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So will be holding the trophy when the season concludes on November 20th at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Here are my predictions for the 2016 Sprint Cup Series.
1. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Doesn't it feel like it's been a while since the last time that Johnson won the championship? Granted his last title came in 2013 but we're also talking about a guy that won five straight titles at one point. He has had strong years since then but has been sank by some bad luck come Chase time. The last time there had been a two year gap since Johnson had previous won a title, he won the title that year. I think we will see that this year.
2. Joey Logano, #22 Shell/Penzoil Fusion, Team Penske
My pick to win the title last year, Logano was in good shape to get to the championship race until the whole brouhaha with Matt Kenseth helped to kill those dreams. Logano still had the best season of his career last season and it would be surprising to me if he were not able to get right back where he was last season, if not even better.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., #88 Nationwide/Axalta SS, Hendrick Motorsports
I have long said that I think that Earnhardt has the talent to win a championship and I'll be completely honest, I almost thought about picking him this year. He has won seven races the last two seasons and at different kinds of tracks. If he were to get a little better luck in the Chase, he will get in the title mix.
4. Kevin Harvick, #4 Jimmy Johns/Busch Beer SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Save for finishing eighth in 2012, Harvick has finished in the top three in points for every year since 2009, and he has finished in the top four in points seven of the last ten years. So yes, this guy is pretty darn good. And he came pretty damn close to winning the championship last year by finishing second to Kyle Busch. I see him taking a slight step backward, so there's that.
5. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
I'm not sure that anybody would have expected to see a champion who hasn't raced in all of the races but Busch put together a wild rally to get into a position to get into the Chase and survived a 37th place finish at Loudon to survive all eliminations and then win at Homestead. Can he do it again? I certainly don't see why not although I'm not predicting it.
6. Carl Edwards, #19 Arris/Stanley Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Edwards had himself a very solid debut with JGR in their new fourth car with a pair of victories and a fifth place points finish. It was a nice rally after a poor start and could put him in position for a big 2016. I don't see him getting that elusive championship this year but as always, he should be fun to watch.
7. Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Lite Fusion, Team Penske
Keselowski has points finishes of 14th, fifth and seventh since winning the 2011 championship, with his title hopes falling by the wayside after a disappointing 32nd place finish at Martinsville. We all know he has got the talent to win another title but he just needs better luck than he has had the last two years in the Chase. I'm not so certain that will change this year.
8. Matt Kenseth, #20 Dollar General Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Kenseth's Chase changed on a dime when he was turned while blocking Joey Logano as he was leading at Kansas. As a result, Kenseth then drove Logano into the wall at Martinsville and then got himself parked and suspended for two races. I'm sure he would love a much less headline-worthy Chase this year but I'm not sure that means he'll get over the Chase hump.
9. Martin Truex Jr., #78 Furniture Row/Bass Pro Shops SS, Furniture Row Racing
The Furniture Row folks had themselves a terrific 2015 season which resulted in them being in the title hunt at Homestead-Miami. Can we expect Truex to have such a successful campaign again? It could very well happen but I just don't see them having as much good luck as they had in the Chase last year.
10. Jamie McMurray, #1 McDonald's/Cessna SS, Chip Ganassi Racing
McMurray may have only led 14 laps a season ago and had only four top fives but he was able to make the Chase due to keeping his car out of trouble and solid, consistent finishes. I don't see why that couldn't continue this season and with the financial infusion provided by new co-owner Rob Kaufman should help the team's performance.
11. Kasey Kahne, #5 Farmers/Great Clips SS, Hendrick Motorsports
After a strong start to 2015 in which he was sitting in eighth in points as late as Sonoma, Kahne fell apart down the stretch as he wouldn't have a top ten until over ten races later. He ultimately fell to 18th in points in what was his worst season in five years. With his talent and the equipment, I see them rebound while returning to the Chase.
12. Kyle Larson, #42 Target SS, Chip Ganassi Racing
After a very nice rookie campaign, Larson was expected to take a step forward in 2015 but instead, he suffered the classic sophomore slump. I do see the reason for not just a resurgence but the best season of his career. First off, the CGR teams should benefit from an infusion of resources from the aforementioned Kaufman. Secondly, the kid's got the talent.
13. Ryan Newman, #31 Caterpillar SS, Richard Childress Racing
Newman has turned the points system on its head the last two seasons as he hasn't been finding success by winning races but the old fashioned consistency and smart racing. He did take a step backward last season in the points from 2014's near championship and I think he'll have more of a season like last season than the season prior.
14. Austin Dillon, #3 Dow/Cheerios SS, Richard Childress Racing
Dillon did have one more top ten in 2015 than he did in his rookie campaign but he did slip one spot in the points from 20th to 21st. I do think he will take a step forward and make his first Chase this season. The biggest reason why is that I think he will have show the consistency like Newman while keeping his car out of trouble. After all, it is time for him to take a step forward.
15. Aric Almirola, #43 Smithfield Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
A year after breaking through and reaching the Chase by winning the
16. Greg Biffle, #16 KFC/Cheez-It Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle has declined four straight years in the points from a fifth place finish in 2012 to a 20th place finish in 2015, similar to the decline that Jack Roush's organization has gone through. I'm not sure when the hemorrhaging will stop but I think that Biffle is cagey enough to slide back into the Chase this year.
17. Paul Menard, #15 Menards SS, Richard Childress Racing
Last year, Menard may have had the fewest amount of top tens of a season of his since 2009, a year in which he finished 31st in points, and yet he got into the Chase for the first time of his career last season. How did he do it? He was a steady Eddie all year long by keeping himself out of trouble and bringing his cars home in one piece. I think that will continue but I do think he will slide slightly back.
18. Chase Elliott, #24 NAPA Auto Parts SS, Hendrick Motorsports
I would argue that Elliott is the most anticipated rookie in the Sprint Cup Series in a long time and it is easy to see why. First off, he is the son of a legend. Second, he has shown immense talent by finishing first and second in his two Xfinity seasons. And third, he has a legendary ride. All of that said, it really is tough for a rookie to come in and make a big impact right away these days.
19. Clint Bowyer, #15 5-Hour Energy SS, HScott Motorsports
Bowyer is a very talented racer so it's been disappointing to see him with 19th and 16th place points finishes the last two years but it will be interesting to see what he does in an interim ride before replacing Tony Stewart in the #14. He's bringing sponsorship to HScott Motorsports but will he have the equipment to make the Chase?
20. AJ Allmendinger, #47 Kroger SS, JTG Daugherty Racing
The Dinger was not able to make the Chase as he did in 2014 thanks to that win at Watkins Glen and while he fell short of getting a win last season, or in making the Chase the old fashioned way, he did take the pole at both road courses last season. Therefore, nobody should be surprised if he pulls it off again.
21. Ryan Blaney, #21 Motorcraft Fusion, Wood Brothers Racing
While not as anticipated a debut as Elliott's is but there are high expectations for Blaney, as well as high hopes for the return of the Woods to full time action. The team's close connection with Team Penske will certainly help but the one concern that I do have is that this team does not have a charter, meaning they are at risk for missing races should issues come about.
22. Danica Patrick, #10 Nature's Bakery SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
It will be interesting to see Patrick driving a car that is not sponsored by GoDaddy for the first time in many years, going back to her early days in IndyCar. I was one of the many critics of Patrick in her early NASCAR days but I have to give her credit as he has improved in a Cup car. I'm not willing to say she's improved enough to make the Chase, unless she were to win at a plate track.
23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., #17 Fastenal/Fifth Third Bank Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
It wasn't that long ago that Stenhouse won two straight Xfinity championships but his Cup career has jumped to dovetail with the Roush performance in decline. The kid definitely has talent but the Fusions organization-wide simply have to improve.
24. Casey Mears, #13 Geico SS, Germain Racing
Mears has found a home with the German folks and Geico over the past several years and while they aren't exactly Chase contenders, they've put in solid work. In fact, I don't think it's crazy to think that they could crack the top 20 in points but to do that, they'd have to put together a few more top tens while maybe getting lucky at a plate track.
25. Trevor Bayne, #6 AdvoCare Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
Bayne's rookie season was largely forgettable as he only had two top tens while finishing a lowly 29th in points. Bayne is younger than you would think (considering he won that Daytona 500 while only 20 years old back in 2011) and I do believe that he has talent but like Stenhouse, the organization's performance needs to improve.
26. Chris Buescher, #34 Love's Travel Stops Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
The defending Xfinity champion may be better off than FRM drivers of the past given that the team has formed a stronger alliance with the Roush organization. That said, he really didn't tear it up last year in the handful of races he ran with this team. Buescher does have talent and seems ticketed for a Roush ride in the future but I am intrigued to see what he'll do in 2016.
27. Brian Scott, #44 Albertsons/Shore Lodge Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
Will Scott really be able to do much better than Sam Hornish Jr. did in this ride a year ago? I'm not that sold even as Hornish really didn't do all that much but unlike Scott, he didn't bring some sponsorship. In all fairness to Scott, he has shown some speed over the years in his Xfinity and his truck days but can he break through in Cup?
28. Tony Stewart, #14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobile 1 SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart was a tough driver to place in the final standings not because he's been rather uncompetitive the past few years but because he suffered a back injury a couple weeks ago and will be out for an undetermined amount of time. It is a shame given that 2016 will be his final year but alas.
29. Regan Smith, #7 Toy State/Golden Corral SS, Tommy Baldwin Racing
After not finding much success with the relatively raw and unproven Alex Bowman last season, TBR will return to more of a sound veteran manning their machine in Smith, who returns to Cup after a few seasons in Xfinity driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Smith should be able to raise the level of performance a little bit but it can only go so far as the equipment just isn't very good.
30. Landon Cassill, #38 Florida Lottery/Snap Fitness Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
The great Jeff Gluck did a nice profile of Cassill and how he's trying to build his NASCAR career the old fashioned way. Now he's got a relatively secure ride at a team that is now working closer with Roush Fenway Racing than they did before, but it's also a ride that lacks full-time sponsorship.
31. Michael Annett, #46 Pilot Flying J SS, HScott Motorsports
The #46 was originally not going to have one of the coveted charters but the team was able to lease one from Premium Motorsports so that was a coup. Annett has failed to make much noise in his two years in Cup with no top tens to his name thus far but perhaps being a teammate of Clint Bowyer could help him out.
32. David Ragan, #23 Dr. Pepper Camry, BK Racing
Ragan had an unusual 2015 given that he only started one race for his contracted team in Front Row Motorsports before filling in for Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers at Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, respectively. Now he's been shuffled to some mediocre equipment at BK Racing and so expectations shouldn't be very high.
33. Matt DiBenedetto, #83 Dustless Blasting/Cosmo Motors Camry, BK Racing
DiBenedetto is still only 24 but his career has already taken some odd turns. He was once a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing but since then he has been forced to settle for some start and park rides and other lower tier rides. He ran nearly a full schedule at BK Racing last year and didn't make that much of an impact and I don't see that changing.
34. Cole Whitt, #98 RTIC Coolers Camry, Premium Motorsports
I like Whitt and he did an admirable job in the 35 car for Front Row Motorsports last season but not only is he taking a step backward in terms of equipment, he is also joining a team that is without a charter. Therefore, the #98 could struggle to make some races this season.
35. Jeffrey Earnhardt, #32 Can-Am/Keen Parts Fusion, Go FAS Racing
Earnhardt won't be running the full schedule as Bobby Labonte will be doing the plate races in the #32 so his points ceiling is not very high. What also doesn't help his cause is that he doesn't have that much experience and in his limited experience, he hasn't had much success as his zero top tens in 66 Xfinity races shows.