1. Kevin Harvick - He's been the most dominant driver in the series the last two seasons, and he's averaged four wins over that span. With a ridiculous 13 runner-up finishes and 23 Top 5s last year, the No. 4 team has seemed to be head-and-shoulders above everyone else. Harvick is the front-runner for the championship and the man to beat going forward.
2. Joey Logano - Logano has gotten better each of the last three seasons, but last year's campaign signals a potential top for this driver and team. The Penske Racing star piled up six wins and 22 Top-5 finishes last year. His level of performance is right there on par with Kevin Harvick's atop the Sprint Cup Series. These two will battle for the championship for the foreseeable future.
3. Kyle Busch - Given the fact that Busch only raced in 25 of the 36 races, it's truly remarkable what he accomplished en route to winning the 2015 Sprint Cup Series championship. He returned from the major foot and leg injuries he received at Daytona to claim five wins and 16 Top 10s. Had he raced the full season he would have really piled the numbers up high. With his first championship now out of the way the Joe Gibbs Racing star has finally arrived with the NASCAR elite.
4. Jimmie Johnson - He may not be the king of the hill anymore, but make no mistake, Johnson is still an incredible force in NASCAR's top division. Winning the crown is now harder for the six-time champion, but he's still a major threat. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has averaged five victories and 22 Top-10 finishes over the last three seasons. The trend line is pretty steady and it makes him one of the most reliable and consistent performers in NASCAR.
5. Brad Keselowski - It's hard to believe that Keselowski posted a career high in Top 10s last year with 25, but was largely overshadowed in the Chase for the Cup. What was missing were the victories as he claimed only one. This driver and team are only a nudge away from being a serious title contender, and that could happen at any point. Crew Chief Paul Wolfe and Keselowski will set out to win that second championship together in 2016,
6. Matt Kenseth - We've come to expect about four or five wins and 20-22 Top 10s from this driver and team since Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing a few seasons ago. While that seems routine, we have to remember that these are elite performance numbers. The lack of a championship since joining RCR doesn't seem possible. Could it be that his numbers will head down? We don't think so. If anything, Kenseth presents the most potential and upside of the upper tier drivers.
7. Carl Edwards - We expected Edwards to explode in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing. While that didn't happen, he did manage to grab two wins and 15 Top-10 finishes en route to a fifth-place finish in the standings. With JGR on the rise, the Edwards explosion is more likely to happen this year. The pre-season crew chief shakeup at Gibbs could spur this veteran driver to stats he hasn't posted since his stellar 2008 season.
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. - For a driver that had years of struggles winning races during the middle-stages of his NASCAR career, Earnhardt has really turned things around. The two-year trend line shows about three-to-four wins and 20-22 Top 10s on average. Those aren't scrub numbers by any stretch. While not a major threat to win the championship, Earnhardt has become one of the most consistent drivers in the series the last four years.
9. Kurt Busch - Busch's NASCAR career looked like it was on its last legs after Penske released him at the end of 2011. However, he's staged a late-career rally and is now posting numbers better than when he used to race for Roger Penske. Busch has gotten his personal life under control and his home at Stewart Haas Racing seems a great fit. Another two-win, 20+ Top-10 campaign should be in store in the upcoming season.
10. Denny Hamlin - Hamlin is one of the streakiest drivers in the upper tier of the Sprint Cup Series. However, he's always had that homerun potential as his eight-win and five-win seasons in 2010 and 2012 demonstrate. After winning at Chicago to kick off the Chase for the Cup last year, he faded over the remaining races of the playoff. Inconsistency has always plagued Hamlin, but he's usually good for a couple wins and 18-20 Top 10s most seasons.
11. Martin Truex Jr. - Last season's performance was a real surprise. Truex won his first race in two years, and posted career highs in Top 10s and finish in the driver standings (fourth). Can he do it again or is this the high water mark? We're willing to bet the latter. While Truex won't completely fall off this season, there will be a noticeable return to Earth from the stratosphere.
12. Ryan Newman - Newman may be the most underappreciated driver in the Sprint Cup Series. If he raced for better teams, he'd be a championship contender and multi-race winner. As it is, he's just a very consistent driver in good equipment. His past seven years have set a trend line of about 15 to 18 Top-10 finishes and a berth in the Chase for the Cup.
13. Chase Elliott - Elliott will be the fresh, new face in the Sprint Cup Series this season. He takes over the legendary No. 24 Chevrolet of the now-retired Jeff Gordon. This young driver will be given the equipment and brain trust to succeed right away and to run away with the Rookie of the Year honors. With that said, the only limiting factor will be Elliott's adjustment to racing Sprint Cup Series cars week-in and week-out. There will be some lessons learned along the way.
14. Kasey Kahne - Kahne has been very disappointing the last two seasons. Now that Jeff Gordon is gone, Hendrick Motorsports will focus more time and effort on making the No. 5 team better. Kahne has Rick Hendrick's endorsement and confidence and that says a lot. Of the drivers in this part of the rankings, he probably has the most upside and potential to exceed expectations. Two wins and 15-17 Top-10 finishes are within reasonable reach.
15. Kyle Larson - This young driver will shake off the sophomore slump of last year, and make us remember why we were wowed in 2014. Larson is still seeking his first-career win, and he could check that off the list this season. The Chip Ganassi Racing youngster should touch the 15 Top-10 finish plateau and make the Chase for the Cup for the first time in his career.
16. Jamie McMurray - The veteran driver is coming off his best season since 2010 last year. McMurray claimed 10 Top-10 finishes and ended up a respectable 13th in the final driver standings. This has been typical of the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet's recent level of performance. McMurray's ability to win races has diminished, but he's consistent enough to race competitively and challenge the Chase.
17. Greg Biffle - Probably the most difficult driver to prognosticate this season is Biffle. He had a dumpster-fire of a season in 2015, and the season before that was nothing to write home about either. However, he's still the top driver at Roush Fenway Racing and worthy of this ranking based on past achievements. If Roush can turn the corner and pull out of their recent struggles, Biffle could get back to 12 or so Top 10s and back inside the Top 15 of the driver standings.
18. Aric Almirola - Since joining Richard Petty Motorsports four years ago, Almirola has shaped up into a pretty decent driver. The 31-year-old should claim 6-8 Top-10 finishes in the coming season, and he should challenge to make the Chase field. The simple limiting factor is that Almirola is at a bit of an equipment disadvantage compared to the drivers above him in the rankings. He does the best with what he has, and that's admirable. Almirola's late-season hot streak last year is tantalizing going into 2016.
19. Paul Menard - The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet saw a downturn in Top-10 finishes last season with only five, but his average finish remained in line with his three-year trend at 17.1. That tells us that he didn't push into the Top 10 as much, but his Top 15 totals and consistency grew. That's sort of a mixed bag in some respects. Menard enters a contract year in 2016, so motivation won't be in short supply.
20. Austin Dillon - Dillon now has two full seasons and 85 total starts under his belt at the top level of NASCAR. We should start seeing the tree bear some fruits this season. The RCR driver qualified better in 2015 than his rookie season, led more laps and claimed one more Top-10 finish. Dillon should begin to push the bar higher in 2016. How far is hard to tell. Childress keeping crew chief Slugger Labbe paired with Dillon tells us things are headed the right direction.
21. Tony Stewart - The 17-year veteran claims to be in the best physical shape of his life over the NASCAR off-season, as he enters his last campaign in the Sprint Cup Series. Whether that will pull him out of his three-season slump remains to be seen. Smoke will pair with a new crew chief for his final year as Mike Bugarewicz takes over the No. 14 team. It will take a lot of things coming together to lift Stewart from this place in the rankings.
22. Clint Bowyer - Bowyer takes over the No. 51 Chevrolet for a one season stint at HScott Motorsports. The car number will change to the No. 15 to match his now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing ride. Bowyer brings a lot to the table to lift this small team, and we're optimistic that the sponsors and money are lining up to make this a successful effort, but temper those expectations. This is still a transitional ride before Bowyer takes over the No. 14 at Stewart Haas Racing in 2017.
23. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The downturn at Roush Fenway Racing the last couple seasons has limited the former Xfinity Series champion's impact at NASCAR's top level. We don't see the Roush situation turning completely around in 2016, so there will be some more struggles in the near future. Stenhouse is the future of this organization so he's in it for the long haul, but the storm clouds aren't going to clear right away.
24. Ryan Blaney - We'd like to rank Blaney higher than this, and he certainly has the potential to outperform this spot in the rankings. However, we have to keep in mind that this will not only be his first full season at the Sprint Cup level, but also Wood Brothers Racing's first full season in nine years. Some growing pains are to be expected, but know that this talented young driver has tons of potential and the interest of Penske Racing in how he performs.
25. A.J. Allmendinger - The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran took some backward steps last season and suffered some inconsistency. Hopefully, with the help of new crew chief Randall Burnett, he'll get back closer to his 2014 level of performance in the coming year. We need to be realistic about Allmendinger's potential yet balance that with optimism. Five Top-10 finishes is within the realm of possibility, and he'll challenge for the win at both road courses.
26. Danica Patrick - The popular Stewart Haas Racing driver seems to be stuck in neutral as far as her development in NASCAR goes. Patrick has been slotting between 24th and 28th in the standings the last three seasons, and she's averaging only two Top-10 finishes per campaign. Those marks have to improve going forward, but we're not sure how much. Once again Patrick will be starting a new season with another new crew chief. Billy Scott takes over atop the team's war wagon and the chemistry-building starts from scratch.
27. Brian Scott - Scott takes over the No. 9 ride of Richard Petty Motorsports. The team will change the car to No. 44 and bring Chris Heroy in to oversee the crew chief position. Scott is an Xfinity Series veteran and has been a fixture in that series' Top 10 for the last five seasons. The 17 starts of Sprint Cup Series experience that he has will serve him well in adjusting to full-time competition at NASCAR's top level, but there will be a steep learning curve in 2016.
28. Chris Buescher - The reigning Xfinity Series champion is another member of this season's deep rookie class. He'll take over the No. 34 Ford of Front Row Motorsports and be teamed with very talented crew chief Bob Osborne. While it won't be as easy as his last racing gig, Buescher has the talent to take this team places. If he and Osborne can work out some chemistry quickly, it could be a career-best season for the No. 34 FRM team.
29. Regan Smith - Smith was a late off-season signing in January. He'll take over the No. 7 Chevrolet of Tommy Baldwin Racing. This Xfinity Series veteran will get his first crack at full-time competition in the Sprint Cup Series since 2012. TBR has assembled more support and brains behind this operation than ever before in the hopes that 2016 is their season to surprise. With over 176 starts of experience at NASCAR's top level, this driver and team have some upward potential and some ability to exceed expectations.
30. Casey Mears - Mears returns to Germain Racing for his 14th Sprint Cup Series campaign. The veteran driver had a bit of a downturn in 2015 as the No. 13 team lost some ground on the super speedways. However, the team's performance has remained fairly flat over the last three years with Mears averaging around 24th in the driver standings. He'll look to pick up more Top 10s this season and continue improving his qualifying, which improved considerably last season.
31. Trevor Bayne - With only two Top-10 finishes and 29th-place standings finish in 2015, Bayne's season fell short of expectations on several fronts. It was his first full season after four years of part-time participation at NASCAR's top level. Hopefully some of those lessons learned can be employed to team improvement this season. However, the general downturn at Roush Fenway Racing has been more than noticeable the last couple seasons. Matt Puccia comes over from Greg Biffle's team to crew chief for Bayne this season. Optimism for improvement is rather guarded at best.
32. Landon Cassill - This journeyman driver gets an upgrade in teams in 2016. Cassill will move to Front Row Motorsports and takeover the No. 38 Ford of that team. This will be his best racing opportunity of his six-season career. Cassill will be teamed with veteran crew chief Donnie Wingo and they'll look to hit the ground running this season. This 26-year-old driver has lots of potential and he should get the No. 38 team headed back in the right direction.
33. Michael Annett - Annett returns for his third season of Sprint Cup racing behind the wheel of the No. 46 Chevrolet of HScott Motorsports. The 29-year-old driver actually experienced a bit of a downturn last season in performance. His average starting and finishing position actually regressed over his rookie season numbers. Annett will look to turn things around once again under the guidance of crew chief Jay Guy. Pilot Flying J will continue to sponsor Annett, and that relationship will continue to benefit this driver and team.
34. David Ragan - Ragan was another driver to sign late in the off-season. He will take over BK Racing's No. 23 Toyota for the coming season. Patrick Donahue has been brought in to crew chief for Ragan and this team, so the picture is quickly taking focus before the season begins. With two-career victories and over 300 starts at the Cup level, this driver is just what this small team needs. However, the ability to move up the standings will be limited due to funding, support and other limitations at BK Racing.
35. Matt DiBenedetto - This team and driver have partnered for their second-straight season together. DiBenedetto raced to a 35th-place finish in the driver standings and struggled to an average finish of 32.0. Gene Nead took over as crew chief partway through last season, and he'll remain atop the team's war wagon to start this season. Optimism abounds, but reality suggests they'll be challenged to improve in 2016.
36. Jeffrey Earnhardt - The youngest of the racing Earnhardts will race most of the schedule in 2016 with the Go FAS Racing team. Depending on sponsorship it could be as little as 20 starts or as many as 32. Wally Rogers comes in to crew chief this up-and-coming team, so improvement is possible. However, Earnhardt's lack of experience in Cup cars will be a definite liability. This is a team and driver to watch in the future, but their impact will be very limited this year.
37. Michael McDowell - Leavine Family Racing has merged with Circle Sport Racing to put McDowell on the track for most of the season in the No. 95 Chevrolet. He should make at least 26 starts for this team, while sharing the ride with Ty Dillon this season. Dave Winston comes in to crew chief and engines will now come from ECR thanks to the merger with Circle Sport. Lots of moving pieces and parts for this part-time team going full-time. Thankfully, McDowell has 182 starts of Cup Series experience, which will benefit the team greatly in this transition.
38. Cole Whitt - Whitt is one of the more interesting free-agents still available as the season quickly approaches. Front Row Motorsports contracted from three to two rides over the off-season and that left him without a ride to start 2016. Whitt has 86 starts of experience at this level, and has shown in the lower divisions of NASCAR that he can race well when given fast cars and good equipment. However, open rides are scarce at the start of February, and Whitt could be facing the prospect of either dropping down in NASCAR or sitting out this season.
39. J.J. Yeley - Yeley is another in a handful of drivers who are not set for 2016 as of this writing. He spent last season driving for BK Racing, but that team is scaling back to just two full-time teams this season. That effectively left Yeley in search of a ride. With over 250 starts of Cup Series experience, he has some marketable skills, however, rides are in scarce supply. It's very likely that Yeley will only race in the Xfinity Series this season or in a very light part-time capacity at NASCAR's top level.
40. Erik Jones - The reigning Camping World Truck Series champion will race full-time in the Xfinity Series this season in search of that series' championship. However, we wouldn't rule out some part-time Jones in NASCAR's top division. Joe Gibbs Racing has a lot invested in this young talent and want to continue his development. Rumors have Furniture Row Racing starting a second, part-time team this season with Jones behind the wheel. That remains to be seen, but is a tantalizing idea.
41. Ty Dillon - With the merger of Circle Sport Racing and Leavine Family Racing, Dillon will still get an opportunity to get some Sprint Cup action this season. Michael McDowell will be in the No. 95 Chevrolet most of the season, but Dillon will get the start in the Daytona 500 and in select events during the year. This young driver's focus is still on the Xfinity Series championship, so any racing at this level of NASCAR is developmental only. With that said, he's a very capable young driver behind the wheel of this car.
42. Brian Vickers - Easily the most decorated and skilled driver of the free agent class, but with the most clouds around his potential. Blood clots sidelined Vickers once again in early 2015, and for the third time in his career he's had to step out of the race car for treatment of the condition. With the closure of Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of last season, that left Vickers without a ride. Considering his health issues and the lack of available rides, we may not see him in a race car this season.
43. David Gilliland - After his release from Front Row Motorsports during the off-season, Gilliland enters 2016 without a ride. The 10-season veteran has 330 starts of Sprint Cup experience, which makes him one of the more seasoned available drivers in the series. Unfortunately, the lack of rides will limit his opportunities going forward. Only a couple small full-time teams remain without a driver, and they amount to little more than start-and-park teams.
44. Brett Moffitt - Moffitt made a big splash racing most of last season with a couple different teams. He scored a Top 10 in his first start with Michael Waltrip Racing at Atlanta, and also raced a good bit with Front Row Motorsports. However, with FRM downsizing in 2016, there was no ride for Moffitt this season. The young driver has obvious racing talent, but his options are limited. He might land with one of the part-time teams or smaller full-time teams that are still searching for a driver, but quality options are nearly non-existent this late into the pre-season.
45. Bobby Labonte - Labonte will continue racing the four restrictor-plate races with Go FAS Racing in the No. 32 Ford. That's the total of his participation at this point in his career. Being a former champion gives that small team the valuable provisional starts they need to assure a spot in the field at Daytona and Talladega. As to his level of performance, Labonte is not quite the champion driver he used to be now that he's approaching 52-years-old.