As the Sprint Cup Series heads for a weekend off, NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long note what’s stood out to them in the season’s first 15 races and look ahead to what you might see later this year.
Here’s how they answered these questions about the season:
NATE: Chase Elliott, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: There would be a certain symmetry to the No. 24 Chevrolet returning to the winner’s circle at the Brickyard. This isn’t a sentimental pick, though. A case can be made for Elliott being NASCAR’s hottest drivers for the past three months. He was two rookie mistakes on restarts from winning at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, two fast superspeedways that share a few characteristics with Indy, and the third time will be the charm for Elliott, whose predecessor, Jeff Gordon, won a record five Brickyards starting with the 1994 inaugural.
DUSTIN: Ryan Blaney, Kentucky Speedway. He won the most recent Xfinity race there last year, was a part of this week’s test there and the ties to Team Penske will help with the way the Penske cars have run well there before.
Which driver has stood out the most in the first 15 races?
NATE: Chase Elliott. He is having the greatest rookie season in a decade (11 top 10s rank third in the series behind Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch), and it was virtually impossible to predict. Though he stepped into a championship-caliber ride, he was coming off a disappointing defense of his 2014 Xfinity Series title and shouldering enormous expectations and pressure. Yet against stiffer competition, he has raised his game and raced with the poise and adaptability of teammate and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. Elliott, 20, keeps proving little fazes him.
DUSTIN: Kevin Harvick. He’s still fast and still one of the few that has shown the ability to regularly challenge the top Toyota cars. That he and crew chief Rodney Childers have been able to remain among the strongest cars since working together in 2014 says much for both.
What’s three things that have stood out to you so far this season?
1. The suddenly forceful youth movement in the Sprint Cup Series.
2. The direction of rules changes aimed at lowering downforce that are making an impact on improving passing.
3. Tony Stewart’s turbulent farewell tour that – much like the three-time champion’s mercurial career – seemingly has turned on a dime from sputtering to promising.
1. Chase Elliott’s performance. There was a lot of hype but he’s doing things few rookies have.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s inconsistency. He has four runner-up finishes, four finishes of 30th or worse, had handling issues in both restrictor-plate races and is 11th in the points — the worst he’s been at this point in the season since 2010.
3. Tony Stewart’s year. It started with his incident with a fan at the Chili Bowl in January to his sand dunes accident a couple of weeks later, missing the first eight races, his complaints about teams not securing all five lug nuts, which led to a fine and a rule change, and his quest to climb into the top 30 in points to have a chance at the Chase. It makes one wonder what is to come.
Name one driver outside the top 16 who you think will make the Chase.
NATE: Kyle Larson. A win is the safest route, but his team’s uptick in performance over the past month opens the possibility of making the playoffs on points if Larson can maintain consistency.
DUSTIN: Kyle Larson is the easy pick based on how he’s run in recent weeks.
Who is one driver people should be paying more attention than they might.
NATE: Trevor Bayne. The results indicate he is among the most improved drivers of 2016, but it will take a victory to slough off the nagging legacy of his 2011 Daytona 500 win as a one-hit wonder. Talladega showed he could erase that unwanted label.
DUSTIN: Kurt Busch. He’s run in that fifth-to-10th spot often, but his Pocono win shows he’s building speed to contend for more victories. With a series-high 13 top-10 finishes in 15 races, don’t ignore him.
Based on what you’ve seen so far this year, who would be your way-too-early pick to make it to the championship round in Miami.
DUSTIN: Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch
Is Joe Gibbs Racing losing its grip on being the dominant team in the series?
NATE: It’s only a two-race sample size, but there could be some warning signs in Joe Gibbs Racing failing to record a top five in consecutive races after a year long streak of 35 straight. It was around this time last season that Hendrick Motorsports began a midseason swoon that lasted for nearly two months after winning six of the first 17 races. It’s also notable that JGR didn’t lead a lap at Michigan with a new rules package that could chart the course of teams’ fortunes through 2017. A familiar refrain in NASCAR is that success is cyclical, and sometimes the dominance can dip just as quickly as it arrived. Consider that JGR has won 18 of the past 36 races … but prior to that, had won only three of the previous 36.
DUSTIN: Yes, but it still is the strongest team in the garage. The team’s strength is shown in how it was newsworthy that JGR did not have a top-five finish in back-to-back races for the first time in a year. Teams are gaining, but Gibbs is still No. 1 at this point.
Which two drivers are most likely to butt heads?
NATE: Who has the most at stake and the most run-ins with rivals? Ryan Newman’s future at Richard Childress Racing remains uncertain, he is clinging to a provisional spot in the playoffs, and there have been recent flashes of his ornery side (namely with Joey Logano at Pocono). Keep an eye on Newman and any of the winless drivers he is battling with to make the Chase.
DUSTIN: I’ll take Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. Two hard-nosed racers looking to improve performance in the coming races. Newman needs it to assure a spot in the Chase; Hamlin needs to be more of a title contender.