By Rich Phillips
The season is here. The field is set (albeit a smaller field). Forty cars will take the green flag on Sunday for the Daytona 500, opening day for the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
The last two seasons have provided great drama with the new championship format. Four drivers battling it out in the finale for the title with the race winner being the Sprint Cup champion both years. And both were first-time champions, Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Kyle Busch last year. Will one of them do it again, or can there be a third straight first-timer? Here are my fearless predictions about the 2016 Sprint Cup Season.
Most Improved: The Racing
Lower downforce will be king. NASCAR tried out the lower downforce package twice in 2015 at Kentucky and Darlington and it drew rave reviews from fans and drivers. They were two of the most exciting races of the year. The primary change is reducing the height of the rear spoiler to just 3½ inches. The result is putting the handling of the car back in the hands of the drivers, which is what they want. It’s what the fans should want too.
Most Improved Part 2: Kyle Larson a Chaser
It was quite surprising to see Kyle Larson miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015. After just missing the Chase as a rookie in 2014, Larson was one of the best drivers during the playoff races. However, he couldn’t follow up those six top 10’s in the final 10 races in 2015, only posting 10 top 10’s all year. But there’s too much talent there to be left out again, and Chip Ganassi Racing is making great strides. His teammate, Jamie McMurray made the Chase last year and look for Larson to be a Chaser in 2016.
Biggest Disappointment: Tony Stewart
The disappointment started for Tony Stewart even before the retirement tour started. Stewart suffered a burst fracture in his back while running an ATV in the Southern California desert last month. He underwent surgery in early February and has already missed the Sprint Unlimited. He won’t be behind the wheel of the #14 Chevy for Sunday’s Daytona 500, and it’s unknown when he will race. Not the start anyone wanted for Smoke’s final season.
Best Organization: Joe Gibbs Racing
Joe Gibbs Racing supplanting Hendrick Motorsports atop the NASCAR world last year and they show no signs of letting up. JGR put all four of their drivers in the Chase field in 2015, and their driver line-up is one stronger this year. Furniture Row Racing switching from Chevy to Toyota and aligning themselves with Gibbs. Martin Truex Jr. was in the Championship Four a year ago, ultimately losing the title to his new pseudo-teammate Kyle Busch. The rich get richer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Rookie of the Year: Ryan Blaney
The 2016 field is includes one of the best crop of rookies in some time for the Sprint Cup Series. Chase Elliott replacing Jeff Gordon in the iconic #24. Reigning XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher in the #34. Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt making the move up to full-time Cup drivers. But it’s second generation racer Ryan Blaney who should have a great shot to be the top rookie. While awaiting the “right” ride at the Sprint Cup level, Blaney ran 13 XFINITY races in 2015 and won twice, plus he won one of his five NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts. He’s helping the Wood Brothers return to full-time racing and will be buoyed by a close alliance with Penske Racing. Working essentially as another teammate to Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano should give Blaney the upper-hand among the rookies.
The 2016 Sprint Cup Champion: Joey Logano
Last week Joey Logano said “I feel like we’ve had two championship seasons without a trophy.” He’s pretty much spot on with that statement. Like him or hate him (many choose the latter) Logano has been about the best thing going (or since “Sliced Bread”). Over the last two seasons he’s won a combined 11 races and posted 50 top 10 finishes, both series highs. He missed out on the 2014 title when his car fell off the jack on the last pit stop at Homestead, and of course in 2015 he was intentionally booted form the Chase by Matt Kenseth. Barring outside forces, Logano should be in line to win that first title that many have expected.
There they are, some fearless predictions. When they come true you can say you heard it here first. When they don’t I’ll plead the fifth.
Rich Phillips is the Voice of Texas Motor Speedway and host of the weekly radio show Texas Motor Speedway’s Total Access. Click here to find a station near you.
One of our favorite things leading into the racing season is seeing all the new paint schemes. Here are some of the new schemes that will be hitting the track in 2016.
Kevin Harvick - Busch Light
Kevin Harvick - Busch
Kasey Kahne - Lift Master
Kasey Kahne - Panasonic Toughbook
Kasey Kahne - Quicken Loans
Danica Patrick - Nature's Bakery
Danica Patrick - Tax Act
Tony Stewart - Mobil 1
Kyle Busch - M&M's 75th Anniversary
Chase Elliott - 3M
Chase Elliott - Kelley Blue Book
Chase Elliott - Napa
Paul Menard - Moen
Ryan Newman - Catarpillar
Ryan Newman - Grainger
Kurt Busch - Haas Automation/Monster
Kurt Busch - Monster
Brian Scott - Twisted Tea
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Axalta
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Nationwide
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Tax Slayer
Finally it’s here. After 35 races, 22 race tracks, and countless run-ins NASCAR is down to the Championship Four. Only four drivers out of the field of 43 that take the green flag Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway have a chance to win the Sprint Cup. It’s year number two of the Chase format, with the highest finisher among the four contenders claiming the title. And it’s four unique drivers taking a shot at the grand prize.
The Reigning Champ
It took 14 years for Kevin Harvick to finally do it last year. He had been close a number of times in his career, finishing the season fourth or better in the standings five times. But finally at the age of 38 he put it all together in 2014.
Harvick didn’t lead the Sprint Cup Series in wins last year. He didn’t lead in top ten’s or average finish either. But he was money at the right time, helping earn him one of his many nicknames, “The Closer”.
He picked up three of his five wins in the Chase, including in the final two races with everything on the line. Had Harvick not won at Phoenix in 2014 he wouldn’t have raced for the title. Had he not won the final race at Homestead he wouldn’t have won the Cup either because Ryan Newman was right behind him.
Harvick doesn’t lead the Series in wins this year either, but he does lead in consistency. He’s tied for the lead with 27 top ten’s has the best average finish. The #4 car is usually about the fastest off the truck every week, and that makes Harvick the top pick of many to claim the Sprint Cup on Sunday.
The Storybook Ending
Very seldom do we see an athlete have a chance to go out the way he wants to, on top. John Elway quickly comes to mind for many, winning the Super Bowl in his last NFL game with the Denver Broncos. Jeff Gordon has a chance to go out the same way.
Gordon’s final rodeo hasn’t exactly gone the way he’s wanted. It’s frankly been a struggle for the four-time Sprint Cup Champion, not earning his first win of the season until race number 33 at Martinsville, and even that coming largely as the result of some odd circumstances (i.e. Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecking Joey Logano).
But it’s safe to say Gordon hasn’t been this motivated in a long time. He’s never won a championship in the Chase era, the last of his four titles coming a whopping 14 years ago. He wants his legacy to end on the highest of high notes. And he wants his young children to finally have a memory of dad being on top. Gordon knows how to get it done at Homestead, winning the pole last year and winning the race in 2012. All of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are surely providing any assistance necessary.
Rowdy’s Real Shot
As good as he’s been the last 11 seasons, Sunday actually represents the first time in his career that Kyle Busch has a legitimate shot to win a Sprint Cup Championship. While he’s won 33 races in that span, including eight in 2008, Busch has never been able to answer the bell when it’s all on the line.
Only one time has Busch won a Chase race, but he wasn’t a member of the Chase field in his rookie year of 2005. Only three times has he finished better than tenth in the final standings. His best was fourth in 2013, but he went to Homestead with no chance to win it all.
This year might be different for Busch. A frightening crash on the season’s opening weekend, followed by the birth of his first child, seems to have softened Rowdy. He showed that dominating ability in the summer with four wins in a five race span. And his ability to qualify for the Chase, making it to top 30 in points despite missing 11 races, is noteworthy itself.
Busch could win his first Championship on Sunday as he’s warming up at the right time. He’s been top five in each of the last three races.
Many view Martin Truex Jr. as the interloper in the Championship four. The soft-spoken driver from New Jersey had only qualified for the Chase twice before this season and wasn’t really a factor in the playoffs. Add to that he’s coming off his career worst season and driving for a single-car team, and no one really believes it can be done.
But the 78 team at Furniture Row Racing believes it can, and they have the credentials to show it this year. Truex went to victory lane at Pocono this summer in what may have been the most popular win in the garage this season. Truex not only had a bad year on the track in 2014, but off the track too with his longtime girlfriend fighting ovarian cancer. While Sherry Pollex is winning that battle, Truex began winning his battles too.
The win at Pocono wasn’t this team’s only good day. It completed a string of four consecutive races in which Truex led the most laps. He’s posted career highs in both top five’s and top ten’s this year. He’s a two-time XFINITY Series champion who’s finally showing his worth at the Cup level.
The Bottom Line
Only one driver has been able to repeat as Sprint Cup Champion since 1998, and that’s Jimmie Johnson. The 48 team won five consecutive titles from 2006-10. Look for that to change on Sunday in south Florida as Kevin Harvick earns another one of those nicknames, “Happy Harvick”, running off with another race win and a second straight Sprint Cup.