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5 storylines to watch during the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup season

From the unfortunate start to Tony Stewart's retirement year to a fresh group of young drivers taking their first steps toward stardom, here's what you need to keep an eye on during the upcoming NASCAR season.

Jeff Gordon is retired, Tony Stewart is retiring -- though his final season is in doubt following a January dune buggy accident -- and defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch is attempting to snap a streak of a different driver taking each of the past five titles. That's the framework of the 2016 NASCAR season, which begins with Gordon in the broadcast booth, Stewart sidelined and Busch looking to repeat amid a new low downforce aerodynamic rules package intended to reinvigorate on-track racing that was largely monotonous a year ago.

Because it's immediately following Jeff Gordon's retirement, Tony Stewart's decision to step away from NASCAR full-time won't carry the magnitude -- in part, due to his unwillingness to participate in the same kind of farewell tour. Of course, this is assuming he returns from a fractured back suffered while driving a dune buggy, which as of now is no certainty with no timetable set regarding when he resumes driving or even if.

Teams look for more security through unity

Most significant to the sport's long-term future is NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance coming to an agreement that provides the confederation of car owners a moderate level of financial security. It's essentially a mechanism to award established teams a franchise that's worth something tangible rather than the pennies on the dollar owners often receive when they attempt to divest their interests.

For a governing body that's long and adamantly maintained its drivers and teams were independent contractors and nothing more, the concord is a dramatic about face.

The youth movement continues

Gordon's retirement follows a trend that has seen longtime mainstays such as Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Ken Schrader retire either outright or dramatically reduce their respective schedules in recent seasons. This will continue with Tony Stewart already announcing that 2016 will be his last as a full-time competitor in the Sprint Cup Series, though he's adamant he will continue to race in other racing disciplines outside of NASCAR.

The loss of many veterans, however, has created an opportunity for the sport's generation of stars to showcase their ability and that will continue with the 2016 rookie class the most promising in years. Among the challengers are Chase Elliott (age 20), Ryan Blaney (22) and Chris Buescher (23), the reigning Xfinity Series champion.

Because he is joining Hendrick Motorsports, occupying Gordon's old seat and regarded as a can't-miss prospect, Elliott is facing heightened expectations and considered the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. But Blaney has shown competitiveness in limited starts driving for the Wood Brothers -- a pair of top-10 finishes in 16 starts last season -- and though Buescher may not be aligned with a proven team in Front Row Motorsports, he knows how to maximize his equipment and could surprise.

Joe Gibbs Racing tries to remain NASCAR's dominant organization

After underachieving in 2014, the team owned by NFL Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs rebounded tremendously this past season. JGR's four drivers, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, combined to win a series-best 14 times with Busch delivering Gibbs his fourth championship and first in 10 years.

Producing a similar type of performance may be unreasonable, though some facsimile where all four drivers record multiple victories and emerge as title contenders should be a minimum standard. Busch, Hamlin and Edwards are all in the prime of their careers, while the 43-year-old Kenseth has shown no signs of slowing down. And the addition of Furniture Row to the Toyota camp could provide a boon, as the single-car team was one of the most consistent last season with Truex advancing to the championship finale.

Other storylines to follow throughout 2016 include:
  • The full-time implementation of the low downforce aerodynamic rules package intended to stimulate passing and on-track action.
  • The possibility of Kyle Busch beginning an era of dominance akin to Jimmie Johnson's run of six titles over an eight-year span, now that he's finally got that first one out of the way.