The NASCAR season gets the green flag with Sunday’s Daytona 500. Here are a few predictions for what should be an extremely interesting season:
Sprint Cup champion
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was near the top of the standings for much of the 2015 season and might have advanced to the third round of the Chase but for an untimely caution that cost him a chance at winning at Talladega. He has more of a comfort level with crew chief Greg Ives now, so it’s Junior’s turn to win his first title.
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2015 champ Chris Buescher moves up to Cup racing, so there will be a new winner. Ty Dillon, who finished third last season behind Buescher and ’14 champ Chase Elliott, seems like the obvious choice. Talented youngster Erik Jones, who won the ’14 Truck title, will make some noise, too.
Despite six victories (and possibly because of three did-not-finishes), two-time champ Matt Crafton finished third last season behind the more consistent Jones and Tyler Reddick. Watch for Crafton to get his title back.
Daytona 500 winner
There’s lots of talk about how strong the Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske teams are at Daytona, so let’s go with Penske’s Brad Keselowski. It’s a race Keselowski has never won, and he has the speed to do it.
Most anticipated race
It’s not the Daytona 500. Next week’s Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the season’s first using NASCAR’s much-anticipated new low down-force aerodynamic package. The hope is that the new package will introduce an era of more competitive, free-wheeling action into Cup racing.
Rookie of the year
Winning the Daytona 500 pole isn’t necessarily a reliable measure, but Chase Elliott’s bloodlines (dad is NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Bill Elliott) and equipment (Jeff Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevy) suggest he’ll be really good this season.
Top open team
Yes, there has been controversy surrounding Wood Brothers Racing’s not getting a “charter” this season. But with talented rookie Ryan Blaney behind the wheel, look for the Woods’ iconic No. 21 to be in the field more often than not as one of each race’s four “open” entrants.
Best new rule
The “overtime line” in a green-white-checkered finish means a restart is valid only after the leader passes that spot (which will usually be somewhere on the backstretch).
Comeback of the year
Last season was the first since the Chase was instituted that a Roush Fenway Racing driver didn’t make the postseason. Greg Biffle will correct that.