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Friday Faceoff: 2015 NASCAR Season Preview

Welcome to Friday Faceoff! What do you get when you take some hot-button NASCAR topics and hand them over to our dedicated and… er, opinionated staff? A little disagreement and a whole lot of thought-provoking insight! Check out this week’s edition to see what everyone is arguing… um, we mean, discussing this week!

1) Stewart-Haas Racing enters the season with four drivers under pressure for completely different circumstances. Who enters the season with the most to prove amongst the four… and why?

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Hands down, Danica Patrick.  Whether they had a great 2014 or not, all three of her teammates have championship trophies in their collections, while Danica’s shelves are pretty empty. Despite having the same equipment as Jeff Gordon, she couldn’t do better than 28th in points. Among those who finished ahead of her were Martin Truex, Jr. and Casey Mears, driving for single-car teams.  With sponsor GoDaddy in the final year of their contract, Patrick needs to step up her game if she wants to be in the game for the long haul.

Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: It’s Patrick. She hasn’t been able to produce since she began full-time in the Cup Series in 2013. These days, you barely even remember Patrick’s there; the media coverage has died down, and she’s doing very little to warrant it coming back. Now, that’s totally not to say that she can’t produce on a Cup level, but after two dismal seasons, most would be kicked to the curb by now. Money and fame has bought her time – and that’s OK, because it keeps people employed. But that’s not going to last forever if she doesn’t go somewhere soon.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Without a doubt, Kurt Busch. He’s spent the last two months laying low (figuratively and literally…) in the midst of a Maury Povich media circus with former girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. What first started as a hearing about a personal protection order devolved quickly into accusations of assassinations and taking drunken swings at PR people. If Kurt can keep it together following these events, he’ll be in much better shape than he was last year. Tony Gibson helped stabilize a team this offseason that Kurt largely carried on his back, much like he did with Furniture Row Racing and the equipment is championship caliber. Assuming Kurt’s legal issues fade into the memory and become little more than an ongoing joke, he should be much more competitive this year and return as a fixture up front — as he had been with Penske and Roush before his life went spiraling out of control.

Clayton Caldwell, Contributor: I believe it’s Tony Stewart. Stewart is coming off two seasons which he’d like to forget. In 2013, the No. 14 team was running terrible and if it wasn’t for a late caution at Dover Stewart would have gone winless. Then, in August, he broke his leg and missed the final 12 races of the season. Stewart recovered enough to race in 2014, but wasn’t the same driver. Then, we had the infamous accident in upstate New York and Stewart’s life was changed forever. As we get ready for 2015, Tony Stewart has healed some but he needs to prove he’s still Tony Stewart. This driver was a guy who at one time was considered one of the top talents in the sport. It didn’t matter what track it was, Stewart was a force — especially later in the year. As he gets to be in his mid-40s, Stewart has to prove he can still be the same driver that once was or racefans will be wondering if he’ll follow Jeff Gordon into retirement.

2) Carl Edwards jumps to Joe Gibbs Racing this season, a high-profile move that Matt Kenseth did under similar circumstances two years ago. Kenseth, who spent about the same amount of time at Roush Fenway Racing, had a career year during his first season with JGR, and came just short of taking the title from Jimmie Johnson. Are we about to see lightning strike twice… or is this expansion more than Joe Gibbs Racing can handle?

2014 Phoenix II CUP Carl Edwards eew CIA
Will Carl Edwards shine in his new home at Joe Gibbs Racing this season?

Mike Neff, Short Track Editor: Expanding to four teams puts a different amount of strain on an organization than just putting a new driver in a car. Kenseth’s season was rare in the history of NASCAR. Expecting Edwards to mimic the feat is a bold stretch to say the least. Will Edwards win a race? Most likely. Will he win the most in the series and contend for the title? That is probably asking too much for his first year in a fourth car, especially for an organization that was not quite at their former level last season.

Mark Howell, Senior WriterCarl’s success depends on just how quickly the team achieves that all-so-important chemistry. One advantage to a test-free offseason is the fact that drivers and crews have some time to build familiarity and a sense of relationships. The longer it takes “Cousin Carl” to develop a close-knit community at JGR, the longer it’ll take for him to find success and a short drive to Victory Lane.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Here’s my fearless prediction: Carl Edwards will win the Sprint Cup in 2015. Fact. Stamp it.

Roush Fenway has been floundering since 2009, despite Edwards title run in 2011. He followed Matt Kenseth’s lead and will enjoy the same success that Kenseth did in 2013 at JGR.  The Toyotas will be back in force this year as horsepower changes and the advent of the tapered spacer (i.e., the not-a-restrictor-plate restrictor plate…) will likely produce more Xfinity/Nationwide-style racing and results. That is a series were the JGR and KBM Toyotas have shined in recent years…
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I’m not sure the Edwards to Kenseth comparison is a valid one—remember, Kenseth is a proven champion.  Edwards isn’t quite the caliber of driver as Kenseth or his new teammate Kyle Busch, though he’ll win some races in his new ride.  As to whether the expansion is too much… well, no organization has four teams all in legit title contention in one year, so don’t expect the Gibbs crew to shut everyone else out come Homestead.  Chemistry is also a bit of a question, with a good-sized ego added into the mix that already has its share.  It worked at Stewart-Haas, but there’s little sense of camaraderie already at JGR, so how they all get along remains to be seen.
Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: I would not be at all surprised to see lightning strike twice, and if you are counting high-profile drivers who have changed teams, it could be the third time in three years. First, there was Kenseth, who won seven races in 2013 and finished second in the points. Then, last year, Kevin Harvick won the Sprint Cup title in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing. So now, it would be no surprise to see Edwards do the same thing. I can’t imagine Joe Gibbs going through with this expansion if he didn’t feel his team was fully prepared to handle it.
Joseph Wolkin, ContributorEdwards is going to be a serious threat to win the title in 2015. However, Gibbs isn’t coming off of the best of seasons, either. They struggled with horsepower at the intermediate tracks, and part of that was a situation similar to what happened at Roush, which included issues with the ride height. According to each of the drivers, they feel like a fourth car will take away those issues. The team has added approximately 100 employees with the No. 19 team, and that should help Edwards get back to his 2008-like self.

3) Most of the Silly Season focus, beyond Carl focused on the back of the Sprint Cup pack — including several new driver announcements this week. Is it all much ado about nothing, or is there one new pairing among the sport’s underdog teams that really intrigues you? Why?

Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: I think a good majority of the moves are intriguing, but not especially so. Like, none of these teams and drivers are going to go out there and surprise you. It’s just not going to happen; don’t kid yourself. The best you’ll see one of these teams finish in points is about 28th and you’ll see them get two or three top 10s as a whole all year. I love that guys like Matt DiBenedetto and Jeb Burton are swooping in to join the big boys, but they, Cole Whitt, Michael Annett and the rest will still be found toward the rear every week.  So, where’s the intrigue? Seeing which one loses his ride first.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Jeb Burton and BK Racing. Simply because it will be interesting to see if he actually gets paid.

Amy Henderson, Senior EditorThe only new pairing in the lower ranks that I see making a splash is Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers.  The team has a legit shot on a plate track as evidenced by Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win in the No. 21.  The smaller teams I think will do well this year are JTG-Daugherty Racing, who already made the Chase last year, and Germain Racing, who’s come close to a few plate wins in the last couple of years.  Those teams have a little more money, a big-team affiliation, and veterans in the seat. 

Mike Neff, Short Track EditorNo underdog teams will be a surprise this season. Tommy Baldwin Racing with Alex Bowman is intriguing, however. Bowman has shown some skill behind the wheel and Kevin “Bono” Manion has the right frame of mind to succeed with a young driver. They won’t win any races but a top 10 or two during the year is certainly possible.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Most of the recent developments/announcements have been little more than preseason noise, but I think there may be something afoot at BK Racing. That operation seems to have quite definite plans as we head into 2015, but it’ll be small-team-business-as-usual if there’s not a deep pool of sponsorship cash. Expect the mega-team cream to rise, as always, to the top once the green flag flies at Daytona….

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: The one new pairing that I do have some interest in is Jeb Burton at BK Racing. Since his truck deal fell through, it was a no brainer for Burton to jump into a Sprint Cup ride. It will be interesting to see if Burton can compete at any tracks other than Daytona and Talladega. I think he has the talent to do well although in an ideal world, it would have been nice for him to land a good XFINITY ride and then graduate up to Sprint Cup. But maybe Burton is just good enough where the transition won’t be as difficult for him as it has been for others.

Joseph Wolkin, Contributor: Cole Whitt heading over to Front Row Motorsports has the potential to be something solid. The team finally earned their first top-10 finish at a non-plate track at Martinsville last year, and it has enough funding in place to give Whitt a decent shot at racing inside of the top 25 on a weekly basis. BK Racing team owners Ron Devine and Anthony Marlowe were big fans of the California-native, who had 22 top-30 results for them after coming over when Swan Racing shut down. This new program comes with some sponsorship, and could give Whitt a chance at making a jump to a larger organization if he can outrun teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland.

Could rookie Jeb Burton be the most intriguing small-team driver in 2015? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Could rookie Jeb Burton be the most intriguing small-team driver in 2015? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

Michael Annett also made a slight upgrade for 2015. Annett had a mediocre season with Tommy Baldwin Racing in his rookie year, but joining Justin Allgaier at HScott Motorsports, he has an opportunity to run inside of the top 30 on a weekly basis.

4) We saw several drivers withdraw from the Sprint Unlimited this week citing “lack of sponsorship” and the risk of getting their car torn up. Does that mean this exhibition race has outlived its usefulness? Or is it a Valentine’s Day tradition worth keeping?

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: How do they even pick drivers for this race anymore? What once was a Speedweeks tradition for pole winners or former event winners only is now a watered-down event that serves as an unofficial test session for teams who are participating. It would be worth keeping if it actually was still a tradition. A tradition implies that there is some sort of consistency and stability involved that make it special and something time-honored. Not sure what you call this current iteration but it’s not the Busch Clash that most fans remember.

Kevin Rutherford, Managing Editor: Like those teams that withdrew were going to be big stories anyway. I adore an underdog story as much as anyone, but time has shown that it’s going to be the big dogs that win this race, and it’s said dogs who have the funding, equipment and fulfill whatever requirement NASCAR sets for entry to run it anyway. And look – let them withdraw. Someone will be there to take their place. Though I would love to see NASCAR keep it to the same standard to get in, whether it’s the old pole winner format or whatever, it’s still a fun warmup to the season and worth keeping around.

Mike Neff, Short Track Editor: The Unlimited is certainly a tradition that should continue. Don’t forget that as recently as 1986, the event started eight cars. If anything, the exclusivity of the event needs to be restored. 25 eligible drivers is a ridiculous amount. Whether it is based on poles or race wins or pit road speeds, the field should be 16 cars or less. Make it mean something to make the race again and the excitement will return. The drivers who opted out were most likely not going to win the race anyway, so there isn’t a big loss there. In the end, the winner of the race will be a favorite heading into the 500.

Jeff Wolfe, Senior WriterWithout the preseason testing, I think it is a tradition worth keeping. It’s understandable why the teams without the big budgets don’t want to take the risk in a non-points race. That’s partly because it’s been proven that a low-budget team can compete and have a legitimate chance to win the Daytona 500. So, if you think you’ve got a chance to win the big race, no reason to risk what limited resources you have in an event that doesn’t have close to the prestige of the 500.

Amy Henderson, Senior EditorThe exhibition race has always been of questionable value, moreso in recent years as organizers have struggled to find a format that works.  A spcial reward for pole winners was at least semi-legit, but this doesn’t have much of a special feel.  I mean, Casey Mears is a hell of a nice guy, but what, exactly, did he do last year to warrant inclusion? Really, what this race does is provide extra practice for the teams who need it the least, while the small teams sit in the garage waiting for Daytona 500 practice because many of them couldn’t afford to tear up a car even if they were invited into the field.

Clayton Caldwell, ContributorIt’s time to do away with the Sprint Unlimited. It pains me to say that because the race has so many great memories but its time. It’s gone from a race that has seen only pole winners to a race where NASCAR handpicks the drivers they want to be in. Not only that, but the race doesn’t pay anything. The winner won $200,000 a year ago. According to some reports, that is the cost of a Sprint Cup Series racecar in 2015. Last place, by comparison paid just $30,500. Remember when Terry Labonte and the Go FAS Racing team started and parked a year ago in the Sprint Unlimited? Everyone was up in arms. But it was a smart move, especially considering the purse for the race has gone down $36,000 since 2005. Add that to the fact that NASCAR added eight more cars to the race this season and it makes you wonder why any team, not just the big ones, would race in the Sprint Unlimited.

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rg72

Valentine’s Day tradition? The only tradition was that this race should be in the rear view mirror and we should be discussing the Daytona 500 coming in two days.
Mothball this and the All-Star Race. Both just test sessions disguised as races.
Of course, I think half the reason these races still exist are the gimmicky fan votes for different things so NASCAR can point to them and say that they listen to the fans. Well, they also listen with the non-existent offseason surveys where Brian France claimed overwhelming fan support for the Chase.

GinaV24

IMO, Danica Patrick is the driver at Stewart Hass with the most to prove. She’s had lots of advantages since she came into Cup and its not as if she didn’t have good equipment. I don’t think the media circus around her helped her in any way and may actually have hampered her.

As far as the Sprint Unlimited, this race could go away – it no longer serves a purpose. I stopped being able to figure out who is in this race and why several years ago. When it was because a driver won a pole, well that made sense, but NASCAR did its usual deal and just kept adding junk to it so that other than getting to see race cars on the track, it doesn’t matter. I feel the same way about the all star race. That used to be a lot of fun, but mostly now it is a glorified extended practice session.

LOL, rg72 – I love your comment about the gimmicky fan votes and the rationale behind them. I completely agree that is exactly the reason they exist. I still laugh to myself when the bitcoin crowd gamed NASCAR’s system to get THEIR driver in on the fan vote and not who NASCAR really wanted. That was laugh out loud funny and must have gotten BZF & Helton’s shorts in a bunch.

Dennis

The Sprint Unlimited is limited… to 25 cars. What’s the “unlimited” part… the hype? While I don’t agree with the selection criteria, I’m looking forward to the race only because it’s been a long winter for me.

A thought just occurred. As silly as it sounds, I’d like to see 7 trucks, 7 Xfinity, and 7 Cup cars in this race competing at the same time. Since they limit the horsepower anyway, they could equalize performance among them with various restrictor plates/tapered spacers. It would be good cross promotion. Of course, if anything but a Cup car won, then it would be criticized but NASCAR seems to go out of it’s way to generate controversy for promotion of the sport anyway.

Upstate24fan

The Sprint Unlimited is a fun event to start the season. Lets not think of it as anymore than that. It’s NASCAR racing, and living on the Ice Planet Hoth right now, all I want is to see some live racing right now. I wish they would just stick with the tradition of pole winners and past race winners, but 25 cars is a solid field for good drafting at Daytona. I really don’t care how they set the field. I just want to see racing.

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