One year ago it was chaos for NASCAR fans as the announcement came through there was a new version of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one that put emphasis on winning, had eliminations, and an expanded field. Many, include me, thought this was the dumbest idea ever and no way would it work. Sometimes I can admit when I’m wrong, and judging by the tempers that overflowed and nail biting season finale at Homestead, this was the correct move for NASCAR to make.
This offseason leading into the 2015 was supposed to be a calm one without much waves being made. Heck, what could top last year’s circus atmosphere to start the season? Only one thing, that being Jeff Gordon announcing this year will be his last in the Sprint Cup Series. Bombshell for sure and now that’ll be what everyone will be talking about, not only to start the season, but over the course of the 36 race trek across the United States.
It would make sense to start with Gordon, so let’s do that. I’m still in disbelief that he is calling it a career after 23 years. You almost think he would race forever, and at age 43 he will walk away many years before some of the stars that came before him. Gordon was in the thick of the points battle until that fateful night in Texas where his title hopes got dashed after a run in with Brad Keselowski. The fight and fire you saw that night, I believe, will carry over into his final season. He should go out with a bang, rather than a whimper, which is why he’s calling it quits now. Last season he won the most races in the previous seven season, had the most top-5s and top-10s in the past five seasons. It’ll be hard to beat those numbers he put up, but anything will be possible for this team and driver determined to leave on top.
After 11 years with Ford, Carl Edwards makes the jump to the “dark side” of Toyota with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s been putting up decent numbers with Roush Fenway Racing, despite that team going through a decline of sorts. I’m not sure how Gibbs’ organization will handle being a four car operation, as only Hendrick Motorsports has figured that balance of four cars out. And even then, it’s taken them nearly a decade to perfect it. Many expect Edwards to have the sort of jump in his step that former and now current teammate Matt Kenseth had when he joined the organization for the 2013 season.
Thanks to NASCAR’s subjective rules, Trevor Bayne will not be able to run for rookie of the year this season. Despite not having run a full season, he’s done enough in prior years (including a Daytona 500 win in 2011) to be deemed experienced. Never mind he’ll still have a yellow stripe on his car, he’s not rookie according to NASCAR. Thanks to BK Racing picking another rookie to run, we will have a Rookie of fhe Year award winner. That is Jeb Burton. Not finding sponsorship in the Truck Series was the best thing that’s happened to him. Unless he talks to Ryan Truex, then it might be the worst thing that happened to him.
Welcome back to the Cup Series Ron Hornaday, Jr., he gets the nod in the new TMG Racing #30 Chevrolet as the “primary driver.” Not sure about the wording on that about primary driver, but whatever. I assumed Hornaday’s career was done when he got screwed over by the Turner Scott Motorsports fiasco, but instead will try only his second full Cup season. The other was in 2001 running for A.J. Foyt in the #14 Conseco Pontiac, remember that car? It’ll be nice to see the 56 year old Hornaday back, I would have trusted him to do more in the Truck Series than Cup, but if the goal is to finish and not tear up cars, then Hornaday’s your guy.
Also coming back to the Cup Series is Sam Hornish, Jr., who took his lumps and learned how to race in the XFINITY Series the past few years. I’m rooting for Hornish to do a lot better than he did in his first Cup go around, especially because he’s learned not only how to win in a stock car, but also run for a title. I think that is what he needed when he first came to NASCAR in 2008.
Other moves over the offseason include Michael Annett moving to HScott Motorsports (the only cool part about this is now he’s running the 46 and his teammate Justin Allgaier runs the 51, Days of Thunder anyone?), Mike Bliss, Bobby Labonte, and Boris Said will run the 32 Ford for Go FAS Racing (lame name), Alex Bowman joins Tommy Baldwin Racing replacing Annett (you won’t really notice much out of performance improvements with him in there), JJ Yeley becomes the “lead” driver for BK Racing (whatever the heck that means, more Whoppers?) who have yet announce anything else, and Landon Cassill returns to the 40 of Hillman Racing.
New Chase and a title for Kevin Harvick? You could say he loves this format. While the expectation is for Harvick to slow down in his bid to go back to back, the scary part is how many races the team let go during the course of the season last year. Part failures mostly bit Harvick early in the season, and when it was all sorted out, there was no stopping him from the title. He can only improve, and that will be a big task considering how good his season was.
After nearly pulling up a major upset by winning the title without a win, I hope Ryan Newman comes into 2015 and wins a bunch of races. Not only would it stick it to all the fans who called him out as not being title worthy, but I’m due as a fan of his to see him win again. After winning eight times in 2003, Newman has won seven times since and not more than two times since 2004. He’s due, check that, beyond due to win some races.
When it all shakes out I expect the usual suspects up front once again. Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski, Gordon, and others will go for the title. The hard part is figuring which Cinderella stories get into the Chase through fluke wins and which usual suspect gets shut out. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards should have solid seasons, but I’m putting my early money on ol’ six time champ Jimmie Johnson to win his seventh title.