10 Bold Predictions for 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
The 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup has the potential to be one of the most memorable in the last decade-plus in NASCAR.
There will be changes, such as the low downforce package.
There will be departures, such as Tony Stewart's retirement at season's end.
And with many of those changes come some very bold predictions. Let us know if you agree with our choices—or if you have some bold predictions of your own.
Low Downforce Package Produces Best Racing in 10 Years
For at least the last decade, fans and drivers alike have asked for better racing.
Fans want to see more side-by-side racing and passing, while drivers want to have more control over their race cars.
Carl Edwards gave us a great example of how good the low downforce package will perform when he won on September 6 at Darlington Raceway. It was one of several weekends in which NASCAR experimented during the 2015 season, testing various packages in preparation to pick the low downforce package that will be used in 2016.
They both will have their dreams realized in 2016 with NASCAR’s new low downforce package, which will make racing closer than ever. Criticism of the overall product will drop dramatically.
Kurt Busch Is This Year’s Cinderella Driver
Ryan Newman was NASCAR’s Cinderella driver in 2014. Even though he didn’t win a race, he reached the championship round. Had eventual champ Kevin Harvick faltered, Newman could very likely have won the championship that season.
Martin Truex Jr. was 2015’s Cinderella driver, reaching the championship round. Even though he came up short and finished fourth, Truex was the little engine that could, advancing further in the 12-year history of the Chase than any other driver for a single-car team.
In 2016, I predict Kurt Busch will be the next Cinderella driver. The older Busch brother is in the best place in his life in a long time. Kyle Busch had an outstanding second half of the 2015 season.
Had he not finished 34th in the Chase race at Martinsville Speedway, Kurt Busch very possibly could have reached the championship round and perhaps earned his second Chase championship (he won the first Chase title in 2004).
I anticipate Busch will make that step all the way to the championship round in 2016—and potentially win the title as well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Could Become 3rd Consecutive 1st-Time Sprint Cup Champion
The first two years of the new elimination format of the Chase saw a pair of first-time Sprint Cup champions: Kevin Harvick in 2014 and Kyle Busch in 2015.
Will that trend continue in 2016?
If it does, I have the perfect guy to extend the list of first-time champs: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt enters his 17th full-time season in Sprint Cup racing, turns 42 years old on October 10 and will get married after the season ends.
If there was ever a perfect time for him to finally earn that elusive first Sprint Cup championship and finally fulfill the hopes and dreams of both himself and his loyal diehard fans, 2016 is the time.
Chase Elliott Will Not Win a Race or Make the Chase
Chase Elliott may be succeeding Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but remember one thing: Chase is not Jeff.
He never has been and never will be.
Even though he won the Xfinity championship in 2014 and finished second in 2015, Elliott will find the Sprint Cup Series a whole different animal.
Despite his success in the series and his father being NASCAR Hall of Famer and former champ Bill Elliott, that means nothing for Chase in 2016. Remember, it took Bill Elliott eight seasons before he earned his first Sprint Cup win. Remember, it took Bill Elliott eight seasons before he earned his first Sprint Cup win.
Frankly, I believe he’ll struggle. Chase Elliott will not only fail to win a race, but he’ll also miss the Chase. My prediction of his position in the final standings? Elliott finishes 20th.
Tony Stewart Will Win a Race and Make the Chase
Tony Stewart enters his final season of Sprint Cup racing in 2016. Since 1999, he’s been a NASCAR stalwart, winning 48 races and three championships as a driver.
But Stewart has struggled terribly in the last three seasons. He hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race since 2013 and hasn’t qualified for the Chase since 2012. That means he hasn’t reached the Chase in his last three seasons.
Now that 2016 will be his final season, look for Stewart to throw everything at his final campaign, including the kitchen sink, to go out with a bang.
I predict he will win at least one race, will make the Chase and potentially has it in him to channel some of his old success for one last time.
My prediction of where he’ll finish the season? 10th.
Clint Bowyer Will Extend a Winless Streak That Dates Back to 2012
Clint Bowyer is a man in transition. He left the now-folded Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the 2015 season. He’ll race in 2016 for essentially a stopover team, namely, HScott Motorsports.
Then in 2017, Bowyer is the hand-picked replacement for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car.
I predict Bowyer is going to have a very difficult season with HScott Motorsports in 2016. Sure, he’ll have equipment and support from both Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports. But in the end, I predict Clint falls short of making the Chase and will be lucky to finish the season in the top 20.
Kasey Kahne Will Have a Big Comeback in 2016
Kasey Kahne went through a very difficult season in 2015, one of his worst ever in his Sprint Cup career.
I believe he’ll have a big comeback season in 2016, part of an overall Hendrick Motorsports comeback.
Face it, HMS has struggled in the Chase the last two seasons. No HMS drivers reached the championship round in 2014. Jeff Gordon reached the final round in 2015, but Jimmie Johnson was a surprising first-round exit. Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw his bid to advance to the third round fail by one mere position.
I think Kahne can easily win two—maybe even three—races in 2016. If he doesn’t, one might start wondering how long his tenure at HMS will continue as a result.
Jimmie Johnson Will Once Again Reach the Championship Round of the Chase
It took Jimmie Johnson two full seasons before he and crew chief Chad Knaus came up with a formula that led to a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.
Johnson then missed winning additional championships in 2011 and 2012, only to earn title No. 6 in 2013.
Now, with two more championshipless seasons, coincidentally the first two years of the new elimination format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, if you look at Johnson’s past history, 2016 will be his year once again.
Kyle Busch Will Reach the Championship Round but Won’t Repeat as Champ
Kyle Busch won the 2015 Sprint Cup championship in one of the most inspiring ways ever in NASCAR history.
He came back to win his first career Sprint Cup crown despite suffering from a broken right leg and fractured left foot from a season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Other drivers who suffered a similar injury might have missed the entire season—or close to it—but Busch was back after just missing 11 races.
He not only qualified for the Chase, but he won five races overall, including the championship-winning race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After offseason surgery, Busch will likely come back stronger than ever in 2016. I predict he’ll once again be strong throughout the season, make the Chase and reach the championship round.
But I’m not totally convinced he’ll be the first repeat Chase winner since Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006 through 2010.
The Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano Feud Will Once Again Flare Up in 2016
If you thought we saw the last of the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano feud from 2015, you’d be mistaken.
I predict the battle between the two drivers will continue in 2016. Only this time, the run-ins won’t be as obvious as their tango at Kansas Speedway or Kenseth’s pile-driving Logano into the wall at Martinsville.
I expect at least a couple of incidents between the two in 2016. Only the confrontations will be more of a “Whoops, my bad” situation rather than obviously blatant wrecks.
NASCAR officials will likely keep a close eye on these two through at least the first half of the season—or until they prove their rift is “over” (even though it likely won’t be).
Rather, look for more obvious flare-ups in the second half of the season, particularly in the Chase. And don’t be surprised if it becomes deja vu all over again.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski