11 February 2015

2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Predictions

(USATSI)
Last year saw the debut of a new Chase format and boy did it spice things up. The elimination format ramped up the urgency for every Chase race and resulted in quite a few skirmishes, and the win-and-in format gave meaning to every race. All in all, it was largely a success as Kevin Harvick won his first Sprint Cup title with a thrilling victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the season finale.

Now with the new car smell of the Chase format dissipating, what can expect in 2015? Will Harvick repeat, will an former champion win back the series crown or will we see the third first-time champion in four years? Here are my predictions for the Sprint Cup Series in 2015.

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1. Joey Logano, #22 Shell/Pennzoil Fusion, Team Penske
Ever since joining Team Penske, it has seemed like a matter of time for Logano to get his first championship. It is still crazy to think about how he is starting his seventh full-time season while 25 in May. Logano had a tremendous season last year as he won five times and was in the mix at Homestead to win the championship but was never in contention as he finished 16th. I think Logano, who showed his versatility in winning at three different types of tracks in 2014, will become one of the youngest champions ever and get what will sure to be the first of a number of Sprint Cup championships this November.

2. Jeff Gordon, #24 Drive to End Hunger/3M SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Imagine how cool it would be for Gordon to finish his career with a championship and ride off into the sunset with that long-elusive fifth title. It certainly is not crazy particularly with how well Gordon drove last year as it was his best season in several years and who knows what would have happen had Gordon either not had the disappointing finish at Texas or if Ryan Newman had not punted Kyle Larson at PIR. I don't think we will get the sentimental finish but at least Gordon will have the satisfaction of knowing that he went out on a very high note.

3. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Johnson had the lowest points finish of his career as he finished 11th in the final points standings. He had a dreadful Contender Round as he finished 40th in Kansas City, 17th at Charlotte and 24th at Talladega. However, nobody would be foolish to suggest that Johnson could not win a title in this format and I think he will. Just not this year.

4. Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Lite, Team Penske
You can probably find more drivers that Keselowski has pissed off one way or another than not but while so many were fixated on the extracurricular activity of his with all the fights and stuff, but Keselowski had a great season as he set career highs in wins (six), top fives (17), top tens (20) and poles (five). He narrowly survived the elimination when he won at Talladega and save for a disappointing finish at Martinsville, he very well could have won the title. I don't think he will get his second title this year but I do think he will be in the hunt at Homestead.

5. Carl Edwards, #19 Arris/Stanley Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
After a pair of disappointing seasons in a row after nearly winning the 2011 Chase, Edwards did rebound somewhat in making the Chase but he will move on from Roush to Gibbs in a move that made complete sense given the former's struggles. Sometimes an organization can struggle when adding a new team but I don't see that happening here for Cousin Carl. In fact, I think he will be rejuvenated and have a strong season, even if he will just miss out in being a part of the final four.

6. Kevin Harvick, #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John's SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Harvick was able to survive all eliminations and get that first Cup title in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing when he won at Homestead in the finale. Harvick seemed to be a factor in just about every race last season as he led an impressive 2,137 laps. Can he go back-to-back? I think this format will find it hard for any driver to repeat but I wouldn't be surprised if Happy Harvick does it. And yet, I'm not betting on it.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr,, #88 Nationwide Insurance SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Even as he finished higher in the points in 2006, 2011 and in 2013, 2014 has to be considered Junior's finest season since 2004. It seemed like we saw a different driver after he won the Daytona 500. I do believe that he can win a title before his career winds down but I don't see this being the year for him to finally do it.

8. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Hamlin had a strong 2014 campaign that found him in the mix at Homestead to win the title as part of the final four drivers. However it was not to be as while he led a chunk of the race, he was not high enough in the end to get the crown. Considering that Hamlin excels at a variety of tracks, he seems like a solid championship pick but I'm not sold he will be as consistent this go-around in the Chase.

9. Matt Kenseth, #20 Dollar General Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
After a strong debut with JGR in 2013, Kenseth was not nearly as strong this past season as he failed to get any wins and led about a third of the laps he had led the prior year. One would reasonably expect him to get back to victory lane this season but I'm not certainly that when push comes to shove in the Chase that he can win that second title.

10. Kyle Larson, #42 Target SS, Chip Ganassi Racing w/ Felix Sabates
After a really impressive rookie campaign in which Larson nearly made the Chase and came close to a few victories with three second-place finishes, Larson is the hot pick to break out and make the Chase. I agree with that sentiment and I think he will indeed get a win or two and make the Chase. He has clearly shown to have a ton of talent even as he was relatively raw as a rookie, meaning that once he gets even more familiar with the Cup cars and tracks he could really shine.

11. Kasey Kahne, #5 Farmers Insurance/Great Clips SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Kahne will be without long-time crew chief Kenny Francis for the first time in years as Keith Rodden will take the reins with Francis becoming Hendrick's Vehicle Technical Director. If it was not for a late regular season win at Atlanta, Kahne may not have made the Chase as he had a disappointing season as he had his fewest amount of top fives since 2007. Kahne has the versatility to win a ton of races and be in the mix for a title but he will have to jell with Rodden quickly.

12. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Rowdy is coming off one of his more inconsistent seasons as he had nine finishes of 34th or worse and had a disastrous performance in the elimination race at Talladega in which he fell from 2nd to out of the Chase after a mid-race wreck. Everybody knows that Busch has the raw talent to win a title but he still is yet to put it all together and can follow up brilliant performances with poor ones. I don't see much different this year.

13. Tony Stewart, #14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobile 1 SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
2014 was certainly a tumultuous one for Smoke given the tragic death of Kevin Ward at the Canandaigua sprint car race in August, and the fact that he was on pace for the worst season of his career certainly did not help matters. I think we are poised for a bounce-back campaign this season from Stewart but I do not think we be in title contention in the Chase.

14. Ryan Newman, #31 Caterpillar/Quicken Loans SS, Richard Childress Racing
Newman was one of the most surprising drivers to be in championship contention considering he had no wins and only four top fives going into the season finale. Of course, he would come close to winning the title as he finished second to Kevin Harvick at Homestead. I think he will not have the same kind of luck this year and will take a nice step back in the points.

15. Clint Bowyer, #15 5-hour Energy Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
After the controversy surrounding Bowyer and the Chase manipulation at Richmond in 2013, Bowyer had the worst season of his career in 2014 as he finished 19th in points (although he would have made the Chase had it simply been top 16). The MWR Toyotas took a step backward in terms of performance but he should get back to the Chase this year. As to how far he will go will be to be determined.

16. Austin Dillon, #3 Dow Chemical/Cheerios SS, Richard Childress Racing
Dillon certainly did not have the flashiest rookie season (we already mentioned who that was), nor was he much of a contender for wins as he only led ten laps, he did have himself a solid rookie year. He ran at the finish of every race and nearly snuck himself into the Chase even without a win. This year I think he will take a step forward and get into the Chase. If he were to win anywhere, I think he would be a solid bet at either Daytona or Talladega (don't forget that he was in the mix to win the fall Talladega race in 2013).

17. Jamie McMurray, #1 McDonald's/Cessna SS, Chip Ganassi Racing w/ Felix Sabates
Jamie Mac had his most top fives, top tens and poles since 2010 and led the most laps of his career, but he didn't have any wins and he was about 50 points of getting in the traditional manner. I think you will see a similar type of season from him but it is possible with highly regarded new crew chief Matt McCall that he take a step into the Chase.

18. Paul Menard, #27 Menards SS, Richard Childress Racing
If the Chase simply included the top 16 drivers in points after Richmond, Menard would have gotten in. Even as it was his lowest finish in the points since 2010, you could make a case that 2014 was the best year of Menard's career with a career high of five top fives and a career high of 13 top tens. He has the consistency to get into the Chase the traditional way but he still hasn't shown to me that he can compete for wins, beyond the fuel mileage victory at Indianapolis in 2011.

19. Greg Biffle, #16 Ortho/Cheez-It Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle was able to slide into the Chase through points but even then it certainly was a disappointing year for the No. 16 team as they were not that competitive for wins save for at the plate tracks and were a non-factor in the Chase. Unless the Roush Fenway Fords improve in performance (something I am not sold on happening in Cup this year), I think you could see Biffle take a step backwards.

20. A.J. Allmendinger, #47 Kingsford Charcoal/Clorox SS, JTG Daugherty Racing
Allmendinger followed Aric Almirola as another driver to steal a Chase berth when he battled Marcos Ambrose to win at Watkins Glen. What not too many people noticed is that Allmendinger nearly snuck past the first elimination as he was sitting in 10th after New Hampshire but a mediocre finish at Dover left him on the outside looking in. He is good enough on the road courses to get another win again but the JTG Daugherty Chevy's will need to step up their performance to get into the Chase without a win.

21. Martin Truex Jr., #78 Furniture Row SS, Furniture Row Racing
Both Truex, who was coming off the Chase appearance that wasn't, and Furniture Row Racing, who had a tremendous season with Kurt Busch in 2013, took a nice step backwards in 2014 as Truex got off to an awful start and never recovered. Truex is a Chase-caliber driver in my opinion but I don't think the FRR equipment is quite good enough for him to get there beyond a win.

22. Aric Almirola, #43 Smithfield Foods Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
Almirola was the first driver to pull the upset to clinch a Chase berth after he won a rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 and though even as Almirola finished last of the 16 Chase drivers, his season certainly has to be considered a success. He probably does not have the equipment to make the Chase the traditional manner but can he crank out a surprise win again? I'm not counting on it but nor am I counting it out.

23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., #17 Fastenal Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
Stenhouse had more top tens last season than he did in his rookie season (five to three) but he dropped eight spots in the standings. The noticeable drop in performance from the RFR Fords seemed to have the biggest impact on Stenhouse as he was much more inconsistent than he was in 2013. He should take a step back in the right direction this season but the Roush performance will determine how much better he will be.

24. Sam Hornish Jr., #9 Twisted Tea Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
It seemed like Hornish's NASCAR career was over after a mediocre three-year stretch in Cup but Hornish went to the Xfinity and showed a lot more speed while winning three times, even after being released by Team Penske and driving part-time last year for Kyle Busch. Now he is back in Cup with much more confidence than he had when he debuted. He should perform much better but with a lack of sponsorship, his performance a little lower than expected.

25. Brian Vickers, #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
Vickers is lower in the points standings than he would be because he will miss the first two races of the season due to surgery that repaired a hole in his heart. He struggled down the stretch as he fell from eighth in points after the Coke 600 to 22nd. Vickers is talented enough to make the Chase but the MWR equipment will have to cooperate (it often didn't last year) as he will be behind the eight-ball somewhat.

26. Trevor Bayne, #6 Advocare Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
It will have been four years since the upset win Bayne pulled off in the 2011 Daytona 500 when the season starts but given the promise that that win seemed to entail for Bayne, one could consider his last few years as a relative disappointment. Of course the Roush decline has certainly not helped matters, nor did his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2013. If the Roush Fords improve this year, I would not rule Bayne out of a top-20 points finish but that is still a question to be answered.

27. Casey Mears, #13 Geico SS, Germain Racing
Mears has seemed to have found some stability with the Germain operation and he has been a contender for solid finishes every now and again. He did slip back to 26th in points from 24th but tripled his top ten count and gained a top five at Daytona in July. The No. 13 team has shown some speed at the plate tracks and I wouldn't rule him out of stealing a Chase berth.

28. Danica Patrick, #10 GoDaddy SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Patrick did show some improvement last season but not as much as some were expecting, not to mention that she actually went backwards in the points standings. Now in the final year of her contract with Stewart-Haas Racing, this is a make-or-break season for her but I just do not see her doing much better than she did a year ago.

29. Justin Allgaier, #51 Brandt SS, HScott Motorsports
Even with the DNQ in the fall Talladega race thanks to the mess of the group qualifying format at the plate tracks, Allgaier had himself an okay rookie year with a new team. He had a handful of top 20 runs and showed some speed every once in a while. Look for him to get his first top ten now that he has some more familiarity with the Cup cars as well as a teammate in Michael Annett.

30. Cole Whitt, #35 Speed Stick Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
Given the tumult that surrounded his team in 2014 when Swan Racing was merged into BK Racing, Whitt's rookie campaign was not all that bad. Now we moves to a more stable organization in Front Row and it is not out of the realm of possibility for him to crack the top 30 in points. Whitt does have some talent and he will have a greater opportunity this year to show it.

31. David Gilliland, #38 Love's Travel Shops Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
Gilliland was not able to score any top tens but he did get a pole at the July Daytona race, albeit after qualifying was ended early due to rain. He is an underrated plate racer and the Front Row drivers do know how to put themselves in positions for strong finishes at those tracks. That will be his best opportunity for strong finishes, even a win.

32. David Ragan, #34 CSX Transportation/FarmRich Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
Ragan only had one top ten in 2014 but it was Front Row's first top ten at a non-plate track in the October race at Martinsville. Beyond that it was a struggle, including at the plate tracks (save for the July Daytona race when they were in the top ten for a good chunk of the race). But as he and the team showed in 2013, they are always a factor at the plate tracks and therefore with how good of a plate racer Ragan is, you could see him sneaking into the Chase by way of a plate win.

33. Michael Annett, #46 Pilot Flying J SS, HScott Motorsports
Annett did not do a whole lot in his rookie season with Tommy Baldwin Racing, and now he is with a brand new team as HScott Motorsports adds a second team. Given that Annett only had four top-20 finishes all season long, and none in the second half of the season, plus the combination of a brand new teams, expectations should not be that high for his sophomore campaign.

34. Landon Cassill, #40 CarsForSale.com SS, Hillman Smith Motorsports
It would be interesting to see what Cassill could do in better equipment as he has had some nice runs the last couple of years running in mediocre equipment. Cassill did have two DNQ's early on but none after Las Vegas and he has shown himself to be a quality plate racer as he finished 12th in the Daytona 500, 11th in the Aaron's 499, qualified third for the Coke Zero 400 and then got his first top five as he finished fourth in the Geico 500 in October.

35. Alex Bowman, #7 Toy State/Golden Corral SS, Tommy Baldwin Racing
It was a tough rookie season for Bowman as while he was able to start every race, he had only one finished better than 22nd (13th at Daytona in July). Of course, expectations were not that high given his inexperience and the BK Racing equipment but the season was a struggle. While the TBR equipment probably is an upgrade from the BK team, it still is inferior equipment to most of the field. Don't expect a big jump in the points from him.

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