NASCAR & Auto Racing

What’s ahead in the 2015 NASCAR season

Matt Kenseth has reason to smile. He is a two-time Daytona 500 winner with a fast car for Sunday’s 500. He won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday.
Matt Kenseth has reason to smile. He is a two-time Daytona 500 winner with a fast car for Sunday’s 500. He won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The 2015 NASCAR season officially kicks off this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. Before the results come in, here are our picks for the best and worst to come.

Sprint Cup series champion

With how well Kevin Harvick got acclimated to his new Stewart-Haas Racing team last season, the consistent speed of his cars and end result of a series championship, he is a legitimate pick for a repeat performance.

However, Team Penske – with drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano – together won 11 of the 36 races in 2014 and were by far the best organization from top to bottom. This season, I see Keselowski completing the job he began in 2014 and earning his second series title.

Xfinity champion

Much like on the Cup side, it appears an easy pick to see Chase Elliott win back-to-back championships in what was formerly known as the Nationwide Series. In this case, however, I think Elliott is able to become a repeat champion.

There is little reason to believe JR Motorsports won’t continue to have some of the best cars in the series, and even though Elliott will have a new crew chief this season, he has proved a quick learner and it’s unlikely there will be much of a transition period.

Trucks champion

Cup series regular Kyle Busch dominates many of the Truck races he runs but doesn’t run a full schedule. He will field a driver full time in the series this season, and that young upstart, Erik Jones, is well positioned to win his first NASCAR championship with the Kyle Busch Motorsports organization.

Daytona 500 winner

Patience and speed seem like necessary ingredients to have a successful day at Daytona, and Matt Kenseth has both. He’s a two-timer winner of the 500 and has already won the Sprint Unlimited nonpoints race with a very fast No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth looks in as good position as anyone to become a three-time 500 winner.

Race fans will love …

This was an easy, although not guaranteed, pick last season with the debut of NASCAR’s new Chase format. This season, I think fans will be the big winners of NASCAR’s new TV contract with Fox and NBC. Both networks are investing enormous resources in their coverage of the sport, including new and expanded ways to bring the content directly to race fans. That can only be a good thing.

Race fans will hate …

There will be enormous attention paid to Danica Patrick this season, particularly in respect to whether she signs contract extensions with SHR sponsor, GoDaddy. Until there is resolution to her issues, expect that attention to only increase.

Biggest surprise to make the Chase …

I correctly picked Aric Almirola in this category a year ago and will go with another driver who would be making his first appearance in NASCAR’s postseason – Austin Dillon.

Most anticipated race

Given the victory of Dale Earnhardt Jr. a year ago in the race and the absence of any testing in the offseason, there appears to be an even larger anticipation than usual for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Most over-hyped story

Although the story of Chase Elliott’s taking over the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the Cup series next season is certainly a big one, can we at least acknowledge Elliott is competing for another championship in another series this season before he becomes Jeff Gordon’s replacement?

Comeback of the year

Tony Stewart has failed to run all the races for the past two seasons and failed last season to win at least one race during the year for the first time of his career. Something tells me “Smoke” is on the rise again.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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