As the dust settles on an eventful 2015 NASCAR season, Lee Spencer casts a wandering eye on the year ahead.
For three-and-a-half decades, Anthony Wayne Stewart has dazzled fans both on the track and off.
And while it might be difficult for Stewart to top Jeff Gordon’s retirement tour in 2016, the driver affectionately known as ‘Smoke’ has attracted his own legions of supporters, starting during his climb through the open-wheel ranks to stock cars – and on a variety of dirt and asphalt tracks in between.
Stewart, 44, is the only racer to earn titles in both IndyCar and NASCAR. He accomplished the feat after becoming just the second driver to win USAC’s Triple Crown.
As a NASCAR team owner, he won the 2011 title – and his third Cup championship – in Stewart-Haas Racing’s third season on the tour. He was the first owner/operator to accomplish the task since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992. SHR also provided the resources for Kevin Harvick to bring the company its second championship three years later.
But the last three years have been challenging for Stewart, nonetheless. After breaking his leg in August 2013, the three-time Cup champion, who amassed 48 wins during his NASCAR career, has struggled to regain his momentum. Indeed, it’s now been 77 races since the No. 14 Chevy has visited Victory Lane.
For Stewart’s final season in the Sprint Cup Series, he will have his third crew chief in as many years, with Michael Bugarewicz taking over from Chad Johnston, having worked under champion crew chief Rodney Childers on the No. 4 team as the lead engineer.
While Stewart acknowledged, “Change isn’t easy,” a fresh start might provide the catalyst he needs to end his NASCAR driving career on a high note. Regardless, Stewart’s contribution as a team owner in Sprint Cup and open-wheel – as well as his gift for managing and promoting racetracks – will certainly leave a rich legacy in motorsports.
Here are five other storylines to watch in 2016:
1. Kyle Busch breaks through.
Yes, after 11 seasons on the tour, Busch finally won the Sprint Cup title – and in dramatic fashion, after breaking his right leg and left foot in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona. While the No. 18 M&Ms team maintained a torrid pace over 25 races, can Busch continue that same momentum over the course of 36 races in 2016 and beyond? If this season is any indication, then the answer is yes.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon agrees. “He’s more talented than I am,” Gordon said. “If he keeps racing the way that he did this year.” Busch won 20-percent of his races in 2015 – including the season finale. While winning a race in the first 26 events is critical under the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format in order to transfer to the playoffs, the Adam Stevens-led team showed poise and patience throughout the last 10 races as Busch easily transferred through each of the three rounds before capturing the title. Plus, Busch’s experience in the Chase is invaluable – as defending champion Kevin Harvick proved while staying in step with Busch until the last lap at Miami-Homestead Speedway.
2. Is Chase Elliott ready for prime time?
When Hendrick Motorsports announced Jeff Gordon’s retirement in January, it came as no surprise that Elliott received the nod. After winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series title in his rookie season, the second-generation racer proved he was ready to take that next step. Now 20, and with four wins and another season of NXS under his belt, Elliott will take over the driving duties for the No. 24 Chevy in 2016. To prepare for the task, Elliott ran five races in the No. 25 NAPA Chevy, and posted an average finish of 26.2. He also shadowed the No. 24 crew over the course of the season, attended the competition meetings and listened to crew chief Alan Gustafson’s interaction with Gordon on the radio. Does the driver believe he can meet his owner Rick Hendrick’s expectations?
“He expects me to do my job, and get the job done, and I wouldn’t expect anything less,” Elliott said. “Like I told people all year, I’m not trying to fill anybody’s shoes. I’m just trying to wear my own, and hopefully that will be good enough.”
3. Can new crew chiefs jumpstart the careers of Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson?
The hype surrounding Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson can be overwhelming at times. While Patrick is continually in the spotlight, the expectations for Larson – given his early racing accomplishments – were higher. Larson, 23, was under the guidance of Chris Heroy during his first two seasons, but last season spiralled into a sophomore slump. Chad Johnston, who worked wonders with Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, but endured two difficult seasons with Tony Stewart, will oversee the No. 42 team for 2016.
Larson ended the season with a Top-5 finish at Homestead. Hopefully, he will be able to carry that momentum into the new season.
As for Patrick, now that the novelty of being a woman in NASCAR has worn off, the question remains: Can she compete with the big boys? In 2016, Billy Scott becomes Patrick’s third crew chief. Scott has worked with a variety of drivers at different stages of their careers, and has delivered results. Patrick has made modest gains in her first three years but beyond restrictor plate tracks and Martinsville Speedway, she has not been a factor of late. Time will tell.
4. Will the latest Sprint Cup model provide the solution the sport is looking for?
For the last year, NASCAR’s competition department has been working overtime to develop a low-downforce car that will enhance the on-track product. If the preliminary package that debuted at Kentucky Speedway last June is any indication of the car’s potential, then NASCAR fans are in for a treat.
Similar to the rules used at Kentucky and Darlington Raceway, the rear spoiler will be shortened from six inches to 3.5-inches, with a quarter-inch leading splitter edge. Although the radiator pan was initially decreased from 38 inches-wide to 25-inches, it will be 33-inches on the 2016 base package.
Carl Edwards, who won with the low-downforce package at Darlington, is thrilled about the car’s potential. While the initial reduction of downforce is expected to be 30-percent in 2016, it’s possible there could be more coming.
“From the little bit I have discussed it with [NASCAR], I think they have other things on the horizon,” Edwards said. “I’ll tell you, that is it. It’s the coolest thing they could do. These cars are so much fun to drive when you can drive close to one another and you can manage the tires. The high point of the season for me was racing with Kevin (Harvick) and Brad (Keselowski), and sliding all over while managing the tires. Every track could be like that if they keep taking downforce away. They’re going the right way. It’s cool.”
5. Will 2016 be the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally wins the Sprint Cup championship?
Before 2015 started, pundits wondered whether Earnhardt could pick up where he left off with crew chief Steve Letarte in 2014. And before Letarte retired from the competition side of NASCAR and moved to the NBCSports booth, Earnhardt gave him one last challenge: find a crew chief that could take the No. 88 to the next level.
Letarte delivered with Greg Ives. While Earnhardt did not finish as high in the 2015 standings (12th), the team showed tremendous consistency throughout the year. Earnhardt posted his best average finish (11.3) since 2012 – and the best when competing in the full season.
“We’re close, man. This is my first year with Greg. I really think that we’ve got a lot to improve on, and we will, and we’ll get even better, and he’ll get better,” Earnhart said.
“He’s still got a lot of confidence to build up in how he’s doing his job and what he thinks about the decisions he’s making. I can see he’s got some apprehension still. Once he’s clear of all that, and once me and him really start to communicate better and understand what we want from each other, there’s a lot more there for us; a lot more speed and performance there for us.”