The surest sign there is very little “off” in NASCAR’s offseason came in the form of a Goodyear tire test Monday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Staged as a way to determine various tire compounds to be utilized in 2016, the one-day session also allowed new driver-team combinations to begin the acclimation process.
Among those taking part were championship runner-up Kevin Harvick, Brian Scott, making his debut with Richard Petty Motorsports, and Martin Truex Jr., driving a Toyota after his Furniture Row Racing team switched manufacturers.
But it was the site of Chase Elliott wheeling the No. 24 car formerly driven by the now-retired Jeff Gordon reaffirming 2015 is complete, and everyone’s attention has turned to the coming season. And it is Elliott’s ascension to the Sprint Cup after a sterling two-year run in the Xfinity Series that tops the list of compelling storylines to ponder with the start of the season a mere 65 days away.
1. Youth movement continues
Gordon’s retirement follows a trend that has seen longtime mainstays such as Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Ken Schrader retire either outright or dramatically reduce their respective schedules in recent seasons. This will continue with Tony Stewart already announcing that 2016 will be his last as a full-time competitor in the Sprint Cup Series, though he’s adamant he will continue to race in other racing disciplines outside of NASCAR.
The loss of many veterans, however, has created an opportunity for the sport’s generation of stars to showcase their ability and that will continue with the 2016 rookie class the most promising in years. Among the challengers are Elliott (age 20), Ryan Blaney (21) and 23-year-old Chris Buescher, the reigning Xfinity Series champion.
Because he is joining Hendrick Motorsports, occupying Gordon’s old seat and regarded as a can’t-miss prospect, Elliott is facing heightened expectations and considered the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. But Blaney has shown competitiveness in limited starts driving for the Wood Brothers — a pair of top-10 finishes in 16 starts last season — and though Buescher may not be aligned with a proven team in Front Row Motorsports, he knows how to maximize his equipment and could surprise.
2. Franchising provides owners security, larger voice
Since NASCAR’s inception team owners have been treated as independent contractors and had little voice pertaining to procedural or rules matters. That policy is changing thanks to the formation of the Race Team Alliance 17 months ago, which for the first time gave owners a collective voice.
To its credit, NASCAR has not dismissed the RTA similarly to how it’s treated previous consortiums. Instead, the sanctioning body is working with the group to provide better financial security to those who invest in the sport, most notably developing a form of franchising.
While the particulars are still being negotiated, the general outline would consist of teams holding guaranteed starting spots, therefore establishing a minimum threshold of winnings earned throughout a given season. Owners would also have a greater say in proposed rule changes and any implementation. Doing so would avoid costly expenditures similar to what unfolded during the summer when NASCAR enacted two different rules packages at great expense to teams.
Both sides are optimistic franchising — which NASCAR refers to as a charter system — will be instituted in time for the start of the 2016 season.
3. Can Joe Gibbs Racing remain NASCAR’s dominant organization?
After underachieving in 2014, the team owned by NFL Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs rebounded tremendously this past season. JGR’s four drivers, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, combined to win a series-best 14 times with Busch delivering Gibbs his fourth championship and first in 10 years.
Producing a similar type of performance may be unreasonable, though some facsimile where all four drivers record multiple victories and emerge as title contenders should be a minimum standard. Busch, Hamlin and Edwards are all in the prime of their careers, while the 43-year-old Kenseth has shown no signs of slowing down. And the addition of Furniture Row to the Toyota camp could provide a boon, as the single-car team was one of the most consistent last season with Truex advancing to the championship finale.