Game on for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season Sunday as the circuit takes the green flag at Daytona International Speedway for the 57th running of the Daytona. What are the agendas heading into Daytona and the 2015 season?
1. Kevin Harvick – Eat. Sleep. Win the Sprint Cup title. Repeat? Harvick’s defense of the Sprint Cup championship begins on Sunday as he attempts to become the first driver since Dale Jarrett (2000) to follow up a championship victory with a Daytona 500 victory.
Since his 2007 Daytona 500 win, Harvick has recorded only one top-five finish in the last seven Daytona 500s.
Feb 19, 2015; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick (4) before race one of the Budweiser Duels at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
2. Ryan Newman– Last season’s runner-up in the Chase has one thing on his mind- wining a race in 2015. Could the seven-year itch produce another Daytona 500 victory for the rocket man? Talk about ending a dreaded winless drought with a bang.
3. Denny Hamlin– Joe Gibbs Racing reshuffled the deck in the offseason; now, let’s see if Denny Hamlin can flourish under the tutelage of Dave Rogers. There is a distinct possibility Hamlin could spend much of the 2015 season auditioning for a ride outside of the organization if JGR fails to resign him to a longer term deal.
Hamlin finished second in the 2014 Daytona 500 and has recorded two top-five finishes in the last three Daytona 500s.
4. Joey Logano– On the cusp of superstardom, Joey Logano enters the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season as a heavy favorite to win his first career Sprint Cup title; however dropping that newly adopted tough guy image could be a critical component in determining how successful Logano’s title bid turns out. Keep away from Harvick!
Logano’s best career Daytona 500 finish was ninth in 2012.
5. Brad Keselowski– NASCAR’s resident villain led the Sprint Cup Series in victories last season with six. Winning races comes easy for the former champion, but cleaning up his tarnished reputation promises to be one hell of a battle.
Bad Brad has finished inside the top five in two of the last three Daytona 500s.
Feb 20, 2015; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
6. Jeff Gordon– The greatest driver of our generation is on the pole for the biggest race of the season, and with this being the final Daytona 500 of his storied career, expect one magical afternoon for the #24 camp.
Jeff Gordon last won the Daytona 500 in 2005.
7. Matt Kenseth – Winning last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited technically put an end to Matt Kenseth’s year-long winless drought. Trouble is the Unlimited is not a points-paying event, so the drought continues for at least another week. Fortunately for Kenseth, Daytona is a place where he’s thrived in recent years. There is a real good chance he crushes two winless streaks in the span of a week.
With a win in this year’s Daytona 500, Kenseth would become the fourth driver to win the event three times.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Dale Jr.’s fantastic 2014 season was a pleasant way to close out the Steve Letarte regime. Replicating that same measure of success in 2015 depends heavily on Junior’s ability to gel with his new pit boss. No pressure, Greg Ives.
Dale Jr. has finished no worse than second in four of the last five Daytona 500s.
9. Carl Edwards– Last time a driver made the move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, it translated into a seven win season for Kenseth. Does the same fate await Carl Edwards in 2015? In case you missed it, Edwards has vowed to win 10 races and expects to claim the championship in his first season with JGR. Setting the bar high aren’t we, Cousin Carl?
Edwards’ best Daytona 500 finish was second in 2011
10. Kyle Busch– Joe Gibbs Racing seems to fancy the idea of pairing Kyle Busch with a new crew chief every time the temperamental one kicks up a fuss. Inserting long time Xfinity Series crew chief Adam Stevens into the equation seems like a logical approach considering the amount of success the pair has achieved in the Xfinity Series in a relatively short period of time. But how long will it be before Busch grows impatient and hangs his new pit boss out to dry?
Feb 20, 2015; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 20, 2015; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (48) during practice for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
11. Jimmie Johnson– Now that the six-time champion has had an opportunity to digest the worst season of his career (2014), there is a strong possibility JJ will resume his reign of terror over the entire Sprint Cup Series garage.
12. Kurt Busch– After enduring one of the most bizarre off-seasons in NASCAR history, Kurt Busch could have easily succumbed to all the media hoopla that threatens to derail his entire 2015 season. Instead, Kurt has remained calm and collected through the process. Kudos to Busch for taking a stand against perpetuated media stereotypes.
Busch has finished second in the Daytona 500 on three separate occasions (2003, ’05, ’08)
13. AJ Allmendinger – The Dinger was a long shot to make the Chase last season. He’ll be a long shot to make it this season, so nothing’s really changed on that front.
Allmendinger’s best finish in the Daytona 500 was third in 2009.
14. Greg Biffle – Roush Fenway Racing’s new top dog, The Biff could be in for another grueling season if RFR can’t fix the problems that plagued them in 2014. On the upside, the team’s youth movement has officially begun, and it won’t be long before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne come into their own.
15. Kasey Kahne– After working alongside Kenny Francis for nearly a decade, Kasey Kahne gets a new crew chief in Keith Rodden. Perhaps a changing of the guard can bolster Kahne’s performance in 2015, because 2014 was a complete disaster.
16. Aric Almirola – Richard Petty Motorsports has made remarkable progress in the last couple of years, going from a team on the brink of extinction to a team that’s ready to become a major force in the Sprint Cup Series. I’d like to think Aric Almirola had a little something to do with that. He’s also the last guy to win a points-paying race at Daytona.
17. Kyle Larson – We’ve already established that Kyle Larson won’t fall victim to a sophomore slump, but I think some of us are still romanticizing about what could have been had he made the Chase last season.
18. Jamie McMurray– Working with three different crew chiefs in three years can be a daunting task, especially for a guy who can’t seem to find a consistent rhythm.
19. Clint Bowyer – Ol’ Cbow really hung start and park driver Reed Sorenson out to dry last Sunday following a qualifying wreck that cost the #15 team two good race cars in a span of two days. The usually jovial Bowyer has reached a breaking point as his winless streak now sits at a whopping 78 races heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500.
20. Austin Dillon– Quietly, Richard Childress’ grandson put together a solid rookie campaign last season. It won’t be long before the #3 car is back in the winners circle.