5 NASCAR Drivers Set to Break Out in 2015 Sprint Cup Series
What does it take to make the big statement? What kind of season does a NASCAR driver need to have in order to get the fans, the media and his or her fellow competitors to take notice?
These five not-often-mentioned drivers all figure to be in a situation in 2015 that should prove beneficial to their careers. Several are already champions in other series. These are not second-tier drivers; they are the next wave of race winners you haven’t heard of yet.
It was nearly a decade ago when Justin Allgaier first started attracting attention in professional auto racing.
At the age of 16, he was already racing in the ARCA Series which led him to a spot in the television show Driver X: The Race for the Ride driving vehicles from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Driver X was a reality television show loosely based on the desire to find the next big star in NASCAR.
By 2008, he was the ARCA Series champion. That led him to a four-race deal in the then-Nationwide Series for Roger Penske. He was the NNS Rookie of the Year in 2009, and it only took him two years to win in that series (Bristol, March 2010).
The highlight of his NNS career may have been in 2012 when a final-lap pass of Jacques Villeneuve at the circuit in Montreal named for the Canadian driver's late father got Allgaier the victory in the NAPA 200.
Following another year in the NNS, Allgaier moved into his Cup ride for 2014, competing for rookie of the year honors driving for HScott Motorsports, driving the No. 51 Chevrolet. He ended up finishing third behind Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon with Steve Addington as his crew chief.
His statistics don’t jump off the screen when you look at them as he had no top-five or top-10 finishes in 2014. Early in the season, Allgaier had incidents in three of four races which forced his team to skip the Sprint Showdown race, part of the All-Star race weekend.
It was a rough start for the young man from Illinois. However, Allgaier did well for a first-year Cup driver with a single-car team.
Allgaier is one of those drivers whose talent can be masked by the equipment he’s driving. There are few changes announced for this Cup team in 2015, but there are likely to be improvements on its performance as team owner Harry Scott explores his organization’s alliance with Hendrick Motorsports.
More than just the driver in the Xarelto commercials, Brian Vickers is a solid journeyman driver, whose record in a Sprint Cup car is quite remarkable considering his career has been interrupted twice by medical issues.
The North Carolina born Vickers drives the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing. He came to the Cup Series in 2003, the same year he won the championship in the then-Busch (now Xfinity) Series.
Vickers started out driving for Rick Hendrick, who was the first to discover his talents. Vickers remained with Hendrick until 2007 when he left to drive the No. 83 car for the new Red Bull Racing Team, which has since become BK Racing.
Vickers encountered his first medical issue in 2010 when blood clots were discovered in his legs and around his lungs. He sat out the rest of the season due to doctor’s orders.
He returned to racing the following season, but after Red Bull closed its doors, Vickers eventually landed with Michael Waltrip Racing.
His 2013 season showed great promise. He ended a 75-race winless streak by winning at Loudon. In September of that season he was caught up in the scandal involving MWR and its attempt to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. The following month, Vickers once again had to climb out of the car due to the continuing issue with blood clots.
The 31-year-old is in his 12th season as a Cup driver. His pole at Talladega may have been one of the highlights, but Vickers' team suffered with their Toyota Camry being a bit slower than the competition. And no matter how hard crew chief Billy Scott tried to make it go faster, he did not succeed, and it forced Vickers to spend a year running mid-pack for most of the season.
That’s not going to happen again in 2015. Vickers is capable of winning races at the Cup level. He has three career Cup wins and is on the verge of becoming one of the “older” drivers in the field. As new blood enters the series, drivers like Vickers are forced to take notice.
The next couple of seasons will be pivotal for Vickers' career and expect him to rise to the occasion and make the Chase field in 2015.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
While most people know Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend and fellow puppy lover, Stenhouse Jr. is a tough competitor behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car.
The two-time Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series champion (2011,'12) has spent his entire NASCAR career as a Roush Fenway Series driver. While that had been good for him in the NNS, he’s not quite delivered on the promise in the Cup Series.
The Mississippi-born Stenhouse completed his second full season in the Cup Series in 2014, and it was not as expected. All three RFR drivers (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Stenhouse Jr.) struggled to find speed. Edwards found the most, while Stenhouse found the least.
Stenhouse did spend an inordinate amount of laps driving around mid-pack, which looked suspiciously like he was trying to race against Patrick, but it was due to him not having a race car he was comfortable driving. The ride height rule change in effect for 2014 also made for an additional hurdle for this team.
Veteran crew chief Mike Kelley, who was Stenhouse’s NNS crew chief, is a 12-time NNS race winner with several drivers, six of them with Stenhouse. This is a combination that had delivered in the past and is likely to do it again in the future. RFR as an organization that struggled in 2014. It will not find itself in a repeat situation in 2015.
Look for Stenhouse to challenge veteran driver Greg Biffle for the role of team leader in 2015.
As if the pressure of driving the No. 3 Sprint Cup car wasn’t enough. Austin Dillon also had the added pressure of driving for his grandfather and with it, the assumption that he’s being given all the best equipment a Cup driver would or could want.
But, best is a relative term and maybe the Richard Childress Racing “best” wasn’t as good as the best from other teams such as Stewart-Haas Racing or Team Penske.
There was also a little thing called the rookie-of-the-year competition. It wasn’t much of a contest in 2014 as Kyle Larson, clearly a gifted driver, dominated the award.
Why will Dillon have a breakthrough season in 2015?
The cars will be better, he will be better and the stigma of being a rookie driving for his grandfather won’t really be much of one anymore.
Dillon showed in the second half of the 2014 season that as he returned to the tracks for the second time, he got faster. His stats show zero DNFs which is a huge deal for rookie drivers. It shows Dillon knows how to race and not how to wreck.
A big year will be in store for 24-year-old Dillon. He may not have won the rookie honors, but that will be long forgotten when this man’s career is over.
Cole Whitt’s NASCAR career has taken a long and winding route through several teams.
The 23-year-old Californian began his career in karting. He moved into Silver Crown, midget and sprint cars as a teenager winning races for team owner Keith Kunz.
He’s driven in the then-K&N Pro Series East as well as the Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Whitt had been driving the No. 83 for BK Racing in 2014. His season had been mediocre with his crash with Kyle Busch at Watkins Glen unfortunately part of his highlight reel.
But, earlier in November, per Jeff Gluck of USA Today, Whitt’s name surfaced in conjunction with the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports ride. David Ragan drove the No. 34 in 2014.
Whitt has already announced that he’ll not return to the No. 83 in 2015, but his representation has said it will make an announcement on his 2015 plans in the near future.
Whitt is a sharp and aggressive competitor whom veteran drivers feel comfortable racing against. It’s likely that Front Row will put him in the kind of equipment he’ll need to make a statement in the Cup Series.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis