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The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season revs up with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22. Here's how each team stacks up as the race to get into the Chase and for a shot at the Sprint Cup championship will begin anew in less than two weeks.
1. Hendrick Motorsports
Team owner Rick Hendrick admitted that it was painful to arrive at the 2014 season finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway without a single driver remaining in the Championship 4 vying for the title, even though he began the Chase for the Sprint Cup with all four of his Chevrolet drivers in the hunt.
“I can’t remember coming down here when we weren’t in it,” Hendrick said at the time. “But hey, it’s racing, and we’ve still had a good year.”
Indeed, they did. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four races apiece, and Kasey Kahne won one to give HMS a total of 13 on the season. No other organization registered more.
But let’s face it. Hendrick is in this to win championships. You can bet his teams will do a better job of making sure they get to the final race with a shot to do so next season — and it likely will start with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who again will attempt to make history by winning what would be a record-tying seventh championship (the same as NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt). They were embarrassed by their performance in the Chase in 2014.
Two teams will have new crew chiefs in 2015, with Keith Rodden replacing Kenny Francis atop Kahne’s pit box and Greg Ives taking over for Steve Letarte on Earnhardt Jr.’s team, as Letarte heads to his new job as a NASCAR analyst for NBC.
2. Team Penske
Team Penske fell short of winning a championship in 2014. But for a two-team operation with drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski leading the way, it was a mighty impressive season.
Keselowski failed to make the Championship 4 and didn’t make many friends during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he won a series-high six races in his No. 2 Ford and led a total of 1,540 laps — second only to champion Kevin Harvick. Logano won five races in his No. 22 Ford, led 993 laps and was in position to contend for the title at Homestead until a late pit-stop snafu cost him that chance.
There is every reason to believe that these two young drivers and their teams, with capable crew chiefs in Paul Wolfe for Keselowski and Todd Gordon for Logano, will be able to build on their success in 2015. They will, in fact, be among the early favorites to contend for the title next season along with the Hendrick group.
3. Joe Gibbs Racing
New driver Carl Edwards could be the key to a rebound season for Joe Gibbs Racing. It’s happened before, and recently. But after Matt Kenseth won a career-high seven races in his first season with JGR and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 championship battle, another big year was expected of both Kenseth in particular and the organization in general in 2014.
It never happened. Despite making the Chase again, Kenseth didn’t win a single race all season. Driver Kyle Busch, who won four in 2013, won one. The same was true for Denny Hamlin, although he did heat up enough down the stretch to make the Championship 4, and he was seemingly in position to steal it until a late-race gamble by crew chief Darian Grubb failed to pay off. The bottom line is that Toyota Racing Development needs to be giving JGR’s drivers engines that pack more punch without sacrificing durability. It seemed to be moving in the right direction toward the end of the season, and it’s hard to imagine the team will suffer through another disappointing season in 2015 — especially with Edwards, who left Roush Fenway Racing to come to JGR, added to the fold in a fourth car.
There also has been a major shakeup in JGR’s crew-chief lineup, with Dave Rogers, who had been with Busch, moving to Hamlin’s team; Darian Grubb, who had been with Hamlin, moving to Edwards’ team; and Adam Stevens moving up from JGR’s highly successful Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series program to replace Rogers as Busch’s crew chief. Jason Ratcliff will remain Kenseth’s crew chief.
4. Stewart-Haas Racing
Kevin Harvick won his first Sprint Cup championship in his first season with his new team and new crew chief Rodney Childers, leading a series-high 2,137 laps along the way. Harvick and Childers are the new hot duo in the Sprint Cup garage and would have won three or four more races than the five they did win if not for miscues by the No. 4 pit crew. Assuming those will be fixed — Harvick switched pit crews with Tony Stewart for the Chase — they should contend for another title.
Harvick’s championship gave SHR two titles in the last four seasons, with co-owner/driver Stewart winning it in 2011. And while Stewart had a difficult year as he attempted to return from a badly broken leg and then missed three races after his Sprint car struck and killed a fellow driver in a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event, he’s a good bet to bounce back strong next season without all the distractions. He failed to win a race in 2014 for the first time in 15 seasons.
Kurt Busch, whose future was thrown into a gray area when a former girlfriend accused him of domestic abuse toward the end of last season, was also disappointing overall last season but still won the spring race at Martinsville Speedway to qualify for the Chase. Busch remains a considerable talent behind the wheel if he can get his off-the-track issues in order.
The fourth SHR driver is Danica Patrick, who needs to show improvement after finishing 27th and 28th in points, respectively, in her first two Cup seasons.
5. Richard Childress Racing
Richard Childress Racing started and ended the 2014 season with a bang. It was what happened in between — or failed to happen — that was the problem.
Rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, began the season winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., which was making its return to the Sprint Cup Series after a 12-year absence following Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Then Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 RCR Chevy, nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in the Championship 4 season finale at Homestead. Newman ended up finishing second in the race to Kevin Harvick and thus ended up second in the final points standings despite failing to win a race all season and finishing in the top 5 only five times in 36 races.
In between those two big moments, however, RCR’s three teams were actually pretty mediocre, with Paul Menard (21st in points) wheeling the third car. They need to find more speed and consistency in 2015 to keep up with Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing.
6. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates operation always is a difficult one to figure out.
Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, only one Ganassi driver has qualified to participate (Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009). They failed to do so again in a 2014 season that seems highly disappointing at first glance. Yet a closer look reveals that not only was it exciting on some levels, but it also seems to have laid the groundwork for a promising 2015.
Kyle Larson did not win a race in what was his rookie season, but he finished second three times and third twice to serve notice that he wasn’t your average rookie. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase and is generally recognized in the Sprint Cup garage as having the talent and potential to become one of the next great drivers in the sport.
Larson’s teammate in the two-car operation, Jamie McMurray, won $1 million by capturing the non-points Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. McMurray also led a respectable 368 laps in points events over the entire season. Both drivers could take off and win multiple races in 2015, although again, it’s hard to say for certain. There have been times in the past when the Ganassi organization just hasn’t been able to transfer positive momentum from one season to the next.
7. Roush Fenway Racing
Roush Fenway Racing had a season to forget in 2014, and then it lost its top driver, Carl Edwards, to a rival organization.
That doesn’t bode well for 2015, when Edwards will be replaced by Trevor Bayne — who hasn’t done much since shocking the racing world by coming out of nowhere to win the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20.
The two other RFR teams are led by Greg Biffle, who will be 45 years old by the time the green flag drops for the Daytona 500 and has won one race in the last two years, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide Series champion who is more known these days for being Danica Patrick’s boyfriend than he is for doing anything notable in the Sprint Cup Series.
At the heart of the matter is that the organization has been leaking top talent in terms of engineers and other employees to rival teams that offer better deals, and it shows. Sadly, the situation seems likely to get worse before it gets better — especially with a driver lineup that frightens no one (except maybe Jack Roush himself, if he’s really honest about it).
8. Michael Waltrip Racing
As recently as late in the 2013 season, Michael Waltrip Racing appeared to be an organization on the rise.
That no longer appears to be the case after a 2014 season in which MWR scaled back from three full-time Sprint Cup teams to two and failed to win a single race with either of its drivers. Furthermore, neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers managed to qualify for the 16-driver Chase.
It’s possible that losing top-notch crew chief Rodney Childers to Stewart-Haas Racing, where Childers teamed with driver Kevin Harvick to win the 2014 championship, hurt the organization more than anyone realized it would. Remaining crew chiefs Brian Pattie (Bowyer) and Billy Scott (Vickers) no doubt could have benefited from bouncing data and ideas off a third team headed up by the talented, innovative Childers.
But the real blow can be traced to all the sponsorship money that fled the company in the wake of the 2013 SpinGate scandal triggered by Bowyer’s alleged intentional spin in the final regular-season race at Richmond, which is why MWR had to scale back from three teams to two and lay off 15 percent of its workers prior to 2014. The organization is still reeling from the cutbacks more than a year later.
9. Richard Petty Motorsports
After having driver Aric Almirola make the 2014 Chase and running well for stretches of the season, there is a sense on one hand that RPM has something positive to build on heading into 2015. But Almirola made the Chase by virtue of gambling to win the rain-shortened July race at Daytona International Speedway, so on the other hand there is a sense that luck played a huge role in his locking up a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs.
Then there is the loss of RPM’s other driver, Marcos Ambrose. He decided to return to his native Australia at the end of the 2014 season, and he will be missed, especially on the circuit’s two road-course races where he always was a legitimate threat to win.
The organization’s prospects in 2015 will rest on Ambrose’s replacement, Sam Hornish Jr., and how quickly and how well RPM is able to build a capable team around him. Hornish, a former IndyCar star, struggled while driving full-time in the Cup Series for owner Roger Penske from 2008 through 2010, with only two top-5 and eight top-10 finishes in a total of 106 starts.
10. JTG/Daugherty Racing
Driver AJ Allmendinger’s gritty victory on the road course at Watkins Glen International last August put the single-car JTG/Daugherty team into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Allmendinger is back with the team for 2015, and as long as he’s behind the wheel, the No. 47 team is a threat to win on the two road courses at Sonoma and WGI. In fact, with Marcos Ambrose heading back to Australia and Juan Pablo Montoya already out of NASCAR and back in the IndyCar series, Allmendinger might even now be the favorite to win at both places.
That’s big for this small operation and bears close watching, as one win at either road course means another berth in the Chase.
The team seemed to benefit last season from a switch in manufacturers from Toyota to Chevrolet and by forming a new technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that included getting its engines from Earnhardt-Childress Racing Technologies and engineering help. Crew chief Brian Burns also will return as crew chief for the No. 47 car, so he and Allmendinger will have a chance to build on what worked and work on what didn’t in 2014.
If they can find a way to improve performance on the oval tracks, they might surprise some people.
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.