points? It’s possible, although to consider him a legitimate championship contender like his teammates seems a bit unrealistic.
The departure of Francis was overdue, as his relationship with Kahne had grown stagnant and there was notable friction between the two last season. Francis had been with Kahne since 2005 and before their breakup had been the second-longest driver-crew chief pairing in the garage, trailing only Johnson and Chad Knaus.
Replacing Francis is Keith Rodden, a former engineer on the 5 team who served as Jamie McMurray’s crew chief in 2014. Rodden will be tasked with improving a group who underachieved and a driver whose performance should be more in line with that of his teammates’.
“I think change is good and we needed a change,“” Kahne said. “Keith has been with me before. We have a good working relationship and a friendship. He’s aggressive and gets the job done. I think Keith will be a great leader and take us into a good direction.”
Had Kahne not signed an extension his long-term future with Hendrick would have been a constant hanging over him. That issue has been resolved with Kahne locked in through 2018 and no longer driving for his job.
The question mark now is if Rodden can do what Francis could not and get Kahne to be more consistent. It all hinges on whether Rodden can succeed and develop a quick rapport with Kahne, and do away with the inconsistency and mechanical gremlins which have slowed the No. 5 car in recent seasons.
The disappointment of last season quickly subsides as Rodden injects some much needed life into Kahne, who grabs three-to-four victories and becomes a dark horse threat to win the championship.
The year plays out exactly how 2014 did, except instead of a late victory to sneak into the Chase, Kahne goes winless, missing the playoffs outright.
Making the difficult choice to leave Richard Childress Racing after 13 years to join Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick’s rationale was straightforward: He believed a championship was more obtainable with an organization team co-owner Tony Stewart assured would be configured strictly around Harvick’s wants and needs.
“Tony was pretty adamant that we could race for wins and championships,” Harvick said. “I think for me, that was really what it was all about.”
The decision proved astute, as Harvick found immediate success with handpicked crew chief Rodney Childers, winning twice in their first eight races together. But despite the early triumphs, Harvick’s regular season became defined by the races the No. 4 team didn’t win. Countless times miscues by either driver or crew on pit road or mechanical failures erased what would have been certain victories.
Eventually the self-inflicted mistakes ceased, and once the Chase for the Sprint Cup began Harvick established himself as the driver to beat leading the most laps in the four of the opening five playoff races.
A victory in the second-to-last race of the year sealed Harvick’s spot in the championship finale. And in that season-ender Harvick, aided by four fresh tires, would charge from 12th to the lead over the final 15 laps, which netted him his first Sprint Cup title.
“It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment,” Harvick said. “I’m a guy sitting in a position that I dreamed about: being a race car driver and winning a Cup Championship, and being able to fulfill your lifelong dream and reality is something that a lot of people can’t really say that they’ve ever done.”
A great driver, an outstanding crew chief not afraid to take risks and team backed with cars and engines as good as any in the garage, gives ample evidence to suggest Harvick won’t regress in any way. Be it a short track or a superspeedway, a road course or an intermediate oval, there is not one track on the schedule where he’s not capable of excelling.
The defending champions are not without weaknesses, but compared to others they’re minute. And as 2014 showed, even when things are amiss Harvick can still dominate and be a factor weekly. Then there is the chemistry between Childers and Harvick, which will only be stronger in their second year together.
“We feel like we’re in a better position to compete for championships and do it again because of the fact that we have that experience,” Harvick said. “You know the time and the commitment and the mental focus and preparation it takes to get to that point.”
One are of concern which was addressed is the No. 4 pit crew. Prior to the Chase things were so bad with repeated slow stops and repeated gaffes that SHR felt compelled to swap the crews of Harvick and Stewart to better give Harvick a chance to succeed. At the time the move was deemed temporary, but with how events turned out Stewart’s old crew will remain with Harvick.
Being the defending champ come with added responsibility off the track and a bullseye on. It’s a burden Harvick has never faced before and will take some getting used to. The positive is he has a strong circle around him including Stewart and good friend Jimmie Johnson, who were both instrumental in Harvick’s Chase success last season.
Minus the numerous wins he threw away, Harvick’s 2015 unfolds exactly how last season played out, with him again holding the Sprint Cup trophy.
The pressure to repeat proves to be too much with Harvick coming nowhere close to going back-to-back
After two years with small single-car teams whose equipment didn’t match his talent, expectations were high when Kurt Busch signed with the powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing organization. But whatever those expectations may have been, Busch fell short.
Outside of a March victory at Martinsville Speedway, 2014 was mostly a disappointment. The season saw the No. 41 car quick in spurts, but more often than not there were miscues by driver and crew alike, preventing them from claiming a respectable result. Particularly frustrating was Busch enduring a seven-race stretch where his average finish was 30th, in the weeks that followed the Martinsville triumph.
The biggest problem hindering Busch was a lack of cohesion with crew chief Daniel Knost, who had never been a crew chief previously and was far more engineering-based than Busch preferred. Eventually the relationship became such that SHR dissolved the partnership once Busch was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup, pairing him with Tony Gibson, an old-school crew chief with characteristics similar to those Busch had worked with previously to great success.
The move paid instant dividends, with Busch posting finishes of eighth, seventh and 11th in three races with Gibson serving as crew chief.
“There won’t be a question of respect or lack of confidence because I know (Gibson) has been around to do it and know exactly what has to happen at each type of track,” Busch said. “This year, I felt like I wore a mentor hat or wore a hat of helping the crew chief understand the pitfalls he was going to experience.”
Aligned with a crew chief who he believes in and a strong organization behind him, it would seem Busch would be poised for a fantastic year and quite possibly a second Sprint Cup championship.
However, there is great uncertainty about Busch’s availability for the start of the 2015 season due to an alleged incident of domestic abuse.
Patricia Driscoll, Busch’s ex-girlfriend, alleges Busch smashed her ahead three times against a wall in his motor home during the September race weekend at Dover International Speedway. Police conducted an investigation and have handed the case off to prosecutors for determination whether charges should be filed.
If Busch is charged, NASCAR in all likelihood will suspend him indefinitely, a decision which would effectively eliminate any chance of qualifying for the Chase and contending for the championship.
Will Busch even be wheeling the No. 41 car when the green flag flies on the season Feb. 22? As now, yes, but that could change any minute, and until then there isn’t a definitive answer concerning his future will continue to linger.
Able to focus exclusively on racing after prosecutors decline to press charges, Busch wins for the first time since September 2011 and enjoys a resurgent season.
Upon being charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend, Busch is immediately suspended and a once promising year again suffers another setback due to his inability to control his anger.
In a way 2014 was almost the quintessential Kyle Busch season: Some early success with plenty of promise, but ultimately unfulfilled expectations and a disappointing conclusion.
The highlights saw Busch take the victory at Auto Club Speedway in March and post three second-place finishes in a three week span during the summer. And when the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, Busch rolled off five consecutive top-10 finishes and was second in points entering the Round 2 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Conversely, Busch’s strong start to the playoffs came undone with a crash, which regulated him to 40th at Talladega, and subsequently knocked him out of the Chase. On the year, Busch led the fewest amount of laps since his rookie season, won just once, openly feuded with his crew chief and again saw him fail to reach the final race with a shot at the championship.
“After my win at (ACS) I just kind of threw away the rest of the year and took too many chances and crashed out some of those times,” Busch said. “…When it came to the Chase we were fast and we did have some consistency going until we got caught up in a stupid accident.”
The No. 18 team will have a new face calling the shots this season, as Joe Gibbs Racing has appointed Adam Stevens as Busch’s crew chief. Stevens replaces Dave Rogers, who’s been moved to Denny Hamlin team and ends what had been a fractured relationship between driver and crew chief.
Never the easiest driver to work with, the communication between Busch and Rogers became especially strained last year. Most telling was a heated exchange where a frustrating night culminated with Rogers telling Busch to “take your whiny little ass to the bus” during the August race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Although they would reconcile, it was apparent Busch would have a new crew chief in 2015.
Enter Stevens, who has familiarity with Busch, having been paired with him in the Xfinity Series where the two won 19 races over the past two years. The challenge facing Stevens is getting the most out of a driver who’s as talented as they come, but has continually failed to maximize that ability.
“The relationship we’ve had over the last year has gone really well – we’ve won lots of races and been competitive,“” Busch said of Stevens. “I think (the Xfinity Series) level (of competition) is obviously a lot less than at Sprint Cup level, but still I think he’s got a good repertoire within the shop and with his guys. When you can have all that, there’s no better thing than to try and move that guy up.”
What will help Busch considerably in 2015 is having a Toyota engine more inline power-wise with the motors from the Chevrolet and Ford camps. If JGR can provide him with fast cars and engines with speed and reliability, Busch should flourish.
“We just need to improve in sheer speed,” Busch said. “Our cars need to turn better. We haven’t been able to go through the center of the corner as fast as some of these other guys and why that is we’re really not sure.
“I’ve got to continue to run consistently run up front and continuing to mount that challenge each and every week to show people we’re a force to be reckoned with and not have a summer slump that we had last year.”
No one questions Busch’s talent, he can win any given week on any kind of track, and Stevens should quickly equate himself to being a Cup crew chief, but if the Toyota engines again lack horsepower and/or reliability, there is a definite ceiling on what the 18 team can accomplish.
If Busch emerges as a bona fide title contender late in the season for the first time, wins a handful of races, develop a strong rapport with Stevens while building towards an even better 2016, the season will be a great success.
At this juncture in his career anything short of Busch seriously contending for a Cup title is a disappointment.
Touted as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson did nothing to dispel the notion that he’s NASCAR’s next superstar en route to handily winning Rookie of the Year honors last season.
In just his third season behind the wheel of a stock car, Larson finished runner-up three times, third twice and fourth once. A dazzling performance, especially considering he was with a team which had routinely underachieved with Juan Pablo Montoya.
Further speaking to Larson’s talent, he never looked overmatched due to his lack of experience. And with the exception of a minor run-in with Stewart during the June Michigan race, Larson avoided the usually theatrics which many rookies find themselves caught up in.
“I knew there would be some ups and downs, but I felt like we would be the top contender once we got halfway through the season, and we definitely were,” Larson said. “Really proud of that, and proud of the effort everybody has put in on these race cars. We’ve gotten better throughout the season, and just is a huge honor to win this (rookie) title with all the other names that have won it.”
Having established himself more than ready for NASCAR’s top division, Larson will be expected to take the next step in his development and show that he’s capable of winning. And the schedule sets up favorable with an abundance of fast, multi-groove tracks on the schedule which suits his skill set. To see Larson record a career-first victory at Texas or Fontana early in the season or Michigan or Chicagoland later would be of little surprise.
“We are capable of definitely being a top-10 car each week, winning at least two races, making the Chase and going for the championship,” Larson said. “Those are pretty realistic goals.
Either via winning or by scoring enough points, Larson should qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He was remarkably consistent for a rookie last season and that should only improve with time, as will learning to situation himself better to contend.
Larson led just 53 laps a year ago and frequently wasn’t up front until the very end. If he can get to the front sooner, the probability of winning goes up and Larson won’t be in a mad scramble like he was so often late in races.
“I need to get to the lead,” Larson said. “It seems like when I find a line that goes really fast and I almost get the lead, then the leader moves up in front of me and I can’t pass.”
Surprisingly for a young driver there are no glaring question marks surrounding Larson, who is all of 22. If there is an area of concern it centers on Chip Ganassi Racing and its ability to consistently field competitive cars. In the Chase era Ganassi has only placed a driver in the playoffs once, and the organization does not have a history of being formidable from year-to-year.
With more experience as well as confidence, Larson builds off a fabulous 2014 and wins a couple of races to earn his first Chase berth.
Facing higher expectations, Larson pushes too hard resulting in a rash of torn up cars and instead of making the leap, he actually regresses. The career first win doesn’t come until 2016.
In his initial season with Furniture Row Racing, Martin Truex Jr. was always going to be challenged to duplicate the success of his predecessor, Kurt Busch, who in 2013 became the first driver with a single-car team to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
No one, however, expected the disappointing results that followed. On the year, Truex posted just a lone top-five, five top-10s and led all of one lap en route to a 24th ranking in points. For a driver who was looking for a fresh start following a tumultuous end to his tenure at Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex never found the stability he needed, while Furniture Row failed to build off a breakthrough season the year before.
“The year started getting better, it had more bright spots at the end,” Truex said. “But I’ll be honest with you, the way the past year and a half had went, I was glad the season was over and I was ready to start a new one fresh.”
Both driver and team are better than they showed in 2014, but there is doubt whether Truex and Furniture Row are the right fit. A small team with limited resources, Furniture Row needs a driver who squeezes every last ounce of speed out of its Chevrolets. And that’s not Truex’s forte, as he’s someone who doesn’t put himself in bad positions and is more comfortable settling for a 10th, than pushing his car beyond its comfortability.
There is hope, though, that 2015 will be a bounce back season for Truex and Furniture Row. In the final 10 races of the year Truex placed in the top-10 twice and had six other finishes of 19th or better. More improvement is needed if Truex is going to push for a spot in the Chase, but the foundation is there for the No. 78 team to play the role of sleeper.
“With a year under our belts and working together, they’re starting to get a feel for what I am, what I like, who I am and how we can work together,” Truex said. “I expect that to be stronger this year.”
Entering a contract year, Truex needs to show he’s worthy of an extension or do something to entice another organization to sign him. Because if he gets off to a slow start, look for the rumor mill to begin churning about his job status. That’s not an enviable position for any driver to be in, but that’s the reality Truex finds himself in for 2015.
Ideally a win and a Chase berth, but that’s expecting too much. More realistically Truex should consider 2015 a success if he’s more competitive than he was a year ago and can finish in the top five a handful of times with a points finish better than 20th.
The inconsistency which marked much of Truex’s 2014 season remains and by the midpoint of the year he’s openly looking for rides elsewhere.
A year removed from winning a series-best seven races and finished second in the championship, it’s hard not to think Matt Kenseth underachieved in his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing as he failed to win a race for the first time since 2010 and led 1,254 fewer laps. And yet even with the substantial drop in victories and laps led, Kenseth’s 2014 in some ways was actually better. He improved his top-fives from 12 to 13, top-10s from 20 to 22 and was among the most consistent drivers, even leading the points at one juncture during the regular season.
Kenseth wasn’t the lone JGR driver to regress in 2014, with teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each enduring similar struggles. And that was no coincidence with a Toyota engine short on horsepower the main culprit and resulting in Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin combining for just three victories.
“I thought overall our pit stops were much better than they were in 2013, I thought our execution was good almost all year,” Kenseth said. “I thought (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) did a great job calling races – trying to put us in a position to win races where we really didn’t have the speed to do it, but still put me in that spot to try and get (a win). It was a test to everyone’s character that we all hung in there. We didn’t achieve the goals we wanted to achieve, but we did a good job with the hand we were dealt. I was proud.”
A veteran who doesn’t make mistakes or push his equipment beyond its breaking point, Kenseth is on the short list of best drivers in the garage. If JGR and Toyota properly address its engine woes, a multiple victory season and push towards the championship are all within reason. And even if the lack of horsepower persists, as Kenseth showed last season he’s more than capable of making up for any deficiencies.
The expansion of JGR from three cars to four shouldn’t be a concern, either. To accommodate the signing of Carl Edwards, the team has hired more than 100 new employees and expanded its headquarters. And the addition of Edwards will give JGR another veteran with substantial experience, which should help further dips like the team went through in 2014.
Another issue when Edwards signed with JGR was his relationship with Kenseth, as the two had anything but a harmonious time during days at Roush Fenway Racing. But each day those fences have been mended, with Kenseth already making it a point to solicit Edwards’ opinion on how to better improve the organization and including him in team meetings.
“My hope is that all four (JGR drivers) go out and win races this year,” Kenseth said. “Honestly, my goal is that the four cars at Homestead (the championship finale) to be the four JGR cars.”
As has been the case in recent seasons any questions concerning JGR tends to center on its motors be it reliability or power. Two years ago repeated failures often doomed Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin, while 2014 saw the team’s fleet of Toyotas at a disadvantage speed-wise.
The results put forth two years ago – seven wins and a runner-up finish in points – shows the capability of the No. 20 team. Although a lofty standard, almost unjustly so, if Kenseth can come anywhere close to replicating his 2013 campaign, 2015 would be considered enormously successful.
Despite another offseason to fix its engines, Toyota fails to close the horsepower gap on Team Penske (Ford) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet). And despite having the necessary consistency, what Kenseth doesn’t have is the speed and thus, the wins to be a factor in the championship.
In some ways it was his best season, with highs in top-fives (five) and top-10s (13). In other aspects it was very much the typical Paul Menard year, mixing some good with plenty of mediocrity as again he went winless and finished out of a spot in the Chase for a Sprint Cup, ending 23nd in points.
While it finished as expected, the potential was there for Menard’s season to be better, as he began with nine top-10s through the first 16 races. That strong start moved the Richard Childress Racing driver to 10th in points. It wasn’t to last, however, with Menard’s consistency fading resulting in a drop down the standings.
That late-season fade prompted longtime crew chief Slugger Labbe to relinquish the role to Justin Alexander in effort to improve the No. 27 team. The pair closed with a fourth-place run in the year’s final race.
“We made the decision to try something different in October and it’s paying off,” Menard said. “We had a great run in Miami and some fast cars at the end of the year and I’m just really looking forward to getting going.”
It’s entirely possible Alexander is the catalyst to launch Menard into the Chase for the first time. A win could easily occur in one of three regular season restrictor-plate races, a specialty of Richard Childress Racing, and Menard’s smooth style adapts well to intermediate ovals.
More than likely, Menard will produce results in line with what he’s done throughout his career. This equates to a handful of top-10s, another winless season and a points finish somewhere in the high teens or low 20s.
“We’ve had some success in plate races in the past,” Menard said. “I’m not particularly a fan of plate racing but we seem to run pretty good there.
“Intermediate tracks have been kind of our strong suit. We’ve had our best runs on the high-speed mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks.”
Menard has overcome the stigma of being a driver for a high-profile team just because his father is footing the sponsorship tab. And though he’s turned into a consistent racer, continued improvement is needed if he’s to qualify for the Chase. Specially, Menard has to contend for wins with greater frequency and better put himself in position to pick up the occasional checkered flag.
Though a win never happens, the consistency Menard flashed early last season carries throughout 2015 to a career-best points finish.
With a beleaguered first-time crew chief, Menard takes a step backwards. The outcome sees a sizeable decrease from his 2014 career-highs and by the end of the season Labbe replaces Alexander.
After winning Rookie of the Year honors the season before, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stumbled considerably. He dropped eight spots in the standings, saw his average finish climb nearly four positions, didn’t lead a single lap and failed to qualify for the fall Talladega race. The lone highlight being a career-best second-place effort in the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
While Stenhouse is plenty culpable for his struggles, too often demonstrating little patience and tending to drive over his head, he doesn’t bare responsibility alone. Roush Fenway Racing was abysmal in 2014, winning just twice across its three teams and most weeks scrambling just to find some semblance of competitiveness.
“I thought our first year in Cup was better than our second,” Stenhouse said. “I do think our cars got worse and what I was trying to do (to compensate) made our situation worst, a far as trying to make a 20th-place car a fifth-place car. I think a lot of factors came into why we had a worst season last year.”
Looking to lift its downtrodden fortunes, Roush enacted numerous personnel moves over the offseason, placing an emphasis on engineering. Those changes, however, will take time before the results are evident on the track, which means until then the onus is on Stenhouse to improve.
In that regard, Stenhouse must exercise better patience and car control. Too often he pushes his car beyond its capability and loses a solid finish due to a preventable mistake. No longer inexperienced, progress is essential in 2015 if he wants to prove deserving of another year with Roush, who has several talented drivers in its pipeline.
There are assorted questions about Stenhouse and just as many concerning the entire Roush operation. More than anything it comes down to Stenhouse better harnessing his talent and Roush making big engineering gains. If both happen, the third-year driver could be a sleeper to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Those are mighty big ifs, however.
There are assorted questions about Stenhouse and just as many concerning the entire Roush operation. More than anything it comes down to Stenhouse better harnessing his talent and Roush making big engineering gains. If both happen, the third-year driver could be a sleeper to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Those are mighty big ifs, however.
Aided by having better equipment underneath him, Stenhouse comes into his own. And though he still struggles with consistency, he does win a race for the first time, which is enough to qualify for the Chase.
2015 becomes a replay of 2014, with Stenhouse continuing to make mistakes and the Roush cars lacking speed. By season’s end team owner Jack Roush realizes Stenhouse isn’t a competent Cup driver and plugs one of his young talents into the No. 17 Ford.
When the Chase for the Sprint Cup format was revised, NASCAR’s long-held belief that consistency was king seemingly took a backseat to winning – both in qualifying for the playoffs and once in, continuing to move forward.
That notion was disproven twice over by Ryan Newman. First, although winless during the regular season, he not only used consistency to earn a Chase spot, but to also to advance all the way to the championship round. Ultimately, he finished runner-up in points to Kevin Harvick, despite not having a single victory and with all of five top-fives on the year.
“It is disappointing, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no point in being a sore loser,” Newman said. “It’s some motivation, some momentum for the offseason to get started for Daytona, and just look forward to the opportunity for next year.”
While consistency is important, Newman cannot expect to go winless and again make the Chase via points. But there is reason to think the No. 31 team will be improved and could reach Victory Lane. As the season progressed the chemistry between Newman and crew chief Luke Lambert improved with Newman notching more top-five finishes in the 10-race Chase than he had throughout the regular season.
All through his career Newman has proven capable of winning if his cars have speed, having won a race in five of six years prior to 2014. And the lack of a victory last season can be attributed more to a downswing within RCR than issues relating to Newman or his team, as the organization was completely shutout of the winner’s circle across its three cars.
“Even though there was no W’s in the win column, we achieved some amazing things for a first-year team, me with the organization, us as a team, us as a driver-crew chief combination,” Newman said. “There’s no reason why we can’t keep that incline going.”
Can Newman win? Because if he can’t, another trip to the Chase is no sure thing despite how consistent his team may be.
The push in the Chase was a harbinger of what’s to come in 2015, as Newman maintains a frequent presence near the front, posts a win during the regular season and, come the playoffs, makes another deep run.
A failure to win and placing between 11th and 15th every week only takes Newman so far and a year after finishing second in the championship he doesn’t qualify for the postseason.
After finishing second in the 2013 Xfinity (then Nationwide) Series standings, Sam Hornish Jr. found himself without a ride due to a lack of funding for the 2014 season. With few appealing options, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner took a part-time Xfinity ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. Making the most of the limited opportunity, just eight starts, Hornish took the win at Iowa Speedway.
When Marcos Ambrose decided to leave Richard Petty Motorsports and head back to his native Australia, Hornish was the sensible choice to drive the No. 9 car. With 131 Sprint Cup starts to his name, Hornish brings a level of oval experience to the team that was lacking with Ambrose, whose background was in road racing.
“Sam’s going to be a great fit here at Richard Petty Motorsports,“ RPM director of competition Sammy Johns said. "Sam’s a champion. He’s a great race car driver. He’s hungry to get back to the Cup Series and prove that he can win races at this level.”
The last time he was in Cup full-time, Hornish was a borderline disaster, driving over his head and crashing out on a too-frequent basis – 13 times over three seasons. Hornish has matured in the five years since, but doubt still remains. And with RPM still in need of sponsorship for 26 races, Hornish habitually tearing up equipment could quickly sink the organization and its capacity to field two cars.
An organization that’s slowly been building a solid foundation gets a hungry driver and together team and driver experience a solid first season.
Not proving to be an upgrade over Ambrose, Hornish struggles, and more troubling again crashes all too frequently. A scenario that if it unfolds could be prove disastrous for a team with minimal sponsorship, and put into question whether Hornish finishes the season.
Both professionally and personally, 2014 was a year Tony Stewart would love to forget. Still recovering from a savage crash in a sprint car race the season before that left him with a broken right leg, the three-time Cup champion returned to the driver’s seat at less than 100 percent.
That handicap, along with an inability to adjust to a new rules package that didn’t fit his driving style, greatly contributed to Stewart experiencing the first winless season of his career.
Stewart’s dismal year was further compounded, when, during an August sprint car race in Upstate New York, he was involved in an accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr., who was struck by the rear wheel of Stewart’s car.
A criminal investigation cleared Stewart of any wrongdoing, but the events took a significant toll. He sat out three Sprint Cup Series races, and during his absence Stewart became a recluse, struggling with his involvement in Ward’s death.
“This is been one of the toughest tragedies I’ve ever had to deal with,“ Stewart said. “This is something that will definitely affect my life forever.”
When he returned, Stewart showed flashes of his old form. He was competitive in his first race back, running as high as third before a blown tire put him into the wall, and later recorded a fourth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway.
If there was any solace in Stewart’s 2014 it came via his good friend Kevin Harvick, who joined the team Stewart co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing, and won the Cup championship. The title was Stewart’s first and gave Stewart his second win as an owner.
“I’m ready to put the last two years behind me and never look back,” Stewart said. “I’m not talking about it, I’m not thinking about it. I’m going back to being me again.”
The health issues that impeded Stewart a year ago still linger, as the owner-driver underwent a fourth operation in December. Although described as “routine” and all but certain to be medically cleared by the Daytona season-opener, the news does raise concern about Stewart’s effectiveness in 2015.
But even last year – when Stewart estimated he was only 65 percent healthy – there were still moments when he looked capable of challenging for wins. Assuming his leg continues to improve, along with additional seat-time helping him become more familiar with the intricacies of NASCAR’s new rules package, the chances of Stewart snapping a 41-race winless are good.
“I’ve never questioned who I am and what I do,” Stewart said. “We’ve had two rough years that I don’t think I’d wish that on anybody. Deep down inside I know who I am as a person, and I know who I am as a driver, and that’s what I want to get back to.
“That’s what makes the start of the 2015 season so exciting to me – flipping the page.”
What Stewart may struggle with is consistency, which will prevent him from winning a fourth championship. However, after consecutive years of disillusionment, just returning to Victory Lane should be considered a success.
Just one look at Stewart hobbling around the garage in obvious discomfort and it’s undeniable that his health is the biggest hindrance to him enjoying a fulfilling 2015 season.
For the first time in two years, Stewart competes in every Cup event while steadily improving his level of competitiveness. Additionally, he gets back to the winner’s circle during the regular season, which assures him a Chase berth.
Already schedule for a fifth operation at the conclusion of the 2015, Stewart, in great discomfort and with his performance suffering greatly, is forced to undergo the surgery at some point during the season.
Once again Trevor Bayne combined a full slate of Xfinity Series races with limited Sprint Cup starts in 2014. In NASCAR’s No. 2 series he recorded five top-fives and 21 top-10s to rank sixth in points. But Bayne’s Cup results were far less impressive. Starting 12 races for Wood Brothers Racing, his best finish was 19th (twice) and he crashed out an alarming five times.
When Carl Edwards bolted to Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing elevated Bayne to drive the No. 99 car (renumbered No. 6). However, while the 23-year-old was the obvious choice to replace Edwards, he may not have been the best.
Outside of an improbable 2011 Daytona 500 victory, Bayne has done little these past four years, be it in Cup or Xfinity, to show capable of filling Edwards’ seat with just a pair of victories (both in Xfinity). But many drivers have lacked success in lesser divisions only to blossom after advancing to Cup and Bayne is still young enough where he can develop. He’ll also have the advantage of working with Bob Osborne, who has 18 wins as crew chief and nearly led Edwards to the 2011 championship before losing to Tony Stewart on tiebreaker.
“What a great year we have to look forward to,” Bayne said. “I am really pumped up about what we have going on here. I think Roush Fenway Racing is turning a corner and hopefully we turn it pretty fast here and can go contend for some wins here this year.”
Incredibly personable, Bayne has overcome a lot to earn this opportunity. As a lack of funding kept him from reaching Cup sooner, and in 2013 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But while his perseverance is admirable, there’s nothing to suggest Bayne is suited to be a consistent and winning driver at NASCAR’s highest division.
In what is essentially his rookie season, Bayne’s goals should be kept moderate this season – finishing steadily in the top-20, mixing in some top-10s and breaking a habit of tearing up cars.
An overmatched Bayne proves not ready for Cup, struggling weekly and finishing well down in points.