Wednesday, Jan 26

For the first time since the 2007 season, the Wood Brothers are slated to run the full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule in 2016. The man behind the wheel, 22-year-old rookie Ryan Blaney, is competing in his first full Sprint Cup Series campaign.

In any sport, the rookie season is always the toughest. Trying to fit in with teammates, adapting to new people and performing well, each of these variables can create a stressful and possibly mediocre first year. Blaney has the intangibles to make it a different story.

The last name Blaney is well known in the dirt racing realm. From his father Dave, to Uncle Dale, the youngest member of the family has been put in the best situation of all, competing in the Cup Series with a legendary team such as the Wood Brothers. 

The Wood Brothers have won races spanning over the last six decades, the first coming in 1960 when Speedy Thompson crossed the checkered flag first at Charlotte. The crew chief on that team was Leonard Wood, who can still be seen at the shop 56 years later.

Out of all five Sprint Cup rookies, Blaney has the most experience in this style of car. Over the last two years he has competed in 18 races with a best finish of fourth at Talladega last May. In those two seasons of part-time competition, the No. 21 car has had multiple part failures that have caused them to finish near the rear of the field, including four engine failures in 2015 alone.

One thing that Blaney has going for him in the rookie class is friends, better yet, rivals. He has raced approximately five years with driver of the No. 24 car, Chase Elliott. The two young talents have competed in 27 races against each other in the XFINITY Series, both winning three races over that time period.

When it comes to Blaney’s rookie competition, the North Carolina native doesn’t know what to expect. Being that he is a rookie, it is hard to set a standard on what could be a successful season.

“It’s kind of hard to set expectations and goals for your rookie season going full-time,” Blaney told Speedway Digest. “I think a good goal to set is try to run all the laps. It’s a tough goal to do, but doing that is how you get the most experience, and that’s how you really learn as a driver.”

The other three members of the rookie class include NASCAR XFINITY Series veteran Brian Scott who is getting his first real opportunity in the Cup Series with Richard Petty Motorsports. 2015 XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher will be taking over the No. 34 car for Front Row Motorsports and Jeffery Earnhardt will run the majority of the races, except for the restrictor plate tracks for Go Green Racing.

The two front runners for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award are Blaney and Elliott. It could be a toss-up on who comes out on top between those two teams, mainly since they are aligned with quality organizations.

 “I think that there are a lot of good teams and drivers that are going to be hard to beat on that side,” Elliott said. “But as I’ve said before, if we can go and be the team that we want to be and if I can go and try to do the job that I expect of myself, I think the rest will kind of take care of itself.”

The Wood Brothers now have an alliance with Team Penske. Over Blaney’s four-year run in NASCAR, he has become friends with Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck that he ran in the Camping World Truck Series.

Team Penske is coming off one of its best seasons as an organization in team history. Combined, Logano and Keselowski led over 2,500 laps, earned seven victories, 31 top fives and 53 top-10 finishes with an average finish just over 10.1. The team has Blaney in its wing and looks to rub some of the speed over to the Wood Brothers.

“I think it’s a great rookie class,” Blaney said. “I think it’s the best class we’ve seen in a while. Chase Elliott is going to be really tough. He does a great job. He has a great team behind him and an already established team that has been working together for a long time. I think he will be very tough, but it will be something really fun to watch.”

In being as young as Blaney is, but having plenty of experience under his belt in NASCAR, it is possible that the No. 21 car ends up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There will be multiple bumps in the road as the rookie will have to get used to the grind of the 36-race season.

If he can get through the first couple of months under the radar and in contention to make the Chase based on points it will make the Wood Brothers more mainstream. There is reason to think that the team will be successful because of the alliance with Team Penske. They will be receiving cars, equipment and members from the Penske organization.

It would be something else to see the Wood Brothers clinch a Chase spot for the first time in its history. The historic company has done everything else in NASCAR except compete for the championship under the Chase format.

Could Blaney pull off an upset victory in the Daytona 500, similar to what Trevor Bayne did in 2011 with the same team? If so he would clinch that ticket as long as he can stay in the top-30 in points.

To go along with a full Cup schedule, Blaney is scheduled to run in multiple XFINITY Series races for Team Penske. Over the past four seasons, he has recorded four victories, 21 top fives and 33 top 10-finishes in 43 career starts, leading 706 laps.

Said Blaney: “I’m sure we will figure that out here in about a month. It’s usually last minute before we figure all that stuff out, but I’m sure we will get it squared away soon.”

There is a new generation that is taking over quality rides in the Cup Series. Like always, there is pressure to succeed. However, this rookie battle has the potential to go down to Homestead before crowning a definitive champion.

Over the past two seasons, Team Penske has established itself as one of the teams to beat in the garage. Picking up 18 wins in that time, the foundation has been set for the organization to have a solid 2016 season.

There is no doubt about it that Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have established themselves as championship front-runners heading into the season. Both drivers are coming off one of the better years of their career, respectively. Recording a total of seven wins in 2015, Team Penske has become a threat for victories on a weekly basis.

Though he had just nine top fives in the 36-race schedule, Keselowski picked up a career-high 25 top-10 finishes, including a stretch of 10-consecutive races spanning from Kentucky to Chicago. His solo win of the season came at Auto Club Speedway where he made a late-race pass for the win on the final restart, the team led by Paul Wolfe is right where it needs to be in the offseason.

“It’s pretty good,” Keselowski said of the team morale. “We ran well and were in contention to win a lot of races. We’re throwing a party on the first night. I think it’s going pretty well, but it always gets better when you start winning.”

The No. 22 team led by Logano and crew chief Todd Gordon picked up six checkered flags last year, elevating his driving style to a whole new level. The team became more equipped of leading laps and running toward the front which put them in position to take the checkered flag whether it was on raw speed, fuel mileage or even controversy.

Sure, Logano won five races and made it to the championship race in 2014. But in 2015, he alongside Kevin Harvick had one of the quickest cars week-in and week-out. It became a habit for the team to unload off the truck quick on Friday, sitting on a pole six times.

Logano and company set a benchmark that the team will be looking to surpass in the coming season. However, with the numbers that the No. 22 team put up it will be astonishing if they can out-do the performance from one year ago.

During the season, Logano had the aforementioned six victories, including the Daytona 500 to go along with 22 top-five finishes and 28 top 10’s. Winning is the ultimate goal for the 25-year-old, and anything other than a championship will be a disappointment.

The first stint of Logano’s career at Joe Gibbs Racing was a disappointment. He was given the nickname “the best thing since sliced bread” from some of his peers which put even more pressure on the then teenager. Change was necessary for him, which is why when he went to Team Penske and it became a rebuilding period of his driving career after finishing in the mid-20’s with JGR.

“We talked about our goal of winning every race, winning 11 in two years doesn’t sound so great,” Logano said at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I think at this point last year we were going into Daytona thinking it was our worst race track and then we won two superspeedway races last year and that was our worst category. Really, identifying our weaknesses and working on it and our weaknesses have gotten smaller which is a good sign.”   

Now that both teams have established themselves as two of the cars to beat on a weekly basis, it will be crucial for the two teammates to continue working together closely. That is something that Team Penske in general has done so well at accomplishing, getting two drivers united to one another and believing in the system that is in place going forward.

In the past Team Penske had some driver lineups that never really saw eye-to-eye. Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman never got along as teammates for the four years that they were together. Kurt Busch and Newman worked together, but not to the degree of Keselowski and Logano. Busch did push Newman across the finish line to win the 2008 Daytona 500, but other than that race the two teammates never worked all that closely with one another.  

Prior to Logano joining Team Penske in 2013, Keselowski was coming off of a championship season in 2012. With the addition of Logano and Gordon, the driver lineup and possibly even more importantly the crew chief lineup is set in stone for the coming years.

Unity has been one of the elements of success for Team Penske over the years. In a season where the team is celebrating its 50th year of competition in motorsports, the organization has never been at a better place heading into a season. Even through all of the rule changes over the span of the last four seasons, it could be argued that the team has evolved better than the competition.

Either driver from the organization feels that they could hoist the trophy at Homestead. All drivers should feel that way, but in reality no other team other than Joe Gibbs Racing can say the same based on stats. JGR is coming off of a championship winning season, but had some offseason changes that could potentially hurt the team. Hendrick Motorsports is always a championship favorite, but is going through a transition period as Jeff Gordon is now retired and in the broadcast booth.

Of course coming up short at the end of the year is disappointing, but everything is in place for the team to be successful going forward. The new low-downforce rules package could be the start of something great for the two teammates.

In the two races last season that tested the 2016 rules package, Keselowski had the dominant car in both races. If it weren’t for crucial mistakes on pit road at Kentucky, the No. 2 team would have picked up its second win on the season. At Darlington, the Miller Lite team led a race-high 196 laps, but on the last pit stop of the night Carl Edwards won the race off pit road and secured the victory, Keselowski finished second.

Keselowski has been very outspoken about the new aerodynamic package, which will give the drivers a little more drag, and the direction that he feels the racing should go.

Logano was the championship favorite heading into the Eliminator Round of the Chase in 2015, but Matt Kenseth put an end to that which also grew the team closer together. Keselowski could be seen publicly or on social media defending his teammate, who received scrutiny for the altercation with Kenseth.  

“I don’t know if the point system has really helped,” Keselowski said on the relationship between the two drivers. “The team setup at Penske is set up in a matter to where I think just naturally it flows open.”

The identity of Team Penske is well in place and it is likely that at least one of the drivers will be competing in the championship race at Homestead in November. With the addition of Ryan Blaney going full-time for the Wood Brothers, it brings new opportunity to the already established organization. Potentially, there could be three Penske-supported drivers in the Chase in 2016.

 

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 might feel like 2012 all over again. That doesn’t sound right, does it? How could that be? Time is just an illusion after all.

In a world in which cars are life comes one man who has prospered with a team that people could only dream about being a part of. Driving for Roger Penske, one of the most successful men in all of racing, this man has blossomed into a championship caliber driver year-in and year-out.

Brad Keselowski made an incredible run at the finish of the Geico 500 at Talladega to win the race and lock himself into the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. But he has been under a lot of heat for the post-race drama created at Charlotte with Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

In the midst of all the chaos, Keselowski has now re-emerged as a championship favorite.

“It all kind of matters where we go from here with it, but certainly very proud of this past Sunday’s win,” Keselowski said in a press conference at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday. We’ve got four critical races in front of us. We’re probably going to need to win at least one of them and our heads down and focused, certainly coming here to Texas in about a week and a half to start that race weekend.”

Keselowski leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with six victories in 2014. His Team Penske teammate Joey Logano trails him by just one as the two have become a force to be reckon with on a weekly basis.

He might not be making friends in the process of winning all of these races, but it is what is rare about the 30-year-old driver. Remember, at the beginning of his career, Keselowski was racing for his family-run organization in the Camping World Truck Series. He struggled to find sponsorship, but a few decent runs helped him land a job for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Nationwide Series team.

When Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. missed the race at Talladega, most people didn’t realize that some of the sport’s top drivers have not qualifying for a Sprint Cup Series event at one time or another. Jimmie Johnson even DNQ’d for a Nationwide Series race in 2000. Keselowski has missed a pair of events in the Nationwide Series and Truck Series, including one in 2012. But what might shock most people is that he’s missed three Cup Series events, and even did so while driving for Hendrick Motorsports at Dover in 2009.

That experience has made Keselowski the intimidating force that we now know.

“This season, and this point in time and probably throughout my career, it’s going to be racing as hard as I can race with a passion for winning,” Keselowski said on his demeanor. “It’s probably going to ruffle some feathers of people that have been in the sport longer than I have and kind of feel like this is their territory, but the alternative option of rolling over and playing dead just isn’t in my DNA and I don’t plan on ever allowing it to be.”

With a handful of races left in the season and Keselowski being on probation for a few more weeks, he’s going to be gunning for wins just as hard as ever. The intimidation factor that he brings to the sport on and off the track is one that has been missing for quite some time. There have been drivers that have intimidation in one of these two areas, yet Keselowski’s rare personality has helped breed him into a driver that is on the brink of winning his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

“Maybe sometimes I articulate it better than others, but I feel like I’m here to do one job and that’s to win races for my team. I’m not looking to make enemies, but certainly, priority number one is not making friends.”

 

In a wreck-filled Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Joey Logano was able to come out on top for the fourth time in the 2014 season for Team Penske. The Connecticut-native, who won his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Loudon, has now locked himself into the Contender Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

During the Sylvania 300, there were 15 cautions as nine of the 16 drivers in the Chase were involved in incidents. However, Logano was able to survive after taking four tires during his final pit stop as his No. 22 Ford worked through traffic as five yellow flags were thrown within the final 50 laps. The victory marks the seventh in 211 career starts for the 24-year-old. Combined with his teammate Brad Keselowski, the Team Penske organization now has eight wins on the year; the first time they have amassed that many triumphs since Ryan Newman won eight races in 2003.

"This is my home race track, the coolest place to win for me," Logano said. "I could never pick a better race track to win.  I watched my first Cup race here when I was five and I won that other Cup race here, but I just felt like I had to win one the right way here, and this means so much.  I’ve got to thank all the boys at Team Penske.  We’re doing what we’ve got to do to win this thing right now – both teams are – and I’m proud of that.  This is my home track so it means so much to me.”

Keselowski had the fastest car throughout the race, and led the first 37 laps after starting from the pole. However, during the competition caution period, crew chief Paul Wolfe and he elected to take four tires – contrary to what everyone else did inside of the top 15. Keselowski dropped to 15th on the restart, and fell as far back as 22nd. With a drop more than 100 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth and he got together. Keselowski spun, but didn’t sustain any damage to his car. On Lap 228, the No. 2 Ford was back out front until Lap 268, but wasn’t able to hold onto the lead with a hard-charging Kevin Harvick taking over for a few laps until Logano set sail as he led the final 29 laps.

Jeff Gordon, who was in position to lock himself into Round 2 of the Chase, blew a tire with nine laps remaining in the race. The orange-soaked No. 24 Chevrolet raced inside of the top five throughout the 300-lap event, but finished the day with a 26th-place result. He now sits seventh in points, but is ahead of 12th-place driver Kasey Kahne by 15 markers.

Denny Hamlin finished 37th in the No. 11 Toyota after a wild day for Joe Gibbs Racing. His car was experiencing trouble getting his fuel tank full. During the caution flag on Lap 104, he brought his car down pit road to get the issue fixed. With a lack of comprehension for what was occurring, Hamlin began to scream at his crew chief Darian Grubb. He ended up getting collected in a multi-car wreck on Lap 179, which collected Cole Whitt, Martin Truex Jr. and David Ragan.

Kyle Larson finished in the runner-up position for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. He came on strong late in the race after running outside of the top 20 during the first half of the event. Larson recorded his seventh top-five finish of 2014. His teammate Jamie McMurray had a strong showing at Loudon. The No. 1 car was inside of the top five for the duration of the Sylvania 300. Although he was not able to lead a lap, McMurray was the strongest non-Chase driver in the race. Larson currently holds a 39-point advantage over McMurray for the 17th position in the standings, which is the highest a driver can finish if they did not make the Chase.

Aric Almirola closed the gap to 12th-place in points with a sixth-place result in the No. 43 Ford. He is just 10 points behind Kahne, and is within four markers of the three drivers in front of him. Kurt Busch fell to 15th in the standings as he blew a tire on Lap 221. The finish dropped him back from ninth in points and is now behind Hamlin and Greg Biffle, who finished 16th after being multiple laps down on Sunday afternoon.

Five of the 16 drivers in the Chase finished outside of the top 20. Harvick is now locked into Round 2 of the Chase after finishing in third-place. He is 45 points ahead of Kahne, which is more than a full race advantage. 

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