How NASCAR's Biggest Underachievers Last Year Can Improve in 2015

Kevin McRae@@McRaeWritesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2015

How NASCAR's Biggest Underachievers Last Year Can Improve in 2015

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    Underachieving means different things for different drivers.

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. makes this list because he has failed to live up to the massive hype heralded by back-to-back Nationwide Series Championships.

    Kurt Busch is here because he's a former Sprint Cup champion that joined Stewart-Haas Racing off a successful year and laid an egg.

    Who else made the list for underachieving and what can they do about it?

    Read on to find out.

    As always, feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Hope Roush Fenway Racing Gets Its Act Together

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. faces a 2015 season in which he’s going to have to prove his ceiling is higher than just being Danica Patrick’s beau.

    That might sound harsh, and it’s probably even a low blow, but the 27-year-old has been a huge disappointment since joining the Sprint Cup Series after back-to-back Nationwide Series titles in 2011 and 2012.

    Stenhouse Jr. slipped to a 27th-place finish last year—one spot above his more popular and polarizing lady friend—in a season that saw only one top-five finish and a bizarre failure to even qualify at Talladega in October.

    Ricky’s problems on the track seemed to fit into the general pattern of disappointment that has permeated Roush Fenway Racing the past couple of seasons. It could just be his bad luck that he made the jump at a time when his team was on the decline.

    With Carl Edwards gone—he joined Joe Gibbs Racing for the season ahead—Stenhouse will slot into the spot right behind veteran contender Greg Biffle on the RFR pecking order. He’ll need to hope that comes with some better equipment and a faster car in 2015.

    If it does, the pressure will be on him to perform.

Tony Stewart: Put Tragedy Behind Him

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    Tony Stewart had a tremendous season from an owner and businessman standpoint.

    Kevin Harvick captured the Sprint Cup in his first season on Stewart’s team, and that probably helped to soothe a few of the bad feelings over a season marked by tragedy, lingering injury concerns and disappointment.

    Stewart wasn’t right mentally, dealing with the tragic consequences of an accident that claimed Kevin Ward Jr.’s life in upstate New York, or physically, suffering continued complications from a 2013 accident that broke his leg. He didn’t win a race for the first time since 1999 and made it back-to-back seasons without a Chase berth.

    Anyone else feel like the Chase just doesn’t feel like the Chase without Smoke at least in contention?

    Stewart will need to put everything about last season in the proverbial rear-view mirror. He’s a fiery, passionate guy who genuinely loves racing cars, but he had a haunted look in his eyes after being involved in Ward Jr.’s death.

    That’s a lot of heavy lifting to overcome, even though a grand jury ultimately cleared him of any wrongdoing in the incident, and Stewart will have to let it rest if he hopes to rebound and become a factor again in 2015.

Kurt Busch: Jell with Tony Gibson

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    Let’s make this crystal clear.

    Kurt Busch won an early-season race at Martinsville to secure passage into the Chase, but he was pretty awful for most of the remaining season.

    Atrocious might even be too generous for Outlaw, who came over to Stewart-Haas Racing after a successful year racing for Furniture Row Racing in the No. 78 car. His new bosses were hopeful that he could become the anchor of a championship-caliber team and contend on a weekly basis for a spot in Victory Lane.

    Busch would’ve missed the Chase if it weren’t for his win in the season’s sixth race, and his 10 finishes of 30th or worse are one of those eye-popping statistics that jump off the page at you.

    But there is some reason for optimism.

    SHR announced late in the season that Busch and Patrick would be swapping crew chiefs for the final three races of the Chase. Veteran Tony Gibson, who handled Patrick since she made the jump to the Sprint Cup Series, would be running the 41 team and rookie Daniel Knost would ship over to run Danica's crew.

    The results were substantially improved for Kurt, if not so much for Danica.

    Busch ended the season with a pair of top-10s and one just outside in 11th place.

    Gibson will remain Busch’s crew chief for the season ahead, and if the two continue to jell, Outlaw could find himself a factor once again in 2015.

Jimmie Johnson: Use Early Exit as Motivation

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    Don't freak out.

    Context, as always, is key whenever you discuss Jimmie Johnson.

    Did he have a bad season in 2014? Only by his standards.

    Did he truly underachieve? See above.

    Johnson came into the season as the favorite to capture his record-tying seventh Sprint Cup but was eliminated with four races remaining in the Chase after failing to capture a must-win race at Talladega.

    The 48 team isn’t used to racing with nothing on the line, and Johnson made it crystal clear that’s a feeling he hopes to burn into his brain and use as motivation when his pursuit of history resumes next month.

    Johnson, per Nate Ryan of USA Today, had this to say about his early exit:

    "It's great medicine for the (team). I don't want to be in this position. This is great medicine to sit and watch this championship unfold. It's going to motivate me (and) all of us on the 48 team. We'll be back next year and ready to roll"

    Johnson won his third straight Fall race at Texas even after his championship hopes had dissipated, and you’d have to figure the chip on his shoulder from being sent packing early was a factor in that victory.

    Sure, a season that began with talk about being the greatest of all time and ended with a meaningless ninth-place finish at Homestead was disappointing, but Johnson is a pro’s pro. He’ll remember the feeling every week and use it to get the best out of himself and his team in 2015.

Clint Bowyer: Forget the Scandal

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    You have to think that more than one person at Michael Waltrip Racing feels the team is cursed after receiving harsh punishment for a race-manipulation scandal just prior to the 2013 Chase.

    Clint Bowyer appeared to deliberately spin out with seven laps to go at the regular-season-ending race at Richmond, prompting a late caution and costing Ryan Newman a spot in the Chase.

    Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer's teammate with MWR, was the immediate beneficiary, landing a spot in the Chase by a single point after Brian Vickers slowed in the final laps.

    NASCAR investigated, found evidence of race manipulation and came down like a hammer on the drivers and the team. Bowyer was fined $50,000, the team $300,000 and Truex Jr. was removed from the Chase.

    Truex Jr. lost his sponsor and left MWR after the season, catching on with Furniture Row Racing, but Bowyer, who stayed put, seemed dogged by the scandal all year. 

    There were weeks when his car just wasn't up to snuff and others where bad luck did him in, all that adding up to a highly disappointing season for the 15 team.

    Yes, the scandal was humiliating and costly, but Bowyer, one of the most interesting and comical characters on the Sprint Cup Series, needs to put it behind him, or else 2015 will be another lost year.