Commentary: Toyota poised to lead NASCAR pack in 2016

David Scott
The Charlotte Observer

This is preview of 2016 NASCAR team manufacturers.

TOYOTA

What a year it was for Toyota. Thanks to Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing, the manufacturer won its first Cup championship. With JGR continuing to be at the forefront of the sport, it’s likely not the final time Toyota will win a title, either.

Joe Gibbs Racing

Busch’s march to the title, despite it having missed the first 11 races of the season, was the season’s top story. It’s hard to think that he won’t be favored to make it two in a row in 2016. JGR will continue to boast the strongest and most consistent four-driver lineup of any team in the sport, with Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth joining Busch in last season’s Chase.

Hamlin will be healthy after offseason knee surgery, while Kenseth (it is hoped) should have all the Chase drama with Joey Logano behind him. Edwards finished a respectable fifth in his first season with the team. Earlier this week, the team announced it was changing around crew chiefs, with Dave Rogers moving from Hamlin’s team to Edwards and Mike Wheeler taking over Hamlin’s team. Darian Grubb, who was Edwards’ crew chief last season, is “exploring several opportunities” for 2016, according to the team. Story worth following: Hamlin’s contract at JGR expires after the 2016 season.

Furniture Row Racing

After Martin Truex Jr. made it to the final four at Homestead, single-car team Furniture Row will switch from Chevy to Toyota in 2016. The team, which is based in Denver, Colo., will have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Story worth following: Will be this be the final season that Furniture Row runs as one-team operation?

BK Racing

This Charlotte-based team didn’t have much success last season with J.J. Yeley, Jeb Burton and Matt DiBenedetto combining for exactly zero top-10s and five laps led.

CHEVROLET

Toyota and Kyle Busch’s 2015 championship was just the second since 2004 that hadn’t been won by Chevrolet. Chevy did win its 13th consecutive and 39th overall manufacturer’s championship.

Hendrick Motorsports

A new era at Hendrick — and NASCAR — begins after Jeff Gordon’s retirement. Chase Elliott will take over the No. 24 for Gordon, who won four championships before retiring after the 2015 season. As always, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be among title favorites. Story worth following: Can Kasey Kahne find his mojo again after another disappointing season?

Stewart-Haas Racing

Like Hendrick, SHR will be a team in transition. Team co-owner Tony Stewart will retire from Cup racing after the 2016 season and be replaced in 2017 by Clint Bowyer. Kevin Harvick will be the team’s foundation and will contend for a title again. Kurt Busch, who like his brother Kyle missed the first part of last season, made the Chase anyway (also like Kyle). Story worth following: With a new sponsor, will Danica Patrick finally move to the next level?

Richard Childress Racing

Thanks to Ryan Newman, RCR has had a presence in the Chase the past two years. That might not be enough next season, however. Steady as always in 2015, Newman still hasn’t won since 2013. Austin Dillon’s second full-time Cup season produced one top five (at Michigan), as well as a hair-raising wreck at Daytona. Paul Menard had one of the top non-Chase seasons of anyone in 2015, finishing 14th. Story worth following: Is the season Dillon breaks out?

Chip Ganassi Racing

Kyle Larson might be the best young driver in NASCAR who hasn’t won a race. He was close a few times, finishing third at Dover and fifth at Homestead. He also led 115 laps. Jamie McMurray finally qualified for the Chase in 2015 after years of trying. Story worth following: Is this the year Larson gets his first victory?

Other Chevrolet teams

AJ Allmendinger is JTG Daugherty Racing’s only driver. But Martin Truex Jr. is Furniture Row Racing’s only driver and he made the Chase last season ... HScott Motorsports gets a rent-a-driver for the season in Bowyer, who replaces Stewart at SHR in 2017 ... Tommy Baldwin Racing has restructured for 2016 for driver Alex Bowman, including a new car chief in Mike Brill and engineering chief Chad Walters ... Single-car Germain Racing will make a go of it again with Casey Mears.

FORD

Team Penske

Both of Team Penske’s drivers will be among the favorites for this season’s championship. Until Joey Logano’s feud with Matt Kenseth derailed Logano’s hopes last season, he was in position to win his first championship. Brad Keselowski, while he made the Chase again, will look to bounce back from what was for him a sub-par season (just one victory).

Roush Fenway Racing

There will be lots of pressure at Roush Fenway, which didn’t produce a Chase driver in 2015 for the first time in team history. The team hasn’t won since Greg Biffle’s victory at Michigan in 2013. Biffle’s 20th-place finish last season was the best of the team’s three drivers, so there’s plenty of room for improvement from Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne.

Richard Petty Motorsports

A new era begins at RPM with Brian Scott replacing Sam Hornish Jr. Aric Almirola didn’t return to the Chase after qualifying for the postseason in 2014. There are still questions for the Mooresville-based team, primarily who will sponsor Scott’s No. 9 car. Scott only has 17 career Cup starts.

Wood Brothers Racing

One of the sport’s iconic teams returns to Cup racing on a full-time basis next season. Ryan Blaney will drive the famous No. 21. Blaney drove a partial schedule for the Woods in 2015, with one top-5 and two top-10 finishes. The Woods will receive technical assistance from Team Penske.

Front Row Motorsports

Xfinity champion Chris Buescher will drive for Front Row, with Scott Graves as his crew chief. Although a decision on the team’s No. 38 car hasn’t been announced yet, the team will have an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing.