The gifts are open, the tree is on borrowed time, and a New Year is almost upon us. Seems like a good time to reflect on the year that was, as we embark on the one that will be.
Once again, 2015 brought us a satisfying champion. He might not have been the one you were cheering for, Junior fans, but you cannot quibble about the great story that was Kyle Busch. Hurt in the opening junior series race, he missed the opening 11 of the Cup schedule. In the old days, he would have been an also-ran, but that was before a win and a Top 30 position in the standings forgave such things.
With just 15 races to accomplish what needed to be done, Busch won some. No surprise there. The fact he got into position to make those wins count was in doubt, at least, we thought so. We of little faith. It would appear that those who really have what it takes to challenge for the title need not bother to appear until May, which helps explain why NASCAR insists drivers run all the races rather than pick and choose.
Not only did Busch win the title, as he and Kurt join the Labonte brothers as champion siblings, but he also came up with a rule change that makes sense. If you lead the pack entering the Chase, you should get a free pass into the second round. Other sports give a bye or, at least, home field advantage to those with the best record entering the playoffs, why not NASCAR? Some might argue the front trio should have such an advantage, but I would settle for one. Like Kyle’s championship, that driver would have earned it.
Four-time king Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have earned their eventual invitations to enter NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. Gordon left his famed No. 24 only after his 93rd career victory at Martinsville and finishing third in the battle for the championship. Stewart has one more round left in him, as he embarks on his farewell tour at Daytona. The three-time champion lost the magic suddenly in 2013 after a pair of sprint cup race mishaps, one that broke his leg, the other that took the life of another driver in 2014. May 2016 bring him some deserved satisfaction.
It was also a tough season, at least at the start, for Kurt Busch. A domestic violence accusation got him a three-race suspension to start the year. Matt Kenseth ended on a sour note, as he was gone for two after delivering some on-track justice that left Joey Logano’s title hopes about as shot as Kenseth’s own. Michael Waltrip Racing went the way of the dodo, as the outfit never recovered from Clint Bowyer’s 2013 spin that almost got Martin Truex Jr. a Chase place. Instead, after the controversy they lost the NAPA sponsorship and the Truex entry, and during this season, Waltrip’s financial backer backed out.
That means Bowyer moves to the seat of Harry Scott’s No. 51 for a season before taking over Stewart’s No. 14 in 2017. Brian Scott replaces Sam Hornish Jr. in the Petty No. 9 while Chase Elliott replaces Gordon in Hendrick’s No, 24. Jeffrey Earnhardt will drive most of the season in the GoFAS Racing No. 32, with the Front Row No. 34 taken over by Chris Buescher. Ryan Blaney returns with the Wood Brothers No. 21, which returns to running a full schedule in 2016.
2015 was when we had to say goodbye to broadcaster Steve Byrnes. We lost Buddy Baker over the past year. Red Farmer mourns his wife Joan, and Bobby Allison lost his wife Judy. My own mother, Mae, passed away this past August.
As for 2016, it will bring us a new rules package, supposedly making the cars slower, less comfortable to drive, and closer in some regards to the XFINITY model. It is hoped this will make the racing more exciting, which we have heard before, but could also see more Cup guys in the XFINITY series to tune up. If so, that would, in the parlance of my youth, blow chunks.
I am sure you would agree that would be something to avoid come New Year’s Eve as we have just seven weeks to go before they go again in Daytona.