by Ryan Isley
It seems like Kevin Harvick was just hoisting the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship trophy over his head and yet here we are at the beginning of another NASCAR season. While there were plenty of stories in the NASCAR offseason that occurred off the track, it is time to finally focus on racing.
As much as I am not a fan of doing predictions (thank you Twitter trolls), I figured I could at least give 10 predictions for this upcoming season. These 10 are separate for my first prediction from a couple of weeks ago when I said Jeff Gordon would win the Daytona 500.
Without further ado, here are my 10 predictions for 2015 (all predictions are for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series unless otherwise noted):
Comeback Driver of 2015:
To say that 2014 was a bad year for Stewart would be an understatement. Last season was the first time in his 16 seasons in which Stewart didn’t find victory lane and he had a career-low three top-5 finishes along with seven top-10s.
And then of course there was one of the biggest stories of 2014 that didn’t involve a race in the Sprint Cup Series, rather one in a sprint car at Canandaigua Motorsports Park. That is when Stewart’s already disappointing season took a turn for the worse as he was involved in an incident which ultimately took the life of Kevin Ward, Jr.
From that day forward, Stewart had to deal with the possibility of being charged with a number of crimes (he wasn’t) and the mental hurdle of getting back into a car after what had happened. He missed three races but only mustered one top-10 in the 12 races after he returned.
After a tumultuous 2014 season on and off the track, Tony Stewart can finally get his mind back on racing – and that will be a good thing.
Most Disappointing Driver of 2015:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
This one might come as a shock to a lot of people, and might also anger some. But I just don’t see Earnhardt Jr. having the same type of season in 2015 that he enjoyed in 2014. And at this point for Earnhardt Jr., it is go big or go home.
Earnhardt Jr. was victorious four times in 2014, the second-most wins in a season in his career, including his second Daytona 500 victory. But when it mattered most, NASCAR’s most popular driver faltered. In the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt Jr. limped to finishes of 39th, 20th and 31th. Once he was eliminated from the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. finished strong with a win and two more top-10s in the final four races.
But 2015 brings another challenge to Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team – a new crew chief. Steve Letarte is now at NBC and Greg Ives is on top of the box. Things didn’t start off smoothly for the duo, as the No. 88 Chevrolet failed inspection following pole qualifying for the Daytona 500. They followed that up with a win in Thursday’s first Duel race, however. That just might be how the season starts for the new duo as unfortunately, there is going to be a learning curve for Earnhardt Jr. and Ives (which Ives admitted to reporters Thursday night).
I feel like they will still win one of two races and make the Chase, but I don’t see Earnhardt Jr. as a serious threat to win the championship this season. Coming off the momentum he seemed to gain in 2014, that would be a big disappointment.
Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were also considered for this spot, but they really haven’t done anything in the Sprint Cup Series so it wouldn’t be as much of a disappointment if they didn’t make a good run in 2015.
Surprise Driver of 2015:
I actually covered this in the offseason, but I will give a synopsis here.
Allmendinger made a big step in 2014 by making the Chase, albeit with just one win and being eliminated after the first round. While it may seem like a little victory for most, it is a big victory for a driver trying to prove himself after having to go through NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program for failing a drug test.
This will be the second time that Allmendinger has had a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series, and the last time it happened, he showed improvement each season. He was well on his way to making the leap to the next tier of drivers when the failed test occurred.
Now with a full season at JTG Daugherty Racing and his first win under his belt, 2015 could be the year that we see Allmendinger break out.
Driver Who Made The Chase in 2014 Who Will Miss in 2015:
Another driver who made the Chase with one win and was eliminated in the first round in 2014, Busch seems to be on the opposite path of Allmendinger in 2015. But it isn’t just based on the racing part of the job.
Busch has been going through some legal issues this past offseason with ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll and has been ordered to stay away from Driscoll as well as undergo evaluations for “mental health issues related to anger control and impulse control.”
Based on the off-track issues, Busch could still face sanctions from NASCAR which could include suspension and any type of suspension likely means he would be ineligible for inclusion in this year’s Chase.
Driver Who Missed The Chase in 2014 Who Will Make it in 2015:
This was the easiest prediction to make.
Kyle Larson simply ran away with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year race in 2014, quickly becoming one of the best young drivers on the circuit. Late in the season, Larson ran off five straight finishes of sixth or better from Chicago to Charlotte with two runner-ups and a third-place finish.
Over the season’s final 10 races, Larson compiled the 5th-most points, trailing only Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski, three of four whom made the Championship Round of the Chase.
It would seem that Larson is well on his way to becoming a household name if he isn’t already, and the next step is to make the Chase in his second season as a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver.
Had Larson not been the obvious choice here, Tony Stewart would have been the prediction.
The Danica Patrick Prediction:
Entering her third full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Patrick is used to the attention. Despite zero career wins or top-5s, she is constantly one of the most talked about drivers around the circuit.
Patrick showed improvement in 2014 with three top-10s and an average finishing position 2.4 spots better than in her rookie season. Her biggest improvement came in terms of qualifying, where she improved her average starting position by nearly eight spots. Despite the improvements, she finished one spot lower in the series standing than the previous year, coming in 28th in 2014.
In 2015, I expect to see more improvement from Patrick. While I don’t believe she will win a race or make the Chase, I believe she will see her first top-5 finish of her career. If anything, she was already impressive this season in the Sprint Unlimited, driving over, under and around crashes that were happening on the track. It was some of the best driving we have seen from Patrick in her NASCAR career, even if it was in a non-points race.
Patrick’s biggest issue just might be her temper – the one that was on display Thursday night after the Duels. If she lets drivers get into her head and continues to blame everyone from other drivers to her crew to NASCAR for her shortcomings, 2015 will be a very long one for her.
Predicted standings finish: 23rd
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion:
The safe pick here would have been to just take Matt Crafton to win his third straight series championship. And while that was probably also the logical choice, I am going with a dark horse in Peters.
Peters had a career-best series finish of second in 2012, losing the championship to James Buescher by six points in the final race of the season. He struggled with consistency in 2013, finishing 10th in the standings and finishing with just four top-5s in the season’s 22 races.
The 34-year-old bounced back in 2014 by finishing 5th in the standings, compiling nine top-5s along with 13 top-10s. While the numbers are impressive alone, seeing what Peters did down the stretch gives one reason to believe he is a serious contender in 2015. Over the final six races of 2014, Peters had the most points in the Camping World Truck Series with 238. In those six races, Peters had a win, a runner-up, two 3rd-place finishes and a 4th-place finish.
NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion:
Elliott is coming off a monster season in 2014, winning the then-Nationwide Series championship by 42 points over Regan Smith. The 18-year-old won three times, had 16 top-5s and 26 top-10s in 33 races. He took the series by storm with back-to-back wins in April at Texas and Darlington.
If Elliott is going to win back-to-back championships, he will do so with two different crew chiefs. Ernie Cope will take over on the box for the No. 9 Chevrolet in 2015, after Greg Ives teamed with Elliott to win the championship in 2014. Ives has moved onto the Sprint Cup Series with Earnhardt Jr. The 2015 season will be the final one as a full-time driver in the series for Elliott, as he will take over the No. 24 for Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016.
While this may seem like an obvious pick, it wasn’t as easy as I thought to put it down on paper. With drivers such as Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. in the series full-time, Elliott will have his work cut out for him.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Final Four:
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion:
While 2014 will be remembered more for post-race fireworks for Keselowski, it is hard to ignore just how good he really was on the track. He led all drivers with six wins and 17 top-5s. In the final 11 races of the season, he had three wins and seven top-5s.
Had it not been for a 31st-place finish at Martinsville that started off the Eliminator Round on the wrong foot, Keselowski would have easily been a force to be reckoned with in the Championship Round. After that Martinsville race, Keselowski finished the round by finishing 3rd at Texas and 4th at Phoenix before ending the season with a 3rd-place finish at Homestead-Miami.
Of course, Keselowski was only in the Eliminator Round because he won at Talladega in a must-win scenario to advance. But in the new Chase format, the name of the game is winning. Just ask Harvick, who used a win at Phoenix to make it into the Championship Round and then won the race at Homestead-Miami to secure the title.
For Keselowski, the key just might be his temper. After all of the incidents last season, he cannot afford to let his anger get the best of him and do something he regrets, especially something that might draw the ire of NASCAR officials. If Keselowski just concentrates on driving, he could run off with his second career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.