Underappreciated Drivers Who Will Become Fan Favorites in 2015

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2014

Underappreciated Drivers Who Will Become Fan Favorites in 2015

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    Among two of the most underappreciated drivers in the Sprint Cup Series today are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick. Look for them to have big years in 2015.
    Among two of the most underappreciated drivers in the Sprint Cup Series today are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick. Look for them to have big years in 2015.Associated Press

    Hard as it may seem to believe, there are a number of NASCAR drivers who already have established large fanbases, and yet they’re still underappreciated.

    Reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick was that way for several years. He was one of the hardest-working drivers in the series but just didn’t have the luck or breaks that other drivers seemed to enjoy.

    It wasn’t until Harvick left Richard Childress Racing after 13 seasons to move to Stewart-Haas Racing that he finally achieved the pinnacle of his sport, becoming the 2014 Sprint Cup champ.

    With the new elimination format of the Chase that was introduced for 2014, who will become the next Harvick in 2015?

    We’re not saying necessarily that he or she will win it all like Harvick did, but the following 10 drivers are definitely capable of—and in some cases overdue for—greater success and appreciation in 2015.

Darrell 'Bubba' Wallace Jr.

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. will only run a limited schedule in the 2015 Xfinity Series, but we expect him to do quite well.

    The 21-year-old Wallace had a breakthrough season in 2014 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, winning four races and finishing a close third to two-time champ Matt Crafton.

    Unfortunately, Wallace ended the season without a home for 2015. Joe Gibbs Racing and Kyle Busch Racing both went in different directions, unable to find sponsorship to keep Wallace in a KBR/JGR ride for next season.

    He asked for and received his release from JGR and will race a limited schedule (number of races still to be determined) for Roush Fenway Racing on the Xfinity circuit, it was recently announced.

    Even though he’ll be a part-timer, we expect Wallace to have a strong showing in the Xfinity ranks. We won’t be surprised if he even wins a race or two. And if he does, who knows? That may allow the team to compete in even more races.

Ryan Blaney

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Team Penske development driver Ryan Blaney makes a big step forward in 2015, driving part time for the legendary Wood Brothers Racing in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Blaney, who is essentially replacing Trevor Bayne in the renowned No. 21 Ford Fusion, will be joined by crew chief Jeremy Bullins, who also comes to WBR from Team Penske.

    Blaney is making a big jump from a full-time ride in the Camping World Truck Series to Sprint Cup (with a part-time ride in the Nationwide Series in 2014 as well).

    But the team is very high on Blaney and his future, and even though he’ll be racing a part-time Cup schedule for now, there’s the possibility of adding more races—especially if he does well, which we expect him to do.

Trevor Bayne

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Finally, after years of waiting, Trevor Bayne has gotten the call from NASCAR’s major leagues.

    Even though he won the 2011 Daytona 500 and had sporadic starts in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford Fusion in the four years after that, Bayne went four more seasons in the NASCAR Nationwide Series before getting the call-up to a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2015.

    Bayne is already a fan favorite, but his elevation to full time at RFR will likely increase his fan appeal and popularity.

    We've always felt Bayne was not a one-hit wonder with his Daytona 500 win. Now he gets a chance to prove us right.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is already a popular driver due in part to his two Nationwide Series championships, he is coming off a very trying season in his sophomore campaign in the Sprint Cup Series.

    Stenhouse has also received notoriety because of his love interest, fellow driver Danica Patrick.

    But we see Stenhouse having a big breakout season in 2015. That is, if Roush Fenway Racing can emerge from the performance doldrums it has experienced the last few seasons.

    Stenhouse should rebound from his 27th-place finish in 2014 and end up in the top 20 in 2015. He’ll also make a name for himself more than he already has.

Austin Dillon

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    While Austin Dillon had a great start to 2014 by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and bringing back the legendary No. 3 car, his overall rookie season as a whole was difficult.

    Dillon will enter his sophomore season in the Cup series in 2015 but will also return to run numerous races in the Xfinity Series as well.

    That additional seat time should help Dillon improve his overall performance and eventual finish for the season. Dillon, a former Nationwide Series champ, has a great deal of talent and has all the resources of his grandfather’s Richard Childress Racing at his disposal.

    We see 2015 as a big season for him and one in which he will definitely increase his popularity, notoriety and appreciation as well.

Aric Almirola

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    After making the Chase for the first time in his career, Aric Almirola has a great deal of confidence going forward into 2015.

    Sure, he failed to advance past the first round of the Chase. However, the fact he made the playoffs was huge not only for Almirola, but also the overall Richard Petty Motorsports organization.

    Almirola will be teammates in 2015 with Sam Hornish Jr., who replaces Marcos Ambrose (returned to his native Australia to race V8 Supercars).

    Together, Almirola and Hornish could be a surprise pair in 2015. Hornish has been waiting for just this opportunity, and expect the former three-time IRL champ and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner to make the most of that opportunity, particularly for a team fronted by The King of NASCAR, Richard Petty.

AJ Allmendinger

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    Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

    AJ Allmendinger had a memorable season in 2014. Not only did he win his first career Sprint Cup race in a thrilling battle with Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen; he also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time as well.

    Like Aric Almirola, Allmendinger’s stay in the elimination-format Chase was short-lived (he was ousted after the first round), although he showed not only what he could do as a driver, but also what JTG Daugherty could do as a collective single-car team.

    Allmendinger has definitely found a home at JTG-D, but if his success continues in 2015 as we expect, don’t be surprised to see larger and better funded teams come calling for his talents.

Carl Edwards

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    It’s hard to call a guy who almost won the championship, losing to Tony Stewart by a tiebreaker in 2011, as underappreciated.

    But Edwards does seem to fall into that category. While he’s a great driver, the last three seasons have not been typical Edwards-like seasons.

    Now that he’s moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing, Edwards could very well have a first season with his new team like former RFR teammate Matt Kenseth had when he moved to JGR in 2013 and won a career-high (and season-high) seven wins.

    Earlier this week, Edwards boldly predicted he believed he could win as many as 10 races and a championship in his first season with JGR.

    If that prediction comes to fruition, Edwards will certainly go from underappreciated to one of the best drivers in the sport.

Kyle Larson

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    New dad and reigning Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson is one of the brightest spots on the Sprint Cup horizon.

    Just 22, Larson drove like a seasoned veteran in 2014 rather than a rookie. It was very clear from his long prior tenure as a dirt and sprint car racer that he learned his lessons well.

    In 36 starts, while he didn’t win a race, he had eight top-five and 17 top-10 finishes as well as one pole. He also had 28 lead-lap finishes.

    Not only was that a better overall record than NASCAR veterans Ryan Newman (who finished second in the Chase)—as well as Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Brian Vickers, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Casey Mears—but Larson just barely missed making the Chase for the Sprint Cup and finished a respectable 17th.

    Larson already has a good fanbase, but that’s nowhere near what it likely will become in the next few years—especially when (not if) he starts winning multiple races and becomes a championship contender.

    Larson is arguably the most promising rookie the sport has seen since Kyle Busch made his debut a decade ago. If he can avoid the notorious NASCAR sophomore jinx, 2015 could be a year where even better and greater things come Larson’s way.

Danica Patrick

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Danica Patrick is poised for a breakout season in 2015. After having a decent sophomore season in 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, including a career-best sixth-place showing at Atlanta and three top-10 finishes, Patrick is ready to take the next big step of her NASCAR career in 2015.

    How she will fare with new crew chief Daniel Knost (formerly Kurt Busch’s crew chief for the first 33 races of 2014) will go a long way toward determining what kind of season Patrick has.

    It was very clear in 2014 that she drove with greater confidence and performance (including 19 lead-lap finishes compared to 12 in 2013).

    Plus, Patrick’s average race finish of 23.7 was significantly better than 26.1 in 2013 and 28.3 in her 10-race apprenticeship in 2012.

    Patrick has quickly become one of the more popular drivers in the sport. If she continues to improve and potentially wins a race, we’ll watch that underappreciation skyrocket into a true appreciation for what she has done and what she will potentially do in the future.

    Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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