Awards for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season
With the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season now in the rear-view mirror, it's time to hand out Bleacher Report's awards for a wild year that included an unlikely champion, a retiring superstar and a feud between two of the sport's biggest stars.
Jeff Gordon made it all the way to the Championship 4 season finale at Homestead still eligible for what would have been a fifth championship in his final season.
Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano—two superstars in their own right at nearly opposite ends of the age spectrum—waged a war that NASCAR allowed to spin out of control before they prematurely ended each other's seasons.
It was a season that truly had a little bit of everything. Read on to remember some of its better, and most bitter, moments.
Comeback Driver of the Year
Usually, this award would go to a driver who struggled the previous season and then rose up to post a bounce-back season worthy of note. But how can we ignore the champ in this unusual instance? Kyle Busch missed the first 11 Sprint Cup races of the season after suffering leg and foot injuries in an accident during the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, only to come back and claim the title.
What Busch accomplished after his return to the track last May cannot be overstated. It was truly remarkable, or as Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com wrote: "Add Kyle Busch to the list of fact-is-stranger-than-truth NASCAR champions."
Busch won five races in all, including four in one five-race stretch beginning with a road-course win at Sonoma in late June. He needed to crack the top 30 in points despite missing the 11 races to become Chase-eligible after NASCAR made a special injury exemption for him (and rightly so). He did that easily and concluded the season with the dramatic victory at Homestead, where anything less than a win would have cost him the title.
Runner-up: Kurt Busch
Remember, he missed the first three races of this season while being investigated for alleged domestic abuse on a former girlfriend. He recovered and went on to also make the Chase, winning two races along the way.
Rookie of the Year
The Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award ain't what it used to be (or hopefully what it will become again next year with the influx of the likes of Chase Elliott and others). But give Moffitt credit for showing up nearly every week, or at least being in the right place at the right time when Kyle Busch's accident at the beginning of the season initiated a domino effect in the garage.
Moffitt ended up driving six races for Michael Waltrip Racing, with his best finish of eighth (his only top 10 of the season) coming in his very first race for MWR at Atlanta. As David Ragan moved from Front Row Motorsports to Joe Gibbs Racing to MWR to sub for Busch and Brian Vickers, Moffitt basically moved to fill the rides Ragan left behind (except for at JGR). Moffitt ended up 34th in points despite making only 31 starts, but that was the highest points finish of any rookie.
Of his eighth-place finish at Atlanta, Moffitt admitted to FoxSports.com: "You know, (at) the time I didn't even know what I was doing behind the wheel of a race car it seemed like."
Runner-up: Matt DiBenedetto
Never heard of him? Right. Now you get the point on this year's lame Rookie of the Year race, although DiBenedetto deserves credit for at least making 33 races while driving for a team with very limited funds in BK Racing. Oh, and he also stood up to Tony Stewart once, calling the Sprint Cup veteran "an arrogant pr---k," according to FoxSports.com.
Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway
Let's be honest. Despite all the subplots that swirled around the season, making it interesting, much of the actual racing on the track, including during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, bordered on the boring. And NASCAR knows it.
That's why next season it will be going to a reduced downforce aerodynamic package that it first tested last July during the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky, after which it received rave reviews from virtually everyone involved in the race won by none other than Kyle Busch. The event featured 2,665 green-flag passes, including a record 22 for the lead.
"I felt like a race-car driver tonight," driver Carl Edwards told AutoWeek afterward. "I could actually drive the car. I was steering and sliding – I about wrecked a few times. I felt like I was doing something, not just sitting in line."
Runner-up: Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway
Kyle Busch's dramatic win, with defending champ Harvick running second, ranks right up there. But for actual overall racing action on the track, it didn't measure up to Kentucky. That actually bodes well for the 2016 season.
Most Disappointing Driver
When Kahne signed a three-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports in November of 2014, placing him at HMS through the 2018 season, optimism ran high for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet and his team.
But after making the Chase for three consecutive years, his first season with new crew chief Keith Rodden was a total bust. There is no other way to put it. Kahne failed to win a single race for the first time in five years and registered his lowest total of top-10 finishes since 2010. For the second consecutive year, his total of three top-five finishes was his lowest since 2007.
And when it came to the Chase, this time Kahne was left on the outside looking in. He ended up finishing 18th in points.
Runner-up: Tony Stewart
The three-time Cup champion obviously is on the down side of his career and already has announced that he will retire after the 2016 season. But still, more was expected of him in 2015, when he failed to register a single top-five finish, led a career-low total of 24 laps over the 36 races and had only three top 10s while finishing 28th in the points. It was the worst points finish of his 17-year career for a season in which he had run all the races.
Most Memorable Moment
Jeff Gordon's final race at Homestead
The pre-race events leading up to the final race of Jeff Gordon's season and his career surpassed all expectations. Gordon, who has won four championships and whose 93 career race wins rank third in NASCAR history behind only Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson, was like a rock star about to give his final concert.
Mario Andretti was there to offer his best wishes and so was Lewis Hamilton, who recently wrapped up another Formula One championship of his own. It seemed every step Gordon took along the way to his iconic No. 24 car, he was mobbed by fans and another celebrity popped out of nowhere to have his or her picture taken with him.
"I started to sign autographs as I was going to the car like I normally do, but it just kept growing and growing and growing. ... It was very cool," Gordon said after finishing a respectable sixth in the race.
Runner-up: Matt Kenseth wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville
It took a lot for anything to top the watershed Chase moment at Martinsville when Kenseth, who was nine laps down, deliberately wrecked Logano, who was leading the race. It was retaliation for Logano wrecking Kenseth earlier at Kansas Speedway when Logano was running second and Kenseth was leading the race. The first incident ended Kenseth's Chase and the second effectively ended Logano's, leaving two of the top drivers over the first 34 races of the season out of the winner-takes-all finale at Homestead.
Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano
No question about this one. It started in Kansas, or maybe even long before that, but that's where it came to a head when Logano turned Kenseth to earn a Chase win.
At the time, Logano already had won a week earlier at Charlotte to ensure his advancement into the next round of the Chase. But Kenseth pretty much needed to win either at Kansas or the following week at Talladega to advance, and Kansas obviously was his best shot at doing that.
Kenseth fumed for days afterward and hinted at retribution when Logano continued to insist that he hadn't turned Kenseth on purpose at Kansas. "First of all, he should have stopped running his mouth, and he’s lying when he says he didn’t do it on purpose," Kenseth told USA Today. "He lifted the tires off the ground and offset it to the left. He’s too good a race-car driver to do that by accident.”
So when the time for payback and opportunity met at a crossroads later at Martinsville, Kenseth didn't hesitate to put Logano into the wall. Even though they later met with NASCAR, which should have called for a meeting earlier, this is a feud that very well may carry over to next year and beyond.
Runner-up: Logano vs. the field
Drivers throughout the Sprint Cup garage seemed to side with Kenseth in this deal, and that may not bode well for Logano in the future.
Jeff Gordon in Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville
There were some great wins posted by various drivers throughout the season, but none topped Gordon's unlikely triumph at Martinsville, securing the retiring driver's advancement to the Championship 4 field at Homestead. Fans in the sold-out crowd cheered wildly as Gordon took the lead late in the race and then held on for the victory, his only one of an otherwise trying and unspectacular year on the track.
Yes, he took advantage of Kenseth taking out the race leader in Logano. But a win is a win is a win, and Gordon admitted to reporters afterward that this ranked as one of the most outstanding in his long and storied career.
"This is one of the finest moments I think I've ever had in my career, I'll be honest," Gordon said after the race. "It's just because what this year means. This is my final year, my final race at Martinsville, punching our ticket to Homestead, having my family here, the hard work this team has put together [and] that reaction from the fans."
Runner-up: Kyle Busch in Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead
Kevin Harvick's clutch Chase-saving win earlier at Dover ranks up there, too, but how can you not go with Busch's championship-clinching victory at Homestead? It took something truly out of the ordinary, a once-in-a-lifetime type of moment by Gordon, to rank only slightly ahead of Busch's run in the season finale.
Duh. He did more in 25 starts than most drivers can manage in an entire season: five wins, 12 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes with a total of 736 laps led.
And Busch did it in a season that many thought had ended for him before it even started. He came back earlier than projected from his injuries and then drove through pain for the rest of the season, knowing that when it ended, he soon would need additional to undergo additional surgeries.
It was, in many ways, a season unlike any other for a driver in the history of NASCAR. And finally, in his 11th full-time season of driving at NASCAR's highest level, Busch has been crowned champion.
"It feels amazing," Busch admitted. "I don't know that anybody could have dreamed of this year."
Runner-up: Kevin Harvick
Harvick failed in the end to successfully defend his 2014 title, but he had a remarkable season nonetheless, winning three races and finishing second a record 13 times while leading a series-high 2,294 laps. That was 863 more than any other driver.
Unless otherwise note, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report as well as assisting in coverage of NASCAR for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.