Who’s next? It will take time to see who might surprise in 2016

Martin Truex Jr. surprised with a stout 2015 season while driving for Furniture Row Racing.

Sean Gardner

The good thing about this time of year, especially if you have made changes within your organization, is the excitement and anticipation because obviously these changes were made to make your team better.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a new driver, which quite honestly there weren’t many driver changes or if it’s a new crew chief (and there are a slew of those), or a new engineer, you are excited to see how the new combination works out. 

Now you can go to Daytona and have the absolutely picture-perfect Speed Weeks. You could win the Sprint Unlimited. You could win the pole for the Daytona 500. You could win one of the Duel races and then win the big one, the Daytona 500.

Yes, it sure sets the tone for your season, but everyone knows it’s a totally different rules package on the superspeedways and it has absolutely nothing to do with what comes after Daytona. 

We can then go to Atlanta and then out through the West Coast swing and we still aren’t going to really know who the major players are. I’ve always believed we needed to get through about race No. 8, which will give us races on a superspeedway track, an intermediate track, a place like Phoenix and a short track. We need to visit all types of race tracks, naturally with the exception of a road course, before we really have a clear picture of who the top drivers and teams are. 

I think it’s safe to assume it will once again be the same cast of characters up front. I’m talking about the Kevin Harvicks, the Joey Loganos, the Jimmie Johnsons and the Kyle Buschs of the world to be up front, leading races and contending for wins. As I’ve said many times however, we can always give you our thoughts and expectations of who we think will be strong, but there will always be a surprise. 

By that I mean there will be some driver and team out there that we never talk about heading into the season as being a major player. They literally won’t even be in any conversations about being able to win races or being a championship contender. Then before you know it, they are on everyone’s radar and making a lot of noise in the sport. 

The classic example is Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 car from 2014 to 2015. This is a team that only had one top-five finish for the entire 2014 season. They ended 2015 with a win, eight top-five finishes and 22 top-10 finishes after beginning the season with 14 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races.

Truex and his Furniture Row Racing team did all that, plus finished fourth in the points. After the dismal 2014 they experienced, do you really think they were being talked about early on as a major player in 2015?

Again, we need to get through a few races this season, especially with this new rules package before we can start saying, "Here are the drivers and teams we all better keep an eye on."