Gluck: NASCAR’s top 10 stories of 2015 – USA TODAY
The 2015 NASCAR season was quite eventful âÂ but most of the news happened off the track. So while the on-track product didnât provide much to talk about (the low-downforce package canât get here soon enough), there were still plenty of headlines.
Now that the season has been over for a couple weeks and the hangovers from awards weekend in Las Vegas have subsided, hereâs the top 10 stories of the year in order of magnitude:
10. Charter system gets closer
If this comes to fruition, itâll be one of the top stories on the 2016 list. But for now, the proposed charter system for race teams is still in the discussion stage.
Should it happen, the franchise-type format will be a game-changer for team owners. They will have more financial stability and more say in what happens with the sport. ButÂ it could make it harder for new teams to enter the Sprint Cup Series.
9. Daytona 500 qualifying fiasco
Knockout qualifying has been a great improvement to NASCARâs race weekends in the past two years, with a notable exception: It didnât work at restrictor-plate tracks.
Officials kept trying different ways to make it happen, but it was like putting a square tire on a round wheel. That was no more apparent than during qualifying for this yearâs Daytona 500, which left some drivers wrecked and fuming (it did result in an epicÂ Clint Bowyer rant, however).
Fortunately, NASCAR implemented a hybrid old/new qualifying style for restrictor-plate tracks in time for the May race at Talladega Superspeedway.
8. Confederate flag controversy
NASCAR waded into the debate over the Confederate flag after South Carolina removed it from the grounds of the state capitol following the Charleston shooting in June. Brian France denounced the flag as âoffensive and divisiveâ and tracks encouraged fans not to display it at racetracks.
However, the move seemed to backfire among fans. The number of visible flags in the infield campgrounds balloonedÂ in an act of defiance following NASCARâs statement.
Instead of just criticizingÂ it, NASCAR could haveÂ completely banned the flag from track property if the sanctioning body wanted to make a real impact. But that might have hurt the tracks in the wallet, so there was no real change.
7. Rules packages
This was a new one: In an attempt to find a better aerodynamic racing package for next season âÂ an acknowledgment the current one wasnât good enough âÂ NASCAR experimented with two different packages over four races this season.
The low downforce package, preferred by the drivers, put on fantastic shows at Kentucky Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Seriously, it was great. Everyone was pumped. Meanwhile, NASCARâs preferred high-drag package totally flopped at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.
Thankfully, low downforce won out and became the standard for all races (except restrictor-plate events) startingÂ next season.
6. Drivers council formed
Instead of speaking with individual voices, drivers were given the opportunity to present their viewpoints to NASCAR for the first time with a formally elected drivers council. The first meeting of the peer-voted group was in May at Dover International Speedway, and several more meetings with top brass were held throughout the year.
This was a huge win for everyone in the sport. Tony Stewart called it one of the greatest things he’s experienced in his career.Â NASCAR, once a dictatorship, had been listening much more often through meetings with owners and manufacturers; now the drivers have a true platform to getÂ their opinions transformed into policy.
5. Tony Stewart announces retirement
Though it will be a bigger story in 2016, the official announcement that next season will be Stewartâs last is significant. NASCAR is losing a three-time champion and a major personality with a large fan base, and that will hurt.
Clint Bowyer will step into Stewartâs No. 14 car in 2017, and Stewart will still be around through his role as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing. Thatâs good, because NASCAR is more interesting when âSmokeâ is involved.
4. Matt Kenseth suspended two races for wrecking Joey Logano
Kensethâs blatant wreck of Logano at Martinsville Speedway âÂ retaliation for an earlier incident at Kansas Speedway âÂ divided NASCAR like few other issues in recent years. And when NASCAR suspended him for an unprecedented two races? It was explosive, to say the least.
Opinions were heated on both sides. Some felt Kenseth was justified, some thought he dramatically crossed the line and many were upset with NASCAR for what they viewed as an inconsistent punishment.
Kenseth returned for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and met with Logano beforehand, but the frostiness between the two will likely linger; neither spoke to the other during the recent Champions Week in Las Vegas.
3. Kurt Busch domestic violence suspension
Few stories these days make headlines outside of NASCAR, but this one certainly did. Thanks in part to wild accusations on both sides of the alleged domestic violence incident between Busch and ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll (who Busch said presented herself as a trained assassin during their relationship), this case played out very publicly.
It was also atÂ the height of a national conversation about domestic violence that started with incidents in the NFL. So when a Delaware family court commissioner ruled Busch probably committed the act, NASCAR did the only thing it could: It suspended him for the Daytona 500 and beyond.
But when no charges were filed against Busch, NASCAR did the right thing again and reinstated him after three races. Busch then rallied to make the Chase, had a fantastic season and put the past behind him. He announced in August he was engaged to Ashley Van Metre.
2. Jeff Gordon retires
Many people will argue this should be the top story of the year, and thereâs certainly a case to be made for that. Either way, Gordonâs retirement was a season-long topic that only got more discussion as he kept advancing during the Chase âÂ even winning his final career race at Martinsville along the way.
This wasnât just any future Hall of Fame driver retiringÂ âÂ even though the four-time championâs stats areÂ legendary in themselves. No, this was about Gordonâs impact on stock car racing and how he helped transform NASCAR from a regional sport to a national one.
Heâll still have a weekly TV presence for the first half of next season through his role as a FoxÂ Sports analyst, but that’s small consolation for fans who now have to find a new driver to root for.
1. Kyle Buschâs remarkable comeback
Gordonâs retirement would have been No. 1 in almost any other year, but nothing can beatÂ Kyle Buschâs storybook season.
The word “unbelievable”Â gets thrown around a lot, but this truly was beyond belief. Busch broke his right leg and left foot in a crash the day before the Daytona 500, and there were many questions in the aftermath. Would he race again? If so, when? Would he be the same?
But he came backÂ way ahead of schedule (after learning how to walkÂ again!),Â somehow won a race, then three more in a row, then improbably made the top 30 in points.
All of that would have been enough to make forÂ an incredible story, except there was more. He advanced through the rounds of the Chase and won the final race of the season to clinch his first career title in the most difficult year of his life.
How do you top that? You canât. And thatâs the No. 1 story of 2015.
PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup
Steve Byrnes dies:Â The death of the FoxÂ Sports broadcaster deeply affected the NASCAR community and was certainly one of the most significant storiesÂ of the year.
Byrnesâ fight against cancer was inspiring, and his positive attitude through the battle was something many of us will never forget. He will truly be missed, which was evident by the amount of support displayed by everyone in NASCAR. TheÂ spring Bristol race wasÂ named in his honor.
Other big stories:Â Controversy at the end of the Talladega Chase race, Austin Dillonâs Daytona crash in which five fans were hurt, souvenir haulers getting replaced with aÂ merchandise tent, tire tampering rumors eventually leading to Ryan Newmanâs penalty, GoDaddy leaving NASCAR/Danica Patrick and theÂ No. 44 car beingÂ stolen from a hotel parking lot near Atlanta.