NASCAR's back, and here's what to watch
Feb. 14, 2015
After three months of no on-track activity thanks to NASCAR's testing ban, the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season is set to begin, as drivers and teams are eager to get back to racing this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
The Sprint Unlimited preseason, non-points race at Daytona is scheduled for Saturday night, and Daytona 500 qualifying -- which features a new group qualifying format -- is slated for Sunday afternoon.
There are plenty of storylines for the upcoming season, including Jeff Gordon's announcement last month that this will be his final season competing full-time in NASCAR's premier series.
Other stories to follow are NASCAR's new electronic pit road officiating system as well as the sanctioning body's revised rules package for Sprint Cup.
Some burning questions entering the new season include: Will Kevin Harvick repeat as Sprint Cup champion, or will Jimmie Johnson rebound after a somewhat disappointing 2014 season and win his record-tying seventh title? How will Kurt Busch's pending legal issues affect his season, and how will Carl Edwards do in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing?
GORDON'S FINAL FULL SEASON
Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, is set to begin his last season as driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He has competed in every race in NASCAR's top racing circuit since the 1992 season-finale at Atlanta. Gordon, now 43 years old, is 27 races away from tying Ricky Rudd's record of 788 consecutive starts in the series.
"I've got a great team with a great opportunity to go win a lot of races and win this championship this year, and I don't want to take that for granted," Gordon said. "I can't think of anything better to end this season with than to be the champion, to win Homestead (Nov. 22 season-ending race). I would be celebrating for a month."
Gordon has not won a Cup championship since 2001, but last year, he had one of his best seasons since his most recent title 14 years ago. He won four races, including a victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis for a record fifth time, and had a series-high 23 top-10 finishes.
Later this month, Gordon is expected to make his 23rd and final start in the Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's most prestigious race of the season. He has won the Daytona 500 three times, with his last victory in it happening a decade ago.
"The Daytona 500 typically is a different feeling than most races because it's the start of the season and it has an electrifying crowd," he said. "It is our Super Bowl, and you recognize that because of what all is going on, the build- up to it, and so I do have a little more butterflies to start that race than I do others."
Chase Elliott, the reigning Xfinity Series champion and 19-year-old son of recently inducted NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was named as the replacement driver for Gordon in the No. 24 car in 2015. Elliott is scheduled to make his Sprint Cup debut in late March at Martinsville and then compete in four more races later in the season.
"This is a pinch-me moment and has been this entire offseason, especially in the past couple of weeks," Elliott said. "I'm excited to get this year started, getting back to racing. I think it's exciting to have this announcement (of taking over driving duties of the No. 24 next year) out there. Now I know what's going on, and I can go out there and focus on racing this year."
Gordon does plan to be at the racetracks next year for tributes and fan interactions. It is possible that he will compete in some races, such as the Brickyard 400.
"I do plan on coming back in 2016," he said. "That's something we're working through with the tracks now and doing just a full-on fan experience with people that have been loyal and individual fans of the sport and myself for many years. That's what I want to do in return."
NEW OFFICIATING AND RULES FOR THIS SEASON
Beginning with Speedweeks at Daytona, NASCAR will use automated pit road officiating instead of officials on pit road for each Sprint Cup race. The automated system will use 45 video cameras that monitor activity on pit road. NASCAR tested the system during the latter part of last season.
"With this technology, we know that we're going to be safer, we'll be more exact, and we'll realize a fairer and more balanced playing field," NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said.
NASCAR has made significant changes to the rules package for Sprint Cup this season, including a ban on private team testing, lower horsepower and modifications to the cars' aerodynamic package.
The biggest rule change is the reduction of horsepower from 850 to 725 through a tapered spacer, which is an engine part used in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.
Revisions to the aero package include: rear spoiler adjustments to 6 inches high (2014 height: 8 inches) and minimum vehicle weight drops 50 lbs. via ballast reduction (2014 weight: 3,300 lbs. without driver).
Other rule changes are: roller valve lifters to replace flat valve lifter, lower rear differential gear ratios targeting 9,000 RPM, an optional driver adjustable track bar and a 38-inch wider radiator pan.
NO CHANGES TO THE CHASE FORMAT
During his "State of the Sport" speech last month in Charlotte, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said no changes are forthcoming to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format this season.
One year ago, NASCAR made radical changes to the Chase, expanding the field of drivers to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine the Sprint Cup champion. The new format created lots of drama and excitement during the 10-race postseason. NASCAR hit a grand slam with it.
Harvick, in his inaugural season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, claimed his first Sprint Cup championship, doing so by winning the last two races of the season (Phoenix and Homestead).
"I think as you come into this year knowing that you can do the things that we did last year is very rewarding, but it's also a great confidence builder for our race team," Harvick said. "Obviously, you get referred to as champ and that's great and pretty cool.
"When you look at the list of guys who have won a championship, it's pretty small. But I think as a guy who has been a part of this sport, for me, I think it was better that I won a championship a little bit later in my career, because I think I respect it a lot more and understand how hard it is to get to this point and really know the work and effort that and how many people it takes to be a part of it."
While Harvick attempts to defend his Sprint Cup title this year, Johnson is trying to win his record-tying seventh championship in the series. Last season, Johnson finished a career-worst 11th in points. He won a record five straight titles from 2006-10 and then claimed his sixth championship in 2013.
Can Johnson, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team turn things around this season?
"We'll find out as the year wears on," Johnson said. "We proved to ourselves that we've made the right adjustments, and truthfully, it's just to keep it very simple. It's the decision-making process.
"It's not about putting in more time and effort, resources, equipment. We have all of that. We've just unfortunately been working in the wrong areas. So the way we make decisions and where we think speed is, we need to make better decisions and get to those little pockets of speed."
Kurt Busch's season could be in jeopardy as he is waiting to find out if he will be charged with domestic assault.
In November, Busch's ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, filed a domestic abuse claim against Busch after he allegedly slammed her head into the wall of his motorhome multiple times last September at Dover International Speedway. Police conducted a criminal investigation and handed their findings to the Delaware Attorney General's office for review. No decision has been made on any criminal charges at this time.
Driscoll has sought a protection order from Busch in court, with a decision in that case expected soon.
Busch addressed his legal issue during Thursday's NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway, saying, "We're going close to day 100 as far as all the proceedings go. Normal situations that happen around these types of situations take 30 minutes. So sometimes preferential treatment can go the wrong way.
"We all have to be patient. We all have to understand that there's a process that we have to respect, and the fact that no announcement has come out, each day that goes by continues to be good news."
As of now, NASCAR has not taken any disciplinary action against Busch. If Busch does face charges and if he is forced out of the car, his Stewart-Haas Racing team has a contingency plan in place.
"We do, but we're kind of waiting to see," team co-owner Tony Stewart said. "I'm very hopeful that we won't have to worry about it. I feel bad (Busch) is in that situation right now, and that they're both in that situation. But we have to be smart and we have to have a plan in place if it doesn't work out for whatever reason."
EDWARDS NEW RIDE WITH JGR
After spending the past 11 years with Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards is on board with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive a fourth car for the organization -- the No. 19 Toyota. Edwards will team with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who also drove for Jack Roush until his move over to JGR for the '13 season.
Edwards will be paired with crew chief Darian Grubb, who had called the shots for Hamlin's No. 11 team the past three seasons.
"It's amazing to me how well-prepared this 19 team is," Edwards said. "They are very well-prepared, and it's overwhelming how much they have planned. I'm real excited about that."
In 2011, Edwards finished in a points tie with Stewart, but Stewart won the Sprint Cup championship in a tiebreaker.