So we’ve survived another long NASCAR season. From the green flag at Daytona International Speedway to the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami there were stories both good and bad, and some that were downright ugly. From a driver who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds, to drivers who hung up their helmets and tangled on the track, the 2015 season filled with tales that will be told for years to come.
There were stories, good, bad and ugly even before a racecar had turned a lap.
On January 22, only days before the annual preseason media tour, legendary driver Jeff Gordon made the stunning announcement that the 2015 season would be his last. The surprise announcement made an impact on NASCAR as well as the mainstream media and ensured that the attention on the four-time champion and the entire sport would be bigger than ever. The following week during the media tour in Charlotte Hendrick Motorsports announced that young driver Chase Elliott, son of former champion and one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers Bill Elliott would take over the storied No. 24 Chevy in 2016.
Gordon would score a dramatic win at Martinsville in the fall that also saw drama between Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth. With tears in his eyes, Gordon celebrated what turned out to be his 93rd and final career win. It gave him one final shot at a title, but he came up short finishing his final season third in the championship standings as he prepares to move to the TV booth as an analyst for Fox Sports in 2016. Jeff ended his final season with an emotional speech after being introduced by actor Tom Cruise.
Cruise portrayed California driver Cole Trickle in the movie “Days of Thunder” a movie that many feel mirrored Vallejo, California native Gordon’s early years in NASCAR. He and Jeff have become friends through the years and Cruise surprised Gordon, and the crowd with his introduction. Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO, then presented the Bill France Award to Jeff. The seldom seen award was last given to Gordon’s car owner Rick Hendrick in 2009
“Here I am 25 years later stepping away from one of the most prestigious series in all of motorsports and a fulfilling career,” Jeff said as the tears began to flow. He paused for a moment to compose himself before adding, “That can truly only be described as remarkable, and for that I am forever, forever thankful.”
The Busch brothers took over the preseason spotlight as NASCAR prepared to open its season at Daytona International Speedway.
In November of the previous year the eldest Busch brother Kurt was alleged to have been involved in a domestic battery incident with his then girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. The two had ended their relationship earlier in the year but a confrontation while the series was at Dover in September led to Driscoll filing a domestic battery complaint. With a history of volatile behavior from Kurt, many seemed to feel the allegations were true.
NASCAR indefinitely suspended Kurt on February 20th at Daytona only days before the 500, after a judge in Delaware issued a brief that stated Busch indeed “committed an act of domestic violence” against his ex-girlfriend during the Sept. 26 incident at Dover. The ruling also stated that Driscoll had “bruising and substantial and prolonged pain to her head, neck and throat.” A court ruled in Driscoll’s favor shortly after and issued a protective order.
In a somewhat dramatic Saturday morning a day before the first race of the season at Daytona, Kurt appealed his suspension at NASCAR’s headquarters across from the track and lost. Kurt saw his NASCAR suspension lifted in March not long after the State of Delaware declined to press charges. Kurt returned to racing at Phoenix on March 15th with a waiver from NASCAR that allowed him eligibility in the Chase should he win a race and make it inside the top 30 in points.
Kurt would go on to win two poles before scoring his Chase needed victory in the rain delayed race at Richmond on April 26th. He would win again at Michigan in June and with a new fiancée by his side celebrate his 8th place finish in the championship standings in Las Vegas in December. Driscoll was later the subject of a federal investigation for her business practices with the Armed Forces Foundation. That news surfaced in June, Driscoll resigned as head of the charity and the investigation is ongoing.
The drama for the Busch family prior to the Daytona 500 wasn’t confined to Kurt however. Only hours after losing his suspension appeal, Kurt saw his younger brother Kyle involved in a horrific accident in the closing laps of the season opening Xfinity series race. It not only left Kyle’s 2105 season uncertain, but his entire career in racing as well.
Kyle was racing a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota near the front of the lead group of 12 cars entering turn 1. He got into the rear of the car ahead of him then glanced off the side his a car beside him. The Toyota shot across a paved area then a grassy area before rocketing into an inside wall. Kyle could be seen trying to climb from the car as rescue crews got to him. He sat on the windowsill of the car and appeared to be pointing inside. After a few moments he finished climbing from the car with assistance from rescue workers. He then slowly went down prone onto the grass. He remained there for nearly 10 minutes as rescue workers stabilized him on a stretcher with the focus on his lower legs.
Immediately after the accident, social media began to light up with drivers and fans critical of NASCAR and the track for not having SAFER barriers installed at the site of Kyle’s accident. Track president Joie Chitwood and NASCAR officials met with the media. The track took responsibility for the lack of the so-called “soft walls” and vowed to make changes. They hastily installed a tire wall at the site prior to the next day’s Daytona 500, a race won for the first time by Joey Logano. The repercussions of Kyle’s incident lingered for weeks as tracks all over the circuit began to examine their own SAFER barrier instillations with many tracks declaring that they would add more where needed to ensure the safety of every competitor.
As for Kyle, he was rushed to nearby Halifax Medical Center and diagnosed with a broken lower right leg, and a broken left foot. He underwent surgery on his right leg that evening and was transferred to North Carolina the following week where his foot was operated on and he began a long painful rehabilitation process. Many thought Kyle Busch would be out at least the 2015 season.
However, Kyle fought back; rehabbing and showing a determination bordering on superhuman. He missed the first 11 races, but returned to racing in time for the annual All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, shortly after the birth of his first child, a son named Brexton. The pregnancy for wife Samantha was well known thanks to Samantha who publically wrote of the couple’s infertility issues prior to becoming pregnant for the first time. The proud parents would go on to provide funds for other couples having the same issues and help bring awareness to the issue.
On track, Kyle did what he had to do once granted a waiver by NASCAR. He scored a victory at Sonoma in June, somewhat surprising given the difficulty of road racing and his injuries. Kyle then won three of the next four races, then raced his way inside the top 30 in points, survived the Elimination rounds and scored his fifth season win and his first title at Homestead.
“I guess you’ve heard that old saying ‘Break a leg,’ ” Busch said during his acceptance speech in Las Vegas in December. “In the world of theater, it means good luck. As I stand here today, I can say that breaking a leg works just as good in racing.”
Kyle Larson was hospitalized and missed the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29. The 2014 Sprint Cup rookie of the year was taken to Martinsville Memorial Hospital after he fainted at the Chevy Stage in the fan area. Doctors checked out Larson and said he seemed fine but recommend he see a neurologist for further evaluation. Since there was no neurologist at the Martinsville hospital, Larson was transported back to Charlotte N.C. and seen at the Carolinas Medical Center. Regan Smith replaced him for the race. Kyle returned the following week with a clean bill of health.
On the Tuesday after the Martinsville race, NASCAR issued historic penalties to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Sprint Cup team with driver Ryan Newman after finding altered tires used in a race March 22 in Fontana, California. Newman was docked 75 driver points and car owner Richard Childress 75 owner points. Luke Lambert, crew chief for Newman, was fined $125,000 and suspended from the next six Cup races plus any non-points races during that span. In addition, James Bender, the team’s tire technician, and Philip Surgen, a team engineer was suspended from the next six races, including any non-points events during that time. All were placed on probation through December 31. In the same week, it was announced that Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs had started treatment for symptoms impacting areas of brain function.
The stories among the Chase field this season were more compelling than in recent years, especially among the final four at Homestead. Not only was Kyle Busch looking to top an amazing comeback, but there was one last chance for Jeff Gordon, and an opportunity for Kevin Harvick to defend his title. The biggest underdog story however came from Martin Truex Jr.
Martin, racing for single team organization Furniture Row, made his first appearance in NASCAR’s Chase. He gained eligibility by scoring one of the season’s more emotional victories with a win at Pocono. The triumph came as his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex is fighting ovarian cancer. Martin would finish fourth in the season standings capping off his career season with a heartfelt speech in Las Vegas that included gratitude to the NASCAR community and Sherry as she continues her battle.
Popular NASCAR TV host Steve Byrnes lost his battle with cancer on April 21. The sad news came only two days after the race at Bristol which had been renamed the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand Up to Cancer. Tributes were shown all weekend for Steve as he was readmitted to the hospital.
The spring Bristol race itself was memorable as it took most of the day to complete. Thanks to persistent rain the race took a total of nine hours to run to its conclusion. Matt Kenseth held off Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in a green white checkered flag finish to win under the lights. That Bristol race also marked the Sprint Cup debut of rookie Erik Jones, although no one knew it prior to the race. During the long rain delays, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin complained of pain in his back and neck. The team scrambled and rushed Erik from his home in North Carolina to replace Denny in the car.
While the spring race at Bristol finished under the lights and was supposed to be a day race, the race at Richmond was moved from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon, also thanks to rain. The day race proved so popular that for 2016 the spring race at Richmond will remain a Sunday afternoon day race.
Several days after the Richmond race, David Ragan was named to replace Brian Vickers in the No. 55 at Michael Waltrip Racing. Vickers, who has a history of health issues and had open heart surgery prior to the season, was sidelined again with blood clots.
On May 3, NASCAR’s favorite son Dale Earnhardt Jr. won for the first time at Talladega since 2004 much to the delight of the Junior Nation. The race featured the infamous “Big One” as 14 cars were swept up in a crash early on and the race had to be halted for nearly 12 minutes for extensive clean up.
Denny Hamlin won the biggest cash prize of his NASCAR career winning the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 16. Hamlin won the non-points race, and its one million dollar payout, in convincing fashion. He couldn’t follow up his victory the next however as he lost to his teammate Carl Edwards in the Coca-Cola 600. It was Edwards’s first win with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Perhaps the biggest news in June came on the 17th when Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he had asked his longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann while on vacation in Germany. She said yes of course. In that same month, NASCAR made national headlines among a storm of controversy surrounding the Confederate flag. In the wake of a racially motivated shooting in Charleston South Carolina many around the country called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public places. NASCAR issued a statement reaffirming their ban on the flag among its members but Confederate flags could still be seen in the infield begin displayed by fans as the series returned to Daytona on the July 4th weekend.
Rain plagued the series at Daytona the entire weekend. The traditional July 4th race had been moved to Sunday the 5 to accommodate the debut of NBC which made its return to the sport after a an absence of nine years. Fox continued its coverage of the first half of the season. Despite the new partnerships however ratings were down across almost the entire board for the season.
The race itself didn’t start until nearly midnight thanks to rain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line at 2:40 a.m. Monday morning to win. The race had three major crashes and nine caution flags, the final one that set up a green white checkered flag finish.
As Earnhardt crossed the line to win, behind him one of the worst crashes in NASCAR history erupted. The Chevy of Austin Dillon shot up from the bottom of the track into the air and into the catch fence; the car literally exploded and came to rest in a mangled mass of metal upside down. Almost immediately, crewmembers most from Earnhardt’s crew ran to the Dillon car and within moments, Dillon emerged from the remains of the car uninjured. Track officials later said one fan had been hospitalized in stable condition, four others were treated on site, and eight declined treatment. Only three of the 27 cars on the lead lap escaped the accident.
Later that same week on Thursday night during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series UNOH 225 at Kentucky Speedway driver Ben Kennedy was racing for position with only five laps to go when he made contact with the truck being driven by David Gilliland just past the start-finish line of the 1.5 mile speedway near Sparta Kentucky. Kennedy’s Toyota was sent head first and into the inside wall; the truck lifted up and into the catch fence. The mangled machine then rode along the top of the SAFER barrier entering turn 1 before falling down and sliding to a stop in the middle of turns 1 and 2. The fence was damaged but no fans were injured. The Sprint Cup race took place that Sunday with no major incidents and was won by Kyle Busch. He would go on to win the next two races, first at New Hampshire and the following week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Kyle Busch looked to be in a great position to score a fourth consecutive win after he took the lead on the final laps after Joey Logano ran out of fuel. Kyle himself ran dry however handing the lead and the win to his teammate Matt Kenseth on the final lap. The race was also memorable for an crash early in the event that saw Kasey Kahne careen into the inside pit wall sending crewmembers and fans scrambling. Everyone escaped injury. The same can be said for an incident that occurred under green on lap 52 when Brad Keselowski sent two of his crew flying after he stuck them on pit road.
Logano was able to find redemption for his Pocono loss a week later as he won at Watkins Glen. It was his first career road course win. A day later news came that NASCAR lost the Gentle Giant Elzie Wylie “Buddy” Baker Jr., the 1980 Daytona 500 champion and famed NASCAR commentator died after a battle with cancer his family announced. Baker was 74.
On August 19 Michael Waltrip Race announced it would be shuttering its doors at season’s end. The organization had been involved in several scandals since its formation in 2002 including being banned from the 2007 Daytona 500 after illegal substances were found in their fuel and allegations that driver Clint Bowyer staged an intentional spin in 2013 to help another team driver make NASCAR’s Chase.
All of that was forgotten by the time NASCAR rolled into Darlington. The Southern 500 was again on the calendar for Labor Day for the first time since 2003. The race had been a staple on the holiday weekend for nearly half a century when NASCAR moved it. With its return NASCAR celebrated its past with a “throwback” theme. The race provided what many characterized as “old-school” racing with several drivers struggling, spinning and sliding into Darlington’s unforgiving walls. The exciting racing was due in large part to a low downforce package the sanctioning body had instituted for Darlington and Kentucky earlier in the season. A high downforce package had been used at Indy and Michigan, and proved much less popular. Carl Edwards won the race and thanks to some artsy tape work the Darlington name on the frontstretch wall was changed to “Carlington” after it was over.
The Chase field was set at Richmond on September 12. Matt Kenseth won the race and was tied with Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch as the Chase field was set. They were followed by are followed by, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard. Hamlin was racing only days after revealing he had again torn an ACL in his leg while playing basketball.
MWR was again embroiled in controversy as NASCAR penalized the team for an illegal track bar at the opening Chase race at Chicagoland. Crew chief Billy W. Scott was fined $75,000, suspended for the next three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship events and placed on NASCAR probation for six months. Clint Bowyer was penalized 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Driver points. Car owner Rob Kauffman was penalized 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship Owner points.
The following weekend, Kenseth won at New Hampshire as Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch fell to the bottom of the Chase standings with poor finishes.
As the series headed to the first elimination race of the Chase at Dover, Tony Stewart announced on September 30 that 2016 will be his final season. After dealing with injuries and an accident away from NASCAR that involved the death of a young competitor, Tony will take his own final laps mirroring Gordon’s this past season. Tony has struggled these past few seasons, but will leave NASCAR as the only driver to win three titles under three different title sponsors: Winston, Nextel and Sprint. He will begin his final campaign with 48 wins, tied for 13th on the all time win list. Clint Bowyer will replace Tony in the No. 14 Chevy in 2017.
Facing elimination at Dover, Harvick went to victory, and Kyle finished second as both staved off elimination. Earnhardt Jr. and Jamie McMurray raced each other hard in the final laps each aware that the driver with the highest finisher eliminating the other. Earnhardt finished third, McMurray fourth. McMurray was eliminated, as Earnhardt advanced. Also failing to advance were Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.
Joey Logano won the next three races in NASCAR’s Contender round at Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. He won the Kansas race with a controversial bump and run, his victim being Matt Kenseth. It was a move that later came back to haunt him. The Talladega race was not without controversy either.
That controversy actually erupted on Tuesday the week prior when NASCAR ruled that there would only be one attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish instead of the traditional three at Talladega. With only two cautions leading up to the finish the race saw no actual accidents until the final laps. Jamie McMurray lost an engine with five laps to go setting up the only attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish. On the first attempt, Jimmie Johnson was spun behind the leaders and NASCAR threw a caution prior to the field crossing the start-finish line. NASCAR ruled that there would be another attempt.
On the second attempt, the field did cross the line but a huge crash erupted behind them and NASCAR again threw the yellow flag again freezing the field. After several minutes, NASCAR declared Logano the winner, leaving Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a close second. Many felt Kevin Harvick, who was suffering mechanical issues and needed a decent finish to avoid elimination from the Chase, caused the second crash. Harvick later denied it, and NASCAR could find no clear evidence he had done so. Denny Hamlin was eliminated as was Dale Earnhardt Jr. despite finishing second. They joined Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth.
While Jeff Gordon was celebrating his emotional win at Martinsville on November 1 that solidified his spot in the final four and one last attempt at a title, the focus was on Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and the crash seen around the world. Kenseth had continued to blame Logano for his loss at Kansas and subsequent elimination from the Chase at Talladega. On lap 453, Kenseth, who had tangled with Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski earlier in the race and was forced to the garage for repairs returned to the track and in a deliberate move sent Logano, who was leading and seemingly on his way to victory after leading a race high 207 laps, into the wall. The crowd erupted in cheers as the drivers climbed from their mangled machines.
NASCAR expressed disappointment with the dust up and responded to the incident the following week suspending Kenseth for two races. As a result of the feud between Kenseth and Logano, both drivers, once favorites to win the title, were not in the final four at Homestead.
Non-Chase drivers would win the next two races, Johnson at Texas and Earnhardt Jr. in a rain-shortened event at Phoenix. But it was Kyle Busch who won the final race of the season at Homestead taking the lead late in the going and holding off defending champion Harvick in dramatic fashion to win the race and his first title. Erik Jones had won the truck title Friday night for Kyle Busch Motorsports, while Chris Buescher won the Xfinity crown for Roush-Fenway Racing on Saturday.
Days before the championship banquet NASCAR announced the departure of VP of Competition Robin Pemberton. His replacement Scott Miller was named as a replacement.
The 2015 Sprint Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas was one of the most emotional ones in recent memory with Jeff Gordon’s final speech, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 13th consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award, and Kyle Busch basking in the glory of his triumph.
Brian Scott was named as the replacement driver for Sam Hornish Jr. at Richard Petty Motorsports on December 11 and the year ended on sad note as Judy Allison, wife of NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison, passed away from complications during surgery on December 18. She was 74.
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season gets the green flag with the start of the Daytona 500 on February 21.