The Inside Line: What’s in store for the 2015 Sprint Cup season

Daytona Beach, FL ( – After three months of no on-track
activity thanks to NASCAR’s testing ban, the 2015 Sprint Cup Series season is
set to begin, as drivers and teams are eager to get back to racing this
weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

The Sprint Unlimited preseason, non-points race at Daytona is scheduled for
Saturday night, and Daytona 500 qualifying — which features a new group
qualifying format — is slated for Sunday afternoon.

There are plenty of storylines for the upcoming season, including Jeff
Gordon’s announcement last month that this will be his final season competing
full-time in NASCAR’s premier series.

Other stories to follow are NASCAR’s new electronic pit road officiating
system as well as the sanctioning body’s revised rules package for Sprint Cup.

Some burning questions entering the new season include: Will Kevin Harvick
repeat as Sprint Cup champion, or will Jimmie Johnson rebound after a somewhat
disappointing 2014 season and win his record-tying seventh title? How will
Kurt Busch’s pending legal issues affect his season, and how will Carl Edwards
do in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing?


Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, is set to begin his last season as
driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. He has competed in
every race in NASCAR’s top racing circuit since the 1992 season-finale at
Atlanta. Gordon, now 43 years old, is 27 races away from tying Ricky Rudd’s
record of 788 consecutive starts in the series.

“I’ve got a great team with a great opportunity to go win a lot of races and
win this championship this year, and I don’t want to take that for granted,”
Gordon said. “I can’t think of anything better to end this season with than to
be the champion, to win Homestead (Nov. 22 season-ending race). I would be
celebrating for a month.”

Gordon has not won a Cup championship since 2001, but last year, he had one of
his best seasons since his most recent title 14 years ago. He won four races,
including a victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis for a record fifth
time, and had a series-high 23 top-10 finishes.

Later this month, Gordon is expected to make his 23rd and final start in the
Daytona 500 — NASCAR’s most prestigious race of the season. He has won the
Daytona 500 three times, with his last victory in it happening a decade ago.

“The Daytona 500 typically is a different feeling than most races because it’s
the start of the season and it has an electrifying crowd,” he said. “It is our
Super Bowl, and you recognize that because of what all is going on, the build-
up to it, and so I do have a little more butterflies to start that race than I
do others.”

Chase Elliott, the reigning Xfinity Series champion and 19-year-old son of
recently inducted NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, was named as the
replacement driver for Gordon in the No. 24 car in 2015. Elliott is scheduled
to make his Sprint Cup debut in late March at Martinsville and then compete in
four more races later in the season.

“This is a pinch-me moment and has been this entire offseason, especially in
the past couple of weeks,” Elliott said. “I’m excited to get this year
started, getting back to racing. I think it’s exciting to have this
announcement (of taking over driving duties of the No. 24 next year) out
there. Now I know what’s going on, and I can go out there and focus on racing
this year.”

Gordon does plan to be at the racetracks next year for tributes and fan
interactions. It is possible that he will compete in some races, such as the
Brickyard 400.

“I do plan on coming back in 2016,” he said. “That’s something we’re working
through with the tracks now and doing just a full-on fan experience with
people that have been loyal and individual fans of the sport and myself for
many years. That’s what I want to do in return.”


Beginning with Speedweeks at Daytona, NASCAR will use automated pit road
officiating instead of officials on pit road for each Sprint Cup race. The
automated system will use 45 video cameras that monitor activity on pit road.
NASCAR tested the system during the latter part of last season.

“With this technology, we know that we’re going to be safer, we’ll be more
exact, and we’ll realize a fairer and more balanced playing field,” NASCAR
executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell

NASCAR has made significant changes to the rules package for Sprint Cup this
season, including a ban on private team testing, lower horsepower and
modifications to the cars’ aerodynamic package.

The biggest rule change is the reduction of horsepower from 850 to 725 through
a tapered spacer, which is an engine part used in the Xfinity and Camping
World Truck Series.

Revisions to the aero package include: rear spoiler adjustments to 6 inches
high (2014 height: 8 inches) and minimum vehicle weight drops 50 lbs. via
ballast reduction (2014 weight: 3,300 lbs. without driver).

Other rule changes are: roller valve lifters to replace flat valve lifter,
lower rear differential gear ratios targeting 9,000 RPM, an optional driver
adjustable track bar and a 38-inch wider radiator pan.


During his “State of the Sport” speech last month in Charlotte, NASCAR
chairman and CEO Brian France said no changes are forthcoming to the Chase for
the Sprint Cup championship format this season.

One year ago, NASCAR made radical changes to the Chase, expanding the field of
drivers to 16 and including a series of elimination rounds to determine the
Sprint Cup champion. The new format created lots of drama and excitement
during the 10-race postseason. NASCAR hit a grand slam with it.

Harvick, in his inaugural season driving for Stewart-Haas Racing, claimed his
first Sprint Cup championship, doing so by winning the last two races of the
season (Phoenix and Homestead).

“I think as you come into this year knowing that you can do the things that we
did last year is very rewarding, but it’s also a great confidence builder for
our race team,” Harvick said. “Obviously, you get referred to as champ and
that’s great and pretty cool.

“When you look at the list of guys who have won a championship, it’s pretty
small. But I think as a guy who has been a part of this sport, for me, I
think it was better that I won a championship a little bit later in my career,
because I think I respect it a lot more and understand how hard it is to get
to this point and really know the work and effort that and how many people it
takes to be a part of it.”

While Harvick attempts to defend his Sprint Cup title this year, Johnson is
trying to win his record-tying seventh championship in the series. Last
season, Johnson finished a career-worst 11th in points. He won a record five
straight titles from 2006-10 and then claimed his sixth championship in 2013.

Can Johnson, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports
team turn things around this season?

“We’ll find out as the year wears on,” Johnson said. “We proved to ourselves
that we’ve made the right adjustments, and truthfully, it’s just to keep it
very simple. It’s the decision-making process.

“It’s not about putting in more time and effort, resources, equipment. We have
all of that. We’ve just unfortunately been working in the wrong areas. So the
way we make decisions and where we think speed is, we need to make better
decisions and get to those little pockets of speed.”


Kurt Busch’s season could be in jeopardy as he is waiting to find out if he
will be charged with domestic assault.

In November, Busch’s ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll, filed a domestic abuse
claim against Busch after he allegedly slammed her head into the wall of his
motorhome multiple times last September at Dover International Speedway.
Police conducted a criminal investigation and handed their findings to the
Delaware Attorney General’s office for review. No decision has been made on
any criminal charges at this time.

Driscoll has sought a protection order from Busch in court, with a decision in
that case expected soon.

Busch addressed his legal issue during Thursday’s NASCAR Media Day at Daytona
International Speedway, saying, “We’re going close to day 100 as far as all
the proceedings go. Normal situations that happen around these types of
situations take 30 minutes. So sometimes preferential treatment can go the
wrong way.

“We all have to be patient. We all have to understand that there’s a process
that we have to respect, and the fact that no announcement has come out, each
day that goes by continues to be good news.”

As of now, NASCAR has not taken any disciplinary action against Busch. If
Busch does face charges and if he is forced out of the car, his Stewart-Haas
Racing team has a contingency plan in place.

“We do, but we’re kind of waiting to see,” team co-owner Tony Stewart said.
“I’m very hopeful that we won’t have to worry about it. I feel bad (Busch) is
in that situation right now, and that they’re both in that situation. But we
have to be smart and we have to have a plan in place if it doesn’t work out
for whatever reason.”


After spending the past 11 years with Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards is on board
with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive a fourth car for the organization — the No. 19
Toyota. Edwards will team with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, who
also drove for Jack Roush until his move over to JGR for the ’13 season.

Edwards will be paired with crew chief Darian Grubb, who had called the shots
for Hamlin’s No. 11 team the past three seasons.

“It’s amazing to me how well-prepared this 19 team is,” Edwards said. “They
are very well-prepared, and it’s overwhelming how much they have planned. I’m
real excited about that.”

In 2011, Edwards finished in a points tie with Stewart, but Stewart won the
Sprint Cup championship in a tiebreaker.