Our experts weigh in on four of the biggest questions in NASCAR:
Turn 1: Some howling around NASCAR Nation about a champion that missed 11 races. Should Kyle Busch‘s championship come with an asterisk?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Absolutely not. Kyle Busch cleared every hurdle placed before him to earn his first Sprint Cup title. Fact is, the road to the championship was far more difficult for Busch than any of the other competitors. Had he been injured skiing, my view would be different. He was injured competing, and paid a hefty price for it. I Consider his 2015 story remarkable.
Ryan McGee, ESPN.com: Initially, I would have said no. But when he did return he made it so definitive — winning four out of five races, three in a row, the Brickyard 400 — I don’t think there could much of an argument that they weren’t among the elite teams this year.
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: No. It’s not much different than a stick-and-ball team winning a championship after playing part of the season without the star player. Busch qualified for the Chase under the rules set for him by NASCAR, then produced the performances necessary to prevail in this Chase format. I also think Busch is the best champion for NASCAR in the big picture. A championship for Joey Logano or Kevin Harvick this year would always be associated with their controversial actions in the Chase. Busch gives NASCAR a positive story about a guy who rapidly recovered from significant injuries and grew up a lot in the process to finally achieve his potential.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: No. He won it under the rules. But I understand the howling. When NASCAR granted the waiver, something in the gut said it’s not right, even though trying to determine a maximum number of races a driver can miss seems difficult. The fact he won five races and had a championship-caliber performance (in the current system) over the 26 races he competed in makes a huge difference. If he had lucked into one win and then won the title, it would feel a little less authentic.
Turn 2: Who seems poised for the Truex-esque turnaround in 2016?
Craven: Clint Bowyer will be next year’s “comeback player.” Bowyer has the talent to be a perennial Chase qualifier. Next year, he will have the equipment.
McGee: Kyle Larson. Changing the aero package this year really threw him — and really all of the sprint car guys — for a loop. Going back to a looser car in 2016 will be going back to what we had in 2014. If he can jump back in where he left off that year, look out.
Oreovicz: I’m hoping it’s Tony Stewart, so his final year on the Cup tour is a happy one for him and everyone else.
Pockrass: Kyle Larson. In the two races with the low-downforce package, Larson ran in the top 10 for much of the day before a wreck at Kentucky and finished 10th at Darlington. The fact that the team hired Chad Johnston after Johnston’s two awful years with Tony Stewart shows many believe Johnston wasn’t the problem.
Turn 3: Who is the favorite headed into the 2016 season; Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski or someone else?
Craven: Kyle Busch — as the defending champ with the weight lifted from his shoulders — will be the driver to beat next season. Johnson and Harvick will keep him honest.
McGee: Logano. Not only was he the best guy not in the final four at Homestead, he was the best over the long haul of the season. The big question will be how the new/old aero rules will affect him.
Oreovicz: Johnson and Logano are my early favorites. Johnson and the 48 were rounding back into winning form in the last few races of the season, and Logano has come close to winning the title twice now before falling short for different reasons. It will be interesting to see if he has learned from his mistakes and gets the job done next year.
Pockrass: Harvick. If he keeps finishing top-two in about half the races, he’ll remain tough to beat. Keselowski could benefit big-time from the new aero rules as well as with some adjustments to the Ford bodies expected for next season.
Turn 4: What is your “Quintessential NASCAR” moment from 2015?
Craven: Jeff Gordon winning Martinsville and celebrating in Victory Lane as though he had never won a race. It speaks to how difficult and rewarding a win can be, and Gordon’s enthusiasm authenticated how much effort and energy go toward reaching that goal.
McGee: I want so badly to say it was the victory and resulting celebration for Jeff Gordon at Martinsville. To see a moment that every fan could embrace, from the new youngsters to the old school followers, and the thunderous reaction from them all, that was pretty cool. But the moment that best sums up the 2015 season was when we were all standing on pit road at Talladega in total silence wondering what the hell was going on. If it had started raining at that exact moment, it would have been the quintessential encapsulation of the year
Oreovicz: It has to be Matt Kenseth drilling Logano into the wall at Martinsville. That’s a highlight of ’79 Daytona 500 magnitude, especially if you know the back story. The fact that weeks later, video replays of the crash still draw animated reactions from fans says it all.
Pockrass: Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick hugging on pit road after the season finale. This sport is about relationships, taking risks and battling through adversity. They both had to do all that while together for 23 years, and it’s likely one couldn’t have done it as well without the other.