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Friday, February 27, 2015

2015 NASCAR Preview

The 2015 NASCAR season got underway in Daytona in February, but there is so much pomp and circumstance surrounding the Great American Race that it almost feels like a stand-alone event.  In many ways, it feels more appropriate to do the Banshee Sports 2015 NASCAR Preview now that fans and teams have settled in for the long haul of the season.

Jeff Gordon's Swan Song.  Prior to the start of speed weeks in Daytona, Jeff Gordon announced that 2015 will be his final season behind the wheel of his iconic #24 Chevy.  Jeff Gordon's rookie season was in 1994.  Twenty-one years later, he is still one of the top contenders each and every week on the NASCAR circuit.  Gordon has won four Sprint Cup Championships, and with Hendrick horsepower underneath the hood, Gordon will be a serious challenger to win the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

(Joe Blanchard/Orlando Sentinel)
Musical Chairs at Joe Gibbs Racing.  The activity at Joe Gibbs Racing is worthy of a post all its own, but I will try to keep this brief.  JGR will be running four teams in 2015.  Matt Kenneth and Denny Hamlin are both returning to their familiar rides.  Kyle Busch was supposed to be behind the wheel of the #18 car, but a nasty wreck in the XFINITY Series race at Daytona left Busch with significant injuries that required multiple surgeries.  David Ragan will fill in for Busch for an indefinite period of time.  The fourth car to join the JGR fold in 2015 is the #19 car driven by Carl Edwards.  After a bit of a down trend last year, the Toyotas seem to have sufficient horsepower to contend on all race tracks.  Despite all the shakeups, JGR very well might get all four teams into the Chase.

Stewart-Haas Drama.  After an emotional and tumultuous 2014 that included a self-imposed sabbatical for team owner Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing was hoping for a bounce-back year in 2015.  However, it turns out that adding the notoriously mercurial Kurt Busch to the team was not the recipe for peace and calm at SHR.  Sure, the elder Busch has tons of talent, but he also has tons of baggage. Just days before the Daytona 500, NASCAR announced that Kurt Busch was indefinitely suspended due to a domestic violence incident last fall.  Regan Smith is the short-term replacement for Busch in the #41 car, but things remain in flux as long as NASCAR declines to put a time limit on Busch's suspension.  Then there is Danica.  The only female in NASCAR's top series is in the final year of her contract at SHR.  Thus far in her career, Danica Patrick has been fairly disappointing on the track, but she has consistently gotten herself into the news with her post-race tantrums.  It will be interesting to see if in 2015 Danica's performance can finally match her notoriety.

Confidence in Junior Nation.  No NASCAR preview would be complete without a mentioning Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  At least not a preview on this website.  I have never hidden the fact that I am a proud citizen of Junior Nation.  In past years, a championship for Junior was just an optimistic hope.  This year, however, a championship is a realistic possibility.  Dale, Jr. is coming off a solid 2014 campaign, and Hendrick equipment is second to none.  Normally, replacing a crew chief like Steve Letarte would be a daunting task, but Greg Ives brings familiarity and stability to the top of the #88 pit box.  All indications are that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is poised for a serious championship run in 2015.

Dark Horses.  Under NASCAR's current playoff format, it only takes one win to qualify for the postseason.  Although the #42 Target Chevy team is capable of making the Chase on points, I'm looking for Kyle Larson to clinch a spot by getting the first win of his young career.  Paul Menard is another name to watch.  It is unlikely that Menard will qualify on points, but his RCR Chevy is strong enough on restrictor plate tracks to possibly steal a spot in the Chase.  Although he is not eligible to compete for a Sprint Cup championship, Ryan Blaney is another driver who could capture a checkered flag this season.  The Wood Brothers have proven in the past that they can take a part time driver to victory lane, and with Penske technology in the car, the twenty-one year-old driver could have a breakthrough moment of fame in 2015.

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