Friday, Jan 21

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

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Sprint Cup has finally arrived. However, things are quite different this year.

In a move to have more drama to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, there will be four drivers eliminated after every three races. At the end of the season, four drivers will battle it out for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway for a one-of-a-kind duel.

With no way to know what to expect, the 16 drivers in the Chase will be gunning it out to make sure they don’t get eliminated. If a driver is out of contention, they can only contend for a position in points within the group they were eliminated with. But this is going to making things eccentric for the sport over the final 10 weeks of the season.

The 16 drivers in the Chase are now set. Here are my expectations for those drivers:

  1. Brad Keselowski: Keselowski should make it to the final round in the championship. He is on a tear as of late, especially in qualifying. Through just 26 races, he has led a career-high 1,278 laps; that’s more than 17 percent of all laps that he has completed. However, he has to make sure the team is not only contending for wins, but that they are also consistently up front in case someone else gets into trouble.
  2. Jeff Gordon: Gordon is having his best season in quite some time. There is something different about the driver of the No. 24 this year. He has developed an unbelievable relationship with crew chief Alan Gustafson. Throughout the year, he has been one of the five quickest cars at just about every single event. If he can take the momentum he had from pacing the Sprint Cup Series during the regular season to the Chase, he will undoubtedly become a five-time champion.
  3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He has had a good season, but that’s to his standards – not to Hendrick Motorsports standards. There is no doubt that he is one of the most consistent drivers in the Chase as he has a 10.9 average finish. However, it seems like he races inside of the top 10 for approximately two to four races at a time, and then has something go wrong that causes a setback. Expect him to be right on the border of making it to the final round at Homestead, but he might make it as Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix are each strong tracks for him.
  4. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has not been known as the clear favorite this year. It’s likely because of the annual summer drought that the No. 48 team has gone through. However, this team is going to be just as strong in the Chase. Over the past four races, he has four top-10 finishes. A key to winning the title in this format will be consistently running up front, and Johnson did just that last year with just one finish worse than ninth. But Chad Knaus and he have had some awful luck at Homestead. If he can stay out of trouble at Homestead, he will probably be crowned the champion once again.
  5. Joey Logano: By far, 2014 has been the best year of this young man’s career. It’s hard to believe he is just 24 with six full-time seasons in the Cup Series. However, with his first multi-win season, he has begun to learn how to be a factor for wins on a weekly basis. The intermediate tracks have been insanely strong for the No. 22 Ford. He has never been in a position to win a championship like he is this year, and that could hurt him down the road as he deals with pressure against the veterans. With Team Penske’s speed this year, there is no reason why Logano can’t battle for his first career title.
  6. Kevin Harvick: This week, Harvick swapped pit crews with his owner, Tony Stewart. The move will likely take away the No. 4 team’s inconsistency on pit road, which has taken away valuable track position for the team throughout the season. Even though he only has two victories this year, Harvick has been in position to win about seven races. If he can have luck on his side for once, he will be right there with Johnson, Gordon and Keselowski at Homestead.
  7. Carl Edwards: Even though switching teams after the season is completed is not a distraction for the No. 99 team, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization is going through some blatantly obvious struggles. However, he has been the strongest driver with the team, and with some solid results – he will be there for the Eliminator Round. After that, it’ll be tough for him to make it to the final round, especially with Martinsville and Texas; two tracks he somewhat struggled with this year.
  8. Kyle Busch: It has been a roller coaster year for all of Joe Gibbs Racing. Clearly, Busch can win a few races given the right circumstances. Things are cleared up with Dave Rogers and he. However, with just nine top 10s this year, he hasn’t shown this is going to be a championship caliber season. With Loudon and Dover in the Challenger Round, Busch can easily make his way into the Contender Round. It’ll be quite the challenge to get past that round, but if he can come out of Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega with a top 10 in each race, he’ll be able to advance.
  9. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has been extremely inconsistent all year. However, he has been running rather well lately. If he can have some luck in the Chase, he can get rather far. He had a rough start to the season, but with 11 top 10s to this point, there is hope that Hamlin can at least get by the first round.
  10. Kurt Busch: Busch finally returned to Victory Lane this year and has shown speed nearly every week. In the Chase, there are a few tracks that he has struggled at. He should race his way into the second round, but beyond that is unlikely with a season full of inconsistency as he has just seven top 10s this year.
  11. Kasey Kahne: Besides his win at Atlanta, 2014 has been a season to forget for Kahne. With 10 top 10s this year, he hasn’t been horrific, yet there is plenty of room for improvement. The No. 5 team will make it past the first round, but since they have been so inconsistent, it’s unlikely that they’ll go past that.
  12. Aric Almirola: Almirola was extremely lucky with his win at Daytona. Without that, there was not a shot that he would’ve been in the Chase. Even if he does awful in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, he’ll finish 16th at the worst, which would be a career-best for the driver of the No. 43 car. Chicagoland and New Hampshire have been good tracks for him. Although he is a long shot to make it past the first round, there is a slight chance that he can do so with a little bit of luck.
  13. AJ Allmendinger: Allmendinger’s situation is similar to that of the No. 43 team. It’s unlikely that he’ll get past the first round, but stranger things have happened. With four top 10s this season, he has the potential to do well if he can get the most out of the limited equipment that he has. Running with an alliance with Richard Childress Racing has certainly helped JTG Daugherty Racing, but it has not solved all of their on-track issues. Worst case scenario – Allmendinger will finish 16th in points instead of outside the top 20.
  14. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth has yet to score a win this year. He has run better than his JGR teammates all season, but just hasn’t had the luck he’s needed. With his 16 top 10s, Kenseth should make it far into the Chase. However, he won’t make it to the final round. Even if he can score a victory before the end of the season, it is going to be difficult for the No. 20 team to consistently be right there for wins as the entire crew has struggled somewhat this year.
  15. Greg Biffle: Biffle probably won’t make it past the first round of the Chase. He has had a brutal year. Somehow or another, the No. 16 team made the Chase based on points, albeit he has just three top fives. However, with five straight top 10 finishes prior to Richmond, he jumped six positions, which led him to 10th-place. If he can race like that, Biffle will make it past the first round. But if he struggles at the intermediate tracks like he has, then he won’t last too long in the Chase.
  16. Ryan Newman: This year, Newman has made a quiet, yet steady transition at RCR. He has 10 top 10 finishes, but he hasn’t really shown he is capable of winning races. Newman’s average finish is 14.1 through 26 races. Unless he earns a top five in one of the races in the first round, it’s going to be tough for him to advance. For the majority of the year, he has been a 15th-20th-place car, and he will need to improve upon that now. 

Age is just number, right? Well, that’s at least what one driver in the ARCA Series says.

2013 marked the start of one young man’s journey to the top. Actually, that journey started years ago. Since he was a nine-year-old, Michael Lira has always been in the seat of a race car.

Lira currently races for Kimmel Racing – owned by fellow driver Will Kimmel. Working with Will and his father Bill Kimmel, the two have created one of the top teams in the ARCA Series. With Lira joining the organization late last year, Kimmel Racing has begun to see an added level of success.  

“He definitely helps because he’s out there driving,” Lira said of his teammate. “I have been switching over to his radio channel – asking him a lot of questions because he is running really well. It has been huge to have him as a mentor – especially with the places that he has been too and knows already.”

Splitting time between the team’s flagship cars, the no. 68 and No. 69 Fords, Lira is going to be running 14 of the 20 events in the division this season. In addition to racing in the ARCA Series, he hasn’t forgotten about where he came from either.

Lira and his father have been able to raise the funding to race. With the ownership of Gary Yeoman’s Ford in Daytona Beach, Florida, the father-son combination has worked their way up through the stock car ranks. The family’s Ford dealership is one of the most successful in the country, and it is the number one seller of Roush Mustangs and Roush Performance Parts in the world. Due to the dealership’s success, the pair has also developed a relationship with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Jack Roush.

“My dad and I have a good alliance with Mr. Roush," Lira said. "Our dealership, Gary Yeoman’s Ford, is the number one seller of Roush Mustangs and Roush Performance Parts in the world. They are good friends. Jack has helped me here and there. We use all Roush-Yates stuff. I want to do as many races as I can possibly do. ARCA is my main focus, but I won’t be able to race Daytona, Talladega or Michigan I believe because I don’t turn 18 until July next year."

After running eight races so far in this season, Lira has three top-10 finishes. Kimmel, however, has four in just seven starts. With his experience, he has been able to help his 17-year-old driver at tracks he has never been to. But even while running for a team that is finding success, both drivers have had trouble attaining additional sponsorship – the bread and butter of achieving their goals on and off the race track.

Running on a part-time basis has helped him develop to the level of competition. When he isn’t racing in the ARCA Series, the Florida-native is racing Super and Pro Late Models with his family. But the best part about this year in his mind is that he is able to gain experience on a weekly basis.

“The biggest thing is that we are not running for points," he explained. "It is like a giant test session for me. Every time you come back to a track for a second time – a lot of these short tracks that I went to that I didn’t test at – I felt like I was a lot better at the end of the race than I was at the first lap. If we came back here (Pocono) next week, I feel like we’d be setting ourselves up for a really good run, so we have a good future here.

“For the short track races, we kind of just showed up on race day and tried to learn the track in the two short 45-minute practices. After the race – I feel a lot better about it. I feel like when we go back to these tracks in a year or two when we are back and I have been to all of these tracks, it is going to be huge for me when I’m in the car.”

As he prepares for 2015, Lira will be entered in nearly every event in the ARCA Series. Since he doesn’t turn 18 until next July, he is restricted from competing in the restrictor plate events, along with a few other races. With hopes of racing full-time sooner rather than later, the high school student is focused on just getting better with time.

Since the father-son tango has a relationship with Roush, they are hoping to piece together a development deal in the near future. Roush is a partner with Kimmel Racing, but they also worked closely with Roulo Brothers Racing in ARCA as well. Most of Roush’s developmental drivers – including Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chris Buescher – started out their deal with the organization by racing for the Roulo’s. However, before they can come up with a partnership with Roush Fenway Racing, Lira will need to find just a drop more speed on the race track.

“We’re hoping to work out a development deal soon, but we need to get more top-fives and start winning races before we can start talking about that,” Lira said. “Obviously, equipment is huge for everybody. You see people who move up quick and have good funding behind them and they can run well. You have to make sure that when you move to a new team or a new car that you have good people around you. More than expertise, it is about the people that are around you.” 

On Sunday morning, just hours before the Brickyard 400, Roush Fenway Racing officially announced Carl Edwards’ departure from the organization. Edwards’ story is well known. He snuck into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series garage area to hand out business cards, and after racing for the Mittler Brothers, Cousin Carl caught the eyes of Jack Roush.

Over the past several seasons, the team’s performance has depreciated, and it has shown since Edwards finished second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings in 2011. With Edwards departing the only team he has known in NASCAR’s top-tier division, Roush has to move on – whether they want to or not.

“We made him an offer, but I believe his decision was not based on – NASCAR racing, Cup racing is a big-time sports entertainment thing today.  Like football and baseball and basketball, athletes move around.  We wish it wouldn’t happen, but there’s curiosity about what another team’s situation would look like and I think that although I shouldn’t speculate, I think Carl wanted to try something different before he saw his career get in its middle term and its final years,” Roush said on Sunday morning.

Replacing Edwards will be Trevor Bayne – the 2011 Daytona 500 winner. Bayne has struggled with his health over the past several years, and announced late last season that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis – a disease that disrupts the nervous system. Fortunately, the 23-year-old doesn’t have any serious symptoms of the disease, and it will not have an effect on his career. He’s been racing on a part-time schedule for the Wood Brothers – a Roush satellite team, but with Advocare moving up the ranks with him, Bayne will be able to race full-time at NASCAR’s top division.

This will leave Greg Biffle as the team’s lead driver. Biffle has struggled on a higher level compared to Edwards this year. He has just five top-10s along with a pair of top-fives. With 3M likely resigning as Biffle’s primary sponsor, Roush does have some long-term security. However, as a 44-year-old, he might be nearing the end of his prime.

“It doesn’t look different than when Mark Martin stepped away and we were left with Greg and Carl to go forward.  We’ve been in this business, as I said, for 27 years counting and we have made it our habit, our practice, our preference to bring drivers in,” Roush said. “We’ve brought in 23 drivers that had never been part of NASCAR before and 19 of them are still in this sport and 17 of them have won races, so we’re pretty much on time. We may have more rookies, but Ricky and Trevor and Greg are gonna be great.  I’m real excited about that for next year and not less excited than I’ve been at any time in the past.”

 “Certainly the focus of our leadership is gonna be with Greg Biffle and the things that he does with the race car and the leadership he provides for the engineering initiatives we take.  We had that split with Carl and Greg together this year, so that will be a little different next year, but Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) is ready to step up.”

Now, Stenhouse will be the team’s No. 2 driver. Like Biffle, he has struggled this year as well. In a season in which he has been reunited with Mike Kelley – the same crew chief that led him to two Nationwide Series titles, the sophomore driver has four top-10s, but sits 27th in points. However, the team has faith in him – just like they did with Edwards and Biffle over a decade ago.

Roush has certainly struggled with consistency this season. Their strength has moved away from the intermediate tracks, and is slowly reeling towards the short tracks – the minority of the schedule. Edwards has been the team’s lead driver since Matt Kenseth made the move to join Joe Gibbs Racing after the completion of the 2012 season. However, neither Edwards nor Biffle have been able to step up to the plate. Although he has to wins this year, the 34-year-old has struggled, and he understands that.

"Right now, the mission is to win this championship, this race. This is my decision. It's a decision I made, and I didn't take it lightly,” Edwards said. “Sometimes you just want to make a change, and opportunities present themselves and you say, 'Hey, what was that like to not take that opportunity?'"

It is likely that Edwards will be joining Joe Gibbs Racing – a Toyota organization – in a fourth vehicle. The team has run a fourth car in the past with David Gilliland and Joey Logano in 2008, as well as Elliott Sadler in select races last season. However, they have never run a fourth car on a full-time basis after starting the No. 11 team with Jason Leffler in 2005 before Denny Hamlin took the reins of that car.

As he stated, Edwards’ deal has been completed with another organization. Although he did not admit to signing the Missouri-native, team owner Joe Gibbs, admitted to having discussions to start a fourth team. If this were to happen, Edwards would be driving a non-Ford owned car for only the second time in his career. The lone occasion which he didn’t race a car with the blue oval on the nose was in 2002 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series at Gateway with Fred Bickford where he raced a Chevrolet.

“Carl Edwards has been a part of the Ford family for a decade, and it will certainly be tough to see him leave Ford and Roush Fenway Racing. During Carl’s time with Roush, he has represented Ford Motor Company with the utmost class, both on and off the track. We at Ford Racing did everything to facilitate keeping Carl a part of the Ford Racing & Roush Fenway family, but in the end that option did not come to fruition,” said Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing.

For the future, Roush does have some promising drivers moving up the ranks. Chris Buescher, winner of the 2012 ARCA Series title, is racing the team’s No. 60 car in the Nationwide Series, and sits seventh in points. Buescher is a candidate for Bayne’s part-time ride at the Wood Brothers and would be the ideal scenario for both sides. However, Ryan Reed is also in the Nationwide Series. Reed has struggled slightly more than Buescher, but is starting to gain momentum after being labeled one of the series’ most frequent crashers earlier in the year.

The Roulo Brothers team in the ARCA Series – Roush’s satellite team in that division, has Kyle Benjamin and Kyle Weatherman in their stable as well. They are expected to move up the ranks like Buescher and Reed over the next few years – giving Roush some stability for the future.

“Our goal when we bring drivers up through the system is to retain them – to have them start with us, to win championships and then to retire with us, so this is all part of the process.  I think if you talk to Greg and Jack they would tell you that they have some unfinished business. They set out a while ago to be the first tandem to win the Truck, the Nationwide and the Cup championship,” said Steve Newmark, President of Roush Fenway Racing. “It’s always disappointing when you lose a driver that you bring up through the organization.  I think everyone is aware that we pride ourselves on being a driver development program.  It’s in our DNA and our heritage.”

After 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, we have gotten past the half-way mark in this exciting 2014 season. Thus far, there have been 11 different winners.

Yeah. 11. How crazy is that?

Well, now we have officially entered the latter half of a season that will entail a new championship format. No one really knows what to expect, yet it will truly be as exciting as possible. We have seen some crazy races this year, and each one has provided controversy in some way, shape or form. With that being said, here are our mid-season report card grades:

Hendrick Motorsports: A/A- The team has been exceptional this season with a pair of wins by Dale Earnhardt Jr., three by Jimmie Johnson and one with Jeff Gordon. However, Kasey Kahne has had his fair share of struggles, which is why they are on the border of receiving an A.

Joe Gibbs Racing: B+/B Gibbs does have a pair of victories in 2014, but they don’t seem to be on track to have the success that they had last year. Although Kyle Busch is eighth in points, he has just eight top-10s. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin has seven. Kenseth is still the highest-ranked driver in the top Toyota organization after finishing second to Johnson in 2013, but qualifying has become a problem for the entire team and has truly put them behind come race day. However, they always rebound rather nicely.

Team Penske: A Penske has rebounded nicely after missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Brad Keselowski last season. Winning two of the past three races, the team’s stock has sky rocketed. Keselowski currently sits third in points, but more importantly – he has led more laps half-way through 2014 than he has in any one season throughout his career (previous high was 735 in 2012). Joey Logano has also been hot this year as he is inside of the top-10 in points with a pair of victories. Like Keselowski, Logano has already lead more laps this year than any other season in his young career.

Roush Fenway Racing: C+ Besides a pair of victories from Carl Edwards, not much has gone right for this team. It is well known by now that they just haven’t adjusted to the new rules package very well, but they are slowly moving into the right direction. The intermediate tracks have plagued all three of their drivers this year, and the race at Michigan was probably the worst you will ever see out of this organization. As time moves forward, judgment day is coming on whether or not Edwards will stay at RFR. Once that is out of the clear, maybe, just maybe – the other two drivers in the camp will have more of a focus on contending for wins than ever before.

Richard Petty Motorsports: C+ RPM has had a roller coaster season. Rumors have swirled around the garage on whether or not Marcos Ambrose will return to the team next year. However, he might not considering he has struggled mightily this year. He has just four top-10s this year and sits 20th in points with an average finish worse than 18th. Meanwhile, with Aric Almirola’s Daytona win, the team does have some positives. Almirola has run strong on the intermediate tracks this year, and could be a contender for a top-10 spot in points.

Richard Childress Racing: B RCR has run well this year, but not well enough. They have been a model for consistency as they are seldom outside of the top-15. Ryan Newman has begun to run better with RCR, but hasn’t been in contention for race wins. Paul Menard has been the organization’s best driver with nine top-10s already this season, and is currently in position to make the Chase as he is 11th in points. Austin Dillon has had an up and down year, but he is still developing at NASCAR’s top level. This team has a great deal of potential after having a quiet, yet steady first half to the year.

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates: B- Ganassi’s team has made incredibly large strides this year. The addition of Keith Rodden as Jamie McMurray’s crew chief was exactly what this Chevrolet team needed. McMurray is 21st in points, but his results don’t show how strong he has been in 2014. When he hasn’t been involved in an accident or had mechanical issues, there has not been a single race where the No. 1 car has finished worse than 17th.  Kyle Larson is on pace to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors for this team, but he will need to stay at his current pace after a third-place finish at Loudon. He showed weaknesses over the past few weeks, and he can’t have that as he sits 14th in points, right near Dillon.

Stewart Haas Racing: B+/B If this team wouldn’t have such bad luck, they would easily have an A. Kevin Harvick has been one of, if not the quickest car on a weekly basis. Although he has the speed to contend for wins, Harvick’s results don’t show that, along with his teammates. Kurt Busch currently sits 25th in points with a win. Fortunately for him, he hasn’t finished worse than 18th since Dover – enabling him to slowly work his way back up in points after struggling in his first two-three months with the team. Tony Stewart has been a model of inconsistency. He is 19th in points, but has shown moments of brilliance such as at Pocono in June. The entire team needs to become more consistent, and they have the pieces to do so.

Michael Waltrip Racing: B- MWR is lacking speed this season. Brian Vickers has adjusted nicely as the driver of the No. 55 Toyota, but the team just doesn’t have the speed to contend for wins. Vickers and Clint Bowyer have each run inside of the top-15 on a weekly basis, and they have more than five top-10s each, yet they just haven’t been able to seal the deal. The team isn’t horrific by any means necessary. However, after shrinking down from three to two full-time cars this year, MWR hasn’t done as well as they believed. If they can turn the corner just a drop, both of their vehicles should make the Chase.

Furniture Row Racing: C Martin Truex Jr. has struggled in his first year with this team. They have had some really strong runs, and they are slowly leaning in the right direction. The biggest problem for the No. 78 team has been sealing the deal. Once they can do that, they will have more than just three top-10s in 19 races.

JTG Daugherty Racing: C+ Since the team has an alliance with RCR, their expectations have been raised. A.J. Allmendinger has done well for this team. However, they were on an eight race drought in which they couldn’t finish in side of the top-20. Sitting 25th in points with Ku. Busch, Allmendinger has some work to do. With Watkins Glen coming up, that could be the No. 47 team’s only shot to make the Chase.  

HScott Motorsports: C-/D+ Since Harry Scott Jr. bought this team, there have been some growing pains. The short tracks have always been Justin Allgaier’s strong suit, but this year – that is about their only chance to run inside of the top-10. His best track in the Nationwide Series was Chicagoland, and he might have a top-10 finish there if the team can stay on the lead lap – something they have done just five times this season.

Front Row Motorsports: C- As expected, this team has struggled a lot with the new rules package. However, the pole at Daytona for David Gilliland marked the first in the team’s history – showing signs that they aren’t too far behind on the plate tracks. Moreover, the company just needs to finish races considering both drivers are outside of the top-30 in points.

Germain Racing: C Casey Mears has done a good job growing with this team. When they don’t have trouble, the No. 13 car is nearly always inside of the top-25. They are exactly where they were at this point last year, but they have more promise with the RCR alliance just like JTG.

Tommy Baldwin Racing: C- TBR has struggled this year. Reed Sorenson is running his first full season in the Cup Series since 2009, and he is 35th in points. He’s been plagued by mechanical issues all year, and when he hasn’t – the No. 36 car is running outside of the top-30. Meanwhile, Michael Annett is 30th in points. Annett has potential to run inside of the top-25 on a weekly basis, and he might be able to do just that in the second half of the year. However, with a few top-20 finishes, Annett is the only thing that has saved this team from getting a grade in the D range.

Phil Parsons Racing: C/C- Even though the team missed Phoenix, they have done a lot better than anyone would have thought coming into this year. Going from a team that primarily start and parks to running every week is extremely difficult, and they have done a good job at adjusting to the ups and downs of racing all the time. A lot of people took notice to Josh Wise at Bristol when he just refused to go a lap down, and ever since – the team’s popularity has sky rocketed with the Reddit/Dogecoin deal. However, they still need a lot of sponsorship if they want to be better than a team that barely enters the top-30 on a weekly basis.

BK Racing: C-/D+ Cole Whitt has been a leader for this team since he moved over from Swan Racing – finishing inside of the top-30 in nine of the last 11 events. However, Ryan Truex has missed three races, and his best finish this year is 30th. His results have been extremely rough, but there might be light at the end of the tunnel for him as the team looks to regroup with an off weekend. Alex Bowman, another rookie driver for the team, has done slightly better than Truex. He has made every race, and he has been able to run inside of the top-30 every now and then.

Go FAS Racing: D The team has done well at the plate tracks with Terry Labonte. However, everything else has been a struggle. Travis Kvapil is their primary driver, and he has run inside of the top-30 just once in a dozen races this year. They have a few chances to do decent, including Watkins Glen with Boris Said and Talladega in October with Labonte, but everything else depends on sponsorship dollars.

Circle Sport Racing/Hillman Racing: D+ Landon Cassill has done well for the team in the No. 40 car. They have had their struggles, but they have seven finishes inside of the top-30. However, since Kansas – their best finish was 31st at Daytona. The team’s second car, the No. 33, has been switching back and forth with different drivers. It has run a lot worse than the No. 40 car, and it shows. 

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