Bold Predictions for the 2016 NASCAR Season
The NASCAR season has a way of feeling like it just happened, you know? It feels as though Kyle Busch crossed the finish line at Homestead yesterday, Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville (again) and Kevin Harvick finished second (again).
The season is a grind, and it will be on us like a restrictor plate at Daytona. No time like the present to launch into some bold predictions for the upcoming year.
Gone are Gordon and Michael Waltrip Racing. Busch is the defending champion. Tony Stewart will retire. Chase Elliott’s a full-timer.
There’s only so much a NASCAR fan can take.
Read on for a buffet of bold predictions for the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Chase Elliott Will Win a Race in 2016
Elliott* has the chops and the pedigree to make an impact right away on the Sprint Cup circuit.
In 2015, the youngster competed at Charlotte, Richmond, Martinsville, Darlington and Indianapolis—totaling 1,617 laps, including two finishes on the lead lap.
His most promising performances came in his third and fourth races at Charlotte and Indy. Once there, Elliott started 28th and finished 18th.
"He's mentally tougher than any kid I've seen his age," said team owner Rick Hendrick, per Jared Turner’s FoxSports.com piece. "At his age, all the drivers I've seen before, Jeff included, made more mistakes than Chase makes. I think he's ready."
The pressure is on for Elliott, but he’ll live up to the billing and walk away with a win this season.
*Wanna puke? He was born in 1995. Kurt Cobain was always dead to Elliott.
Kyle Larson Will Win Two Races in 2016
This must be Kyle Larson’s breakout season.
When he won Rookie of the Year in 2014, a year which saw him rack up eight top fives and 17 top 10s, 2015 seemed Chase bound. Then Larson never got it going—he and Eugenie Bouchard won the Sophomore Slump Homecoming King and Queen in 2015.
His average finish in his sophomore season was 19.3 (down 5.1 spots from 2014), and he only had two top fives.
Last season was humbling, no doubt. This was a season where he missed a race at Martinsville because he fainted. It appeared from the outside that perhaps he expected to coast on his 2014 success and become a world beater in 2015.
Larson’s teammate, Jamie McMurray, made the Chase without winning a race so the team had speed. Larson lacked the command he brazenly had as a rookie.
This will be a big year for the 23-year-old. Expect two wins, especially at tracks where he can comfortably ride the highline and skim the wall.
Tony Stewart's Final Season Will Be a Bummer
Tony Stewart's final season will lack everything that Jeff Gordon’s had: feeling and nostalgia.
Smoke was never one you could wrap your arms around. In point of fact, he kept everybody at arm’s length, including peers and NASCAR at large.
He won three Sprint Cups while in his prime and was, in every sense of the word, the Anti-Gordon. In an era dominated by Jimmie Johnson and Gordon, Stewart was every bit the opposite. Where Johnson and Gordon are notoriously fit—as in athletic—Stewart’s phenotype trends more toward a wine barrel.
Where Johnson and Gordon had the sparkly good looks that made them perfect symbols/mediums for Corporate America, Stewart spent his free time on dirt tracks.
And maybe it’s the latter—racing on dirt tracks—that may stain what was otherwise a Hall of Fame career. In August 2014, Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. during a dirt-track race in Upstate New York. The 44-year-old has never been the same.
It’s the black cloud he’ll always live with, and now a season where he’s the only driver of note retiring, he gets the spotlight, some adulation, but also the heat from that summer night.
Stewart could have done himself some favors by retiring in this past offseason* once the Gordon dust settled, but now he’s in a car that hasn’t won a race since 2013 and odds are he’ll go winless—and Chase-less—in 2016.
*Probably far more complicated, but Clint Bowyer had no team for some time.
The Wood Bros. Will Make an Impact in 2016
Well, what the heck does that even mean? That sounds like “Make American Great Again!” Seriously, what does that even mean?
In the case of Wood Brothers Racing, who return to the Sprint Cup full time with Ryan Blaney, that means the team will post 15 top 10s, five top fives and maybe—just maybe—a win for the 22-year-old rookie.
Crew chief Jeremy Bullins said in Kenny Bruce’s NASCAR.com story:
When you look at Ryan and his ability, the equipment that we have and the resources we have, really it's up to us and how far we take it. Obviously the goal, the reason we are here, is to try to win races and try to win championships eventually.
When you start your first year in the Cup series, you don't anticipate that but it's up to us how far we take it. The potential is there, for sure.
Blaney finished with one top five in 16 races in a Cup car in 2015 (Talledega) and has a total of eight wins between the X-Finity Series and the Truck Series.
With all the attention on Elliott as the headlining rookie of 2016, watch out for Blaney and the resurgent Wood Bros.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will Reach Homestead
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won three races last year and failed to advance to the Eliminator Round of the Chase when Joey Logano edged him at Talladega.
The 41-year-old won those three races with a new crew chief in Greg Ives and another year could spell a deep run in the Chase for Earnhardt.
"We have a job to do,” Earnhardt said, per Matt Weaver of Autoweek.com. “Every year we keep getting better and we're racing better. We're winning, and I feel like I need to be here for the next step."
For Ives, a second year atop the pit box will make this strong team even stronger. There will be a greater degree of chemistry and understanding. Hard to believe that as popular as Earnhardt is, he has never won a championship.
That could change this year as he and Johnson are neck and neck for the best driver in the Hendrick Motorsports garage.
Ryan Newman Will Go Winless for a Third Straight Season
Can this even be considered bold anymore? Ryan Newman is quintessentially the anti-Chaser, or his driving spits in the face of the format.
Since NASCAR started its win-and-you’re-in game for the Chase, Newman has done exactly the opposite, or something merely tangential. He hasn’t won, but he also doesn’t lose.
He plays the long game. Because he hasn’t won in so long, it’s easy to overlook his skill as a driver. He may be the most underrated driver in the Cup circuit. How else do you explain him reaching Homestead in 2014, finishing second behind only Kevin Harvick, while not winning a single race.
Newman may not be that week-to-week threat to win the way Harvick, Johnson and Logano are, but if you ask any of these drivers who they’d least like to race against, odds are it’s the No. 31 car.
Be that as it may, Newman still won’t win a race in 2016.
The 2016 Aero Package Will Be a Hit
Even if Carl Edwards hadn’t won at Darlington in 2015, one of the sites of the increased downforce aero package (IDAP), he would have done backflips anyway.
Edwards sang its praises and loved how it put the drive back in driver. Per Tom Jensen's FoxSports.com article in October 2015, he said:
For me as a racecar driver, that's the stuff I dream about—25 laps to go, Southern 500, I'm racing with two champions, we're swapping the lead back and forth, and I think you're able to do that because there's less aerodynamic influence and the tires fall off and it's really fun. I really applaud NASCAR for running that package here.
Jensen noted how the front-runners of most races have such a tremendous advantage in clean air. Couple that advantage with the disadvantage of the other cars in dirty air. The leader in clean air gets more speed while everyone else is slower.
That renewal of the Southern 500 was a bit tough on tires and dragged at times, but when there’s 24 lead changes it means drivers have a greater chance to influence the outcome, and isn’t that what sport is about?
Joey Logano Will Win the Sprint Cup
These seven words may send a chill up your spine: Joey Logano will win the Sprint Cup.
For many, Logano is a nail dragged across a chalkboard. He’s the very definition of polarizing. Whether he’s spinning out Matt Kenseth at Kansas or getting bulldozed by his rival at Martinsville, Logano made few friends and fewer fans over the course of the 2015 Chase, this despite winning the Daytona 500 and sweeping the Contender Round.
“As a competitor and athlete, you learn from it,” Logano said, per David Scott of the Charlotte Observer. “It doesn’t matter what you are—a media member, an accountant, a race car driver … you take what you learned and apply it.”
After winning the most races, the most poles, 22 top fives and then not winning the Sprint Cup in 2015, that will only sharpen the focus of the most dangerous driver this side of Kevin Harvick.
“We don’t have the (Cup) trophy,” Logano said. “We were close. We know how to do it. It’s not going to be a fluke when it happens. We just have to go out and do it.”
Last season served Logano a serious helping of humble pie to be that good and come away with, for all intents and purposes, nothing. This next year will see an increasingly focused Logano, one poised to hoist the Sprint Cup.
All stats came courtesy of Race-Reference.info.