NASCAR stories to watch in the 2015 Sprint Cup Season
With Speedweeks and the Daytona 500 finally behind us, it's time to take a look at the 35 points paying races ahead. Teams can gain momentum with a good showing at the 500 but the real story begins to show when the restrictor plates come off. The offseason came with a host of rules changes from the cars on the track to the officials themselves. Below are five storylines and drivers to watch as the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season unfolds.
Get a scanner and hear the officials when attending a race
1. Where will NASCAR's officiating changes lead?
Perhaps the biggest change this off-season came in how NASCAR decided to officiate its races. Instead of putting the officials into the heat of battle on pit lane during stops, NASCAR instead will rely on high definition cameras monitored by officials in an on-site trailer. The cameras would also be backed up by stepped up electronic monitoring of other areas such as pit stall exiting. The system nabbed competitors in both the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races at Daytona, including several for traveling through too many pit boxes after service.
The changes make sense from a consistency standpoint but will take some getting used to. Having a human making the calls inevitably leads to human error. The official is also unlikely to make the call to penalize a driver who might have clipped an inch of the fourth pit stall- recognizing that the spirit of the rule was not violated and no crew members were in danger. The increased penalties on Sunday confirm that NASCAR's drivers will need to adjust to staying within the letter of the law now as well.
One other officiating change was the removal of the lug nut penalty. In the past, the NASCAR official would monitor to ensure that every single wheel stud had a lug nut in place and tightened down when changing tires. If not, the driver would have to return to pit road to tighten the missing nut. The rule change came about because NASCAR believed these issues were self-regulating and that if a team missed a nut, the car would be undriveable and would have to come back for service. Time will tell if that is true. One thing is for sure; the first time a driver wrecks due to a loose wheel, there will some who blame NASCAR for the crash.
2. The swan song of Jeff Gordon
The pre-season announcement that Chase Elliott would replace Jeff Gordon next season was a seismic shock to NASCAR fans. Sure, Gordon had spoken of being nearer to the end of his career than the beginning. And his troublesome back nearly forced Gordon's hand years ago. But Jeff won four races in 2014 and was one of the favorites to win the Sprint Cup until his his run-in with Brad Keselowski at Texas. He's still at the top of his game and driving for NASCAR's preeminent team on a lifetime contract.
So the announcement that he would step aside after the 2015 season surprised many and set Gordon on a season-long farewell tour. Like Derek Jeter did last year in New York, fans will have one final chance to say goodbye and to watch a legend in action. His desire to compete still seems as strong as ever and “Wonderboy” will have one final chance to bring his drive for five to a successful conclusion.
3. Will Smoke finally return to form?
For two consecutive years, Tony Stewart's season hit an immovable force prior to the August race at Watkins Glen. In both cases, it was an accident on a sprint car track that turned Smoke's NASCAR dreams into nightmares. After returning to Daytona a year ago, he spoke of needing to live his life and of the place that sprint car racing held in his life. Yet he struggled to find his championship form with no wins and only two top five finishes in his first 21 races. The August accident that claimed the life of Kevin Ward confirmed a conclusion that most observers had already reached; Stewart was not a contender in 2014.
Stewart seems to be in a different place this year. He no longer stubbornly clings to the need to drive a sprint car to find salvation. Instead, he purchased one of the sanctioning bodies involved at that level and admitted it will be a long time before he climbs into a sprint car cockpit again. Will the renewed focus on his Stewart Haas Racing team enable him to return to the form that won him three titles? Or will the pressures of NASCAR ownership and the denial of an outlet prove to be too much for Smoke?
4. Stewart Haas Racing as a whole
Beyond Tony Stewart's personal struggles, his SHR team is facing a chaotic beginning to 2015. Going into the year, it was already a make or break year for Danica Patrick. Her GoDaddy sponsorship is up at the end of the season and the company is under new leadership unlikely to continue to sink millions of dollars into a non-competitive driver. Now, the team also faces the indefinite loss of Kurt Busch due to domestic assault allegations. Expanding to four teams took its toll on the operation last year and now the very driver who caused that expansion is unable to contribute by driving the car.
It's worth noting that Stewart was never a part of the process that brought Busch aboard in the first place. Co-owner Gene Haas recruited and signed Kurt while Stewart recovered from a broken leg. At the time, many (including myself, in a column that can be found here) questioned whether putting this group of personalities together was a good idea. Now the worst case scenario has presented itself. Chevrolet, the team's manufacturer, has pulled the plug on Busch in addition to the driver's suspension from NASCAR. Even if Kurt is ultimately cleared of the charges, the damage may already have been done.
I'm curious what defending series champion Kevin Harvick thinks of all this. Part of the reason why he moved to SHR was to put himself in the best possible place to win races and compete for titles. There are now enormous question marks for all three of his teammates. Can it remain one of NASCAR's elite under these circumstances?
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaks in his fourth crew chief at Hendrick
Normally, a change at crew chief for NASCAR's most popular driver is front page news in the auto racing world. Fans loudly called for the heads of Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew before their eventual firings. Managing the #88 team requires a unique blend of thick skin, racing knowledge, and motivational speaking.
Earnhardt is a talented driver but he will be the first to admit that he has not always gotten the most out of that talent. Steve Letarte, who left the team to become a commentator at NBC in 2015, was Junior's most successful chief since he ran for “Pops” Eury Sr. back at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Like Pops, Letarte was able to ignore the noise of Junior Nation and to deliver a car that Earnhardt felt comfortable driving. He was also a key piece in helping Earnhardt believe in himself once more- confidence that was sorely needed after back-to-back points finishes in the twenties.
Replacing the affable Letarte is former JR Motorsports crew chief Greg Ives. Unlike the veteran Letarte, Ives is a virtual unknown to the outside world. His crew chief experience consists of two seasons with JRM, running Regan Smith's team in 2013 and Chase Elliott last year. Yes, he won an Xfinity season championship with Elliott. But it's still a highly unusual decision by Hendrick to put someone with so little experience in such a high-pressure role. Maybe Ives is up to the task; Hendrick and Earnhardt, who have seen him in action every day for two years, certainly believe so. But it's a high risk play. Earnhardt won four races and was a title threat going into the Chase. Yet he's also closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning. He doesn't have time to wait for someone to get up to speed in the crew chief role. If Earnhardt is struggling, the calls for Ives' to join Letarte and Eury on the unemployment line will be loud long before the season ends at Homestead.