With the dawning of every new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season comes high hopes, lofty expectations and unbridled giddiness about the unknown.
With how the offseason (and the silly season) has developed with drivers switching from team to team and new sponsors coming into the sport and old sponsors leaving either for good or temporarily, NASCAR experts and pundits around the country have their own ideas as to how the 2016 season will unfold.
I’m no different (not that I’d consider myself a pundit or an expert). I’m just a fan of the sport with my own opinions … and fortunately a platform on which I can spout off my opinions.
Do I think my predictions will come true? Of course I do! They wouldn’t be “predictions” if I thought otherwise.
In truth, no one knows what’s going to happen. And that’s what makes the upcoming season so exciting.
Regardless, here are my predictions of what will happen in 2016. In order to hold myself accountable to all of our readers, I’ll revisit this post at the end of the season to see how I did and give myself a grade on my prognostication skills.
Hopefully, I’ll be right on several of them.
CHASE ELLIOTT WINS THE POLE FOR THE DAYTONA 500
Going into the last three seasons, the biggest stories have surrounded the drivers who eventually won the Daytona 500 pole. In 2013, Danica Patrick won the pole in her first full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Austin Dillon did the same thing the following year. Last season, Jeff Gordon, in his final season, won the pole. Heading into 2016, Tony Stewart’s impending retirement would have influenced me to pick him, but he’s out so I’ll go another route. Instead, I’m going with Chase Elliott, who will take over for Gordon in the No. 24, to win the pole in his first full-time season in the series.
TONY STEWART WINS ONE LAST RACE
Once Stewart returns from his injuries, he won’t have the type of success Kyle Busch had when he returned after missing the first 11 races of last season. However, he’ll pick up win No. 49 in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career somewhere along the way – most likely before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set. He’ll make the Chase based on that one win, and will survive through the first two rounds before falling out of the title hunt in one of the last four races of the season. Most likely venues where he’ll pick up that last win are: Watkins Glen, Indianapolis or Daytona.
JIMMIE JOHNSON WINS SEVENTH TITLE
It’s long overdue for Jimmie Johnson to find him in the most comfortable of places for him in Homestead at the end of November – the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship stage. After winning five consecutive titles from 2006 to 2010, the California native took two years off. He won the championship in 2013, and now two years removed from that title he’s ready for his seventh. His seventh trophy would put him in rarefied air with NASCAR icons Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty as the only other two drivers to win seven titles in NASCAR’s premier series. His 2015 campaign was once again solid with five wins.
KEVIN HARVICK POSTS MOST RACE WINS
In 2013, Kevin Harvick finished with four wins, three shy of Matt Kenseth’s seven wins. The following season, Harvick won the championship but tied for the second-most wins with five to Brad Keselowski’s six. Last season, he posted three wins to Logano’s six. In 2016, Harvick breaks through and captures the most wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He’ll end up with five wins, beating Johnson and Logano who will finish with four apiece. As recent years tell us, the most wins during a season doesn’t always mean a championship for that driver. Just ask Harvick, Logano and Keselowski. Harvick will be strong at Phoenix, Charlotte and Richmond.
FIVE NON-CHASERS FROM 2015 MAKE THE CHASE
Last year’s 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup featured a good batch of 16 drivers, which created a highly entertaining postseason. However, there will be some new players this year … drivers that didn’t qualify for the 2015 Chase. In fact, I’m predicting there will be five new Chasers that weren’t in it last season. The five drivers I think will make it are Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. With the five new additions there has to be five who drop out: (and remember this is strictly my opinion) Jeff Gordon (for obvious reasons), Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
TWO FIRST-TIME RACE WINNERS
With the insurgence of young, talented drivers I feel two of them will post their first wins in the series in 2016. I’m not going to speculate on how they win, whether it be because of fuel strategy,rain delay or wild finish. There are a lot of drivers that could potentially post their first wins: Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chris Buescher, Landon Cassill, Kyle Larson, Brian Scott, Michael Annett, Matt DiBenedetto, Michael McDowell and Cole Whitt. Although there are 14 drivers on this list, the two I think most likely to end up in the win column are Larson and Elliott.
DANICA PATRICK POSTS BEST POINTS FINISH
In 2015, Danica Patrick finished 24th in the final points standings. It was her best points finish ever, besting her 2013 ranking where she finished 27th. While I think she’s still a season or two away from her first win in the series, she makes solid improvement in 2016 and finishes between 18th and 22nd in points. She’ll post a career-high in lead-lap finishes and will be in contention to win a handful of races, leading to the first top-five finish in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race by a female. She’ll also more than double her number of laps she’s led during her career (27).
DALE EARNHARDT JR. WINS 14TH MOST POPULAR DRIVER AWARD
I had to put one in here that was an easy layup for me (in the likely event that I’ve botched every other prediction). I need to retain some of my dignity if my picks go awry. If past history is any indication, the most iron-clad prediction I could make is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win his 14th consecutive NMPA NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Most Popular Driver Award at the end of 2016. The first year he won the award was in 2003 and I don’t see that changing this season. If he wins it this year and the next two, he will tie Bill Elliott for the most with 16.