By: Candice Smith
Happy New Year! 2016 promises to be one to remember in the world of NASCAR.
To recap 2015, Jeff Gordon made the most of his farewell tour by actually competing for a championship. He didn’t win, but it added to the heightened emotions of the season surrounding the veteran driver and his loyal fans.
Kyle Busch survived a horrendous crash in February at Daytona, worked incredibly hard to rehab, and returned in May to start winning, putting him and his team in position to make the Chase. Eventually Busch won the Championship, his first and the first for Toyota.
Now, 2016 will be another year of farewells as Tony Stewart announced this season to be his last in NASCAR’s top series as a driver. Once again fans will witness on-air montages, track gifts, and emotional send offs to one of the sport’s top drivers.
I hope the trend stops for a few seasons after Stewart’s departure. The fans need a break from the pomp and circumstance surrounding the loss of popular drivers retiring in their early 40s.
What would Harry Gant say? He competed for Rookie of the Year when he was 39! His career got into top gear in his 50s when he earned the moniker of “Mr. September” in 1991.
But times are different.
This year we’ll be watching to see if Stewart can make some magic in his last season in NASCAR, something he’s been unable to do in recent years as a driver.
The Daytona 500 has been an unattainable yet lofty goal for Stewart. Like Dale Earnhardt before, Stewart has won nearly every contest at Daytona, but he hasn’t won the Great American Race. Earnhardt, of course, finally won in 1998. Will this be Stewart’s Swan Song?
Could the planets align and lightning strike to produce a victory for Stewart this February?
And what about Kyle Busch?
Some of his detractors complained he didn’t earn the championship, NASCAR gave it to him. This writer vehemently disagrees with that assessment, but Busch now has the onus of trying to run a FULL 36 race season to defend his championship and win back-to-back Cups, a most difficult feat.
Busch is young, riding wild momentum, and is as focused as ever… He’ll be competing in this year’s Daytona 500 looking to start his year as champion as points leader.
Kevin Harvick, denied his back-to-back championship last season, will try to reclaim the top spot by the time Homestead-Miami appears on the NASCAR schedule. It’s a long, laborious season before then. Harvick and team have been undeniably tough – the toughest – in the past couple of seasons.
What happened to Jimmie Johnson?
I was so certain that he was going to be crowned a seven-time champion last season and then he wasn’t even at the final dance! Is his dynasty over? Has the buck been passed? Is the Evil Genius (Chad Knaus) finished?
I doubt it. They are “retooling”, “team-building”, and “re-focusing”. These aren’t direct quotes from the No. 48 team, but I’m betting we’ll hear these terms or others similar in the weeks to come.
I believe these men, Johnson and Knaus, will not rest until they win a seventh and then a record-breaking eighth title. It’s who they are.
How about those Penske boys, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano? Their recent seasons have been sizzling, but they’ve been unable to close the deal. Still, they breathe life into Fords. We can only wonder if they’ll be targeted by Matt Kenseth for their respective actions against the Joe Gibbs Racer late last season or if the slate is cleared for 2016.
Kenseth is seeking another shot at the championship. Many thought he’d be the first to win one for Toyota, but his teammate Busch sewed that up. Now it’s all about Kenseth sealing the deal for his team, his fans, and himself. The rough side of Kenseth appeared last fall, it will be interesting to see how this season plays out on the track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. There is no question the Most Popular Driver is always in the hearts of his fans. He’s won the Daytona 500 and history shows under this Chase format that a win early in the season seems to spur Earnhardt and team on to strong finishes even at tracks he doesn’t like so well (think Sears Point). Winning the first race of the season (again) would be a fabulous way to start the year for any driver, but it’s Earnhardt Jr.’s fans’ will that he be the one to take the checkered flag first.
Keep an eye out for drivers like Chase Elliott, piloting the No. 24 car now that Gordon has taken a seat in the booth. Watch for Kyle Larson to rebound this season. And, for the Daytona 500, never discount anyone.
The thing about the Daytona 500 is it’s anyone’s race. Restrictor plate racing results in some unusual finishes so tuning in is the only way to experience the action, the drama, the intensity, and NASCAR at its (restrictor plate) finest!