We’ve reached the first off-week of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and oh, what a season it’s been thus far. Injuries, sub drivers, close finishes, surprises – we’ve seen a little bit of everything here in 2015. Six races into the season, we now have a good idea of who has speed, who’s off the pace and what we should expect racing-wise the rest of the season.
So now, we reflect on the past six races, and look forward to next 30 races with a clear picture of what to expect for the rest of the 2015 season.
1. Can Kevin Harvick maintain his form?
The biggest story of the 2015 season thus far has been the historic perfornance of the Sprint Cup Series defending champion, Kevin Harvick. Ever since midway through last year’s Chase, Harvick has simply whipped the competition. He carried his No. 4 team on an incredible and historic run of eight straight top-two finishes stretching from late 2014 to the Fontana race two weeks ago. It was a simply incredible run, something not seen since the days of Richard Petty’s unmatched dominance of the sport in the 1970s.
The question that needs to be asked with regard to the rest of this season: can Harvick maintain this level of raw performance? Historically speaking, he probably won’t be able to. Not since Jeff Gordon in 1998 have we seen a driver perform like Harvick has thus far over the course of one season. A few have come close, but with the parity inherent in today’s NASCAR, it is only natural that someone or (a few drivers) will catch up to the No. 4 team.
And frankly, it may already be happening. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch all seem to be right on the verge of breakouts. My guess is that one or many of those teams will match the No. 4 team in terms of performance over the next few weeks, effectively curbing the dominance of Harvick and Co. for the time being.
2. Will NASCAR’s 2016 rules package being implemented in 2016?
One of the hot rumors that conspicuously has been absent from the mainstream NASCAR news cycle has been that of the 2016 rules package potential implementation this season. Right now, NASCAR’s current plan is to test the 2016 rules package, which features a massive downforce reduction, in this year’s All-Star Race. But some of Frontstretch’s insider sources have repeatedly suggested that NASCAR could have further plans for the 2016 package this year beyond the All-Star Race.
So far, the 2015 package has been decent. It was not a package designed to drastically change the on-track product; rather, it was designed to either maintain the status quo and/or slightly improve the on-track entertainment before bigger changes are implemented in 2015. But as we all know, NASCAR fans tend to be instant gratification junkies, and since the 2015 package hasn’t been a drastic improvement over 2014 (which was a decent package in its own right?), there is rumors that NASCAR will actually implement the 2016 rules starting with this year’s Coca-Cola 600 if the All-Star Race test goes well.
The teams want the 2016 package, the drivers love it, and the fans want to see what the hype is all about. If I know anything about NASCAR, that probably means the package will in fact be implemented earlier than previously thought, testing be damned. Is it the right decision to do that? I’m not sure, given all of NASCAR’s rhetoric about implementing changes slowly, but if it works, they’ll look like geniuses.
3. When will Kyle Busch be back, and how will that affect David Ragan?
The Kyle Busch saga has been another unusual story that has led the headlines in 2015. Kyle Busch’s leg injuries at sustained at Daytona have more or less killed any chance he had at making the Chase this season given how many races he’s missed thus far. Insiders claim he is healing quickly, but given the nature of his injury, it seems difficult to believe he could be back at full strength any earlier than August. And to be honest, even that seems optimistic.
Meanwhile, his substitute, David Ragan, is coming into his own in his role as the driver of the No. 18 machine vacated by Busch. Ragan drove to an impressive fifth-place finish last week in Martinsville and showed many flashes of brilliance in the weeks leading up to that race. Ragan now sits 12th in driver points and has carried the No. 18 car to 13th in the owner standings.
With Busch unlikely to return soon, what would happen if Ragan were to win a race? Given his performance, it is entirely possible, and would hugely shake up the Chase picture if it were to happen. Would JGR stick with Ragan and defer Busch to a 2016 return? Would Ragan really return to Front Row Motorsports if he’s running well? These are questions that will have to be answered soon, because JGR could have some unusual dilemmas on their hands if Ragan has a ticket to the Chase and ends up leaving the team with it.
4. Will Roush Fenway Racing turn things around?
It is no secret at this point that Roush Fenway Racing is in crisis mode. The team has not been competitive on a week to week basis (at least to the standard it is used to) since the 2012 Sprint Cup season. Thus far in 2015, that has not changed, as not a single RFR driver is in the top 20 in points. That has never happened this deep into a season for Roush’s team since its inception.
Clearly, the problems of RFR are deep, complicated and lack concrete answers. One thing is certain, however: if RFR can’t right the ship by the end of this season, it could be in a dire situation sponsorship-wise in the coming years. The team has already lost a multitude of sponsors due to financial disagreements and lack of performance in recent years, and could lose the precious few it has left if things don’t change soon. Fastenal, Ortho and AdvoCare do not have especially long-term agreements with RFR, and another year of poor performance could very well be the straw that breaks RFR’s back financially.
No one want to see RFR become the next Yates Racing, but if something doesn’t change soon, that’s likely what will happen. The rest of this season will be crucial to RFR’s future.