Wednesday, December 16, 2015

2016 NASCAR Predictions

It has been less than a month since the 2015 NASCAR season ended but it is already time to look ahead to the 2016 season. These predictions look at all three national touring divisions. Some of these predictions focus on the household NASCAR names, some with younger stars and there is a little international flavor to these predictions.

1. Kyle Busch Leads Joe Gibbs Racing Solely in Cup Victories
Despite missing 11 races in 2015, Kyle Busch went on to win five races, the same as teammate Matt Kenseth and take the title. I think Busch will run a full schedule and he will end up scoring more victories than his three other JGR teammates. This also counts on some regression from the team. I don't think JGR will win 14 races in 2016. They could easily pick up ten victories but that means someone will end up in victory lane less than they did in 2015. Kenseth went from seven victories in 2013 to zero in 2014. Kenseth has never won more than three races in consecutive seasons; however, Busch is in a terrible pattern. He won four races in 2011, one in 2012, four in 2013, one in 2014 and five this year. Both drivers should end up with at least two victories but I think Busch is driving smarter than ever and I think he will score three to five victories in 2016.

2. At Least One Penske is Eligible For the Title at Homestead
The fact that neither made the final four championship eligible drivers is surprising. Joey Logano won the most races in 2015 with six and had he just accepted second at Kansas and not spun Kenseth and then in turn get punted at Martinsville, then perhaps he would have won that race and automatically qualified for the finale. Had Keselowski kept his nose clean at Martinsville and/or not had a debris caution with less than twenty-five laps to go at Texas, he would have been eligible for a second title at Homestead. One of them will make it. I think both drivers score at least three victories in 2016.

3. Ryan Blaney Scores More Top Tens Than Chase Elliott
The 2016 rookie class features Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The first two names will be the main contenders for the rookie of the year honors and on paper it's Elliott's to lose. He is driving for Hendrick Motorsports, he is replacing Jeff Gordon, he has teammates and one is a former champion and the other is a two-time Daytona 500 winner. However, Blaney has the experience on Elliott in Cup equipment and while he doesn't have a teammate, the Wood Brothers have benefitted from having a relationship with Team Penske.

To be fair and compare Blaney's and Elliott's Grand National Series statistics, they are equal on victories but Blaney has only made 43 starts to Elliott's 66 starts. Blaney has led 703 laps to Elliott's 626 laps led. They are equal on average start at 9.6 but Elliott has the advance in average finish at 8.5 to Blaney's 9.3. These two drivers are nearly equals. The one advantage Elliott may have over Blaney that could be the deciding blow is he has run 33 races the last two seasons while Blaney did do two full seasons in Trucks but both those seasons were two-thirds the length of a Grand National season. Blaney could be burned out by the time September rolls around.

Side note: It will be great to see the Wood Brothers return to full-time competition for the first since 2008.

4. At Least One Driver Under-24 Wins A Cup Race
Blaney will only be 22. Elliott is only 20. Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher will be under 24 years old for a good portion of 2016 (Larson until July 31st, Buescher until October 29th). Erik Jones is only 19 and turns 20 on May 30th. He will likely get a handful of Cup starts and if he starts a plate-race, you wouldn't rule him out from sneaking into victory. After all, if Trevor Bayne could do it, Erik Jones could do it.

5. At Least Five Cup Races Feature a Rain-Delay
There were quite a few rain delays in 2015. This is only going to include championship races so any delay in the shootout, Daytona 500 qualifying races and the All-Star Races will not count toward the total.

6. Tony Stewart's Average Finish is Worse Than 16.0
He should have just retired after this season. The three-time champion was well below average in 2015. He was at a Kobe Bryant level below average. His average finish was 24.8 last year. Fourteen drivers had an average finish below 16.0 in 2015 and all fourteen of those drivers made the Chase (Paul Menard at 17.1 and Clint Bowyer at 18.8 were the exceptions). Stewart could win a race, especially a plate-race but he's not going to run competitively on a regular basis. There won't be a string of races where Stewart is constantly qualifying in the top ten and finishing there.

7. Martin Truex, Jr. Doesn't Finish in The Top Twelve of the Championship
He had a great season in 2015 and had a shot at the title in the finale at Homestead but I think we will see a regression from the New Jerseyan and the Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing as the team switches from Chevrolet to Toyota. While Toyota is coming off their first drivers' title, they have yet to become a threat for the manufactures' title. Joe Gibbs Racing has been responsible for 88.6% (70) of Toyota's 79 victories in Cup. Only once has another Toyota team won more than two races in a season and that was Michael Waltrip Racing (which is no longer with us) and Clint Bowyer, who won three races in 2012. Maybe Truex gets a victory but I expect a slight drop off from his 2015 production.

8. JR Motorsports Wins at Least Seven Second Division Races
Chase Elliott and Regan Smith may be gone but the team has brought in Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler and there will be a rotating cast of characters Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in a third car. I think one full time driver will at least get one victory with the other getting at least two victory and the all-star car picking up at least three victories.

9. A Driver Breaks a 50-Race Winless Streak in the Grand National Series
Sadler hasn't won in 57 starts. Allgaier hasn't won in 44 starts. Ty Dillon hasn't won in 47 starts. Darrell Wallace, Jr. hasn't won in 39 career starts. Brian Scott has never won in 207 starts. Somebody will have a lengthy drought come to an end in 2016.

10. Ryan Reed Scores at Least Two Top Tens But Zero Victories
Reed won the 2015 season opener at Daytona and then didn't score another top ten all season. He has never scored multiple top ten finishes in just over two seasons in NASCAR's second division. That seems like it is extremely difficult to do for a full-time competitor in that series. I think he breaks his trend in 2016. Don't get me wrong. He won't be a championship contender. He won't contend for a victory at a non-plate race but he could back into a top ten at Chicago or Atlanta or Iowa.

11. The Average Age of the Top Five in the Trucks Championship is Under 28.8 Years Old
The Truck Series is getting young. While veterans Matt Crafton, Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters will still be there, Tyler Reddick returns, John Hunter Nemechek is now eligible for a full season, Daniel Hemric is only 24, Christopher Bell and William Byron will be full-timers. Gone are the days of Ron Hornaday, Jr., Mike Skinner, Jack Sprague and Johnny Benson battling for the title.

12. There Will be at Least One National Touring Division Race With More Than Two Drivers Not From North America
Nick Tandy, Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton and Romain Grosjean all expressed interest in running a NASCAR race in 2015. Grosjean has a connection, Ricciardo has an offer, Tandy could get in Penske's ear and Hamilton is the world champion. There are two Grand National road course races during Formula One's summer break. I don't think any of them will end up running a NASCAR race in 2016 but it would a hell of a show at either Watkins Glen or Mid-Ohio if it were to happen. If any of those four run a race I would be happily surprised. There is already a Belgian competing, Anthony Kumpen, uncle of Toro Rosso driver Max Verstappen. Only two more are needed if Kumpen becomes a regular.