Thursday, Oct 21
After coming close several times of scoring a win, Martin Truex Jr. finally completed that feat by winning the Axalta We Paint Winners 400 at the Pocono Raceway. Not only did the New Jersey native capture his first win of the season, but he also secured a spot into the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
 
With Truex being the feel good story of the year, earning five top five and 14 top 10 finishes through 15 races and sitting second in points, the win comes with a bonus that will give him redemption after going through some tough breaks over the last few seasons.
 
This is not the first time that he would make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Truex made the exclusive club in 2013 by finishing position at the Richmond International Raceway. However, after the race had concluded, NASCAR suspected that Michael Waltrip Racing manipulated the results of the race and penalized each team under the Michael Waltrip Racing banner. With the points penalty issued, this took Truex out of the Chase.
 
That’s not all that happened. Truex and Michael Waltrip Racing also lost NAPA as a primary sponsor that left him without a ride. He then made the switch over to the Furniture Row Racing team, which is a single car operation based out of Colorado, as a way to reset his career. He started the year strong by qualifying on the front row for the 2014 Daytona 500.
 
Truex found some breakthroughs throughout the season with his new team, earning five top 10 finishes in 36 races. However, that performance would not be enough as he would finish the year sitting 24th in points. Truex also had to face another tough break towards the end of the season after his girlfriend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
 
"At the end of that season I felt really fortunate that there was a great ride open with the 78," said Truex in his Pocono post-race press conference. "They were just coming off their best year ever, and went into last year honestly feeling like, okay, this is going to be good. This might take a little time to get things figured out, but it's going to be good and we're going to pick up kind of where I left off, and it was just the complete opposite. It was just miserable. Nothing went our way, nothing -- we had no speed."
 
Truex had another fresh start at the beginning of the 2015 season. The Furniture Row Racing team changed some things within the organization by giving Truex a new crew chief. So far, those changes have been paying off very well. The 34-year old has captured one victory, five top five and 14 top 10 finishes through the first 15 races of the year. With the solid performances, Truex finds himself sitting second in points.
 
Truex left the Kansas Speedway as one of the dominant cars throughout the entire race. Truex led 95 laps of the SpongeBob SquarePants 400. He then backed that up two weeks later at the Charlotte Motor Speedway as he led 131 laps in the Coca-Cola 600.
 
Truex backed up his performance once again at the Dover International Speedway. The No. 78 ended up being one of the fastest cars all day long despite a runner-up qualifying effort. Even though he had led the most laps, Truex had fallen short of the victory once again.
 
While being on a hot streak for the entire season, it was destined that Truex would eventually make his way into victory lane. That win finally occurred at the Pocono Raceway – a track that he had not won at before.
 
Truex qualified in third on Friday and ran within the leaders once the green flag waved. He would eventually work his way towards the front to lead the 160-lap race three different times. Despite a green-white-Checker finish, Truex was able to retain the lead by holding off Kevin Harvick.
 
The win at Pocono Raceway finally lifted all of the personal struggles, close calls and Richmond incident in 2013. The victory celebration ended up being one of the most emotional ones that any driver has had in a long time.
 
"Honestly, because this team deserves to win, and I knew that," said Truex. "I've known that all year long, obviously, especially after the last couple of weeks. I felt -- I've kind of throughout my career, I've kind of got used to the disappointment, honestly, and I've learned to deal with those days where it didn't go your way, even though you didn't do anything wrong."
Truex has been on one of the most extreme roller coaster rides that any driver has faced in the history of the sport since the Richmond incident. After coming close numerous times, Truex hadn't been able to capitalize the moment.
 
The races at Kansas, Charlotte and Dover were major heartbreakers for Truex after falling short of the win. He has spent the last three seasons waiting to take a trip into victory lane and have a huge shot at the championship.
 
Not only does Truex get back into the winning spotlight, it also gives the single car operation of Furniture Row Racing back into championship contention. The last time they have scored a victory was back in 2011 at Darlington with Regan Smith behind the wheel.
 
"You know, I wanted to win for this team because I knew how good they were, how much they deserved it, the job they've been doing, and I've just honestly been so proud of their outlook on the way this year has gone," Truex said.
 
2015 seems to be the best year for Truex to make his second Chase appearance. It would also be the second time that Front Row Motorsports got into the Chase as a single car team. Their first appearance came in 2013 with Kurt Busch as the driver, making them the first single car operation to do so.
 
Though the team is in position to compete in the chase, Truex feels like more work needs to be done.
 
"There's still mountains to climb and things to conquer," he said. "We haven't won a championship. This is one race. We've got a lot of work to do yet."
 
Not only does Truex get redemption and a spot in the chase, it's definitely redemption in his part that no one can remove him as long as he stays inside the top 16 of the Chase Grid. This will take weight off of his shoulders as the second half of the regular season gets going next week at Sonoma.

Making dreams true is a large part of an athlete’s life. Giving back to the community, especially during the summer months, has created a focal point for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver David Ragan and his efforts with Shriners Hospital for Children.

Ragan has been an ambassador for the hospital since 2007, when he was competing as a rookie for Roush Fenway Racing. In 2012, he officially became a Shriner after being inducted into the Shriners International fraternity as an Oasis Shriners member, and has evolved his relationship to help children across the country – visiting a handful of the hospital’s locations.

“Out of the 22, I’ve probably visited seven or eight of the hospitals over the past four to five,” Ragan explained in an interview with Speedway Digest. “If we can work it in our schedule and visit some, that is always a lot of fun. I have a family member being a Shriner and I’ve heard him talk about all of the good things and people that he has been able to meet over the years.”

The latest program that Ragan is working on is Shriners’ On Track for a Safe Summer campaign, which looks to tackle injuries that occur over the summer months. According to a Safe Kids Worldwide safety ranking in 2007, 40 percent of children that go to the emergency room for injuries happen between May and August.

Working with the hospital, the Michael Waltrip Racing driver has helped change the lives of multiple children. His latest endeavor involves 14-year-old Brandon Wisely.

At seven years old, the young racecar driver lost his foot and a large portion of his leg due to a lawnmower accident. After being told he wouldn’t race again, Wisely received a custom prosthetic leg with help from Shriners, and has since been back on track.

“Shriners made me a prosthetic leg and now I go back every six to seven months to make sure it still fits right and everything,” Wisely explained. “They helped me get back on the track and race some more. Hopefully, I’ll get up here with David and maybe beat him some. [My friends] tell me I am an encouragement to them and that they are not going to give up on themselves for little things and keep working hard.”

As the two continue to inspire others across America, they have reminded people to keep an eye out for any possible injury risks. With National Safety Month here, Ragan plans to continue to advocate the message using his presence in NASCAR with MWR.

Here is an exclusive look at our interview with Ragan and Wisely:

This NASCAR season has been everything but ordinary. Over the past three months, there have been multiple drivers to miss time due to medical issues, and teams have acted like they are in the MLB or NFL.

Trading drivers seems rather far-fetched, but that is what has occurred in the NASCAR world in 2015.

Following Kyle Busch’s hard wreck at Daytona, where he hit an area of the inside retaining wall that was not protected by the SAFER Barrier, the 29-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winner was sent to the hospital. With Busch being out for several months, and no announcement on when he will be back other than that it will be before the series returns to Daytona in July, Joe Gibbs Racing made a “trade” with Front Row Motorsports. Well, it would have been a trade, but the small Ford team ended up losing its top driver.

Two-time Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton replaced Busch for the Daytona 500, and David Ragan has since piloted the No. 18 car. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers, who missed the first two races due to cardiovascular surgery over the off-season, returned to the seat of his Michael Waltrip Racing car at Las Vegas. Evidently, his blood clots returned, and after announcing he would be out for at least three months, MWR was forced to put rookie Brett Moffitt into the car.

Now, with Erik Jones set to take over the No. 18 Toyota for JGR until Busch’s return, Ragan is set to join MWR for the remainder of the season. If and when Vickers come back is still in question, but our Speedway Digest team takes a look at some key questions that have come up with all the announcements as of late in our first round table discussion.


1. David Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, replacing Brian Vickers for the remainder of the season. After earning one top 10 and an average finish of nearly 20th this season for Joe Gibbs Racing, what makes Ragan a hot commodity for this team?
                                    

Brett Winningham:  I see Ragan fitting in with the Michael Waltrip Racing team very well. Even though the finishes with the Joe Gibbs Racing team could have been better, I think he will perform just as well with MWR. The team has been off lately, earning only three top 10 finishes in 2015. With the addition of Ragan, it could potentially improve the team moving forward. It also allows Ragan a much better chance at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup if he can score a victory or record enough solid finishes to get into the Chase via points.

Steven Wilson: Ragan has been able to keep the car clean through the events he's run with JGR aside for an issue at Bristol. For one, it makes him look good to a team that is going to be able to give good information on what the car is doing and how to make it better with his many years behind the wheel. But most of all, he can bring the car home in one piece.

Joseph Wolkin: Ragan is a marketable driver. He was the face of AAA when he first came into the sport, and eventually did the same for UPS. Though he has had some struggles with Front Row Motorsports, the chance with Joe Gibbs Racing has shown that he is capable of running up front. His results don’t show it, but Ragan has proved thus far in 2015 that he can and will be a consistent driver once again.

Dustin Albino: Ragan has always been a solid talent behind the wheel of a racecar. Ever since he was with Roush Fenway Racing in his rookie year, he established himself as a threat to make the Chase. However, in 2012 when Ragan jumped into the No. 34, that wasn’t the best move at the time. But, it was the only ride available in the Cup Series. A big reason why Ragan landed the No. 18 ride following Kyle Busch’s injury is because he is more established and a true veteran of the sport.


2. With Ragan going to Michael Waltrip Racing, Vickers will need to find sponsorship if he is healthy before the end of the season. What does this indicate for Vickers' career?

Wilson: Vickers has had such an up and down past 18 months or so with his health coming back early this year for two events to have to get out the car the next week. With him being back on medications that will take him out the car for the foreseeable future, throwing in the recent announcement he will have to take a hard look at his abilities going forward. Will he be able to run 400-500 mile events? Do the rewards out-weigh the risks?

Albino: This is a real bummer for Vickers. The big question is will he be healthy? No one knows. The blood clots seem to be reoccurring very often. Vickers first has to put his health first. As hard as that may be, he needs to continue being smart about the way he approaches his life.

The fact that Aaron’s stuck behind Vickers through thick and thin, and now that Ragan is hopping in the No. 55 for the remaining of the 2015 season has to be eating Vickers alive. There is no telling where his career may go from here, but getting healthy is the number one priority.

Winningham:  At this point for Brian Vickers, I don’t see him returning to the No. 55 Toyota next year if he ends up sidelined for the rest of the season. The Michael Waltrip Racing team cannot afford to be effected by this week after week. When and if Vickers returns, it will be interesting to see how the situation will unfold.

Wolkin: This is a very difficult situation for everyone involved. Obviously, Waltrip’s team was trying to prevent this situation, but it appears Vickers’ career is in jeopardy with this latest health issue. The team needed a season-long replacement to give the sponsor a driver that is consistent behind the wheel, which puts Vickers out of a ride if he can come back before the end of the year.

If he can beat the odds and race again, which he seemingly will be able to do once doctors take him off Xarelto, it appears he will have to find sponsorship to run a third car for the team. Co-owner Rob Kauffman has put his company on the team’s cars before, and this is a situation where he probably would do so at least until the remainder of the season. However, he’s in a bit of a pickle if Ragan performs well, which would mean he could likely be a free agent once again.

3. Prior to his stint with Joe Gibbs Racing, Ragan was slated to run for Front Row Motorsports for the fourth straight season. What opportunities are presented to the Georgia native now that he has publicity on his side, along with a possible developing relationship with MWR's sponsor, Aaron's? 

Wolkin: This opportunity with MWR is gigantic for Ragan. Performing well, he can see himself in the No. 55 car in 2016, and possibly locking up a multi-year deal. However, if he struggles, Ragan could be sent back to a lower-tier team, such as Front Row Motorsports. This is his last big chance at getting a top ride in the Cup Series, and his future will be based on his performances. There are several drivers with expiring contracts this year, and if MWR opts to put another driver in the car for 2016, there should be some openings for him.

Albino: Ragan is now a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series, and he is able to have sponsors behind him, while previously driving the No. 34 the past three seasons, Front Row Motorsports didn’t have a primary sponsor to fund him. Now that he knows where he will be for the remaining of the 2015 season, it will be critical for the Georgia native to perform. He was also put in a tough situation by taking over the No. 18 for Kyle Busch. Erik Jones is the future of Joe Gibbs Racing, and team owner Joe Gibbs hinted that the young 18-year-old would be in the Cup Series soon following his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Texas. However, Ragan is now granted an opportunity to drive for a sponsor in Aaron’s that is fully committed to Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip Racing. Ragan may have found himself a quality long-term ride.

Winningham: If David Ragan can build a relationship with the Michael Waltrip Racing organization, it would more than likely save his racing career. It would also be a huge confidence boost since he entered the 2015 season not knowing how many races he could run with Front Row Motorsports due to sponsorship issues. At the same time, if Ragan cannot produce for MWR, it could also hurt his racing career. 

Wilson: Other than being with JGR, giving him a shot to do some good things in a racecar was still a temporary spot for him not knowing when he would be out of the car and go back to Front Row Motorsports. This gives him one of his best shots to have the engineering and sponsorship money behind him with MWR and Toyota to back his effort for the remainder of 2015. This also is an opportunity for him to move into 2016 with a team that is better equipped to give him more wins in the Sprint Cup Series. Obviously, having long-time MWR sponsor Aaron's onboard gives him the path to continue with MWR if and when Vickers may return or if he doesn't, he will have a legitimate shot at keeping the seat with his knowledge and ability to bring a car home clean.

4. As Ragan departs Front Row Motorsports, the team is looking to replace him. Originally, he did not have funding to run the full season in the No. 34 car, but as of now - the team has run every race. Chris Buescher has been the main man behind the wheel, but what route should the team go after losing its lead driver?  

Albino: It will be interesting in the upcoming weeks to see what Front Row Motorsports decides to do with the No. 34 car. It seems as if the team is giving Roush Fenway Racing XFINITY Series driver Chris Buescher the go behind the wheel. He is a fellow Ford driver who has done a respectable job in his first four races behind the wheel with an average finish of 24.8. However, Bob Jenkins doesn’t want to go in the hole in regards to money, and without a primary sponsor on board, it will be hard to do. Giving young drivers an opportunity is always a good thing for the sport. However, is the driver up for the challenge? Maybe rotating a few younger drivers in that car for the remainder of the season is the way to go. But what if Vickers ended up in that ride? Only time will tell.

Wolkin:
Chris Buescher is the obvious choice for the races that his XFINITY Series ride does not conflict with the Cup Series schedule. If he runs more than seven events this year, he will not be eligible for the Rookie of the Year when he races full-time in the Cup Series (possibly as soon as next year or 2017). Expect Buescher and Brett Moffitt to split this ride, with an occasional shot for young drivers, such as Ryan Ellis, Ryan Reed, Darrell Wallace Jr. or another driver who is associated with Ford.

Winningham: The Front Row Motorsports organization should continue to field the No. 34 Ford with Chris Buescher. Since making his debut with the team earlier this year, Buescher has finished inside the top 30 in each of those starts. In his Sprint Cup Series debut at Auto Club Speedway, Buescher left the two-mile oval with a 20th-place finish. In his last start at the Bristol Motor Speedway, Buescher walked away with a 25th-place finish. Based on these results, I see Front Row continuing to field a Sprint Cup Series entry with the young driver.

Wilson: This puts Brett Moffitt, who's already been in the car for Front Row Motorsports, in a position to be in a more stable seat week in and week out if he is given the opportunity. MWR would obviously like to keep Moffitt, but the lack of sponsorship to fund a third car leaves him out of that. Chris Buescher won't be able to compete each week for FRM due to obligations in the XFINITY series, where he's running for the championship, but gives him more seat time at tracks he's in need of to move on with his career.

There is nothing like seeing fresh designs rolling into Speedweeks in the midst of the Florida breeze.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is rapidly approaching. In less than three weeks, the Sprint Media Tour is set to begin. And in just over one month, cars will be roaring around Daytona International Speedway with speeds surpassing 190 mph.

For the 2015 season, there are plenty of drivers in new places, crew chiefs moving all over the place and even sponsors departing the sport. However, with yet another set of changes for the rules package heading into the new year, NASCAR is prepared to possibly have one of their best seasons since the Chase for the Sprint Cup was implemented in 2004.

There are some drivers who are expected to have breakout seasons, but others – not so much. Let’s take a look at what to expect in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season from each team.

-Jamie McMurray: In 2015, the No. 1 car will have a new man at the top of the pit box. McMurray will be working with former Robert Yates Racing developmental driver and Richard Childress Racing engineer Matt McCall. RCR attempted to sue McCall to prevent him from leaving the team, but on Jan. 1, it was made known that their efforts were unsuccessful. Coming off of a season with seven top fives, McMurray has a solid shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup after recording a career-high in laps led with 368. The team lost LiftMaster as a sponsor, but McDonalds and Cessna will likely continue to fill up the schedule for the No. 1 Chevrolet.

-Brad Keselowski: Not much will be changing for Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford. The team was arguably set to win a championship in 2014, and they have potential to do even better in 2015 with the abundance of success that was seen this past season.

-Austin Dillon: Dillon is coming off of a rather disappointing rookie year. He entered the season as Kevin Harvick’s replacement, and was expected to be more of a contender than what he was, especially after winning the pole for the Daytona 500. However, combining limited experience with a lack of speed shown throughout the RCR camp, Dillon finished 20th in points, which was just shy of winning Rookie of the Year honors. With Gil Martin returning in 2015, the No. 3 team has a realistic shot at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup. They might be able to sneak in a win at a restrictor plate track, but they will need to improve from their 17.5 average finish on the season.

-Kevin Harvick: Nothing will be changing on the No. 4 team other than the attempt at becoming a back-to-back champion. Harvick has been great with pressure over the years, and the crew enters 2015 in much better shape than they did in 2014, when Rodney Childers pieced everything together over the off-season. Without the aches and pains of mechanical issues, Harvick will likely be contending for wins on a weekly basis once again. He’ll attempt to be the first back-to-back champion since Jimmie Johnson won five straight titles from 2006 to 2010.

-Kasey Kahne: Kenny Francis will not be leading the No. 5 team in 2015. Instead, McMurray’s former crew chief Keith Rodden will oversee Kahne’s efforts. He has a mediocre 2014 season, so expect him to be more competitive in 2015. Kahne needs a solid season after resigning with Hendrick Motorsports through 2018. With a variety of sponsors, the No. 5 Chevrolet should be a force to be reckon with this season, but inconsistency has plagued Kahne throughout his career.

-Trevor Bayne: After a disappointing season in the Xfinity Series with Roush Fenway Racing, Bayne is moving up to the Cup Series. Bringing back the No. 6 Ford made famous by Mark Martin, the pressure will be on Bayne to perform after racing part-time for the Wood Brothers since making his debut with the organization in 2010. The 2011 Daytona 500 champion DNQ’ed at Charlotte with Roush, and his top 2014 finish in the No. 21 car was a 19th-place result at Texas and Michigan. With Roush’s obvious pain due to the new rules package in 2014, the new round of changes could play into their favor, which is similar to what teams had in the mid-2000s, where Roush saw plenty of success. Expect Bayne to be a mid-pack driver with a handful of top-10 results.

-Michael Annett: Coming off of a 32nd-place finish in points, Annett has plenty to prove this season. He is swapping over to the No. 46 car at HScott Motorsports, and will have a fresh start. He had some success in the Xfinity Series, and is now racing for a slightly more funded team. Tommy Baldwin Racing grew in 2014 due to an alliance with RCR. However, qualifying was a struggle for Annett, who had an average starting position of 33.7 – putting him a lap down or more early in events. He should find more consistency in 2015, but expect him to have some growing pains with the new team.

-Sam Hornish, Jr.: The No. 9 team will have a driver change in 2015 after Marcos Ambrose departed for his native Australia. Hornish is expected to run stronger than Ambrose, and possibly better than Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola. Sponsorship has still yet to be announced for this Ford team, but Twisted Tea is expected to up the number of races they fund. Hornish has run just two Cup Series races over the past two years, so the new testing policy probably won’t fall into his favor. Moreover, after running strong with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series, he should be competing for top-10 finishes every few races. He could possibly lock in a Chase for the Sprint Cup spot with a victory at one of the road course events, or even at the restrictor plate tracks.

-Danica Patrick: Following plenty of changes late in the 2014 season, the No. 10 Chevrolet will continue with Daniel Knost as the crew chief. Other than that, no changes will occur for Patrick’s team. Showing some improvements on-track in 2014, Patrick is expected to record at least five top 10s in 2015. However, Knost struggled with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch, who has a lot more experience than Patrick. There might be some growing pains between the two, but increasing her 23.7 average finish is going to be the biggest key. Her qualifying effort improved by approximately eight positions on average, but she bettered her average finish by a mere 2.4 spots.

-Denny Hamlin: Dave Rogers will take over the helm for Darian Grubb in 2015. Grubb and Hamlin never seemed to have the success that was expected of them. However, after earning a spot into the final round of the Chase as an underdog, Hamlin should have plenty of momentum entering the new season. The team struggled to find speed at intermediate tracks, as did all of the Toyota cars, which will be the key to their success during the new season. Expect Hamlin to earn a few wins, and likely improve upon his seven top fives.

-Casey Mears: Mears will return to Germain Racing with limited changes to the No. 13 crew. He had an up and down 2014 season, but performed well when momentum was on their side. Expect him to improve from 26th in points to approximately 23rd to 25th. As they continue their RCR alliance, they should be able to run very well at the road course events, which is Mears’ strong suit.

-Tony Stewart: There is no need to go into detail about the events that Stewart endured last summer. However, after an abysmal season, the No. 14 team is looking to rebound from the win-less year. Stewart had an average finish of 20th in 2014, which is nearly seven positions lower than his career average. Although some of that can be attributed to the chaos that occurred in his life, SHR was off the pace for the majority of the season. The new rules package will truly enable Stewart to get back into Victory Lane with the driver having more capabilities compared to the car. Expect Stewart to rebound and make the Chase, but there might been some inconsistency, which was seen in 2014.

-Clint Bowyer: Toyota was lacking horsepower in 2014, but Michael Waltrip Racing fell behind more than that. Bowyer failed to make the Chase in what was arguably his worst season since his rookie year in 2006. His best finish was third-place at both Talladega races and Richmond, yet other than that, he led just 109 laps on the year. For 2015, MWR will have to come up with a way to score a victory. Expect Bowyer to be competitive at the short tracks, but have some struggles at the intermediate tracks after having an abysmal average finish of 17.1 in 2014.

-Greg Biffle: Biffle had a sub-par 2014 season to say the least. Although he made the Chase with Roush Fenway Racing, Biffle was extremely inconsistent. With just three top fives and 11 top 10s, 2014 was arguably just as mediocre as 2011 for the Roush driver. In 2015, he’s going to be the veteran of the camp. RFR is making plenty of changes, and Matt Puccia is staying aboard as his crew chief. With new sponsor, Ortho, coming on board, the No. 16 team will look to not only make the Chase, but get back in Victory Lane during the new season.

-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: After missing the Talladega race in October, Stenhouse and the No. 17 team’s struggles were fully exposed. The high expectations that were laid upon him following back-to-back Xfinity Series titles were too abundant, and he has struggled since going full-time in the Cup Series. In 2015, if RFR can fix the aerodynamic issues that have plagued them, Stenhouse and new crew chief Nick Sandler have a chance at finishing inside of the top-20 in points. It would be a stretch for them to get a victory, but a handful of top fives is realistic for this bunch.

-Kyle Busch: With the Gibbs struggling at intermediate tracks, Busch was not able to perform well at his favorite places. Earning just one victory in 2014, the driver of the No. 18 car is looking for more success in 2015. He will be working with Adam Stevens, who won 19 Xfinity Series races with Busch over the past two years. Expect Busch to run better in 2015, especially after being paired with a man he has great chemistry with. The pair should easily make the Chase, but don’t expect more than four wins from them, which has been his plateau since 2009.

-Carl Edwards: 2015 is a fresh start for the Missouri-native. Being paired with former championship crew chief Darian Grubb, Edwards will either struggle at first, or he will excel. Roush was obviously struggling, and Edwards has the chance to be a champion at Gibbs. Winning two races in sub-par equipment during the 2014 season, driving the No. 19 Toyota might give him the edge that he has been looking for. Expect Edwards to win a handful of races, and improve from his 15.1 average finish in 2014, which consisted of leading a mere 135 laps.

-Matt Kenseth: Kenseth, like his teammates, struggled on the intermediate tracks in 2014. One could say that it is the runner-up slump, which seems to occur nearly every season. Earning a career-high seven wins in 2013, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota earned no victories in 2014. Kenseth had more top fives and top 10s during his second year with Gibbs, yet he just couldn’t find Victory Lane. He was the most consistent of the team’s three cars last year, and that should be the case once again in 2015. Expect Kenseth to win early in the season, but he will likely earn three to four victories – showing he is fast, but consistent as well.

-Ryan Blaney: Blaney will be running at least 12 races for the Wood Brothers in 2015. He might get a handful of events with Team Penske in a third car, but that will depend on sponsorship. Jeremy Bullins returns to the Wood Brothers after being Penske’s Xfinity Series crew chief, where he brought them back-to-back owner’s titles. Blaney finished runner-up with Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series in 2014, and earned 13 top 10s in 14 starts under Bullins’ leadership. Expect Blaney to run better than Bayne did, especially with the Team Penske alliance.

-Joey Logano: Logano came extremely close to winning the 2014 Sprint Cup Series championship. Earning five wins and an average finish of 11.3 in the No. 22 car, Logano was able to reach his full potential this past season. If it weren’t for a faulty pit stop late in the season finale at Homestead, Logano might have been able to contend for the title with Harvick. Expect 2015 to be just as good for the 24-year-old, who recently got married. The team hasn’t changed anything in the No. 22 camp for the fresh season, and that should give them plenty of momentum heading into 2015.

-Alex Bowman: Bowman will not be returning to BK Racing in 2015. He is headed over to Tommy Baldwin Racing – replacing Annett in the No. 7 car. Bowman’s rookie season was horrific. He had six DNFs with one top-20 finish (Daytona in July – 13th-place). For the majority of the season, he was being overly aggressive, which caused him to have just three finishes on the lead lap. The equipment is going to be better in 2015, but Bowman will need to improve his maturity level if he wants to be successful and help build this team.

-Jeff Gordon: With Gordon retiring at the end of this season, he is expected to go out on top. The No. 24 team excelled in 2014, earning four victories and an average finish of 10.4, which was Gordon’s best since 2009.  Although an aching back could harm his results, it didn’t have much of an effect on him last year. His retirement tour is going to be extremely emotional for the entire sport. Hendrick Motorsports is set to have Chase Elliott fill in for him in 2016. But for now – you will see Gordon still competing for wins, and he should be able to win a handful of events in 2015, with the potential at winning his elusive fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Gordon will also be in the booth for FOX Sports during select NASCAR Xfinity Series events.

-Paul Menard: Menard is coming off of his best year int he NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Leading RCR with five top fives and 13 top 10s, the Wisconsin-native is expected to continue the momentum from last year. He has emerged as a team leader and mentor for the organization’s younger drivers, which should give him more potential to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015. Although Menard’s average finish was 17.9, his handful of top fives is showing the potential that they have to succeed this season.

-The Motorsports Group: Ron Hornaday, Jr. is going to be the team’s primary driver in 2015. The soon to be 57-year-old has not raced in the Sprint Cup Series since 2003, and only ran more than three events in one season (2001). However, working with an upstart Chevrolet team, Hornaday should bring expertise that they need following nine and a half straight years running the Truck Series. Expect the team to struggle to make races at first, but they should catch on mid-way through the season. Sponsorship has always been a concern for them in the Xfinity Series, but Curtis Key has self-funded the program for multiple seasons.

-Ryan Newman: Some way or another, Newman finished second in points. He didn’t have a great season, but the runner-up curse might hit him in 2015. Earning a mere five top fives and 16 top 10s, the No. 31 team excelled under pressure. Expect them to earn a win victory this year, making the Chase, but not getting too far. RCR was strong at the intermediate tracks, which could fit Newman’s aggressive driving style.

-Go FAS Racing: Bobby Labonte will pilot the No. 32 Ford in each of the plate races this year. His brother, Terry Labonte, drove the car for a handful of years, but retired following the Talladega race in October. The team hasn’t announced their primary driver, yet they are expected to have multiple co-pilots once again. Travis Kvapil was the primary driver for this team last year, but it has not been announced if he will return.

-Circle Sport Racing: This team has not announced their plans, but RCR will run the No. 33 car for approximately 10 events, with Circle Sport filling out the rest of the year.

-David Ragan: Ragan is returning for another season with Front Row Motorsports in the No. 34 car. In 2014, he earned the team their first top-10 result at a non-plate track with a 10th-place result at Martinsville. The organization struggled mightily in 2014, and he seldom ran inside of the top 25. However, 2015 should see an improvement with a third team.

-Cole Whitt: Whitt moves over to FRM after working with Swan Racing/BK Racing in 2014. He wasn’t exceptional in either ride, but he was the top driver while working for both organizations. Running inside of the top 25 was considered a solid run for Whitt, and that will be the case again in 2015. Expect him to outrun his teammates, but seldom run inside of the top-20.

-David Gilliland: Earning the pole at Daytona was the highlight of Gilliland’s 2014 season. He continually spoke about the lack of an alliance with one of the larger Ford organizations. Expect him to improve in 2015, but he won’t get much better than his 28.8 average finish last year.

-Landon Cassill: Getting the most out of little equipment is what Cassill did best with in 2014. He was consistently the top underfunded team, and raced with limited sponsorship throughout the year. If he can continue to improve, Cassill will bring Hillman Racing into the top 25 on a weekly basis.

-Kurt Busch: Once the court case with Busch’s ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, is completed, the No. 41 team can focus without any distractions. It appears that there is something going on with Busch almost every year, and this one is no different. However, if he can put the distractions behind him, he can be a contender for the championship. With the exception of Harvick, SHR struggled in 2014, especially at the intermediate tracks. Earning just six top fives and 11 top 10s last season, Busch should improve going into this season.

-Kyle Larson: Coming off of a stellar rookie season, Larson is now a father. He has extra motivation to do well. Not to mention, he also has more funding with Target cutting one of their IndyCar Series teams, which gives more focus on the No. 42 car. Earning eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his first full-time season, expectations are high for the Drive for Diversity graduate. In 2015, he’s going to focus on the Cup Series, but he will split the XFINITY Series season with Ganassi development driver, Dylan Kwasniewski. Expect Larson to make the Chase and pick up a victory or two at one of the intermediate tracks.

-Aric Almirola: Almirola made the Chase last season with a win at Daytona. But other than that victory, there weren’t too many bright spots for the No. 43 team. He tallied up a mere seven top-10 finishes in 2014. Although that is a career-high for the Florida-native, Almirola drove better than that. Inconsistency plagued this team severely, but they showed speed nearly every week, which is the bright side. In 2015, expect Almirola to miss the Chase. However, he will be running near the top 10 more frequently, especially with Richard Petty Motorsports getting stronger with Hornish’s arrival.

-AJ Allmendinger: He finally made it to Victory Lane in 2014. It doesn’t get better than that for a small team and a driver trying to revive a career that was extremely promising a few years ago. The team wasn’t too horrific considering they are a single-car operation. Allmendinger showcased his leadership skills by getting this team a win at Watkins Glen, but also getting them competitive enough to run inside of the top 15 when they didn’t have anything go wrong. For 2015, expect Allmendinger to miss the Chase if he doesn’t win at one of the road courses. However, he should be more consistent in his second season with JTG.

-Jimmie Johnson: Disappointment. That is the only way to describe 2014 for Johnson and the No. 48 team. Chad Knaus and he had plenty of chaos throughout the year. The speed just wasn’t there for this team, and neither was any luck. Johnson usually struggles in the summer, but 2014 was arguably the worst summer of his career. Although he won four events and led 1,310 laps, the six-time champion set career-lows in multiple categories, including average finish, laps completed, top 10s and more. In 2015, expect them to rebound tremendously. Johnson has a history of doing well following a sub-par season, and that’s what is expected of him this year.

-Justin Allgaier: Allgaier didn’t have the greatest rookie season, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. He was consistently near the top 25, which is decent for a rather new single-car team. Toward the end of the year, the No. 51 team started to finish inside of the top 20. They have potential to earn a handful of top 10s in 2015, especially with a second car, but don’t expect much more than a top-25 finish in points.

-Brian Vickers: Vickers has had a rough time as of late. His heart is steadily getting back to normal, and with the power of multiple miracles, he will be back in the No. 55 Toyota at Las Vegas for the third race of the year. In the mean time, team co-owner Michael Waltrip will drive the car at Daytona with development driver Brett Moffitt climbing aboard the car at Atlanta. 2014 was a struggle for this team. The organization lacked horsepower throughout the year, and they could never find consistency. However, expect Vickers to make the Chase in 2015 by taking more risks and having better equipment. He will likely be in contention for wins for a handful of races, but once he gets into the Chase, the second round is as far as he will go.

-Premium Motorsports, LLC: This team’s plans are unknown for 2015. They raced with Mike Wallace late last season, but didn’t perform well at all.

-Martin Truex, Jr.: 2014 was a disappointing year for this team. Besides the on-track struggles Truex had, his personal life faced too much adversity. His long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the summer, and she has been on a rough journey since. But the fighter that she is, Pollex is slowly fighting the cancer off, and she will hopefully be in remission sooner rather than later. Truex and this team are better than the 20.2 average finish they recorded last year, and 2015 will certainly be better. They have plenty of motivation, along with stronger equipment due to their growing alliance with RCR.

-JJ Yeley: Yeley will be piloting one of the BK Racing machines in 2015. Following two solid runs in a handful of races with the struggling team, they gave Yeley a full-time job for the new season. Expect him to earn a few solid finishes, and be a leader for a team that went with inexperienced drivers last year.

-Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Expectations for NASCAR’s most popular driver are high in 2015. Coming off of one of the best years in his career, Earnhardt should continue to do well this upcoming season. Earning multiple wins for the first time in a decade, the son of a NASCAR legend enters the new year with arguably his best chance at a title. In 2014, he and Steve Letarte had an average finish of 12.2 with 12 top fives. Expect Earnhardt to continue to run well with a handful of wins as Greg Ives takes over as crew chief for the No. 88 team.

-Michael McDowell: Sponsorship is finally piecing together for McDowell. He will have Thrivent Financial aboard the No. 95 car for 10 events in 2015, along with K-LOVE for a few races. McDowell will run a minimum of 20 races for Leavine Family Racing, but that will likely increase as the season rolls on. In 2014, there were signs of potential from this small team, yet that never came to fruition as they continued to have struggles. However, 2015 should be solid for them with a partnership with Team Penske expanding. Expect McDowell to race around 25th for the most part, but he should be able to earn a handful of top-20 results this year.

-Josh Wise: Wise will return to Phil Parsons Racing in 2015. They only missed one race last year, which isn’t bad for an independent team. Finishing 23rd at Bristol after holding off the leaders certainly gave them plenty of attention, and that brought on Reddit and Doge. He made it into the All-Star Race with the fan vote, and had a few solid runs on the year. For his first true full-time season (without more than two start-and-park deals), Wise ran rather well for this team. Expect them to do better for the new year with more sponsorship dollars coming through, along with better equipment.

Then, there are several drivers who are still searching to resign with their 2014 teams, or are searching for new ones:

-Ryan Truex: Truex was awful in his time with BK Racing. Most of it was due to the lack of equipment, but he also had four DNFs due to accidents. Missing the Daytona 500 wasn’t the lowest point of his season. Instead, getting the boot after Chicago was. In 23 races, the brother of Martin Truex, Jr. had just two finishes inside of the top-30. His plans are unknown for 2015, but he is still under contract for RPM as a development driver.

-David Stremme: Stremme will likely appear in some events for one of the smaller teams in 2015. He ran a few races for Circle Sport, and might return for them. If not, there are still some open seats for him with part-time teams.

-Parker Kligerman: Kligerman’s plans are unknown for the new season. He is expected to return to NASCAR competition, but is also working with NBC’s NASCAR America. Kligerman ran a handful of Sprint Cup Series races last year, but Swan Racing closed and the rest is history.

-Reed Sorenson: Sorenson had a mediocre season with TBR. It doesn’t look like he will return, but he could run part-time for the organization. Returning to full-time competition for the first time since 2009, he definitely had trouble getting readjusted to the Cup Series. Having blank quarter-panels certainly didn’t help his cause. However, he ran decent at the short tracks, and showed the possibility for improvement if they had the funding to do so.

-Travis Kvapil: Expect Kvapil to land at BK Racing in 2015. Team owner Ron Devine circled him on his list for drivers to race in 2015, and he doesn’t have a ride yet. Kvapil would be a solid co-pilot with Yeley, and they could elevate the team to the middle of the pack. He ran 21 races last year, but the highlight of his year was at Talladega, where he finished sixth for Circle Sport. If he doesn’t sign with BK Racing, expect him to run for Go FAS Racing, or Circle Sport.

-Joe Nemechek: Nemechek will likely run just a few Cup Series races this year. His focus is going to be on the Truck Series with his son, John Hunter. He partnered with Jay Robinson last season, and never finished better than 30th. If he races in the Cup Series, it will either be under the NEMCO Motorsports banner, or he will run a handful of events for a small team like RAB Racing.

You can follow me on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

It all started last year. A young man with aspirations to become a doctor entered a contest to do something that is just as risky as performing surgery. Hailing from Florida, this man has gone from the classroom to the race track – excelling in both extremes with amazing grades and some great runs with the team that took a chance on him.

Patrick Staropoli, 24, edged out over 700 drivers to win the PEAK Stock Car Dream Challenge in 2013. Michael Waltrip Racing signed him as a development driver after a fifth-place result in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut in conjunction with Bill McAnally Racing. Ever since, Staropoli’s stock has risen at an abundant rate.

“The PEAK challenge gave me an awesome opportunity to get my foot in the door in NASCAR and really turn a lot of heads to get people to notice the career that I have had, which has been mostly in Florida and on the side from the main priority, which was school,” Staropoli said on “The Speedy Digest” Wednesday evening. 

During the second race of the K&N Pro Series West season at Irwindale, he drove the No. 99 Toyota to Victory Lane for the first time in his career. He followed that up with the top qualifying position in an East/West combination race at Iowa Speedway in May. In five races in 2014, Staropoli piloted his car to four top-10s and a pair of top-fives.

But the biggest challenge for Staropoli isn’t racing. It’s going to college – medical school to be specific.

After graduating from Harvard University with a 3.94 GPA – putting him in the top 10 percent for his graduating class – he moved over to the University of Miami to pursue a PhD. Adding those degrees to impressive resume, Staropoli nearly gave up his dream of becoming a racer. Fortunately, things have changed to where he can pursue both.

“Up until this whole competition took place last year, that (school) was my main focus,” said Staropoli on his outlook for school compared to racing. “I was 100 percent heading into that direction. I still race my Late Model all of the time. It was always a dream for me and it never really seemed like it would come together.”

“Once the opportunity was there and I have been able to capitalize on some of the chances that I have gotten so far, everything kind of flipping upside down and now – this is what I’m shooting for,” he continued. “Could you launch a career off of it? I think that was the biggest question out of it was. PEAK got behind me and gave me five high-exposure races. The win at Irwindale really sealed the deal and put me where I am now.”

Yet even with his success, there is a lot of uncertainty for his racing future.

With his hard work on and off the track, Michael Waltrip Racing wanted to capture his full potential. In doing so, they hired him as a marketing intern. Moving to Charlotte to chase his dreams, he understands that it might take away some time from school, but that’s fine for him with this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“I haven’t had to get coffee as much as I thought I was going to,” he joked. “They have been great to me over there. I spend my time split between learning how they approach sponsors, how they talk to them, the specific presentations and materials that they use for potential partners. It’s definitely a change of pace from being in med school. You don’t have to go see patients, but it is equally challenging. You have to go cure someone for a disease or sell sponsorship for a race car.”

The internship should help him land some sponsorship for next year. Well, that’s what his goal is. Staropoli believes the extra races on his record have put him in a better position, but he understands that you can’t do much without funding in this business.

If the opportunity comes along, you might just see the Plantation, Florida-native racing more frequently in 2015.

“My school has been working with me the entire year – giving me the space that I need to pursue this opportunity,” said Staropoli. “We’ve had some discussions about next year to see if some things fall into place – I can take time off. Medicine is an incredible field, and I love every second that I have studied to become a physician. I have no doubt in my mind that is where my path can take me, whether that is sooner or later.”

Whichever path he chooses, Staropoli’s level of dedication will surely lead him to a great amount of success. When he becomes a doctor, he’ll either be a neurologist, which he majored in and followed around some doctors to do research, or he’ll become an ophthalmologist.

With support from team owner Michael Waltrip and other team executives, he might just have a future in this sport. However, the clock is ticking. He’s hoping to announce his plans for next year in the coming weeks, but nothing is set in stone as of yet.

“The racing has a stopwatch on it and I know it is now or never to make it happen.”

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