A preview of the 2015-16 Silly Season
Photo by NASCAR via Getty Images
Kurt Busch leads a pack of cars at Pocono Raceway. Our Jordan Hyland talks about which drivers may not be with their current team in 2016.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
The 2015 season is drawing near. With the Daytona 500 less than a month away, teams are finalizing their driving rosters and are setting themselves up for the future.
Over this offseason, there were two additions that stuck out above the rest. Joe Gibbs Racing added Carl Edwards as the pilot of the No. 19 car for the upcoming season, and Roush Fenway Racing brought Trevor Bayne into the cup program to drive the No. 6.
Let’s look ahead – way ahead. There are seven drivers whose contract expires after the 2015 season. Although we can’t expect all seven drivers to be replaced, there are a few interesting cases where we might find a team looking for a new driver. The 2015-16 Silly Season could be very interesting if the right pieces fall into place.
Let’s take a look at all seven drivers, in order of least likely to most likely to be replaced or switch teams.
No. 1 Jimmie Johnson
Let’s face it, JJ is one of the best racecar drivers in the world today. His six Cup championships trail only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who many consider to be the two greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Although Johnson’s 11th place finish in the 2014 standings was the worst of his career, he still finished in the top 10 twenty times and won four races. He turns 40 in September and still seems to be in the prime of his career. Whether you love him, hate him, or love to hate him, Hendrick Motorsports is holding tight to Jimmie Johnson, and we can expect to see him in the No. 48 for several more years.
No. 2 Denny Hamlin
Where do we start with Denny? In 2014, he finished 3rd in the final standings, even after missing a race early on. Sure, the new points system makes that easier to do, but let’s not ignore the fact that he came up clutch in the Chase when it mattered. He finished outside the top 20 only twice in the final ten races, and managed to race his way into the final four. He finished seventh in the championship round at Homestead, and if not for the incredible runs by Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin could have been your 2014 champion. Unless 2015 is a complete catastrophe, Hamlin will be back in the No. 11 car in 2016. Actually, even if 2015 is a catastrophe, it would be hard for Joe Gibbs to drop a driver with as much talent as Hamlin. Either way, don’t expect Denny to be seeking new employment after this season.
No. 3 Jamie McMurray
If not for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s overwhelming popularity within the sport, Jamie McMurray might be NASCAR’s most loved driver. He is rarely involved in conflict with other drivers, and the emotion he shows is unrivaled. However, in his current situation, McMurray might be one of NASCAR’s most average drivers. Although he is known for his incredible skills as a wheelsman, he has never made the Chase. His three wins in the 2010 season and failure to reach the Chase inspired NASCAR to implement the “Jamie McMurray rule,” which allowed two drivers outside the Chase (in the format at the time) to make it in. He has won at Daytona, Indianapolis, Talladega and Charlotte – four of the racing world’s most historic tracks. Despite this, McMurray might be in danger if Ganassi has a younger driver ready to make the jump into Cup. As it stands, Dylan Kwasniewski is McMurray’s only threat in Ganassi’s stable, and he is nowhere near ready for Cup competition. Unless McMurray flounders and another driver steps up, it’s not hard to see McMurray teaming up with Ganassi for the next few years.
No. 4 Casey Mears
Casey Mears is an odd case. We’re putting him at number four simply because of the uncertainty that comes with racing for an underfunded team. Crew chief Bootie Barker is also signed through to the end of the 2015 season, so we will have to see if Germain Racing decides to bring them both back for 2016. Mears finished 2014 with three top-ten finishes, all at superspeedways. Although his finishes are lackluster, he seems to perform very well given the equipment he races in. His return to the team in 2016 is dependent upon two factors – his willingness to continue to drive for a subpar team and Germain’s willingness to continue working with a driver who has only totaled 13 top 5’s in 416 races. Who knows? Both have underperformed in their time in the Cup series, so maybe they’re a match made in Heaven.
No. 5 Martin Truex Jr.
Furniture Row Racing is a stepping stone team. By that, I mean that drivers go there to add to their résumé. Regan Smith drove for the team and won a race in 2011. By 2013, he was driving for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and even contended for the title that year. Although he took a step down from the Cup series, he put himself in a much better situation with Hendrick Motorsports. Kurt Busch spent the 2013 team with FRR, and was quickly signed by Stewart-Haas for the 2014 season. Because FRR’s equipment is seen as below average and the team sponsors themselves, any success a driver has with the team helps them gain attention. Unfortunately for Truex, he only managed one top 5 in 2014 and finished the season in 24th. However, if he manages to pick up the pace in 2015, it’s not hard to see some bigger name team chasing him. In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him with Stewart-Haas in 2016, because. . .
No. 6 Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick’s time with SHR is up. In 2016, Tony Stewart and Gene Haas will be looking for a new driver. The publicity stunt that has been her NASCAR career has been fruitful, but unsuccessful. Although she is a media darling, her performance on the track has been dismal, especially given the equipment that she is driving. In 82 races, she has amassed four top-ten finishes. FOUR. Kyle Larson had 17 top-ten finishes in his first season alone, in arguably worse equipment. Don’t make the mistake of believing that Danica is a bad driver; she’s not. She wouldn’t be in the position she’s in today if she wasn’t talented at what she does. Unfortunately for her, she just can’t compete with the competition in the Cup series. Whether it’s the car, the talent she’s surrounded by, or both, Danica hasn’t found success in the Cup series (or the Xfinity Series, for that matter). Additionally, rumors have gone around that Danica is a favorite for Gene Haas’ Formula One ride in 2016, so the odds that she returns to NASCAR in 2016 are low.
No. 7 Jeff Gordon
Finally, we have the one guaranteed opening ride for 2016. Jeff Gordon recently announced that 2015 will be his last full-time season. His emphasis on “full-time” makes it likely that he will maintain a role in Hendrick’s organization past this season and will possibly race part-time. With Gordon’s accomplishments in the sport, it will be devastating to some to see a NASCAR world without Jeff Gordon. This hole undoubtedly left the door open for Chase Elliott, who was announced Gordon’s replacement last week. Elliott has been the favorite to be next-in-line in Hendrick’s stable, so it would be very difficult to see the organization go another direction.