Tuesday, 20 January 2015

2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season Preview

It's nearly February, which means only one thing: The new NASCAR Sprint Cup season is almost upon us.

After an exciting 2014 season which saw Kevin Harvick claim his first Sprint Cup title in dramatic fashion under the controversial new 'Chase For The Sprint Cup' rules, the scoreboards are reset at zero with the world's best stock-car racers ready to do battle once more to add their name to the long and illustrious list of Sprint Cup Champions.

The Calendar

America's premier racing series will once again see an intense schedule of 36 points-paying racing taking place over 40 weeks, beginning with the iconic Daytona 500 on February 22, and ending back in Florida at Homestead Miami Speedway on November 22.

While the calendar will see the same mix of familiar venues, there have been a number of changes with several races changing dates.

Atlanta will take over from Phoenix as the host for the second round of the season, with the Arizona facility moving to the fourth spot on the calendar. With Bristol's early season race now being moved from March to April, there will be a consecutive run of three west coast races with Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana all following Atlanta.

To avoid television conflicts, Daytona's July date will move to the evening of Sunday July 5 as opposed to the Saturday. That change is expected to be a one-off though, with the race set to move back to the Saturday in 2016.

Following an 11-year absence, Darlington's only Sprint Cup Race will return to Labour Day weekend. The other notable change on the calendar is the swapping of dates between Charlotte and Kansas for both track's Chase races.

Driver Changes

As with every new season, there have been a number of driver moves during the off-season. Here is a look at the most notable moves for 2015:

Edwards to Gibbs

The biggest driver move for 2015 is Carl Edward's switch from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing.

After reportedly turning down an offer from Richard Childress Racing, one of Ford's biggest stars left the Blue Oval's lead team to sign for JGR's Toyota outfit with backing from Arris and Stanley Tools.

Edward's move to JGR comes after he was previously linked with a move to the team for the 2012 season. Three years on and the Missouri native has finally switch allegiances, teaming up with Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and former Roush team mate Matt Kenseth, making it the first time JGR has run four full-time entries.

Bayne moves up

Trevor Bayne shot to prominence in 2011 by winning the Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers on only his second Sprint Cup start, one day after his 20th birthday.

Four years on and his career hasn't quite lived up to expectations. Mixing his part-time Sprint Cup schedule driving the Wood Brothers #21 with a full-time Xfinity Series ride with Roush, Bayne has taken two Xfinity wins, scoring a championship best finish of sixth in both in 2013 and 2014. Of course, the numbers don't give a true representation of the last few years for Bayne with illness and sponsorship issues sidelining the Tennessee driver on more than one occasion.

The youngster will be hoping the stability of a full-time ride in Roush's famed #6 Cup car will allow him to fulfil the promise he showed way back when he became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history.

As for the vacant seat that Bayne has left behind at Wood Brothers Racing, that will be taken by Penske's Ryan Blaney.

Hornish back full-time

2015 will see Sam Hornish Jr. return to racing full-time in the Sprint Cup for the first time since 2010.

The IndyCar legend will pilot the #9 Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports following Marcus Ambrose's decision to return to V8 Supercars after previously racing for 'The King's NASCAR team - taking two road course wins in that time.

Since loosing his Cup ride at the start of 2011, Hornish Jr. has rebuilt his stock car racing career with Xfinity series drives for Penske full time in 2012-13 and Joe Gibbs Racing on a part-time basis in 2014, taking three wins and finishing a career-high second in the championship in 2013. The 35-year-old has also hand full of Cup appearances in that time.

Five big questions

A new season brings with it many unknowns and many questions. Here are just a few that we can expect to be answered throughout the course of the season:


Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. build upon a rejuvenating 2014 season?

As the son of one of NASCAR's biggest legends, with a ride in one of the championship's best teams, 12-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always gone into every season with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

As is so often the case in sports, Dale Jr. has never quite lived up to the immense expectation of his legions of fans. But that poor run of form finally looked to have been banished in 2014 as he took four wins, including a second Daytona 500 crown and for the first time in a decade he looked like a realistic championship challenger.

In the end he came up short in his attempts of a first Sprint Cup crown but he left NASCAR in no doubt that he was more than just a guy with a famous name.

However, with the departure of crew chief Steve Letarte, the man often attributed to revitalising Dale Jr., questions will be asked of whether the 40-year-old can once again mount a title challenge.

Letarte's replacement, Greg Ives, is no stranger to success, taking the 2014 Xfinity Series title with Chase Elliott. Only time will tell if he can have the same effect on his new driver.

Can Tony Stewart find his form?

Since taking the 2011 Sprint Cup title for his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, NASCAR fans have rarely seen the Tony Stewart who has made a name for himself by winning an Indy Racing League and three Sprint Sup titles.

A horrific leg break in a violent sprint car crash sidelined him for much of the 2013 season, he came back in time for the start of the 2014 season but managed only two top fives before the Kevin Ward Jr. incident ruled him out once more.

When he returned again, he could only muster one top-five finish - failing to win for the first season in his NASCAR career, leaving many wondering if Stewart was past his prime.

With further surgery planned to bring an end to the leg injuries suffered in 2013, 2015 may well be a make or break year for the driver owner.

How will Carl Edwards perform at JGR?

As with big move from one team to another in sports, the will be a lot of attention on the person who made the switch.

This time it's Carl Edwards and after coming oh-so-close to winning the championship on two occasions with Roush, a lot will be wondering if he can go one better at his new home.

History will say that Edwards is in for a good year. Matt Kenseth took seven wins on his way to runner-up spot in the championship for JGR in 2013following his move from Roush. He failed to win in '14 but still took 13 top-fives and qualified for The Chase.

If Edwards can mirror Kenseth's first year behind the wheel of a Gibbs Toyota, he would've made a fine choice by departing Roush.

Will the ban on private testing have any effect?

Private testing has been completely outlawed by NASCAR for the 2015 season, a move that is expected to save teams around $1 Million.

However, despite the obvious benefit of saving money, will teams suffer from a lack of track time? Well, lack of track time is perhaps an incorrect observation with teams able to take part in up to 14 organised Goodyear tyre tests throughout the season.

Fines of up to $200,000, owner points penalties of 150 points and six-race suspensions for crew chiefs are in store for any teams caught illegally testing in 2015, punishments sure to prevent anyone from breaking the rule.

Private testing may be gone but with so many official tests pencilled in for the year ahead, will the ban show any obvious effects for teams and drivers on track?

Will Danica Patrick's results improve?

Love her or loathe her, there's no doubting that Danica Patrick is a huge asset to NASCAR. The GoDaddy poster girl has become one of the sport's biggest stars since walking away from a successful open wheel career at the end of 2011.

However, Patrick's results haven't exactly lived up to her mega-stardom. Despite showing occasional flashes of brilliance, since making her Cup début in 2012 the IndyCar race winner has notched up just one pole position and four top ten finishes with a best finish of sixth at Atlanta last year.

With a top ride at the championship winning Stewart-Haas racing camp and attention arguably only rivalled by NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., there's always been a lot of expectation on Patrick's shoulders, but entering her third full-time season in NASCAR's top tier, maybe it's time for her to start scoring strong, week in, week out.

Five to watch in 2015

Despite 43 drivers starting each race throughout the season, here are five who are worth keeping an eye on:

Kevin Harvick

All eyes will be on the 2014 champion Kevin Harvick come Daytona. After moving to Stewart-Haas Racing's all-star lineup for 2014, the Californian made the most of the new environment, taking five wins and leading a career high 2137 laps.

Now with a first title under his belt, the NASCAR world will be looking to see if he will build upon that success or suffer second-year syndrome as he enters year two at SHR.

Denny Hamlin

With Harvick finally claiming the Sprint Cup last season, it could be said that Denny Hamlin takes over as NASCAR's perennial bridesmaid.

Three times has the Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished in the top three of the championship. He did so again in 2014 after going into the final round of the season as one of four drivers in with a shout of winning the championship.

The 2006 Rookie of the Year will once more be expected to mount a championship challenge in 2015. Maybe this will finally be his year.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is one of NASCAR's hottest prospects. After an impressive début year in 2014, taking eight top fives, a further nine top tens and a pole position on the way to scooping Rookie of the Year honours, the former open-wheel racer goes into his second full year of Sprint Cup competition hoping to built upon his début season.

A first Cup win and Chase qualification is surely on the cards for the Ganassi prodigy. Regardless of how this year plays out, there is no doubt that this young driver has a promising career ahead of him

Jeff Gordon

It's now been 14 years since Jeff Gordon last won a Sprint Cup title but despite a barren run which has seen Gordon fail to make the top-three in the standings since 2009, the Hendrick Motorsports superstar has shown no sign of slowing down.

In fact, with four wins, 2014 was Gordon's best year since he won six back in 2007. Sixth place in the final standings didn't do justice for Gordon who silenced talk of retirement with what could be called a comeback year last season.

After proving he's still got it in 2014, many will be looking for a fifth Sprint Cup from the 43-year-old this season.

Jimmie Johnson

For someone who's cemented his place in NASCAR history by dominating the last decade by taking six titles (including five consecutively), it's hard to believe 2014 was Jimmie Johnson's worst season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

For many drivers in the field, four wins and Chase qualification would equate to a job well done. Not for Johnson though who, thanks to the knockout Chase format could only finish as high as 11th in the final standings.

The last time Jimmie Johnson failed to win the title, he went on to take it the following season. Could 2015 be the year Johnson takes a record equalling seventh crown?

Images: nascar.com

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