by Julian Spivey
Best Driver: Kevin Harvick
OK, so this is probably controversial. Kyle Busch won the championship and Joey Logano won more races than any other driver during the season, but Kevin Harvick was the best driver all season long. Harvick scored more points than any other driver this season (which would have won him the championship from the sport’s inception in 1949 through 2003). He won three races and finished in the top two in the finishing order 16 times (yes, that means he was second place an incredible 13 times). Harvick finished in the top five in 23 of the series’ 36 races and almost broke Jeff Gordon’s modern era record for most top 10 finishes coming up two shy of it with 28.
Most Disappointing Driver: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart announced a couple of months before the 2015 season ended that he would be retiring after the 2016 season, but some wondered if he shouldn’t have retired a couple of seasons ago. It’s always tough to see a living legend struggle so badly and Stewart’s last two seasons, but especially his 2015 campaign have been incredible duds. This three-time champion doesn’t even look competitive on the track and was frequently racing against underfunded teams and drivers who don’t even come close to comparing to him for most of the season. Stewart had his second consecutive winless season in 2015 and only managed a measly three top 10 finishes, with zero top fives. One can’t help but wonder if the leg injury he suffered in a 2013 sprint car accident and the controversial accident that resulted in dirt tracker Kevin Ward Jr.’s death in 2014 in another sprint car incident haven’t completely gotten inside this legend’s head.
Best Race: Martinsville Fall Race
The Martinsville Speedway Chase for the Championship playoff race on Nov. 1 wasn’t just the best race of the entire 2015 NASCAR season, but also the wildest race of the season … by far. There were five cars in the race that looked like they had a decent chance of winning – Joey Logano (who had won the previous three races consecutively), Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. Rather late in the going of the race there was a restart with all five of these drivers in contention, when a part of Keselowski’s car broke and he wrecked Kenseth. Busch would also be collected in the wreck. Busch and Keselowski would go to the garage. Kenseth would lose nine laps repairing his car before returning to the track to take out his frustrations from two weeks prior on Joey Logano, the race leader, after Logano had spun him out for the lead and eventual win at Kansas Speedway. All of a sudden the four best cars in the race were all eliminated and Jeff Gordon, at his very best track, gained control of the lead and knew that a win would lock him into one of the final four spots at the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Gordon held off a hard-charging Jamie McMurray for the last segment of the race before embarking on maybe the greatest celebration we’ve ever seen from a NASCAR winner following what would turn out to be his final career win.
Best Moment: Jeff Gordon’s Martinsville Win
We knew as soon as Jeff Gordon announced his retirement shortly before the 2015 NASCAR season began that the entire season would become a farewell tour for him. What we didn’t know would be how badly he and his Hendrick Motorsports team would struggle for the majority of the season, especially given the fact that he looked like the best driver on track for most of the previous season. Gordon and his team stepped up big time during the playoffs and that culminated in what would become his 93rd and final career victory at Martinsville Speedway in dramatic fashion. The celebration was really what made this the best moment of the entire season as the 44-year old veteran of more than two decades in the sport looked like a young buck who’d just entered Victory Lane for the very first time and not the third winningest driver in the sport’s illustrious history.
Best Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
It’s pretty incredible to consider any other crew chief besides Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knauss (the greatest crew chief in the history of NASCAR) for this honor, but Kevin Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers has been the best crew chief in the sport over the last two seasons. Childers has Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas racing car as the top contender week-in-and-week-out. He led Harvick’s car to 23 top five finishes this season.
Best Feud: Matt Kenseth vs. Joey Logano
The Matt Kenseth/Joey Logano feud was “quintessential” until it wasn’t … but really the whole thing was quintessential. Matt Kenseth had dominated the Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway until the very end when a hard-charging Joey Logano wasn’t pleased by Kenseth’s attempts at blocking and spun the past champion out. Kenseth was obviously displeased by Logano’s takeout for the win and vowed payback – as driver’s frequently do. And, boy did he ever get that payback two weeks later when, as a car many laps down, he flat-out put Logano in the fence while Logano was leading at Martinsville Speedway. Kenseth’s actions earned him a two race suspension (the first for any on-track incident in Sprint Cup history), which proved controversial in itself, because drivers have always been trusted to police themselves since the very invention of auto racing and Kenseth simply did what he felt he had to do to regain order.
Worst Wreck: Austin Dillon at Daytona
Austin Dillon’s last lap wreck during the July Daytona race wasn’t just the worst wreck of the NASCAR season, but the worst wreck I’ve ever seen in 14 years watching the sport (and that’s saying a ton). Dillon truly made everybody’s heart stop for a second whether they were watching in person and on television when his No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was hit in the quarter panel during what they like to call “The Big One” and flew through the air over two entire lanes of traffic and into the safety catchfence ripping both the fence and his car to shreds before the car’s carcass landed upside down on the track. In the end, Dillon crawled out of his car unharmed, which is a true testament to the safety of NASCAR.
Best Rising Star: Chris Buescher
This could have easily have gone to 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott who will be taking over one of the most iconic cars in the history of NASCAR when he jumps into Jeff Gordon’s #24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet next season, but Chris Buescher really proved himself this season winning the Xfinity Series championship in very consistent form. Buescher was tied with all Xfinity regulars with two wins on the season and 11 top five and 20 top 10 finishes. Buescher’s 2016 plans aren’t exactly finalized, but some rumors have the 23-year old potentially moving up to Sprint Cup to drive the No. 9 of Richard Petty Motorsports.
Worst NASCAR Decision: Only One GWC at Talladega
This might have been the hardest choice to make of all of these NASCAR recap honors and dishonors. It seems over the last few years, at least, that every decision NASCAR makes is a bad decision. The sport seems to change both rules and championship formats willy-nilly throughout the season(s). This past season was, by far, the worst NASCAR season I’ve ever seen both when it comes to the excitement of the on-track racing, due to a rules package that simply allowed little passing on the many intermediate tracks, and constant controversy due to NASCAR rules changes and decisions. The worst decision they made all season long though was overreacting to Austin Dillon’s terrifying wreck at Daytona International Speedway and instituting only one green-white-checkered finish for the fall Talladega race instead of the usual three that are allotted. This rules change completely destroyed one of the most important finishes of the entire season and led to more controversy when Kevin Harvick may or may not have caused a caution intentionally (I say he did) to end the race under caution and ensure he made it to the next segment in the Chase for the Championship playoffs. Hopefully NASCAR realizes how bad they screwed up and re-institutes three GWCs for the Daytona 500 in February, if necessary.
Best Silly Season Move: Chase Elliott to #24
This NASCAR silly season (the name given to drivers switching from one team to another) was quite tame compared to many years. One might say that Clint Bowyer going to HScott Motorsports for a season before moving on to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016 to replace retiring legend Tony Stewart is the biggest or best silly season move, but let’s face it Bowyer hasn’t done anything for years and should be worse than ever driving for an underfunded team for a year. My decision is Chase Elliott taking over for the legendary Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. There are a ton of great young guns up-and-coming in this sport from Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones to Chris Buescher and Daniel Suarez, but Elliott could likely become the best of all of these and he’s getting the best seat in the business racing for the greatest team in the sport. There’s typically a learning curve for rookie drivers in the Sprint Cup Series, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if Elliott picks up a win in his rookie year in 2016.