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NASCAR's Top 35 Drivers for 2016

Joey Logano

Joey Logano

The start of the NASCAR season is only weeks away with the Daytona 500 fast approaching on Feb. 21.

Everything you need to prepare for the 2016 autoracing season is available in Athlon Sports’ Racing Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.

In this year’s issue:

• Top 25 Driver Profiles: Ranking, reviewing, analyzing and previewing the seasons ahead for the top drivers in NASCAR for 2016.

• Personality portraits on Kevin Harvick’s dabbling in MMA, Jimmie Johnson’s Twitter troll game, how Kyle Busch’s crash at Daytona is still making waves, a look behind Brad Keselowski’s blog life, and more.

• Young Guns by Joe Menzer: Jeff Gordon has retired, Tony Stewart is next up, and some of racing’s biggest names are into their 40s. NASCAR’s future is riding on a wave of rising talent.

• Brand New Man by Geoff Miller: How a personal and professional transformation has propelled Kevin Harvick to the head of the pack.

• Q&A with Joey Logano

• Culture Clash by Matt Crossman: Technology, analytics and fan demands are changing a sport that still clings to its roots.

As a sneak peek of the 2016 Athlon Sports Racing Preview, here are the top 35 drivers for the upcoming season.

1. Joey Logano

Logano has all the pieces to the championship puzzle, but in order to put them together, he needs to learn to work with his peers.  At this level, respect is key; if it’s not there, it will come back to bite a driver. Logano found that out the hard way in 2015, and it will be the path he chooses from here that defines his 2016 season as champion … or chump. 

2. Kevin Harvick

Harvick enters 2016 as a solid favorite for a second title, and he’s certainly capable. Harvick and his team are tough; it’s a lot easier to finish first when your starting point is often second place. Look for them to power on through this year as they have the last two.

3. Jimmie Johnson

Johnson needs to act soon on that seventh championship; few drivers have won titles past 40. But few drivers have accomplished what Johnson has in just 14 years, either. He’s got a few surprises left.

4. Kyle Busch

All told, 2016 will be a season for Busch to both defend his title and add to his already impressive résumé. With a long-term contract extension for both him and sponsor M&M’s, expect this driver/team combination to be championship-ready for years to come. “I don’t know what my legacy is quite yet,” Busch says. “Certainly I think there’s a lot to add to it.”

5. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth’s team remains a fully funded entry in 2016 with sponsor Dollar General handling 30 races while DeWalt plans to sponsor six events. Between the stable funding and his race team’s company-wide success, Kenseth makes for an easy choice as again being a series frontrunner and championship competitor down the stretch.

6. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is capable of winning his second career title this year. In order for that to happen, though, he’ll have to do more than lead laps and post a superior average finish. He needs to close the deal on track. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

For Earnhardt Jr., the time is now if he’s going to win a Cup title. As a unit, his team has to cut down on miscues, including at tracks where they have struggled in the past. But as 2015 showed us, they’re just a few small breaks away from breaking through.

8. Kurt Busch

Busch, despite his lack of true consistency from year to year, is a proven champion, and he can be one again. It’s hard to say that 2016 looks like his year, given the considerable competition he’ll get from all sides, but he’s also a driver you never count out.

9. Denny Hamlin

In 2016, Hamlin’s fortunes will be predicated on his ability to avoid trouble. He’s proven to be impressive in the races that comprise the Chase’s third round (Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix) and would be an odds-on favorite to earn a spot in the finale in Homestead again should he advance that far.

10. Carl Edwards

That unbridled enthusiasm is what has JGR thinking that Edwards, 36, is still in his prime entering his 12th season of full-time Sprint Cup Series competition. Expect for him to be a factor again in 2016.

11. Martin Truex Jr.

Truex, 35, now hopes both men can keep riding the wave in a 2016 season that will likely define the next several years of his Cup career.

12. Jamie McMurray

With investor Rob Kauffman’s addition and McMurray’s propensity to finish races — he’s failed to finish only five of his last 108 starts and last season completed the fourth-most laps in the series — consistency should earn McMurray a second straight appearance in the Chase. The next step is to figure out a way to advance and run up front once they get there.

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13. Ryan Newman

If a RCR chooses expansion, Newman could stay in the fold, but his reputation for being a less-than-stellar team player coupled with lagging numbers in the last two years make him a hard sell to sponsors. Realistically, 2016 will be a year-long audition for Newman to find a ride for 2017 and beyond; that could either fuel the fire for the veteran driver or become a distraction.

14. Kasey Kahne

All the pieces of Kahne’s puzzle remain in place — fast cars, sponsor dollars, top-flight team. But what the driver needs to do more than anything is to make his own luck. If he and his team can find consistency to go with the speed they’re capable of, they can win races and make the Chase, which Kahne missed by a spot in 2015.

15. Kyle Larson

Together, Larson and crew chief Chad Johnston will go to work trying to resurrect each other’s reputations. Keep in mind that drivers with potential, like Larson, tend to bounce back during their third seasons. (Jeff Gordon, as an example, shot all the way up to become series champion.) We won’t go that far here, but there’s ample reason to expect that Larson, Ganassi’s biggest asset, can qualify for his first Chase appearance with a little luck.

16. Austin Dillon

17. Paul Menard

18. Greg Biffle

19. Chase Eliott

20. Tony Stewart

21. Aric Almirola

22. Clint Bowyer

23. AJ Allmendinger

24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

25. Danica Patrick

26. Ryan Blaney

27. Trevor Blaney

28. Casey Mears

29. Brian Scott

30. Landon Cassill

31. Christ Buescher

32. Matt DiBenedetto

33. Michael Annett

34. Alex Bowman

35. Ty Dillon