But first things first comes the 2015 Xfinity season, the first with the new sponsor after the deal with Nationwide expired. Can Elliott become the seventh driver and the first since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2012 to win back-to-back championships in the series? Or will we see a fresh face taking the crown? With less than two weeks to the season opener at Daytona, here are my predictions for the 2015 season.
1. Chase Elliott, #9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro, JR Motorsports
Yes, I realize that I am predicting repeat winners for the Truck Series and for the Xfinity Series (stay tuned for my Cup predictions). But like in predicting a Matt Crafton threepeat, I just do not foresee a way that Elliott will not repeat as series champion. And in particular for Elliott, now he has more familiarity than he did a year ago in his debut season and considering how he improved over the course of the season en route to the title, I just can't see anybody besting an even-better Elliott.
2. Regan Smith, #7 TaxSlayer/Unilever Camaro, JR Motorsports
Of all the drivers aiming to claim the Xfinity crown from Elliott, his JR Motorsports teammate probably has the best chance. Smith has been in the mix for the title both of the past two seasons and last year he had almost as much consistency as Elliott had as he was in the points lead for several weeks in 2014. However he had a couple of races where he was not quite up to par and thus helped the title slip away from him. If he can put it all together, he can win the title.
3. Elliott Sadler, #1 OneMain Financial Mustang, Roush Fenway Racing
Sadler will slide over to Roush and Ford after one season in a Gibbs Toyota. He has resurrected his career in returning to the Xfinity Series and he has been a title contender every season since and yet, he has not been able to fully climb the mountain. What will be key for him is if the Fords can rebound after some disappointing seasons. I think they can and will, putting Sadler right in the mix once again.
4. Brian Scott, #2 Shore Lodge Camaro, Richard Childress Racing
Scott showed a lot of improvement last season and particularly so down the stretch as he only had one non-top ten finish in the second half of the season (11th at Bristol) as he finished third in points. He ran up front more often and if he can grab some wins (which I think he can), he may be able to get into the title hunt.
5. Ty Dillon, #3 WESCO/Yuengling Light Camaro, Richard Childress Racing
Dillon replaced his brother in a ride for the second time in three years after Austin Dillon moved up to the Cup Series and he largely had a solid rookie campaign as he finished fifth in points and getting his first win at Indianapolis. Dillon consistently finished in the top ten but he needs to finish more in the top five if he wants to follow in his brother's footsteps as an Xfinity champion.
6. Darrell Wallace Jr., #6 Mustang, Roush Fenway Racing
After failing to find sponsorship to run in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, Bubba bounced over to Roush where he has a full-time ride but still questions in terms of sponsorship. Wallace showed a lot of improvement in his second season in the CWTS as he quadrupled his win total, doubled his top five total and moved to third in points after finishing in eighth. He showed be competitive right away but the sponsorship concerns may linger.
7. Brendan Gaughan, #62 South Point Resort Camaro, Richard Childress Racing
Gaughan was able to get his first two Xfinity wins last season at Road America and Kentucky but beyond that was not running up front all that often as those were his only top fives. If he can consistently finish more in the top five, he can finish in the top five in points.
8. Chris Buescher, #60 Mustang, Roush Fenway Racing
Buescher is another driver that could be plagued by sponsorship issues this season (his status for this season is not certain yet) but he showed last season in a solid debut campaign that he can be competitive in NASCAR's second-tier series. If the Roush program improves, his results likely will as well and at the very least he will qualify this time for the opener at Daytona.
9. Daniel Suarez (R), #18 Arris Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
At the moment the only declared candidate for Rookie of the Year, Suarez is joining a top-flight organization and the expectations will be high. Suarez will also be breaking boundaries as the full full-time Latino driver in the series. He did have some success in the K&N East Series last year but it is a big jump to Xfinity action, and he didn't tear up the field in his two Xfinity races last year, but the quality of the cars will be too good for Saurez to go wrong.
10. Ryan Reed, #16 Drive to Stop Diabetes Mustang, Roush Fenway Racing
The fact that Reed brings sponsorship to his ride plays a big part in him having this ride because he did not speed all that much speed in his rookie campaign. That said, Reed was able to keep himself out of trouble and only had two DNF's, both of which came in the first four races of the season. He did only have one top ten last year but given that he was able to finish in the top ten in points last season, no reason not to expect him to do so this year.
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