Dustin Long & Nate Ryan note highlights of 2015, look ahead to 2016

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Even with weekends void of any NASCAR racing until next year, there’s still much to discuss and debate.

NBC Sports’ Dustin Long and Nate Ryan look back on 2015 and look ahead to what 2016 might be like, providing much for you to debate.

Here’s what they have to say on various topics:

DRIVER OF THE YEAR

DUSTIN – Kevin Harvick. Although Kyle Busch is the champion – and a worthy champion – I look at this as similar to an MVP award and it doesn’t have to go to the champion. Yes, Harvick won fewer races than Busch (Busch had five and Harvick three), but Harvick finished first or second 16 times. Think about that. He finished first or second 44.4 percent of the time this past season. To put it into perspective, Harvick had more finishes of first or second than four Chase drivers had top-10 finishes this year.

NATE – Kyle Busch. Even without the championship, he probably would have been the pick over Joey Logano. No one overcame more this season than Busch, who admirably kept his suffering under wraps.

FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE SEASON

DUSTIN – I’ve never seen a victory lane quite like the one with Jeff Gordon at Martinsville during the Chase. One of the best things about it was that the celebration is done on stage on the frontstretch. The number of fans who stayed to share in Gordon’s celebration was astounding. Many chanted his name or Homestead and Gordon responded to them. An hour later, after all the interviews and photographs were done, Gordon ran to the crowd and gave high fives to many who stayed. A remarkable moment.

NATEJeff Gordon’s win at Martinsville Speedway. It’s a shame to have been somewhat overshadowed by the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano wreck (though that also set the stage for the No. 24 victory). Gordon’s ebullience was guileless and unparalleled – and watching the most consummate professional in NASCAR history recapture his boyhood glee was breathtaking.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

DUSTIN – Tony Stewart. The belief was a new year would bring a new Stewart after his injury two years ago and the tragic incident in a sprint car last year. In hindsight, maybe that was unfair to think the changing of the calendar would simply change Stewart’s fortunes. He was a non-factor much of the season, struggling with the reduced horsepower. It became news when he was in the top 10, hardly fitting for a three-time champion.

NATE – Matt Kenseth’s decision to wreck Logano from the lead while 10 laps down … and then feebly attempting to propagate the charade that the crash was because of a tire failure. Paybacks are part of racing, but this was conduct unbecoming of a champion.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

DUSTIN – That it has taken more than a decade from when SAFER barriers first started going up on walls that outer walls at tracks are completely covered by the energy-reducing barriers.

NATE – Tony Stewart’s regression into irrelevance. “Smoke” seemed to have the swagger back in the preseason after two wayward years, and he usually drives as well as he feels. It might have been the most remarkably mediocre season in NASCAR history.

ONE CHANGE YOU HOPE TO SEE NEXT YEAR

DUSTIN – Victory Lane on the frontstretch at all tracks so fans can share in the moment as they did with Jeff Gordon at Martinsville.

NATE – A de-emphasis on aerodynamics via the reduction of downforce, producing more show-stopping races in the vein of Kentucky Speedway.

YOUR WAY TOO EARLY FINAL FOUR FOR 2016

DUSTIN – Kevin Harvick will be there for the third consecutive year. Reigning champ Kyle Busch will make it again. Joey Logano will join them. Each year there has been a surprise driver. In 2014, it was Ryan Newman, who made it despite being winless. This past year it was Martin Truex Jr. with Furniture Row Racing. Next year’s surprise driver will be Jamie McMurray from Chip Ganassi Racing.

NATE – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano

ONE DRIVER YOU WILL CLOSELY WATCH IN 2016

DUSTIN – Kyle Larson. For all the talent and all that is expected, he has yet to win a Sprint Cup race. He’ll enter 2016 with a new crew chief, getting Chad Johnston, who had been Tony Stewart’s crew chief the past two seasons. Will it all come together next year and Larson gets to victory lane?

NATE – Tony Stewart. Can his long goodbye be graceful if the results remain so painfully subpar, awkwardly undermining the tributes to his greatness?