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Happy New Year: 2016 in NASCAR

By: Candice Smith

@RacingDTC @Chief187s

 

Happy New Year! 2016 promises to be one to remember in the world of NASCAR.

(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) ORG XMIT: NVIB116

To recap 2015, Jeff Gordon made the most of his farewell tour by actually competing for a championship. He didn’t win, but it added to the heightened emotions of the season surrounding the veteran driver and his loyal fans.

KyBu & family Championship 2015

2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Kyle Busch with Family

Kyle Busch survived a horrendous crash in February at Daytona, worked incredibly hard to rehab, and returned in May to start winning, putting him and his team in position to make the Chase. Eventually Busch won the Championship, his first and the first for Toyota.

Tony Stewart Retirement

Tony Stewart announcing his retirement as a driver from NASCAR.

Now, 2016 will be another year of farewells as Tony Stewart announced this season to be his last in NASCAR’s top series as a driver. Once again fans will witness on-air montages, track gifts, and emotional send offs to one of the sport’s top drivers.

I hope the trend stops for a few seasons after Stewart’s departure. The fans need a break from the pomp and circumstance surrounding the loss of popular drivers retiring in their early 40s.

Harry Gant Mr Sept

Handsome Harry Gant, Mr. September in 1991 at the age of 51.

What would Harry Gant say? He competed for Rookie of the Year when he was 39! His career got into top gear in his 50s when he earned the moniker of “Mr. September” in 1991.

But times are different.

This year we’ll be watching to see if Stewart can make some magic in his last season in NASCAR, something he’s been unable to do in recent years as a driver.

The Daytona 500 has been an unattainable yet lofty goal for Stewart. Like Dale Earnhardt before, Stewart has won nearly every contest at Daytona, but he hasn’t won the Great American Race. Earnhardt, of course, finally won in 1998. Will this be Stewart’s Swan Song?

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Dale Earnhardt Sr. (April 29, 1951?February 18, 2001) driver of the #3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet celebrates with every crew member of every team on pit road after winning the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 1998 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

(Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

Could the planets align and lightning strike to produce a victory for Stewart this February?

And what about Kyle Busch?

Some of his detractors complained he didn’t earn the championship, NASCAR gave it to him. This writer vehemently disagrees with that assessment, but Busch now has the onus of trying to run a FULL 36 race season to defend his championship and win back-to-back Cups, a most difficult feat.

Busch is young, riding wild momentum, and is as focused as ever…  He’ll be competing in this year’s Daytona 500 looking to start his year as champion as points leader.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 01: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Budweiser Chevrolet, looks on in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 1, 2013 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Kevin Harvick, denied his back-to-back championship last season, will try to reclaim the top spot by the time Homestead-Miami appears on the NASCAR schedule. It’s a long, laborious season before then. Harvick and team have been undeniably tough – the toughest – in the past couple of seasons.

What happened to Jimmie Johnson?

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

I was so certain that he was going to be crowned a seven-time champion last season and then he wasn’t even at the final dance! Is his dynasty over? Has the buck been passed? Is the Evil Genius (Chad Knaus) finished?

I doubt it. They are “retooling”, “team-building”, and “re-focusing”. These aren’t direct quotes from the No. 48 team, but I’m betting we’ll hear these terms or others similar in the weeks to come.

I believe these men, Johnson and Knaus, will not rest until they win a seventh and then a record-breaking eighth title. It’s who they are.

Kez and JLog

Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano

How about those Penske boys, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano? Their recent seasons have been sizzling, but they’ve been unable to close the deal. Still, they breathe life into Fords. We can only wonder if they’ll be targeted by Matt Kenseth for their respective actions against the Joe Gibbs Racer late last season or if the slate is cleared for 2016.

Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth

 

Kenseth is seeking another shot at the championship. Many thought he’d be the first to win one for Toyota, but his teammate Busch sewed that up. Now it’s all about Kenseth sealing the deal for his team, his fans, and himself. The rough side of Kenseth appeared last fall, it will be interesting to see how this season plays out on the track.

Dale Jr 2014 Daytona 500 win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the 2014 Daytona 500, his second. Could 2016 be his 3rd?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. There is no question the Most Popular Driver is always in the hearts of his fans. He’s won the Daytona 500 and history shows under this Chase format that a win early in the season seems to spur Earnhardt and team on to strong finishes even at tracks he doesn’t like so well (think Sears Point). Winning the first race of the season (again) would be a fabulous way to start the year for any driver, but it’s Earnhardt Jr.’s fans’ will that he be the one to take the checkered flag first.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott, hoping to make some magic in NASCAR’s top series in the No. 24 car vacated by Jeff Gordon.

Keep an eye out for drivers like Chase Elliott, piloting the No. 24 car now that Gordon has taken a seat in the booth. Watch for Kyle Larson to rebound this season. And, for the Daytona 500, never discount anyone.

 

The thing about the Daytona 500 is it’s anyone’s race. Restrictor plate racing results in some unusual finishes so tuning in is the only way to experience the action, the drama, the intensity, and NASCAR at its (restrictor plate) finest!

 

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