17 February 2014

2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Season Predictions

(USA Today)
Now every Sprint Cup Series season is one to watch, but the 2014 campaign will really be something for a pair of reasons. First, NASCAR has instituted significant changes to the Chase format, the greatest changes to the format since it was put into put in 2004, increasing the importance of winning for each race before the Chase, expanding the field, bringing in an elimination format, and resulting in one race for all the marbles at the end of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The second major storyline has to do with a little history, and the driver pictured above with his crew chief. Jimmie Johnson, the defending champion, now has six driver championships. That puts him one shy of the all-time record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. If Johnson were to win, not only would he tie the record, he would be the youngest and fastest driver to do it.

Just in case you need even more to be excited about, here are my predictions for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season.

Nationwide Series Predictions
Truck Series Predictions

1. Matt Kenseth, #20 Dollar General/Home Depot Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
It's not that often that a former champion says the best season of his career is a year in which he did not win the title, but it does apply here for Kenseth as he was brilliant in 2013. In only his first season with Gibbs Racing, he dominated many races, led an exorbitant amount of laps and led the circuit with seven victories. And that excellence will continue in 2014 and with a system that will reward winning, it will reward Kenseth with his second title. Runner-up slumps be damned.

2. Brad Keselowski, #2 Miller Lite Fusion, Team Penske
The man who stared down Jimmie Johnson and did not blink en route to the 2012 title certainly took a step backwards, suffering a couple of poor finishes right before the Chase and missing out altogether. He did step up his game once in the Chase, getting his only win of the season at Charlotte and having having a bunch of strong finishes down the stretch. I think he is poised for a big bounce-back year in 2014 and will make a ery strong run at a second title.

3. Denny Hamlin, #11 FedEx Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Speaking of bounce-back seasons, you are bound to see it from Hamlin. Hell, he alluded to it when he won the Sprint Unlimited on Saturday night at Daytona. Hamlin was off to a decent start, and was en route to a strong finish at Fontana before the scuffle with Joey Logano left him injured. After missing four races, Hamlin simply was not the same and was very inconsistent the rest of the year. But he finished the season strong with a win at Homestead and I think that he is poised to get hot and into the title mix.

4. Jimmie Johnson, #48 Lowe's SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Although Johnson has denied and NASCAR will never admit it, one would have to be truly naive to think that his Chase dominance was not at least part of the decision to move to the new Chase format. However, it would also be naive to think that Johnson will be completely neutralized by this format, you don't win six titles just on a format alone as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are one the greatest driver-crew chief combos ever, without question. I don't think that seventh will come this year, but it is coming.

5. Kyle Busch, #18 M&M's Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
This new points system seems made for a guy like Rowdy Busch considering with his talent and the equipment, he can win at just about any weekend. So without question will he be in the Chase, even if he does not win. But he has never shown any sort of consistency in the Chase races, particularly the back-end of the Chase where he is very inconsistent, and thus I'm not sure if he can put it all together and get the title.

6Kasey Kahne, #5 Farmers Insurance/Great Clips SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Kahne did win twice for the second straight year, his second campaign with Hendrick, but after peaking at second in points after Kansas, but he was inconsistent the rest of the way and had a poor start to the Chase en route to a 12th place finish. He has the equipment to win it all and has the talent to do so as well as an excellent crew chief in Kenny Francis, but can he be consistent enough to win it all?

7. Kevin Harvick, #4 Budweiser/Jimmy John's SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Harvick is moving over to Stewart-Haas after spending his entire Cup career with Richard Childress. Now they have made a pair of big acquisitions, but I don't think that they will be the team to beat, they did struggle last year with their first expansion. So there may be a little growing pains, but Harvick will be a Chase driver. He has been a title contender, having finished in the top four five times in the last eight years, and has an excellent crew chief in Rodney Childers, who comes over from Michael Waltrip Racing.

8Dale Earnhardt, Jr., #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew SS, Hendrick Motorsports
We have talked about how the new Chase system rewards winning, but Earnhardt would have won the title last year had the new system been in place last year, and he had no wins. But save for blowing an engine in the opening race at Chicago, he was excellent in the Chase with only one other non-top eight finish. And that is not to mention his crew chief, Steve Letarte, is leaving to become an analyst for NBC's NASCAR coverage after this season. However, I do think that while Earnhardt will be consistent enough to make the Chase with room to spare, I don't think he will be getting the wins he will needs. He has only won twice since leaving DEI in 2007.

9. Tony Stewart, #14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobile 1 SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Will Smoke indeed rise in 2014 after a 2013 season ravaged by a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg during a sprint car race in early August, ending his season after 21 races. Even though Stewart was poised for a Chase berth via the Wild Card provision, it had been a disappointing season for not just him but for SHR as a whole. I expect a rebound for the organization with the additions of the aforementioned Harvick and Kurt Busch, although they did struggle with adding one team a year ago, but I don't think Stewart will be right back to championship contention just yet.

10. Carl Edwards, #99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
After finishing runner-up in 2011 thanks to a tiebreaker with Tony Stewart, Edwards has finished 13th or worse in points these last two years. Yes, he did make the Chase last year, but he also finished the rare 13th for a Chase driver thanks to the last-minute addition of Jeff Gordon to the Chase, but he had an awful Chase. Cousin Carl did get back into victory lane twice last year, but I'm not sure if he or the Roush boys are back at a championship level just yet.

11. Joey Logano, #22 Shell/Pennzoil Fusion, Team Penske
I love that Logano is only 23, but he finally made that step into a Chase caliber driver after showing in his final year with Joe Gibbs that he can run up front and win the old fashioned way. He meshed very well with Team Penske and his teammate Brad Keselowski, and he put together an excellent season in which he worked to shed the nice guy image he cultivated as a young'un into his first Chase berth. He will win a title one day, but he is not there yet.

12. Kurt Busch, #41 Haas CNC SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
Busch may not have gotten in victory lane, but he was awesome in his sole season at Furniture Row Racing as he helped to rebuild his image and returning into the weekly contender we had known him as before his meltdowns led him to get axed from Penske. Now he is moving to a brand new team, with a combustible band of teammates, and we saw how possibly SHR was not quite ready for expansion last year. But Busch drove with an edge last year, and I have no reason to see why that will change.

13Jeff Gordon, #24 Drive to End Hunger/Axalta SS, Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon says he will retire if he wins the title, but I highly doubt that will be the case this year. One cannot deny that Gordon has lost a little bit of his fastball, he has finished in the top five in points just twice in the last decade. Of course, he is still an excellent driver and it would be a real surprise if he missed the Chase, but he is just not the consistent threat to win that he once was.

14. Clint Bowyer, #15 5-Hour Energy Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
The Richmond stuff looked pretty bad, but I think that Bowyer is too good of a driver and this team has taken too many strides for them to take a step back in my opinion. However, while Bowyer is absolutely a Chase driver and one of the most underrated guys in the garage (as well as one of the funniest as his commentary here shows), but I'm sure if he can get the wins.

15. Ryan Newman, #31 Caterpillar/Quicken Loans SS, Richard Childress Racing
Newman is moving on to RCR after a solid five years with Stewart-Haas with three Chase appearances, with last year's berth coming as a result of Martin Truex, Jr. getting kicked out due to the MWR shenanigans, and with winning a race in four straight seasons. Even with a new team, he should continue to show consistency and get into victory lane at least once to ensure a Chase berth. 

16. Marcos Ambrose, #9 Stanley/DeWalt Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
You know it is going to happen, we are going to have the guy that would not get into the Chase normally and Ambrose is going to be that guy when he wins at Watkins Glen. Ambrose has developed into a solid Cup driver, although not a Chase guy. But he has become perhaps the finest road course driver of the Cup guys, and he has one finish outside the top three at the Glen, and that was after getting wrecked last year with a strong car.

17. Greg Biffle, #16 3M Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
I think we will see the Biff take a step back this year and miss the Chase. Sure he has had a pair of quality seasons in the last two years, but one notable thing I saw with him last year is that he did not run up front that often even with a win. He only led 124 laps, the lowest since 2007 for him, and I don't think he will grab wins this year, and not be consistent enough to get in the Chase.

18. Martin Truex, Jr., #78 Furniture Row SS, Furniture Row Racing
Furniture Row Racing made a huge step forward last year with Kurt Busch driving for them as he had multiple strong runs, including a few races where he should have won, en route to a Chase berth. However, he is off to SHR as mentioned and they will bring in Truex to run the black #78. Truex, who came available after NAPA left MWR due to the whole Richmond shenanigans, did have a good year last year (where he was going to make the Chase before the aforementioned brouhaha) and has shown himself to be a Chase caliber driver. I don't think the team will have as strong of a year this year, but I have no doubt that they are capable of doing so.

19. Paul Menard, #27 Menards SS, Richard Childress Racing
Menard has been rock solid over his first three years at RCR, and he has proven himself to be more than just the guy that brings family sponsorship. He is a talented driver and the RCR team as a whole improved as a whole last year, and a Chase run for Menard is well within the world of possibilities. However, he has to run out front a little more and bag some more wins.

20. Aric Almirola, #43 Smithfield Foods Fusion, Richard Petty Motorsports
The Petty organization has been on the upswing over the past few years, as stated earlier with Ambrose, and the team has found a pair of talented drivers in the aforementioned Ambrose and Almirola. And Almirola got the benefit of having sponsor Smithfield invest more money into the team, which could lead them on an underdog run to the Chase. He is poised to get his first win, but the team's swoon in the second half of 2013 is a little concerning.

21Brian Vickers, #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Camry, Michael Waltrip Racing
Vickers looked very solid in limited action with this team in the past two years, including uncorking an upset win at New Hampshire in July. He always has been very talented, and is only 30, but has not had that many seasons where he has put it all together and I am not sure if this will be the year. He is capable of riding into the Chase, though, but he also has not run a full Cup schedule in a couple years.

22Jamie McMurray, #1 McDonald's/Cessna SS, Chip Ganassi Racing w/ Felix Sabates
I did actually almost put McMurray in the Chase and it's his strength on the plate tracks being the reason why. McMurray had a pretty good year last year as he rebounded from a pretty moribund pair of years after his three win 2010 campaign that featured a Daytona 500 championship. I think that we will see more of last year from him, even as my points standing projection is lower than I would like to be.

23Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., #17 Zest/Nationwide Insurance Fusion, Roush Fenway Racing
Stenhouse did not light the world on fire during his Rookie of the Year season, only one top five and three top tens with the first one coming in the second Richmond race in September. But he also had a very solid year as well with no DNF's. While my points standing prediction may be a drop from last year, I do think Stenhouse will take a step forward and run more at the front this season.

24. Austin Dillon, #3 Dow Chemical/Cheerios SS, Richard Childress Racing
It is cool to see the #3 back on track, and that will mean some pressure for Dillon but I think he will be prepared for it. The Nationwide and Truck Series champion clearly has the talent to excel and he has the team to do so (he replaces Kevin Harvick) and I think he will have a quality rookie campaign, even as this points finish is lower than I would like to put him.

25. Kyle Larson, #41 Target SS, Chip Ganassi Racing w/ Felix Sabates
Speaking of rookies, Larson will be a fun one to watch. He does not have a whole lot of experience (this is only his third year in stock cars), but the kid has a whole lot of talent. I think he will probably be a little all over the place, and that may not be such a bad thing because he may just surprise you and snag some top fives.

26. A.J. Allmendinger, Bush's Best/Clorox/Scott SS, JTG Daugherty Racing
The Dinger has been a great story after his NASCAR career was derailed by his failing of a random drug test at the 2012 Coke Zero 400, but he went through the Road to Recovery program, dominated at the road courses for his former owner Roger Penske last year in Nationwide, and now is back full-time in Cup. He is talented and the JTG team is underrated, so they may be able to push some action with a top-20 finish not that inconceivable.

27. Casey Mears, #13 Geico SS, Germain Racing
Mears may just be a guy that gets into the Chase by winning at a plate track, he has RCR power and has always had success at those tracks. Germain Racing has been slowly building their Cup program and Mears is one of the more underrated drivers in the garage, but they have a solid ways to go before making the Chase beyond getting a win.

28David Ragan, #34 CSX Transportation/Farm Fresh Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
Ragan would have been a Chase driver had this new format been in place last year. How may you ask? By winning at Talladega as Ragan did in May with his teammate David Gilliland pushing him. Ragan is a strong plate racer (two career wins at Daytona and Talladega) and the Front Row cars are always an underrated bet at those tracks but their programs elsewhere are not that strong and that hurts both drivers when they are driving without the restrictor plates.

29. Danica Patrick, #10 GoDaddy.com SS, Stewart-Haas Racing
A lot of hay was made over comments by the King, Richard Petty, about Patrick, saying that she will only win if "everybody else stayed home." Now while I don't agree with that completely, Patrick is pretty good on the plate tracks and came close to a top three in the Daytona 500 last year, but it does speak to the struggles that Patrick had last year as she was never competitive beyond the plate races. And I have no reason to expect a significant step forward

30David Gilliland, #38 Love's Travel Stops Fusion, Front Row Motorsports
As I talked about with his teammate, the Front Row guys have helped to improve their organization every year and they have shown that they are contenders on the plate races. However, they do struggle elsewhere (although Gilliland is an underrated road racer) and thus that limits their points finishes.

31. Justin Allgaier, #51 Brandt SS, HScott Motorsports
In a way this is a new team, but in a way it isn't. Harry Scott, co-owner of Turner-Scott Motorsports for whom Allgaier raced in the Nationwide Series, bought Phoenix Racing from James Finch. Allgaier has shown talent, the team has Hendrick horsepower and he has an excellent crew chief in Steve Addington, but it will be asking a lot for this team to be a consistent contender week-in and week-out.

32. Cole Whitt, #26 Swan Energy/Lean 1 Camry, Swan Racing
Whitt is a talented driver that has done a solid amount with mediocre equipment in the Nationwide Series and has looked decent in limited Cup action, so he could be a pleasant surprise if he plays his cards right, relatively speaking of course. Swan Racing is expanding to a two-car operation, so it remains to be seen how that will affect what has been an organization that has been middle of the pack at best.

33. Michael Annett, #7 Pilot Flying J SS, Tommy Baldwin Racing
There are not a lot of expectations for Annett this year. After all, he has no Cup experience, was a solid Nationwide driver but not great, and TBR is a small team that has not been that competitive in its history. But the one thing that Annett brings is sponsorship, huge for any small organization, and that may help take this team to another level.

34. Alex Bowman, #23 Dr. Pepper Camry, BK Racing
I love Dr. Pepper, but it will take a lot for Bowman to be anything more than a middle of the pack guy at best. The BK equipment is not very good, but at least Bowman is very talented, albeit very raw at only 21 and with only one season of Nationwide action.

35. Reed Sorenson, #36 Golden Corral SS, Tommy Baldwin Racing
Sorenson takes over for J.J. Yeley at TBR after Yeley struggled after finishing in the top ten in the Daytona 500. Don't expect Sorenson to be a contender but a top ten at a plate race is not out of the question. Plus, he is really only 28 after seemingly being around forever.

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