Power Ranking the NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Ahead of the 2016 Season

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2016

Power Ranking the NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Ahead of the 2016 Season

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    As the green flag for the 58th Daytona 500 draws closer this Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, this has already started out as a season of significant change.

    The Sprint Cup Series has a new low downforce aero package, along with a new measure to potentially make sure green-white-checker finishes end up under green flag conditions.

    And then there’s the biggest change of all, arguably the biggest change in the sport’s history since its formation in 1948: the new charter system that provides a measure of tangible equity for team owners.

    Thursday will be the Can-Am Duels, which will round out the qualifying lineup for the Great American Race.

    Which leads to another change: For the first time in nearly two decades, the starting field for a Sprint Cup race will not be 43 cars. Rather, the new standard going forward will be only 40 cars, a byproduct of the new charter system.

    While driver movement from one team to another over the offseason was fairly minimal, we also need to keep our eyes on the four big-name rookies in the series this season: Daytona 500 pole sitter Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, defending Xfinity champ Chris Buescher and Brian Scott.

    Let’s take a look at how the drivers stack up for Sunday’s race and which 10 have the best shot of winning the sport’s Super Bowl.

Rankings from 44th to 31st

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    44. Cole Whitt: He's a long shot to make the four open spots in the Daytona 500, not to mention most other races on the schedule.

    43. Ty Dillon: He will drive at least five races for the merged Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing and may fill in during several upcoming races for the injured Tony Stewart. Unfortunately, Dillon won’t earn any Sprint Cup championship points, as his day job remains as a full-time Xfinity Series driver. And to that end, he has a good chance of finally being a champion in that series, just like older brother Austin.

    42. Matt DiBenedetto: He has the potential to make some noise, but like several of his peers, the key will be to worry about qualifying first. Because if he doesn’t qualify well, he doesn’t race on Sunday.

    41. Robert Richardson: He has a one-off start with BK Racing at Daytona, but it’s questionable what other races he’ll be able to make—if any.

    40. Josh Wise: Now racing for Curtis Key, Wise has a great deal of talent. Unfortunately, he’s struggled to have equipment to match that talent.

    39. Michael McDowell: He will see an increase in the number of races he drives for Circle Sport–Leavine Family Racing. This is an opportunity he’s been waiting for.

    38. Michael Waltrip: The two-time Daytona 500 winner no longer has the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing to call his home. We’ll likely see him only in the 500 and maybe one or two other restrictor-plate races. The rest of his time, he’ll be on Fox Sports.

    37. Michael Annett: He is fortunate that team owner Harry Scott Jr. has a charter for Annett’s team, giving him a guaranteed spot in every race this season. Annett has shown little during his Cup tenure; it’s a trend that’s likely to continue in 2016.

    36. David Gilliland: He has a one-ride agreement with Front Row Motorsports for the Daytona 500. After that, who knows?

    35. Landon Cassill: Cassill has a good sponsor and team behind him for Daytona. But much like several other drivers, who knows how his season will go after Daytona?

    34. Reed Sorenson: He's driving for veteran driver/team owner Mike Hillman Sr. in the Daytona 500 in a one-off situation. But there’s still the possibility that Sorenson and Hillman may try additional races going forward if sponsorship can be found.

    33. Chris Buescher: Team owner Jack Roush placed him in satellite operation Front Row Motorsports for 2016. But is he ready for the big time? Might Buescher have been better off staying in the Xfinity Series one more year and defending last year’s championship?

    32. Brian Scott: Up to this point, he's been an Xfinity Series lifer. But finally got a big break when Richard Petty Motorsports came calling, replacing Sam Hornish Jr. But Scott also brought substantial sponsorship from Albertson’s Foods and Shore Lodge. Never having won even one race in more than 200 Xfinity starts, it’ll be tough for Scott in the Cup Series as a full-timer. But given that RPM is a team on the rise, Scott could potentially surprise us along the way.

    31. Bobby Labonte: Labonte’s name was initially thrown around as a replacement for Tony Stewart after Daytona. But that’s likely not going to happen. Look for the former 2000 Series champion to make maybe four starts this season, all at Daytona and Talladega.

Rankings from 30th to 21st

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    30. Trevor Bayne: Bayne needs a big rebound from his first full season in the Sprint Cup Series in 2015, which was a disappointment for the most part. He has all the resources he needs, but will Roush Fenway Racing be able to rebound after two dismal seasons in a row?

    29. Regan Smith: Now that he’s with Tommy Baldwin Jr. Racing, Smith is back where he belongs in the Sprint Cup Series. Keep your eye on him. He could surprise. TBR has really improved during the offseason and has hired a significant number of new personnel. Smith looks to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.

    28. Brian Vickers: Vickers will drive for the injured Tony Stewart in the Daytona 500. But after that, who knows? It would seem logical to keep Vickers in the No. 14, but reports keep having Ty Dillon filling in a number of races. Of course, if Vickers somehow wins Sunday, that could change the complexion of things dramatically.

    27. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Is this a make-or-break season for Stenhouse? Will he be back with Roush Fenway Racing in 2017 if he has another mediocre season? Unfortunately, as RFR goes, so too will Stenhouse. Much like with teammate Trevor Bayne, if RFR doesn’t show marked improvement, Stenhouse likely won’t either.

    26. Ryan Blaney: He brings the legendary Wood Brothers Racing back to a full-time season for the first time since 2008. However, because the Wood Brothers did not receive one of the new charters, Blaney will have to qualify strongly just to make every race this season.

    25. Casey Mears: Mears could be a surprise this season. Germain Racing has definitely improved during the offseason and Bootie Barker is one of the most underrated—yet intelligent—crew chiefs in the garage. This team just needs a few breaks to go its way to make some significant noise.

    24. Danica Patrick: As she enters her fourth full season in Sprint Cup racing, Patrick has a new crew chief (Billy Scott) and a new primary sponsor (Nature’s Bakery replaces longtime sponsor GoDaddy.com). Could 2016 be the year Patrick finally earns her first Sprint Cup win? It’s possible.

    23. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is somewhat of a driver for hire for HScott Motorsports in 2016. He already has a ride in 2017: He’ll replace the soon-to-retire Tony Stewart. HScott Motorsports has thrown a lot of money into the operation for 2016 to upgrade what had been primarily a back-marker team. Bowyer has not won a race in three years, but given the support HScott Motorsports will get from both Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, don’t be surprised if he finds Victory Lane.

    22. Greg Biffle: Not to sound like a broken record, but as Roush Fenway Racing goes, so will Biffle go. In the second year of a three-year contract, he is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career in 2015. He has the talent and hasn’t forgotten how to drive or be competitive, but he has to have the equipment under and around him to show he still has what it takes to win races and be a championship contender.

    21. Austin Dillon: Dillon enters his third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s gotten all the growing pains out of the way. Now, it’s time to produce. Richard Childress Racing went without a win in 2015. Could Dillon break that winless streak in 2016, maybe even at Daytona?

Rankings from 20th to 11th

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    20. David Ragan: Ragan filled in for both Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers last season at Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, respectively. Now that he’s at BK Racing, Ragan will have stability. And BKR has upgraded its equipment and personnel. Ragan has always been a driver who can pull off a surprise finish; he’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so in 2016.

    19. Aric Almirola: Richard Petty Motorsports continues to grow and improve, which is good news for Almirola. He truly has found a home at RPM and has talent that should hopefully get him back into the Chase for the Sprint Cup in much the same fashion as he did in 2014.

    18. A.J. Allmendinger: The Dinger has great talent. Unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, he’s with a single-car team. Sure, JTG Daugherty Racing has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that should help in 2016, but there’s nothing like having a teammate or two of your own.

    17. Kasey Kahne: Kahne is an enigma. One season he’s great, the next season…well, not so much. He’s coming off a tough season in 2015. With all the resources of Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne deserves to be—and should be—markedly better in his performance and finishes. But will he bounce back in 2016?

    16. Paul Menard: Menard made the Chase for the first time last season, which was a big accomplishment. Although he bowed out after the first round, he showed he has what it takes to be part of the championship argument. He and Richard Childress Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon all need to have bigger and better years in 2016.

    15. Chase Elliott: As Jeff Gordon’s replacement in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Elliott is going to have the most eyes upon him this season. While there have been plenty of predictions of gloom and doom because he’ll be a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series this season, the fact he’s on the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500 is going to wind up being one of two things: a fluke or a sign of even bigger and better things to come in 2016.

    14. Jamie McMurray: Like Paul Menard, McMurray also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career in 2015. He had a strong second half of the season, which could be indicative of a strong start to 2016, as well. McMurray could be one of the biggest surprises of 2016, if he catches a few breaks along the way.

    13. Ryan Newman: Newman has been one of the most consistent drivers on the circuit over the last two season—all without winning a race during that time. He finished second to Kevin Harvick in the 2014 Chase but was unable to advance to the final round in 2015. Newman hasn’t won a race since the 2013 Brickyard 400. He’s long overdue. He’s already won one Daytona 500, and doing so again would be a great way to start the season.

    12. Martin Truex Jr.: Furniture Row Racing moves from Chevrolets to Toyotas and a valuable technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex had his best season ever in 2015, making it all the way to the final round of the Chase. Look for more of the same, and if he gets an extra break or two, he could potentially be a surprise champion by season’s end.

    11. Kyle Larson: Larson’s fans keep playing the waiting game. Many would have thought he’d have won at least one Cup race by now, as he enters his third season in NASCAR’s premier series. Admittedly, Larson had a downturn in his sophomore season in 2015 from his Rookie of the Year winning campaign in 2014. Will his third year be the charm to not only get that elusive first win but to make the Chase and become a bona fide championship contender?

10. Brad Keselowski

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 7th

    Why He’s Here: Keselowski is always a threat to do well in a race, if not win. But last season was not up to his standards, as he visited Victory Lane just once. If there’s one thing about the Michigan native, it's that there’s no harsher critic on his performance than himself. Look for him to kick himself in the butt and have a strong 2016.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: He’s come close in the past (2014), but Keselowski still has yet to have his name engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Teammate Joey Logano did it last year, which proves Team Penske has the power and ability to win the sport’s biggest race of the season. Could it be Keselowski’s turn on Sunday?

    2016 Season Outlook: Keselowski went from winning six races in 2014 to just one in 2015. He needs a big comeback season in 2016, but Logano has surpassed him as the No. 1 driver at Team Penske—at least temporarily. It’s time for Keselowski to earn his top spot back in the team and make a big comeback in wins and potentially earn a second Cup championship.

9. Denny Hamlin

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 9th

    Why He’s Here: Hamlin always seems to perform well at Daytona. Unfortunately, the record book doesn’t show that's despite being involved in a number of wrecks—and not necessarily of his making—that have spoiled good showings and maybe even a win.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Joe Gibbs Racing is going to come out of the gate hard and heavy in Sunday’s race. Hamlin and his three teammates are likely going to be the pacesetters. If Hamlin can avoid wrecking and gets a good push late in the race from a teammate, he could finally win that elusive first 500 title. I’ve always believed it’s not a matter of if Hamlin will win the 500 in his career but when.

    2016 Season Outlook: Hamlin was the third-highest-finishing Joe Gibbs Racing driver in 2015. But between Kyle Busch’s comeback from injury and road to the championship, Matt Kenseth’s issues with Joey Logano and Carl Edwards earning the organization’s highest finish overall, Hamlin got lost in the shuffle. With a new crew chief come new expectations, and 2016 could be Hamlin’s biggest and best year ever if he catches a few breaks along the way.

8. Matt Kenseth

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 15th

    Why He’s Here: Having won the Daytona 500 twice, Kenseth is always a threat to win more. Granted, at 44 years old, his time is coming to a close soon, but he likely has another two or three good seasons still in him. He’s looking to put his tangles with Logano from last year in his rearview mirror and is focused solely on what’s ahead.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: What better way for Kenseth to show up NASCAR for suspending him for two races near the end of last season than to go out and win the season’s biggest race for the third time? Not much has been said about Kenseth thus far in Speedweeks, but just like the quiet, mild-mannered personality he normally displays, he could be in stealth mode until he bursts out to win Sunday.

    2016 Season Outlook: Kenseth learned a lot of lessons from last season’s run-ins with Logano. Most importantly, don’t get goaded into a situation where, even if he’s a winner in the eyes of the fans for standing up for himself, you still suffer NASCAR’s wrath with a suspension. Kenseth is the kind of driver that when he’s ticked off, he often he does his best.

7. Carl Edwards

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 5th

    Why He’s Here: Edwards had a strong debut season in 2015, his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He not only was the highest-finishing driver in the JGR stable but he also earned two wins and seven top-five finishes. Ironically, that’s the same number he had in his final season with Roush Fenway Racing in 2014. Edwards is primed to do even better in 2016.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Edwards pushed Trevor Bayne to the 2011 Daytona 500 victory when he easily could have pulled out of line, shot past Bayne and grabbed it himself. Still, Edwards was the quintessential team player and remains that way with JGR. If he can stay out of trouble, Cousin Carl could bring home a top-10 finish in Sunday’s race. Unfortunately, like Denny Hamlin and a few other drivers, trouble has a tendency of finding Edwards on restrictor plate tracks even when he’s not looking for it.

    2016 Season Outlook: Edwards has plodded along methodically since 2011, when he tied with Tony Stewart for the Sprint Cup championship but lost on the tiebreaker (overall wins: Stewart five, Edwards one). He has never seemed to have gotten over being so close yet coming up short. With a new crew chief and now more comfort in the JGR system for the second season, Edwards could have the big breakout season he’s been waiting for since 2011.

6. Joey Logano

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 6th

    Why He’s Here: Until he had his run-ins with Matt Kenseth, Logano appeared to be on track to win last year’s championship. Another key reason why he’s here is that he’s the defending Daytona 500 winner from last year.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: How can you not make Logano an immediate favorite to win Sunday when he’s the defending champion from last year’s race? Look for Logano to work heavily with both teammate Brad Keselowski and quasi-teammate Ryan Blaney to work Ford to the front—and potentially to victory lane.

    2016 Season Outlook: To some, Logano cost himself the championship last year with his run-ins with Kenseth. Hopefully, he’s learned a few things from that tangle. Logano made the final four of the Chase in 2014 and won the Daytona 500 in 2015. The next logical advancement for him is to win the Sprint Cup championship in 2016.

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 12th

    Why He’s Here: Having won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, you can never count out the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports in any restrictor-plate race, be it at Daytona or Talladega.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Junior is always a driver to watch for at Daytona. If he can stay out of trouble when it comes to wrecks—and his chances are slightly improved now that there will only be 40 cars in the starting field, rather than 43—it will not be a surprise to see him win his third Dayton 500.

    2016 Season Outlook: After coming up short in Steve Letarte’s final season as crew chief in 2014 and Greg Ives’ first year atop the pit box in 2015, Earnhardt needs to ratchet his game up even more in 2016. Remember, he turns 42 in October, and his chances to win that elusive first Sprint Cup championship are growing slimmer with each passing year.

4. Jimmie Johnson

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 10th

    Why He’s Here: Jimmie Johnson is coming off a terrible year—by his standards—and if there’s anything that motivates him the most, it’s coming back from adversity. Even though Johnson had a great regular season last year, his shocking and disappointing elimination from the Chase after the first round is something he and crew chief Chad Knaus aren’t going to let happen again.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Like teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson is a two-time winner of the Daytona 500. That immediately makes him one of the favorites to win. And given how last season turned out for Johnson, there's no better way to start off the new season than to win NASCAR’s biggest race of the year for a third time.

    2016 Season Outlook: If past history is any indication, this will be a championship-winning season for Johnson. Consider this: He won championships from 2006 to 2010 and fell short the following two seasons, only to come back and win No. 6 in 2013. Once again, he fell short in 2014 and 2015. Could that mean Johnson is due? The numbers sure seem to point that way.

3. Kevin Harvick

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 2nd

    Why He’s Here: Harvick has become one of the most dominant drivers in the Sprint Cup Series over the last two seasons. He won the championship in 2014 and was a close second in 2015. Plus, he’s a former past winner of the Daytona 500.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Look for Harvick to finish in the top five in Sunday’s race, if not win it outright. He typically does well at Daytona. Plus, part of him will also be racing for teammate, team owner and one of his closest friends, the injury-sidelined Tony Stewart.

    2016 Season Outlook: With the three wins and 23 top-five finishes (plus 28 top-10 finishes), Harvick is definitely one of the top contenders for not only another great season overall but to potentially earn his second championship in the last three seasons.

2. Kyle Busch

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 1st

    Why He’s Here: Defending champion. That says it all. Given what Busch did in an injury-shortened season, overcoming all the odds to win his first career Sprint Cup championship, one must wonder how much better a fully healthy Busch will be in a full season in 2016.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Busch has a score to settle with Daytona after last February’s serious wreck that left him with a broken right leg and fractured left foot. Now that he’s won a championship, next on his bucket list is a Daytona 500 win.

    2016 Season Outlook: Kevin Harvick came up short by one position in his quest to repeat as champion last season. Will the younger Busch brother become the first repeat winner in the Chase since the new format was implemented in 2014?

1. Kurt Busch

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    Final 2015 Ranking: 8th

    Why He’s Here: The older Busch brother is arguably in one of the best places in his life and racing career—surely in the last four years. He’s had a hard road back, but with his personal and professional life in sync now, Busch could be the biggest surprise of the 2016 season.

    Daytona 500 Outlook: Busch has the talent, the team, the crew chief and the resources behind him to finally win the Daytona 500. After the kind of season his younger brother enjoyed in 2015, it wouldn’t be surprising if the elder Busch brother uttered, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” And it starts with Sunday at Daytona.

    2016 Season Outlook: Busch has flown under the radar the last several seasons—sometimes not by choice, as in last year’s three-race suspension at the beginning of the season for domestic violence allegations. And yet he still rallied back to not only make the Chase but to finish a respectable eighth place. Busch has long sought a second championship to go with his 2004 title—and 2016 could be the best shot he’s had since then to do just that.

     

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