By JEREMY FLYNN
1. Kyle Busch
Who could argue with the hot streak of Kyle Busch in 2015? After a horrible crash, sidelining Busch for 11 races, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Joe Gibbs Toyota completed the season with five wins in 25 starts. Oh, did I mention he won his first Sprint Cup championship? It surely won’t be his last. I dare say a repeat could be in his 2016 future.
2. Kevin Harvick
The only thing missing from Kevin Harvick’s amazing 2015 season was the crown jewel of the Sprint Cup Series championship. After all, Harvick was able to ring in three wins and 23 top-fives in 2015, making him the most consistent driver in the series. Keep an eye on Harvick to be in the right spot at the right time in 2016.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson’s 2015 was everything it should be, except complete. After scoring five wins and 14 top-fives, it most surely had to be a disappointment to be eliminated by mechanical failures in the first round of the Chase. That just goes to show you that no matter how dominant you may be throughout the season, the weight of the final 10 races is truly all that matters in today’s format. Look for Johnson and Chad Knaus to be back in the saddle, seeking their seventh Sprint Cup championship.
4. Martin Truex Jr.
Who would have thought that the single car, independent Furniture Row team would have made it to the Championship 4 and finished a mere 11 points away from capturing the Sprint Cup? Not I. But, we shouldn’t be surprised when Martin Truex Jr. is the man to thank, posting a win and 8 top-fives in 2015. In an article I wrote yesterday, I talked about Truex Jr. being a wildcard this year with the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota. I still believe that to be true, but I would still bet on him to make the Chase.
5. Joey Logano
Joey Logano had to be the biggest spark of 2015. With six wins and 22 top-fives, Logano cemented himself in the Chase before being sidelined by Matt Kenseth at Martinsville while leading and blowing a tire at Texas eliminating him in the properly named Eliminator round. The most notable stat for Logano is that three of his six wins were the result of a clean sweep of the Contender round in the Chase. Take away some horrible luck and Logano just might have made 2015 his year. Here is to 2016.
6. Brad Keselowski
I wrote an article on “Bad Brad” over a year ago, detailing how quickly he has become NASCAR’s newest villain. Love him or hate him, he always is a contender. 2015 was still a good year for Brad with one win and nine top-fives, although it does hold a dull comparison to 2014 when the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Penske Ford racked up six wins and 17 top-fives. I would be very surprised if he did not make it past the Eliminator 8 two years in a row.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The tale of the tape for Junior in 2015 was slightly shortened with an elimination in the first round of the Chase. Although, 3 wins and 16 top 5’s is nothing to be ashamed of. Much like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr. felt the weight of the chase on his shoulders after arguably his most consistent year in the Sprint Cup Series.
8. Kurt Busch
After a rocky start to 2015 including headlines from personal affairs swirling through Kurt Busch’s mind, he was still able to chalk up two wins, 10 top-fives and make the Chase. I would say that’s pretty impressive for missing multiple weeks of the season after a NASCAR suspension kept him off the track. Busch has always been known as a hot head, but the fact remains; he can still get it done behind the wheel. I will look for him to string together another Chase run in 2016.
9. Matt Kenseth
It was a very controversial ending to a strong year for Matt Kenseth in 2015. Overshadowing his five wins and 12 top-five finishes was an early elimination in the Chase and a red-hot feud with top Chase contender Joey Logano. Rubbing may be racing, but NASCAR deemed fit a two-race suspension for Kenseth after his on-track behavior with Logano at Martinsville. Kenseth seems to be striking up chemistry at Joe Gibbs after a winless 2014. I expect him to have a huge 2016.
10. Tony Stewart
Disappointment cascaded Tony Stewart in 2015 after failing, yet again, to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In fact, after winning the Chase in 2011 and finishing ninth in 2012, 2015 was the first year that Stewart even cracked the top 25 in final points standings in NASCAR’s top series. His retirement announcement didn’t come as a surprise as many drivers get to the point in their career where they feel they should step down. I always hate to see guys hang on too long and struggle to compete, but the reason I put Stewart on this list is because I feel he could go out with a bang in 2016, and I sure hope that I am right.