Biggest surprises, disappointments in the first-half of 2016

By Staff

July 15, 2016

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writers.

When Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag on fumes at Kentucky, it signified the halfway mark in the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season.

With 18 races in the books and 18 left to go, we gathered a panel of writers from The Racing Experts to breakdown the season’s first half, and make some predictions about what’s to come.

What has been the biggest surprise of 2016 so far?

Demario Murray-Chambers - The biggest surprise I have seen so far in 2016 is the No. 41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Chevrolet of Kurt Busch. He is not dominating the sport with wins but with six top-five finishes and 15 top-ten finishes, he is solidly in the top-five in owner’s points and has essentially locked himself in the Chase with a win at Pocono. Kurt, along with his teammates Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart have proven there is no distraction about the move from Chevy to Ford Stewart Haas will be making at the end of the 2016 season.

Tyler Head - Tony Stewart’s rollercoaster ride of a final season has been the biggest surprise so far. After a few years of struggles, it would have been fair to ponder just how memorable the 3-time champion’s last tour of the NASCAR circuit would be. An off-season injury, which forced him to sit out several races, made things interesting from the get-go, albeit not for the right reasons. Stewart’s feel-good win at Sonoma, which has all but gotten him out of the big hole the injury put him in, has Stewart in position to be part of the championship conversation come Chase time. I didn’t see this happening at the season’s start.

Justin Melillo - I’d love to choose two different drivers, because Tony Stewart has been such a pleasant surprise since returning from his injury, but I’m going to have to go with Chase Elliott. In a series dominated by seasoned veterans, Elliott sits comfortably eighth in the standings, 63 points ahead of the current Chase cutoff. Elliott has six top-five finishes and led the most laps at Pocono in June. With the Hendrick-powered equipment he’s working with, it should be no surprise to see him run near the front, but after 18 races, Elliott is currently ranked higher in points over teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne.

What driver has been the biggest disappointment of 2016 so far?

Demario Murray-Chambers - There are a few drivers who have been a major disappointment such as Paul Menard, the entire Roush Fenway stable of drivers, and Clint Bowyer, but the biggest one of them all is Kasey Kahne. Kahne is 17th in points and is on the outside looking in when it comes to the Chase, which seems to be like the norm for this team. His three teammates have amassed more positive finishes than he has and everyone is noticing. I believe if he does not make the Chase this year he’ll be on the outside looking in when it comes to being with a top-tier team again.

Tyler Head - Roush/Fenway Racing has been struggling to find what its cars have been missing compared to other powerhouses in the sport for the last few seasons. Greg Biffle has been looked at as the veteran leader to help guide his young teammates, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne back into contention. So far this year there have been glimmers of hope and signs of progress at RFR, but few have come from Biffle’s No. 16. While Stenhouse and Bayne have each tallied a pair of top-five finishes, Biffle has none, and his average finish lags behind his teammates as well. In fact, Biffle’s bunch has just two top-ten finishes this season. The good news? Those have come in the last two weeks, perhaps indicating the 16 team is on the verge of turning things around.

Justin Melillo - On the opposite end of the Hendrick Motorsports spectrum, Kasey Kahne has been fighting adversity for a majority of the season. Kahne is 16 points behind the chase cutoff, 17th in the points standings having finished in the top-five just twice this season. While it appears the Hendrick Motorsports stable as a whole is struggling, sans the No. 24 Chevy in recent weeks, Kahne has been very quiet all season, only seeming to make headlines in his misfortunes. Kahne is a proven winner at the top level of NASCAR competition, so his struggles this year in particular are puzzling. Kahne can still make the Chase on points, but if his performance doesn’t improve, he likely won’t get very far into the 2016 Chase.

11 drivers have won and all but locked their way into the Chase. Who will be the next driver to join them?

Demario Murray-Chambers - The next driver to secure his spot in the 2016 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup will be Chase Elliott. Statistically, Chase is the best running Hendrick Motorsports driver on a week to week basis, leading his team in everything besides laps led and wins. Chase’s performance closely mirrors those of six time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and quite frankly that’s not bad company to be around. The Sprint Cup Series is heading to some repeat tracks where he has performed better than expected and I predict he will better his fourth place finish at Pocono with a win.

Tyler Head - Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are both good bets, being both hungry and close to earning their first win in the Cup series and with it a Chase berth. However, Chase Elliott is also eager to get his  first win, and unlike Larson and Dillon he gets to strap into consistently competitive Hendrick Motorsports equipment each weekend. Paired with the consistency which has earned him 11 top-ten finishes in the first 18 races, tells me Elliott will have a few shots at getting a win before the Chase begins.

Justin Melillo - The “next big thing” has to win some time, having been so close already a few times this season. Kyle Larson looks like he gives more than 100 percent every weekend, sometimes ending disastrously. However, Larson proved in June he can compete at tracks like Pocono, where he won the rain-shortened Pocono Green 250 in the XFINITY Series, and Michigan, where he finished third in the Firekeepers Casino 400 in the Sprint Cup Series. Larson has shown moments of brilliance in the top level, and some races I’m sure he wishes he could get a do-over. His stat line is far from impressive at this point in the season, but I think Larson can get a win and mix up the Chase grid before the 2016 playoffs begin.

Who's the favorite to win the 2016 Championship?

Demario Murray-Chambers - This may come as a surprise to some but I believe the favorite for the 2016 Championship is Carl Edwards. Even though he does not lead the Joe Gibbs Racing team in wins or top-five finishes he is still the most consistent with an average start of 7.6 and an average finish of 10.5. Carl and new crew chief Dave Rogers have proven  they are a force to be reckoned with by racking up three poles and two wins. If they continue to tear through these remaining races with the same tenacity I believe you’ll see Carl hoisting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Trophy down in Homestead-Miami.

Tyler Head - Several teams have shown they have a firm grasp of what is needed to make speed with the low-downforce package NASCAR introduced for this season, but Martin Truex Jr. stands out to me as a driver who has consistently been the class of the field on 1.5-milers. Truex has led a whopping 785 laps in six races on such tracks this season. Oh, by the way, half of the 10 Chase races will be held on 1.5 mile tracks, including the season finale at Homestead.

Justin Melillo - It’s hard to say any of the four drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing won’t be the favorite going into Homestead, but who can deny Brad Keselowski is at the top of his game after his season-best fourth win of 2016 at Kentucky Speedway? Granted, two of Keselowski’s wins came on plate tracks, and the last one came on fuel strategy, but Crew Chief Paul Wolfe is the mastermind who can take the talent and match it with the race winning moves. With 11 of the 40 teams no longer worrying about earning a ticket to the Chase, the No. 2 Penske Ford has been constantly changing up their strategies to find new ways into victory lane, and it has proven effective more than anyone else through these 18 races.

IMAGE ONE: Ryan Blaney leads a pack of cars during the 2016 Daytona 500.

Photo by Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts

IMAGE TWO: Tony Stewart practices for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Photo by Brian DeGruchy/The Racing Experts

IMAGE THREE: Chase Elliott
Photo by Dante Ricci/The Racing Experts

Which winless 2016 driver will win next this season?
No. 16 Greg Biffle
No. 31 Ryan Newman
No. 42 Kyle Larson
No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Poll Maker