The start of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has been a roller coaster ride. Some teams have struggled, while others have sky-rocketed to the front of the field.
However, the charter system that NASCAR and its team owners implemented prior to the season has shaken things up quite a bit. Originally, the starting field shrunk from 43 cars to 40, which was a solid call considering there were barely 43 cars at every track last year. But when Atlanta came around, 39 racecars on the track became the norm, rather than NASCAR’s eye at 40.
Obviously, there will be a few races with 40 cars on the track, along with a handful missing events at some point in the year. However, 39 may soon become 38 or before we know it.
With the charter system coming into play, it enabled the Wood Brothers to go back to full-time competition. For Ryan Blaney, this has led to him finally earning the opportunity to race in NASCAR’s premier division for the entire season, something he proved he deserved last year.
Blaney had a stellar run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend. Competing inside of the top 10 throughout the day, the No. 21 Ford was just as solid as his counterparts from Team Penske. With a solid outing at an intermediate track to start the season, Blaney and his team are certainly hoping to keep it up in an attempt to make the Chase without a charter.
Q: I noticed that 39 cars are once again on the entry list for Phoenix. Is this a bad sign for NASCAR? Should the sport be worried about the future? – Jean F., Dallas, Texas
A: After carefully evaluating the Sprint Cup Series field, I think this is a short-term issue for NASCAR. Over the next few years, I expect a full field with an abundance of young drivers making their way through the rankings.
As of now, you have to think that The Motorsports Group will eventually go part-time due to a lack of funding, making it 38 cars on a weekly basis. Premium Motorsports was supposed to have a second part-time car, and that can still happen. Heck, by the end of the year, we might even see a second Furniture Row Racing car with a kid named Erik Jones and/or Daniel Suarez.
While this may seem like a problem for NASCAR, it certainly isn’t going to be one over the long run. Would you rather have a field of 43 and have six cars that are two seconds off the pace, or have just two or three that are quite slow?
Take a look at this year’s Sprint Cup field. As you scroll down the entry list, there are approximately 25 to 30 teams that have a shot at finishing in the top 10 on a given week. Obviously, you can narrow that down to about 15 or 20, but with a perfect race, some mid-tier teams like Germain Racing and JTG Daughterty Racing have the potential to earn a few top 10s this year.
Let’s take a look at some of the teams and drivers that can expand the Sprint Cup field over the next few years:
- GMS Racing could potentially get to Cup within the next five years with Spencer Gallagher, or one of its other drivers.
- Brennan Poole may eventually move up with Chip Ganassi Racing.
- Darrell Wallace, Jr. should be in Cup within the next two years as a fourth Roush Fenway Racing car.
- Suarez and Jones could potentially be going to Furniture Row since none of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are going anywhere any time soon.
- Ty Dillon will eventually be either a fourth car for Richard Childress Racing or partner with another team that has a Charter.
- Cole Custer is coming up the ranks with help from Gene Haas.
- Jeb Burton could come up as a third Richard Petty Motorsports car if he has a stellar season, which is not completely unlikely.
- Tyler Reddick is taking a slower route to Cup compared to Blaney, but should begin to get some XFINITY Series experience with Team Penske, which could eventually propel him to Sprint Cup competition.
- John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric will be at the Cup level sooner rather than later as the two Late Model stars have begun to take over the Truck Series.
As you can see, there are plenty of names that can break into the Cup Series over the next few years. Obviously, sponsorship will dictate each of the opportunities a driver will receive. However, with the talent level that we have seen from this pool of drivers, along with several others coming through the rankings, it is only a matter of time until they begin to help re-expand the Cup Series field.
Q: Ryan Blaney looked awesome on Sunday. Is he the real deal? Could he beat Chase Elliott for the Rookie of the Year award? – Dan R.
A: If anyone is going to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award other than Elliott, it is going to be Blaney. His No. 21 Ford was solid last year when it didn’t have any mechanical issues, and that appears to be the case in 2016.
With 18 Sprint Cup starts under his belt entering this season, Blaney has an edge over Elliott. He is more experienced in the higher
horsepower and more competitive cars. Additionally, he is two years older than his rookie counterpart, giving him a slight advantage when it comes to knowing his limits.
While the two drivers grew up racing the same type of racecars at about the same time, Blaney could have the upper hand this year. Though the Wood Brothers have not run a full schedule since 2008, an alliance with Team Penske has certainly helped with any issues readjusting to the heavier slate.
For Blaney, a sixth-place result at Las Vegas was a major step forward to proving his place in NASCAR’s premier division. While Elliott is expected to compete for top 10s on a weekly basis since he is with a top-tier organization, Blaney was thought to be running around 15th. Though it is just one race, having a solid run at an intermediate track early in the year helps his case in the Rookie of the Year battle.
After a rough start to the season, Elliott currently sits 28th in the standings. Entering Phoenix, he is one point behind another rookie, Brian Scott, who is competing for Richard Petty Motorsports.
It will be very tough to beat the No. 24 team in the Rookie of the Year battle, especially as the season goes on and their pace picks up. However, keep an eye on the red and white No. 21 car as Blaney tries to maintain his early-season momentum.
Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.