The Final Word – The Countdown to the New Season is Down to Single Digits

The countdown has begun to the start of a new season, with less than ten days to go before the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona. A new campaign, some new teams and some new expectations.

Stewart-Haas had a year of mixed results in 2014. Kevin Harvick has his crown, but I think if you claim one championship you might like to claim another. Hey, it works for Jimmie Johnson. His boss, Tony Stewart, has three, but just having a year without the drama would be a Godsend. Kurt Busch won a race, which placed him in the Chase, but he actually was not even as good as Austin Dillon, Paul Menard, or Brian Vickers over the course of the season. He needs to show this year as to why Gene Haas spent the big money to bring him into the stable.

Danica Patrick must do well. I hear that, I believe that should be so, but I am not so convinced the bloom is off the rose just yet. With the big money funding, a solid organization behind her, and the media attention she gets, I do not believe she needs to be anything more than the novelty she already is. Being the best female driver in NASCAR history might still be enough, but results better than those of, say, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. should be expected as the soon-to-be 33-year-old embarks on her third full season.

Kasey Kahne turns 35 this spring and probably is considered the little guy at the big boys table at Hendrick by some. Seventeen wins over his career, including six in the past four years, argues otherwise. The only reason Kahne is not more front and center is due to having teammates who have either won the title multiple times or who happens to be the sports most popular performer. Even Harvick and Stewart would be considered fourth on the depth chart on this outfit.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a new crew chief. After matching his win totals of the previous nine seasons in 2014, Junior has Greg Ives on the box after Steve Letarte left for the broadcast booth. The 40-year-old needs to repeat what he did in 2014, as 23 Cup wins, 23 more on the junior circuit, two Daytona 500 wins, five Talladega celebrations, and a dozen straight Most Popular Driver of the Year nods might not be enough to make the Hall…in 2030.

2015 marks the final full-time season for Jeff Gordon. You better enjoy it, as he will not be eligible for the Hall of Fame until at least 2023. That would mark 30 years since he began his career, which is one qualification. If he has to wait until he is 55, that would be in 2027. Gone is the former three years in retirement qualification, as of this year. This alone causes me to expect more tinkering to the qualification rules between now and then.

Trevor Bayne has a Daytona 500 to his credit, and not much else over the past four seasons. He leaves his part-time job driving for the Wood Brothers to a full-time gig with Roush Fenway. Bayne turns 24 the day they run the Duels at Daytona, with hopes of taking Mark Martin’s old No. 6 ride back to the front. The question is, does he and teammates Greg Biffle and Stenhouse represent an organization on the rise?

Bayne takes the place of Carl Edwards, who hopes to realize that first championship with his move. Twice he has been the season’s runner-up, as the 35-year-old seeks some greener grass on Joe Gibbs’ side of the fence. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth are a pretty good trio of teammates to roll with. Without question, one of NASCAR’s Big Three organizations, along with Hendrick and Stewart-Haas.

Or should that be Big Four? Penske is just a two car outfit, but with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano on the reins their wagons can make something happen. Both finished amongst the season’s Top Five, combining for 11 victories last year. Yes, Big Four is more like it.

Is there anyone to make it a Big Five? Childress has youth in Austin Dillon, with brother Ty waiting in the wings. They have experience in Ryan Newman, who was just one point behind Harvick when the smoke cleared at Homestead last November. Then there is Paul Menard, who has yet to crack the season’s Top Fifteen in his career, the past four with Childress. On the positive side, he does come complete with a sponsor. Is that enough?

Michael Waltrip’s crew once was considered a top flight team, until the wings came off. Martin Truex Jr. found himself with Furniture Row, where their gains with Kurt Busch disappeared with his replacement. Brian Vickers is on the mend with a heart issue, so he will require a temporary replacement. As for Clint Bowyer, Captain Skid dropped to 19th in the season rankings after being the runner-up in 2012 and seventh the season after. Bowyer is locked in for another three years, but will they be the best of times, or the worst of times?

Ganassi has 22-year old Kyle Larson, who just missed the Chase in his rookie season, along with veteran Jamie McMurray. Am I the only one who thinks this team should have been, and should be, more successful? McMurray has only seven wins over 13 seasons, but where he won is impressive. Two came at Daytona, including the 500 in 2010, two at Talladega, two at Charlotte, as well as the Brickyard 400. Not enough to make one a contender, but certainly one who gets remembered.

You cannot forget Petty, if only for the guy the outfit is named after. Aric Almirola is back, after a single win got him into the Chase…for three races. That victory was just one of five the team has had over six seasons. Coming in is Sam Hornish Jr. who, in 239 NASCAR races in all three top series, has just three wins on the junior circuit. Two of them came over his last 39 races run there over the past two campaigns. Let us not forget his 19 IndyCar wins between 2001 and 2007, including the 2006 Indianapolis 500. Does that get one excited? Sadly, not much.

Maybe the biggest move comes off the track. Gone is ESPN. Thank God Almighty. FOX returns, with NBC taking over the second half of the season. Mike Joy is a good lap-by-lap announcer, while Rick Allen is even better. While he may have a few detractors, I enjoy Darrell Waltrip, along with Larry McReynolds, providing color analysis. I think Steve Letarte will be even better though, surprisingly, Jeff Burton may be the weak link until he smooths out his delivery. Still, he has a few months to work on it. All are infinitely better than the ESPN crew, and that works for me.

It all begins on Saturday, February 14th with the Sprint Unlimited from Daytona on FOX. Dare I say it, “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity.” Sorry, I just could not resist.

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