10 Mid-Tier NASCAR Drivers Who Will Become Fan Favorites in 2015

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

10 Mid-Tier NASCAR Drivers Who Will Become Fan Favorites in 2015

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    We're less than two months away from the start of the 2015 NASCAR season at Daytona, and predictions are raining down from all corners of the Internet.

    While everyone wants to know how the Jimmie Johnsons, Jeff Gordons and Kevin Harvicks will fare next season, we want to know which non-superstar drivers will use the 2015 season as a chance to become much more popular.

    Drivers are on this list for a variety of reasons—some are veterans of the middle tier who have a chance to take a step up in 2015, some are young drivers who look poised for superstardom and others just have great stories that fans are sure to latch on to.

    One thing they all have in common, though, is a growing fanbase. Here are the middling NASCAR drivers who will be fan favorites next season: 

10. Martin Truex Jr.

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    With a new crew chief in his corner, look for 34-year-old veteran Martin Truex Jr. to take things to the next level in 2015. 

    It was a disappointing 2014 for Truex Jr. in his first year at Furniture Row Racing. He finished 24th in the standings and was never really in the hunt for the Chase. Clayton Caldwell of Speedway Media breaks down what went wrong: 

    He and crew chief Todd Berrier did not seem to be on the same page for most of the season and the performance of the No. 78 team was down for most of the season. Truex only recorded one top-five finish and five top-10 finishes. It was a far cry from the 2013 season which saw Kurt Busch rattle off 11 top-five finishes and 16 top-10 finishes. It was a disappointing year for Truex and the Furniture Row Racing team.

    I don't expect a repeat this season, though. He's in his second year of a three-year contract with FRR, and with a new crew chief—former team engineer Cole Pearn—this experienced Sprint Cup driver should make a push for the Chase and win a race (or two) next year.

    He won't be as popular as that other Junior, but with Truex's increased success and already familiar face, he should finish 2015 with a sizable fanbase of his own.

9. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Speaking of Juniors, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is currently best known as the other half of NASCAR's power couple. However, Danica Patrick's boyfriend should be able to make more of a name for himself in 2015.

    This season, Stenhouse took a step backward and finished in 27th place in the points standings, eight positions lower than he finished his first full Sprint Cup season in 2013. He did have five top-10 finishes and one top-five in 2014, though, which is more than enough to build on.

    It was a down year for all of the Roush Fenway Racing teams, but some changes in the equipment during the offseason could give Stenhouse the push he needs. After all, he's a proven winner with two Nationwide Series championships, and with Carl Edwards moving to Joe Gibbs Racing he will have even more pressure to succeed.

    Look out for Stenhouse to win his first Sprint Cup race in 2015, make his Chase debut and perhaps win a Mr. Popularity award along the way.

8. Paul Menard

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    Paul Menard has spent eight years as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, and it's about time that he becomes one of the fan favorites. If he can build on his solid 2014—which included a fourth-place finish at the last race of the year in Homestead—that shouldn't be a problem.

    The 34-year-old had 13 top-10s and five top-fives in 2014, but was unable to get the third win of his Sprint-Cup career and finished 21st in the standings after three straight years of top-20 finishes. 

    However, he switched to a new crew chief—Justin Alexander, his former team engineer—for the last five races of the season, and as his Homestead finish in Miami proved, it went well. Menard should be able to carry that momentum into 2015 and finally have the breakthrough season he's been working toward. 

7. Chase Elliott

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    Mike Stone/Associated Press

    Chase Elliott is the lone driver on this list who isn't in the Sprint Cup Series, but trust me, the fans will find him in the NASCAR XFinity Series next year.

    This year, Elliott was a rookie on Nationwide Series, but that didn't stop him from winning the championship. Oh, and did I mention that he's only 18 years old?

    Elliott—who is a part of a crowded and talented Hendrick Motorsports team—is the son of Bill Elliott, so he has the pedigree for greatness. However, his attitude is what fans will really fall in love with. As reported by Jay Pennell of Fox Sports, he's very humble: 

    Everything can change and go the other way so fast that there's no need—and getting too up on the ups, and you've just got to understand that —I'm sure things are not going to get any easier in the sport ... Things are always changing, and you have to be ...you just have to, I guess, kind of learn to deal with the ups and downs, and I just try to be honest with it is kind of the way I go about it.

    The future is very bright for this teenager—you might as well get on the bandwagon early.

6. AJ Allmendinger

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Everyone loves a wild card, and in 2014, AJ Allmendinger rode his wild-card status to a victory at the road race in Watkins Glen. That gave him a berth in the Chase, which was a big deal for Allmendinger and his JTG Daugherty Racing team.

    At 33, Allmendinger is a great underdog to root for—with a small, one-car team he lacks the resources that other drivers do—and he's also a great comeback story. After all, it was only two years ago that Allmendinger lost his full-time spot with Team Penske when he failed a drug test. He's in a good spot now after completing NASCAR's Road to Recovery program, and is driving better than he has in his entire career.

    Next season, Allmendinger will be aiming to find more consistency week in and week out. But no matter what, he has the goods to take down the top dogs and get the win. That's something worth rooting for.

5. Jamie McMurray

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Jamie McMurray is a bit older than the rest of the guys on this list, but as he gears up for a standout season in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, he's certain to become a fan favorite.

    In 2014, McMurray had 13 top-10s, seven top-fives and two poles. His only victory, however, came in the All-Star Race, which was a non-points race but did net him a cool $1 million. It was his second-best season, behind his 2010 career year where he had three wins.

    Murray is fun to root for—he's a tested veteran who has some huge wins in his career, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400—but he's still waiting for his first top-10 finish in the points. With a new crew chief in his corner, 2015 would be a great year for that to happen.

4. Brian Vickers

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    Brian Vickers is one of the big stories at the start of the 2015 season, but unfortunately it's not for the reasons he was hoping. The 31-year-old North Carolinian will have to miss the beginning of the season due to an offseason surgery to repair a hole in his heart.

    This isn't the first time he has had health problems. Vickers initially had surgery to repair the hole in his heart back in 2010, and had to sit out the end of the 2013 season with blood clots.

    Vickers has three Sprint Cup wins in his career, and his highest finish in the points standings was 12th back in 2009 when he was a member of the Red Bull Racing Team. He is coming off of his first full-time Sprint Cup season with Michael Waltrip Racing, and it was a decent one, with one pole, three top-fives and nine top-10s. Before his health news, many were picking Vickers to be a breakthrough driver for 2015.

    Whether he ends up having the season he seemed prepared for or not, Vickers is sure to be a fan favorite next season. He's showed so much resiliency and character in chasing after his NASCAR dream despite his many obstacles, and that's worth rooting for. 

3. Aric Almirola

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Aric Almirola had a great season in 2014, winning the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (albeit due to the race being shortened by rain) and making his Chase debut. However, there were often some bumps in the road that will make him more motivated than ever to succeed in 2015.

    Almirola's Daytona win was a big surprise, and he was certainly a wild-card addition to the Chase, not expected to be much of a factor. After all, the Cuban-American only had two top-fives and seven top-10s all year.

    But Almirola became a sentimental favorite in the first race of the Chase in Chicagoland when his engine blew on lap 230 as he was running sixth. “I’ve never been so heartbroken ever,” Almirola said afterward, as reported by Bob Pockrass of Sporting News

    He finished sixth at the next race in New Hampshire, but it wasn't enough to get him out of the first round of the Chase.

    The 30-year-old Richard Petty Motorsports driver will look to build on his breakthrough season in 2015, and as he does, he should see his fanbase grow dramatically.

2. Austin Dillon

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    For the reigning Nationwide Series champion, Richard Childress' grandson and the first driver to take over the No. 3 car since Dale Earnhardt's tragic passing, Austin Dillon had a rather low-profile rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.

    I mean, it wasn't a bad season by any measure: Dillon won the pole at the Daytona 500 and had one top-five and four top-10s, and perhaps most importantly, didn't have any DNFs or big disasters on the race track in his first year out. That gives him a lot to build on in 2015.

    But he finished the season ranked 20th and was completely overshadowed by Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson. Now, he's ready to take it to the next level, as reported by Jared Turner of Fox Sports:

    'I think coming into this year we've got a better shot at [winning] because we've got our notes, and I know what it takes now to run a full Cup season, and the preparation that goes into it. I think preparation's everything, and we have to refocus and start sitting down and setting our goals to accomplish what we want to, and that's having a championship run this year.'

    With his pedigree, Dillon will have a lot of fans wherever he goes. Once he starts getting into the top five more often and competing for a spot in Victory Lane, he's sure to morph into one of NASCAR's biggest stars. We should see that process start in 2015.

1. Kyle Larson

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    The name that everyone—casual NASCAR fans included—will know by the end of the 2015 season is Kyle Larson's. The Rookie of the Year was a revelation on the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, doing everything right except making it to Victory Lane.

    Larson finished 17th in the standings, one spot out of the Chase. In the Chase alone, he had three top-fives and six top-10s. He seemed to be in contention week in and week out and was able to race veterans like Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon like he'd been driving in the series for a decade.

    Larry McReynolds of Fox Sports was so impressed that he doesn't think there will be a sophomore slump for Larson. In fact, he thinks he will soar in year No. 2: 

    Regardless of that, I will be totally blown away if come mid-September 2015 with the Chase just starting if we aren't talking about the number of races Kyle has won in 2015 and what a contender he will be for the championship.

    Larson is set up to be the future of the sport, and with a good relationship with his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray and a solid crew, he's also set up for a lot of success in the present.

    Get used to talking about Larson, NASCAR fans. He's becoming a superstar.