Fast Forward ~ The 2015 Season Preview
Stenhouse's 2014 season highlight was a second place finish in the first Bristol race. The rest of his season was one to forget, including a DNQ for the second Talladega race. Stenhouse ended 2014 with one top 5 and five top-tens, an improvement over 2013, however he finished eight spots lower in points in 2014 (27th vs 19th in 2013). It is not a good sign when one is known more for their off track life, than their performance on the track Stenhouse needs to put distractions of dating Danica Patrick aside and focus on driving in 2015. If he does not show the promise that led him to win two XFINITY championships, do not be surprised to see one of Roush-Fenway’s XFINITY's drivers in the No. 17 before the end of the year as Roush is not always a patient owner, and demands results. Unless Stenhouse can flip the switch like he did in when he was in the XFINITY series, there is no Chase appearance, no wins and no ride at Roush-Fenway for him after this year.
It might be a stretch to call 2015 a make or break year for Kyle Busch but it certainly could be a critical one as he begins his 8th season with Joe Gibbs Racing. With Adam Stevens moving up from the team's Xfinity program to replace Dave Rogers as crew chief, expectations are high that Busch can become a title threat. After periods of friction between he and Rogers last year, the relationship he develops with Stevens might be critical. The 9 top 5's and 15 top 10's were the team's lowest totals since 2009. If history is any indication, they should rebound nicely in the coming year. Busch had four wins in 2011 but only one the next season. The pattern was repeated with four victories in 2013 only to be followed by last year's lone win at Fontana. Should that trend continue, Busch and the entire Gibbs organization would be thrilled to see four wins in 2015. If it happens, he might finally be considered a serious championship contender. How much of a force he is will also be dependent upon whether Gibbs Toyota engines can overcome their deficiencies against the Hendrick engines. If they can improve, look for Kyle to make the Chase and finish somewhere in the lower half of the top 10.
Without question, the biggest "silly season" move was Carl Edwards leaving Roush-Fenway for Joe Gibbs Racing, where he'll pilot the #19 Toyota with sponsorship from Arris, Stanley Tools, Subway and Sport Clips. Teamed up with championship winning crew chief Darian Grubb, this team has high expectations. Although it seemed the Roush organization was in a free fall last year, Edwards still scored wins in the Bristol spring race and at Sonoma. He finished 9th in the Sprint Cup Chase. Assuming Toyota has corrected their engines woes from a year ago, a big season could be in store for this team. The tracks that Edwards runs well at are the same tracks Gibbs teams have done well at. In a year with no team testing, that could be a great advantage. Even though this is a new driver and team combination, it would be shocking if Carl Edwards didn't make the Chase field in 2015. Winning it all might be a bit much to ask in their first year together but fans should be able to anticipate a solid 4th to 10th place finish in the big picture.
Matt Kenseth returns for his second season in the Joe Gibbs #20 Toyota, carrying the colors of Dollar General and Stanley Tools. Jason Ratcliff will again call the shots as the team hopes to rebound from a winless 2014 season and return to its 2013 form when they earned 7 victories. This is the only Gibbs team not affected by crew chief changes.
Like his teammates, Kenseth suffered from a lack of horsepower last year from their Toyota Racing Development engines. Even with those problems however, the 2003 champion was still able to pick up 22 top 10 finishes on his way to a 7th place points finish. Whether the engine woes have been corrected will be biggest question this team faces. Assuming that's a thing of the past, look for a great year from Kenseth. With his experience and continuity between he and his crew chief, Matt might be primed to lead the Gibbs organization to a title run. Expect a top five season and don't be surprised to see him in the final quartet at Homestead.
2014 was really a breakout year for Logano and the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil team. With 5 wins and a legitimate Championship shot when the Chase reached Homestead, it was the kind of year that makes folks expect it from you going forward. Not surprisingly, this is no different. Shell/Pennzoil will be back for 32 races in 2015 while AAA grabs 3 and Auto Trader takes one. Will Logano continue to fulfill his Sliced Bread legacy, or is he Toast? Look for more for the same from last year. If he can remain a force in qualifying, look for that to transfer to Sunday. Four wins and at least advancement past the second round.
My partner is one swell guy! He asks for a couple of paragraphs by way of introduction to the 2015 season, then hands me a guy with a 23-year stellar career including 4 Championships and 92 wins to date. This team is the #24 entry from Hendrick Motor Sports. This is the guy Rick Hendrick once described as, “My annuity.” Race fans… this is Jeff Gordon, 3rd on the all-time win list and a shoo-in to the NASCAR Hall of Fame once he hangs up his helmet. Jeff has already announced that this season will be his last full season, and his last attempt to “Drive for five.” Sure gonna miss you Wonder Boy! There is no change to speak of on this team. Hendrick will always run Chevys, and engines come from Hendrick Motorsports. Alan Gustafson remains as Crew Chief, and as mentioned earlier, 3M moves their sponsorship from Greg Biffle’s #16 to adorn Gordon’s hood for 11 races this year. Returning sponsors include Drive to End Hunger, Axalta, Pepsi and Panasonic. If the name Axalta confuses anyone, it’s DuPont under another name. Nope, I haven’t a clue why they changed a well-respected name to an unknown one, but as in the beginning, they are in it to the end. This team will be tough out of the box this year and figures to finish high up at the end if they don’t over-think themselves in going after that 5th time on the tallest podium stand. I look for Jeff to be among the four remaining at Homestead… barring some stupid bit of bad luck of course.
This team comes from Richard Childress Racing, and has only one change for 2015, which actually was made as of Talladega last fall. Crew chief Slugger Labbe was kicked upstairs at RCR, into heading the Research and Development phase of the company. Justin Alexander was put in Labbe’s place and will continue as crew chief for the team this year. Of course, the team fields Chevys, and engines come from Earnhardt Childress Racing. Sponsorship comes from Menards, and yes, that is the midwestern company owned by driver Paul Menard’s dad.
The team finished 21st last year, and that is probably what can be expected again in 2015. Childress cars have what it takes, as Ryan Newman came within a whisker of taking the Championship in 2014. Menard isn’t a bad driver, but neither is he stellar. In his 291 starts in a Cup car, he has only one win, but it’s a big one. He won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in 2011. This has to be viewed as a middle of the road team until proven otherwise. Every year looks like it might be the year, but so far, no brass rings for the #27. Don’t look for this team in the fun and games past Richmond.
This is “The Motorsports Group,” or TMG for short. This team has been hastily assembled by Curtis Key, an owner whose talents have never exceeded the Busch/Nationwide/Xfinity Series, but this year boldly moves into the Cup ranks. In history, owner Key has entered a team 439 times in the second tier series, scoring one top-5 finish with driver Tommy Ellis back in 1993, and a total of 7 top-10 finishes. It was recently announced that 56-year old Ron Hornaday Jr. will drive the Chevys this team plans to field. Veteran crew chief Pat Tyson is on board to lend his expertise to the team. Engines are listed as being built in-house. The only announced sponsorship is said to be for two races, Daytona and Talladega in May, and comes from Smokey Mountain Snuff. Alright then… we have a car with a home-built engine, driven by a 56-year old that has not been in a Cup car since a single effort in 2003, owned by a man that has never before entered a Cup race and has a two-race commitment from a sponsor this scribe does not recall ever seeing on the hood of a car. What could possibly go wrong? Seriously folks, don’t look for this team to be in contention for anything beyond start and park… if they manage to make a race in which to park. Sometimes, it’s hard to be a believer.
Mr. Newman was so quiet last year, that when the last section of the Chase run began, I heard several race fans say "Where did he come from?" He put on a good show last year during the Chase at the end and his sponsors got their moneys worth. Speaking of sponsorships and contracts, it appears Newman and Catepillar will be connected at the hip through 2016. Quicken Loans will be back for the majority of his races in 2015, but has not re-upped yet. It is thought that his 2014 finish will be the last one that high for him. He has had three 6th place finishes but they were far enough back that the cobwebs and dust have covered those books. He still has the drive and the talent, and should have the equipment behind him, but.....For 2015, some excitement, a couple of wins, maybe a Top 5 finish, but probably a Top 10 come Homestead.
Cole Whitt starts 2015 with a new team (Front Row Motorsports). Whitt spent 2014 starting out with the now defunct Swan Racing. After the race in Darlington, the team sold it assets to BK racing, and BK racing kept Whitt through the year. The positives of Whitt's season was that he made all the races, and has sponsorship from Speed Stick for ten races in 2015. The bad from 2014 is that Whitt only had seven lead lap finishes and was not competitive at most tracks. In 2015 look for improvement on his 31st place in the points, and look for him to be up front at the restrictor plate races, as Front Row has a decent plate program, however to expect a win and a Chase appearance would be too much to ask for in their first year together.
This team comes from Front Row Motorsports and owner Bob Jenkins, the Restaurant guy, not the TV guy. They field Fords, with engines from Roush-Yates. David’s hoods will be adorned for most if not all of 2015 by returning sponsors Love’s Travel Stops and Long John Silver seafood restaurants. Journeyman Crew Chief Donnie Wingo moves to this team for 2015, replacing Jay Guy, who will be fielding car #24 in the Xfinity series. This is one of the “borderline” teams, struggling for existence and recognition while seriously underfunded. They’re too good to start and park, but not good enough to win. In 9 years of racing, David has no wins. He has finished in the top-5 only 4 times, 3 of them at a restrictor plate track and the other at Sonoma. This team will not be a contender for a place at the banquet come November. Apologies to my dear friend Matthew Gillian. I know he’s your cousin, but facts are facts and lack of funding is a cold, hard fact here.
J. L. Steele