After the dust cleared at Homestead, Kyle Busch was the last man standing as Sprint Cup champ. What kind of champion will Busch be, and how will his championship be remembered down the road?
Aaron Bearden, Assistant Editor: Busch’s injury and fatherhood has molded him into a mature, respectful man. Rowdy will be a good ambassador for the sport. As for his championship, it just depends on how people construe it. So far, it appears it’ll be remembered as the ultimate comeback story, as it should be.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Marriage and parenthood often tames the savage beast, and I think we’ve seen exactly that with Busch in 2015. His recovery from serious injury was nothing short of miraculous, and it makes him a great human interest story regarding NASCAR. That should give Busch added mainstream audience appeal. NASCAR better hope that Busch is both new and improved for 2016. Don’t forget this is the kid who assessed the first-gen Car of Tomorrow he drove to victory at Bristol in 2007 in two words: “It sucked.” Busch is a young husband and dad who has a family-friendly sponsor in M&M/Mars. He should be a good face for NASCAR over the coming year.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: I’ve always felt that drivers define their championships. Championships don’t define the driver. Whatever obligations come with the title, Busch will handle them as he sees fit. A leopard can’t change its spots. Back in 1980, Dale Earnhardt won the title, and he was far from a polished spokesperson at the time. I think it was Tom Higgins of the Observer who wrote at that banquet that so few members of the media wanted to talk to Earnhardt, and he wanted to talk to them even less that he wound up at the back of the auditorium playing pinball and doing his best to discourage interviews.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: Busch will ultimately determine how he is perceived as a champion by his actions over the next year. I know he’s going to come back swinging next year. I have no doubt that he’s loving this championship, but he might want one with absolutely no doubt. His title will be remembered by many as a result of the format. Using regular points, he’d only be 20th, but just getting there missing nearly a third of the season is pretty amazing. It’s akin to Ernie Irvan‘s 1994 where he was in championship contention until he suffered near-fatal injuries at Michigan that put him out for 13.5 months.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: Personality-wise, I think Busch will be similar to Brad Keselowski or Kevin Harvick – not bad for the sport, but not really a leader, either. That’s not a bad thing by any means. His season will be remembered for his comeback from a devastating injury, but also for the 11 races NASCAR waived to allow him to compete for the title. Honestly, while you never want to see anyone get hurt, that crash was good for Busch in that it made him appreciate what he has instead of the air of entitlement he had previously. It made him grow up, and that’s what won him the title—checkers or wreckers is a risky way to gun for titles, at best.
Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing fell just short of a title, finishing fourth in points on Sunday. Can this single-car team maintain its 2015 success long-term?
Howell: Truex and team should be in great shape now that they’re with Toyota. I got the sense that GM cast them adrift a bit last season, and it had nothing to do with FRR being based in Denver, Colo. The team seemed to get sloppy seconds on everything, yet they managed to do a lot with a little. Their win at Pocono was one of what could have been several on the year, and their 22 top 10s were nothing to ignore. After they get their footing with Toyota, Truex and team should be in even better shape to race for the title.
Bearden: Considering they’re moving to Toyota with help from the team that beat them, Truex and FRR should be just fine. There may be a year or two needed for adjustment to the new make and rules package, but this team has proven it can run with the best in the field.
Henderson: Yes, and I think they will. They’ve done their homework and grown as a team to where they can be a top-10 team and easily a top-16 one. Provided the transition to Toyota is a smooth one and the team’s alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing is equal to what they had with Richard Childress Racing, this team has proven it belongs among the elite with two Chase berths in three seasons.
Allaway: Despite the great form in 2015, FRR is making a bunch of changes. It’s ditching Chevrolet and the alliance with RCR for Toyota and an alliance with JGR. There’s going to be some teething. Yes, Truex has experience with Toyota and the manufacturer likes him, but the team doesn’t have that experience. They might regress a little in 2016, but I think they can keep the form up.
McLaughlin: Obviously the switch to Toyota (and a possible second team) will be a bit of a challenge but FRR will have a much more active alliance going forward to help them make the adjustment. Stay tuned.
Jeff Gordon‘s retirement could be the first of many in the Cup Series over the next five years as several drivers enter their 40s. Will there be enough youngsters available who are both talented and experienced enough to replace them?
Henderson: Talented enough, absolutely, though replace isn’t the right term. Drivers like Gordon are pretty irreplaceable. There is a lot of talent out there, but whether or not there will be a dozen or more youngsters ready for Cup over the next five years or so remains to be seen, as sponsorship for development drivers is tough to get—and a dozen is a fairly reasonable number given the number of aging drivers at the top level right now. (As an aside, you know what would be funny? If JJ Haley someday replaces JJ Yeley.)
Bearden: Oh yeah. There isn’t a shortage of good drivers, there’s a surplus. Upcoming stars like Chris Buescher, Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace deserve a shot at Cup. Throw in intriguing prospects like Rico Abreu, William Byron and Haley, and there are too many shoes for all of the upcoming vacancies.
Allaway: The problem here is not finding talent to replace retiring drivers like Gordon, Greg Biffle or Matt Kenseth. Believe me, there’s no shortage of good drivers out there. The problem is those talented drivers getting the necessary experience so that they can get to those upper levels. There are a lot of good drivers today that are basically underemployed because they don’t have the money to bring to teams to get that all-important seat time. As a result, some of the greats that are going to be hanging it up in the next few years may very well be replaced by drivers who couldn’t hold their jock strap while the elite prospects might see their careers die on the vine.
Howell: The future of NASCAR has never looked so good! There’s a ton of talent moving through the ranks, and next year’s Cup roster looks like just the beginning of big things yet to come. With drivers like Chase Elliott, Jones, Buescher and Ryan Blaney grabbing headlines, expect to see even more young drivers who have something to prove. Good thing NASCAR got wind about this kid named Busch years ago and decided to up its minimum age requirement.
McLaughlin: I’d compare this period to the late ’70s. The big name drivers who drew the fans, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were nearing retirement. Well, in Allison’s case his career was cut short by a savage wreck at Pocono months after he won the Daytona 500. Some new “kids” were entering the sport, guys like Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, and some kid named Rusty Wallace from Missouri with a ridiculous afro hairdo. At the time, people weren’t sure they’d amount to much. When Elliott finished second at Darlington in 1979, beaten by Dale Pearson subbing for an injured Earnhardt no less, I recall the reaction in the stands as ‘Who? How the blazes did he do that?’
The tide comes in and the time goes out. There will always be enough young drivers with the dream of making it in the big leagues to more than fill the seats available for a Cup ride. Guys like Chase Elliott (ironically enough), Jones, Buescher, Wallace (no relation–he’s the one without the afro) are ready to step up. And it just might be the sport’s next superstar is currently wheeling a truck for an underfunded team or racing late models in the Carolinas waiting for his or her big break. Neither Johnson nor Stewart exactly set the world on fire in the Busch series but they made out OK for themselves in the bigs.
Looking back on 2015, what sticks in your mind as the biggest moment of the season?
Allaway: There are a few that come to mind. Homestead is an obvious choice, but that’s because it’s so fresh. Long-term, I’d go with Martinsville since you had the ridiculousness of the Joey Logano–Matt Kenseth incident, Gordon scoring his final win and the incredible outpouring of emotion. Yes, Gordon’s an emotional chap, but we’d never seen him display so much joy previously.
McLaughlin: I think the fall Martinsville weekend will be the one memory fans will be able to recall from 2015 in a few years. Kenseth taking out Logano still has people talking and clearly incited some passion in the grandstands last weekend. Couple that with Gordon’s highly emotional final win, and Martinsville was a candle in the dark, scorched landscape of the 2015 Cup season. Had Austin Dillon‘s car made it into the grandstands at Daytona in July we’d likely all be talking about what we we’re going to do with our Sunday afternoons with NASCAR gone next year.
Howell: I think 2015 will go down in racing history for a few reasons: Busch’s injury, recovery and subsequent championship, Gordon’s final season and the Kenseth/Logano debacle. Given that folks thought Busch might never even walk again, seeing him win five races and the Cup title made for perhaps the greatest overall sports story of the year. Another bright spot on the season: We can’t ignore the positive energy that came out of the Southern 500 at Darlington with its throwback paint schemes and the success of the low-downforce package. It set the stage for 2016.
Henderson: For me, it’s the fall race at Martinsville, not because of Kenseth or Logano, but because it was Gordon’s last win, and the fans were incredible. Hundreds of them stayed for an hour or more after the race, in the dark and cold, soaking in the moment and cheering for Gordon, who not so very long ago was greeted with as many boos as cheers at most tracks. I think deep down, everyone knew it was likely to be his last win, and fans were just savoring being a part of it.
Bearden: Gordon’s Martinsville win seems like the prevailing moment in my mind, but as a 22-year-old that grew up in the Gordon era, that might be bias talking. The honest answer might be the crashes of both Busch and Dillon at Daytona, and the attention it’s turned on safety at restrictor-plate tracks and the circuit in general.
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