Burning Questions as the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season Approaches
As the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins, there are many questions lacking answers for race fans, media, teams, drivers and pretty much anyone associated with or interested in the sport.
While we saw some questions begin to at least be partly answered in Saturday's Sprint Unlimited, there's still a long way to go.
And there may be more questions that emerge along the way.
But for now, let's look at the most pressing questions in the NASCAR world—and what the potential answers may be.
How Will Tony Stewart’s Replacement(s) Fare in His Absence?
This could be one of the most difficult questions to answer, as we don't know how long Brian Vickers will remain in the No. 14 in place of Tony Stewart.
Right now, Vickers is locked in for a starting spot in next Sunday's 58th running of the Daytona 500. And NBC Sports' Dustin Long reported that Ty Dillon likely will replace Stewart in several upcoming races after the 500.
But what about other potential candidates that could fill in for a race or two, guys like Sam Hornish Jr., Elliott Sadler or others? Will they be called upon to replace Vickers or Dillon?
Vickers' chronic blood clot problem is back under control with medicine. That's good for at least the 500. But after that, we won't know for sure until Stewart-Haas Racing announces who will fill in for Stewart just before Atlanta in two weeks. (The announcement is expected on Wednesday, Feb. 24.)
But if Dillon indeed takes over for Vickers, it begs yet another question: Why? Given that Vickers was approved to compete by both his own personal doctors and NASCAR's doctors, might it not be easier just to keep him in the car for as long as someone is needed to fill Stewart's role? Why go with Dillon over Vickers, who has won Cup races and has more experience than Dillon?
Like I said at the beginning, this could be one of the most difficult questions to answer—and may only result in even more questions.
How Will the New Low-Downforce Aero Package Affect Competition?
This question can almost answer itself.
Given the results of tests last season with what would become this year's new downforce package, particularly races at Darlington and Kentucky, it's apparent that NASCAR will hit a home run with the new low-downforce aero package in 2016.
Virtually all the drivers like the new package. When was the last time you heard almost all drivers share the same positive response on a topic or piece of equipment within the sport?
The new package goes into effect next week at Atlanta and will be run in every race with the exception of the restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
The answer will likely be a positive affirmation.
How Will the New Charter System—and 40-Car Field—Affect the Sport?
This could be the most significant question of the year.
The answer, however, is not simple.
Sure, NASCAR and the Race Team Alliance, led by Rob Kauffman, came to an agreement last week on charters, which allows team owners to claim equity for the number of years—and millions of dollars—they've spent within the sport.
But there were some trade-offs, most notably cutting the starting field of Sprint Cup races from 43 to 40 and allowing just 36 charters, which keeps several teams out of the mix, including the legendary Wood Brothers.
There's something else to consider.
Given the past history of the sport, including oftentimes contentious relationships between the sanctioning body and team owners, are we convinced that everyone will come together at a fire, roast marshmallows and sing "Kumbaya"?
It's a bit too early for that, but the new charter system is a good start and a step in the right direction.
Now if they could only find a way to get the Wood Brothers the charter they so greatly deserve.
How Will Kyle Busch Fare in a Full Season After Winning the Championship in 2015?
Kyle Busch did everything right in a season that started so wrong in 2015.
After being seriously injured in a wreck in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, Busch missed nearly a third of the Sprint Cup season recuperating from a broken right leg and fractured left foot.
After many wondered if he'd ever race again, let alone in 2015, he came back 11 races later and began a path that resulted in his first career Sprint Cup championship.
So what does Busch do for an encore, particularly in a season that he (hopefully) will be fully healthy for?
Will Busch become the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson from 2006 through 2010?
However things turn out, it's going to be fun to watch—and I'm betting that even if Busch doesn't repeat as champ, he'll be there fighting all the way to the end again.
Will We See Another First-Time Sprint Cup Champ for the Third Year in a Row?
We've had three first-time champions in the Sprint Cup Series in the last four seasons: Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014) and Kyle Busch (2015), the latter two under the new Chase format that was implemented in 2014.
There are a number of drivers who still have not won their first Sprint Cup championships.
Among those: Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, A.J. Allmendinger, Casey Mears and more.
And let's not forget the newcomers who may potentially make some significant noise of their own in 2016: rookies (and Daytona 500 pole-sitter) Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Brian Scott and Ryan Blaney.
Who do you think will be the next first-time Sprint Cup champion?
How Will Chase Elliott Fare in His First Full Season in Sprint Cup?
I guess Chase Elliott somewhat answered that question in Sunday's qualifying session, earning the pole for next Sunday's 58th running of the Daytona 500.
Not bad for the new kid on the block.
But remember that winning the pole for the Great American Race does not always guarantee success. Ask Danica Patrick or Austin Dillon; they'll tell you.
Granted, Elliott has great genes (son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott), but one pole does not a full season make.
Let's see how he does in the actual 500. And then after that, let's see how he does in the next five or six races. I think by that point, the proof will be in the pudding if Elliott is the real deal—or whether he'll need a lot more seasoning going forward.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.