Fast Forward ~ The 2015 Season Preview Part 3
It's a bit surprising that the folks over at Front Row can keep themselves straight, let alone the rest of us. Rookie and Xfinity Series Champion Chris Buescher will step into the Cup Series ranks this season driving the No. 34, which used to be the No. 38, and then the No. 35 was rebranded to be the No. 38, and now there is no 38 and David Gilliland is not driving...anyway. Buescher get's the Love's Travel Stops package for 18 races, and should have CSX for 8 more. If this was the way Jack Roush wanted to congratulate his latest hot young talent for winning the Xfinity series Championship, it might be a bit lacking other than the faith in him to work out a deal with another car owner to get him some seat time. Look for this team to possibly contend at the plate tracks, but not much else.
This team is Front Row Motorsports, and it was David Gilliland behind the wheel for owners Bob and Brad Jenkins in 2015. Gilliland was not renewed as driver, and on January 20, Landon Cassill was announced as driver. Sponsorship will come from Florida Lottery for the Daytona 500. Beyond that, the FRM website lists it as TBA. FRM fields Fords, with engines from Roush-Yates, and crew chief Donnie Wingo remains in place for 2016. The team holds 2 charters, and a late announcement adds an interesting twist. The team will field a 3rd car, the thought to be defunct #35, with driver David Gilliland.
This team finished an unimpressive 32nd last year with Gilliland. Cassill’s allegiance in 2015 was to the Xfinity Series, so there are no Cup points with which to compare. His average Cup finish last year was 30.6 with nary a lap led all season for Joe Falk’s #40. With sponsorship definitely in question, we see this team struggling to equal the poor point finish of last year.
Coming off his best points finish since 2009, Kurt Busch and his Stewart Haas Racing team have their eyes set on finishing 2016 at Homestead with a chance to win the Sprint Cup title. With two wins, 10 top fives and 21 top tens, Busch was also a factor in several of the races he didn't win. If they can avoid bad luck on the track and find a way to beat the Toyota's of Gibbs, Busch could very well hoist his second championship trophy.
Tony Gibson returns as crew chief and the team will continue to run engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Monster Energy and Haas Automation will split the bulk of the sponsorship with additional support coming from State Water Heaters.
It's hard to believe that a year ago, casual fans were wondering who Kyle Larson was. Now the question being asked, is when will we break through and score his first Sprint Cup victory. There were a few times it appeared he would get that win last year, in a season that saw the California native score 17 top 10's including 8 top five finishes. Expectations are high heading into 2015. Will he suffer a sophomore slump or be a Chase contender? He will be the center of a lot of attention as he once again pilots the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevy. Target is back as the primary sponsor and Chris Heroy returns as the team's crew chief. One of the team's biggest advantages might be the fact they receive their engines from Hendrick Motorsports. Instead of wondering if Larson will win in 2015, the question is when. He might not be a serious title contender this year but he should certainly be a safe bet to make the field of 16 Chase drivers.
Other than Smithfield picking up two more races, there's nothing new from last year for Aric Almirola. The team continues to improve but it remains to be seen if that improvement can transfer into a Chase slot NOT determined by weather.
This is the new look for last year’s #9 team from Richard Petty Motorsports and owners Richard Petty, Andy Murstein and Doug Bergeron. The #44 is a throwback to the days of Petty Enterprises. This was the number run by Kyle Petty until the death of his son Adam in 2000. Then he reluctantly put Adam’s #45 on his car, thereby keeping Adam’s memory alive and well. Ford remains the car of choice, with engines from Roush-Yates. New behind the wheel this year is ROTY candidate Brian Scott, and guiding him from atop the pit box is crew chief Chris Heroy, who moves to RPM from Ganassi Racing to replace Kevin “Bono” Manion. Sponsorship comes from Albertsons, Shore Lodge Whitetail, Twisted Tea, GoBowling.com and Goody’s Powders.
As #9 with Sam Hornish driving, this team managed only a 26th place finish in 2015. Scott may well best that, but not this year. He is one of the least heralded of this year’s rookie crop, competing with Chris Buescher, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney. Our guess is that Homestead will see this team somewhere in the low 30s in point standings. A lot more seat time is the ticket to success for young Brian Scott.
This team is JTG Daugherty Racing, with owners Tad Geschickter and Brad Daugherty, paired up for the past few years with Rusty Wallace in the infield of the track du jour, and coming into your homes courtesy of your TV screen. Oh yes, and he also played pro-basketball and owns a racecar. Driver A.J. Allmendinger began racing in open wheel but moved over to cars with fenders in 2006. Your scribe believes that his talent exceeds this team, but everyone is trying hard to gain a footing in the NASCAR game. The team fields Chevys, with engines coming from ECR, and holds a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. There are few, if any changes here this year. Crew Chief Brian Burns returns to the top of the box for 2015, and primary sponsors, Kingsford Charcoal/Clorox, Bush’s Baked Beans (Love that dog Duke!), Scott Products and several others are all scheduled to return.
How does your scribe see this team finishing in 2015? Slightly above borderline would be my guess. This is a decent team; they just don’t have Hendrick/Gibbs type financial backing. They have a decent chance of going into Chicago as part of the exalted ones, but barely. Look for them to finish right at the cutoff… 15th, 16th, 17th. So… no promises, but high hopes ride with A.J. this season. Oh, and don’t look for the #47 in the Sprint Unlimited this year. This team fell victim to NASCAR’s latest “Rules change”, and though now eligible to race in the SU, have no sponsorship in place to cover the expense. A sad story of our times…
No introduction needed here. This is the #48 team from Hendrick Motorsports and owners, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon. The team of driver Jimmie Johnson and Crew Chief Chad Knaus is the best known in the Cup series today, having 6 Championships already in the bank and hoping for more to come. All Hendrick teams field Chevys, and the engines of course, come from Hendrick Motorsports. The team comes into the 2015 season virtually unchanged, with the only disturbing thing I see on the horizon is that Knaus and long-time sponsor, Lowes Home Improvement, have contracts that expire at the end of the 2015 season. This is a top tier team, no question about it. Last year was their worst full season ever, and they finished 11th, but don’t be fooled. They are more than capable of winning it all, despite the kooky format all are now forced to follow. Look for Chad and JJ to finish somewhere between 1st and 4th, and remember, they are very used to taking first place. You’ll definitely see them at the banquet in Las Vegas.
Here we have HScott Motorsports, owned by Harry Scott, one-time partner in Turner-Scott Motorsports. This is the team known as Phoenix Racing that once belonged to James Finch. The team fields Chevys, with engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, but will this year have a “technical alliance’ with Stewart-Haas Racing. Driver Justin Allgaier was another, much like Reed Sorenson and Regan Smith, who showed great promise but was caught up in the rush to amalgamate teams into multi-car teams a few years back. As some teams disappeared from the racing scene, those drivers were left outside looking in when the smoke cleared. This will be only Justin’s second year as a full-time driver, but he is paired with returning Crew Chief Steve Addington, which can’t hurt but only help. Brandt (Agricultural Products) returns as a primary sponsor for 21 races this year. Also, it was announced recently that Justin will have a teammate for 2015 in the person of Michael Annett, driving the #46. This is a building team, with young drivers and is just now learning to spread its fledgling wings and try to fly. Justin Allgaier will probably not make it to the top 16 this year by Richmond, but the talent is here to rise rapidly, just like the Phoenix from the ashes. I’d say a top-20 finish at year’s end is more than possible. The team finished 29th last year, running only 35 races. The one they missed was that qualifying tragedy at Talladega last fall, where some drivers never even made a run. Jeff Gordon, if you recall, qualified 46th that day. Justin Allgaier and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got to watch the race on TV. This is a team to watch in the future.
Has 3 wins in his career: Loudon, Michigan and "Dega. He has won on three different types of tracks so he can strike anywhere. He has Top 10 finishes in 24% of his races. He and his primary sponsor, Aarons, are signed through 2015. His biggest question will be his health. After his heart surgery for problems that sidelined him twice before, it is reported he will be cleared to drive in March. A recent "partnership" with Toyota leads one to think he will be driving "experimental" cars. The prognosis here is, don't look for much, though it won't be for a lack of talent.
Unfortunately, there is not much new for “The Scapegoat” Martin Truex in the 2015 season when compared to 2014. He is in the same car with the same team, but he does actually have a new crew chief. Todd Berrier moved on to a spot with Joe Gibbs racing, and that left the door open for former race engineer Cole Peam to take over the top spot on the pit box. This is a contract year for Truex, so he’s going to need to show some promise if he wants to remain with Furniture Row. However, if he’s looking for an opportunity in a higher profile ride, he’s going to have to win. If he does, it will be one, and that probably means a Chase spot. However, if no wins occur, making the field for the final ten race Championship run might be tough.
...forget retirement. In his words " ....no back issues, no kids on the way...non-factors. I'm having too much fun". Last year’s performance makes one think he is capable of winning anytime, anyplace. Four wins in 2014: Daytona, sweeps Pocono, then for kicks, starts 23rd in Martinsville and wins? Sometimes one wonders which Jr. has showed up this week. Forget a problem with sponsors, he'll probably have them on his casket. Dale and Nationwide are inked through 2017. Mountain Dew is through 2015, but if they are smart, will resign until at least 2017. He does have pit crew issues though...big shakeup there with two coaches leaving and pit crew members switching jobs with in the pits. I will go out on a limb here and say 4 maybe 5 wins, a solid seat in the Chase, and in a shocker, he will retain his title as Most Popular Driver.
J. L. Steele