Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lisa Janine Cloud predicts the 2015 NASCAR champions

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
The 2015 NASCAR season hurtles toward us at the speed of ... well, race cars. Fast race cars.

Daytona is almost upon us, so it’s time to pull out the old crystal ball and peer into it, hoping to catch a glimpse of who will be standing on the track after the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with those championship trophies lined up in front of them.

I have to brag a little because in 2014, I correctly predicted two of the three series champs in Matt Crafton for the Camping World Truck Series and Kevin Harvick for the Sprint Cup Series. I think I should get partial credit for choosing Regan Smith for the Nationwide Series because he finished second in points. Also, because who really thought that Chase Elliott would be THAT good? For him to win the championship in his rookie season did not seem to be a reasonable prediction.

All boasting aside, the upcoming season seems at first glance to be way too complicated to predict: Few full-time or full-season drivers in Camping World Trucks. A handful of competitive teams in the Xfinity Series. A new engine and aero package in Sprint Cup to go with the sophomore year of the new Chase format. No preseason testing to use as a gauge.

Speculating on who will come out on top seems harder than ever. Yet when I looked at each series, it wasn't as hard as I thought.

Here are my picks:

Camping World Trucks

Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
The Truck Series begins its 20th season at Daytona. Thirteen drivers have claimed the title in what’s considered the lowest rung on the NASCAR ladder, showing that repeat championships are possible. Last season Matt Crafton became the first to earn back-to-back titles, but can he make it three in a row, joining Jack Sprague and Ron Hornaday Jr. as the only drivers with three or more championships?

Given the sketchy lineup eligible for the Driver Championship, I wouldn’t bet against him, but I’m also not going to pick him as my front-runner. I’m going with the youngster Erik Jones for Kyle Busch Motorsports, with Tyler Reddick of Brad Keselowski Racing a close second.

Jones only started 12 races in 2014, but he won three of them and earned five top fives and eight top-10 finishes. He graduated from high school and to superspeedways in June, so he’s free to run the full season instead of sharing a ride with the boss.

Reddick started 16 races and while he didn’t pull off a win, he did score three top-fives and nine top-10 finishes. While I’m sure Reddick has the talent to win, I don’t think his BKR team has the same polish as KBR’s powerhouse. I expect some good battles between the young guns, but I give Jones the edge and the title.

Xfinity Series 

In 2014, the middle-tier series featured some of the best racing in all of NASCAR, despite the heavy involvement of Sprint Cup drivers such as Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson. The three drivers put on an epic show at Auto Club Speedway in March, with young Larson holding off veterans Busch and Harvick for the win.

When it comes to picking the champion, I don’t want to jinx him, but I just don’t see anyone who can beat Chase Elliott.

He’ll be challenged, sure. His teammate Regan Smith came close to winning it all in 2014, but as good as Smith is, he doesn’t have the same native talent Elliott does. Smith had 26 top-10 finishes, just like Elliott. However, only seven of those were top fives, and only one a win, while Elliott drove to 16 top fives and three wins to propel him to the championship in his rookie season, the first to ever achieve that feat.

Ty Dillon has the racing chops but not the consistency, and to be frank, Childress just can’t compete with Hendrick/JRM for speed.

Elliott Sadler’s back in a Ford at Roush Fenway Racing, but despite Doug Yates' magic touch with engines, I’m not convinced the Blue Ovals can compete with the Bowtie Brigade overall. If a Ford driver is going to be a serious threat, I’m thinking it will be Chris Buescher, who won at Mid-Ohio, and had five top fives and 14 top 10s after his DNQ at Daytona.

Chase Elliott knows what he’s doing in 2016. He’s got a championship pedigree, a championship organization behind him, and he’s a quick learner. I’m betting he’ll be even better in 2015 than he was in 2014, and add his name to the list of back-to-back champions.

Sprint Cup 

The “win and you’re in” theme of 2014 provided exciting racing throughout the whole season, right
through to the end of the Chase. Each round of eliminations became more nerve-wracking and gut-wrenching than the last.

Who would have thought that going into the Championship Round, only one Hendrick Motorsports driver would be left? Not me! Who would have thought Jeff Gordon would be eliminated from championship contention AFTER HE TOOK THE CHECKERED FLAG? Not me! Who would have thought Ryan Newman and Richard Childress Racing would come so close to winning it all? Not me!

That makes choosing one driver who will successfully navigate the challenges of each round and who will make it through the final race unscathed almost impossible. So many factors are involved.
Since there are so many variables, I’m going to make my prediction based a combination of past performance, potential and my own peculiar logic.

As great a story as it would be for Carl Edwards to win in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing and with the crew chief who beat him in 2011, I just don’t think Toyota has the horsepower to keep up with Hendrick and Penske.

It would be an even better story for Jeff Gordon to win in his final season in the No. 24. He showed last season that he still has the skills and the will to win. Yet last season also showed just how difficult the new system makes getting into final round, never mind winning the whole thing. So I’m not going to pick Gordon, though if he does add a Sprint Cup trophy to his collection, I’m not sure I’ll be able to push the fan in me down far enough to tell that story objectively.

Who else could win?

Kevin Harvick could easily repeat. He and his team really started to gel near the end of the season, and he’s got the momentum of those final two gut-check wins on his side. Jimmie Johnson may have been off his game last season, but anyone who counts him out does so at his own peril. Brad Keselowski wants a second championship so bad he can taste it. He’s got something to prove, and he could do it this season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his best season in a decade in 2014; with new crew chief Greg Ives he could go all the way this time.

All of the above are worthy choices, but I’m not going to pick any of them.

Credit: Debbie Ross/Skirts and Scuffs
I pick Joey Logano.

Logano had five wins, 16 top fives and 22 top 10s in 2014. He won three poles, had an average start of 9.8, and an average finish of 11.3 even with four DNFs.

The driver known as Sliced Bread found a home at Team Penske. He’s finally showing the potential that earned him that nickname. What most impressed me about Logano in 2014 was his focus. At Texas in April, when other drivers went to the Final Four game that pushed the usual Saturday night race to Sunday afternoon, Logano stayed in his bus, not wanting to let anything distract him from winning. And although it was Monday before the race ran, he made it to Victory Lane.

I think the 2015 Sprint Cup champion will be Joey Logano in the Team Penske No. 22 Ford.

What do you think?

LJ Cloud, aka Lisa or Janine, lives in Houston and considers Texas Motor Speedway her home track. A fifth-generation Texan, she began watching NASCAR in 1997, followed by almost every other form of motorsports from F1 to lawnmower racing.
She's been a part of the Skirts and Scuffs team since May 2011, beginning as a contributor, then became a media rep, photographer and associate editor covering both NASCAR and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
LJ's other interests include photography, writing, reading, natural health, history and genealogy. She works for Family Tree DNA, a company that performs DNA testing for genealogical purposes