Grading the Sprint Cup Series' Confirmed 2014 Driver Changes
With the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season beginning to wind down, some teams are starting to shift their focus toward next season. Preparations have begun to make sure that it will be a successful one.
As has become customary around this time every year, announcements are continuously being made about drivers signing with different teams for the upcoming season. Some of the moves come as no major surprise, as rumors began to fly earlier in the season. But other signings seemingly come out of left field.
Both teams and drivers have similar thoughts in mind when deciding to invest in a working relationship with one another: being competitive, winning races and, ultimately, qualifying for the Chase and racing for a championship.
Some driver signings seem like a great fit right from the get-go, while others raise far more questions.
In the slides ahead, we will take a look at seven cases in which the driver behind the wheel in 2014 will be different from the one that was there during the 2013 season. We will analyze what is to like or not to like about the driver in his new situation and assign each new pairing a grade based on how successful it will be.
Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart-Haas Racing will expand to four cars for the first time in team history in the 2014 season. Kurt Busch will be behind the wheel of one of those cars. He signed to drive for SHR after spending the 2013 season driving for Furniture Row Racing, where he led the single-car team to the Chase for the first time in team history.
On paper, this seems like a great move for Busch. He goes from a single-car team to one that includes four drivers who can share information internally.
The biggest problem he'll face is from an expectation standpoint. When he signed with Furniture Row, expectations were low, as it's a small team that was never better than a consistent mid-pack finisher. He helped transform it into a championship-contending organization.
At Stewart-Haas Racing, the expectations will immediately be sky-high. He will continuously be expected to contend for race wins and Chase appearances. Anything less will be a disappointment.
While Busch is a proven top-caliber driver, he may have been better off staying with Furniture Row Racing and helping to expand the organization. He would have unquestionably become the face of that organization.
Now, Stewart-Haas Racing features Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Busch all on one team. That just seems like too many combustible elements in the same place. It doesn’t feel like the best fit for Busch. If he was going to leave Furniture Row, Richard Childress Racing would have been a better landing spot.
Overall Grade: C+
Kevin Harvick to Stewart-Haas Racing
Kurt Busch isn't the only Chase qualifier that will be joining Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Kevin Harvick has also signed on as one of the drivers that will make up the four-car team.
Along with Harvick, primary sponsor Budweiser is making the move to Stewart-Haas to continue its relationship with the driver. Harvick will drive the No. 4 car in 2014 using the points that Ryan Newman accumulated driving the No. 39 car.
In making the move to Stewart-Haas, he'll leave Richard Childress Racing, where he's spent his entire 12-year career.
Harvick will be leaving a team that qualified for the Chase seven times with him as its driver. And he'll take over a car that has been in the postseason in three of the five years that Newman was behind the wheel.
Overall, the move seems like a good one for him. From a performance standpoint, his results with Stewart-Haas should compare favorably to those that he produced while driving for Childress. The major difference will be that he's going from being an organization's top driver to realistically being considered the No. 2 driver behind Stewart.
Still, Harvick will have no trouble adjusting to his new team. And for Stewart Haas Racing, though Newman did a solid job over his five-year tenure, Harvick should offer a slight upgrade in results.
Overall Grade: A
Ryan Newman to Richard Childress Racing
Ryan Newman will move from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing to drive the No. 31 car that Jeff Burton drove in 2013.
Currently, Childress' roster has just two confirmed drivers for 2014 in Newman and Paul Menard. Of the two, you would have to consider Newman the top driver of the organization, which is something he never was while at Stewart-Haas.
Newman has won one race every year for the last four seasons and has qualified for the Chase in two of those years. Driving for Childress, expect his results to compare to those he produced at Stewart-Haas Racing. The two organizations are fairly evenly matched and have produced similar statistics over the last handful of years.
While Newman is certainly a talented driver, his signing comes at the cost of losing both Harvick and Burton for Richard Childress Racing. Gaining one driver at the price of two is never a fair trade-off.
Overall Grade: C
Kyle Larson to Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Juan Pablo Montoya will not return to Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in 2014, which opens the door for Kyle Larson to make his Sprint Cup Series debut.
From the team's perspective, transitioning from a veteran to a rookie is never easy. There is a steep learning curve, and great results cannot be expected right out of the gate.
The adjustment for the driver is no picnic either. Coming from the Nationwide Series to the Sprint Cup Series is a big change. There is more competition, the races are longer and the pressure to consistently perform at a high level is greater.
Still, Larson is one of the top young drivers to come along in some time. The 2013 season marks just his second year in stock car competition after he cut his racing teeth in open-wheel cars. Through 26 races in his rookie season in the Nationwide Series, Larson has posted 14 top-10 finishes and sits ninth in the standings.
It is asking a lot to expect him to win any races in 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, as he's never even done so in Nationwide Series competition. But a double-digit number of top-10s is not out of the question.
While it is tough to say whether Larson is an upgrade from Montoya, his potential is certainly high. And the fact of the matter is, Montoya never reached the Sprint Cup potential that he once possessed.
Overall Grade: B+ (with the potential to turn into an A).
AJ Allmendinger to JTG-Daugherty Racing
AJ Allmendinger will make his return to full-time Sprint Cup Series duties in 2014, driving the No. 47 car for JTG-Daugherty. He has already driven this car in a handful of races in 2013 in relief of Bobby Labonte.
After really struggling in the early years of his career, Allmendinger has continually improved as a stock car driver. In 2011, his last full-time season of Sprint Cup competition, Allmendinger posted personal bests with 10 top-10 finishes and a 15th-place effort in the season-ending standings.
It has become clear that Labonte's best days as a driver are in the past. He's scored just four top-10 finishes in 93 races with the team and none this year.
Allmendinger, however, has posted a top-10 finish this year and has recorded the team's three best finishes in just six races, as compared to 21 attempts for Labonte.
Allmendinger should give the team some youthful rejuvenation. While it would be a stretch to expect this team to contend for a spot in the Chase, the organization can almost certainly guarantee it will improve its performance from the last few years.
Overall Grade: B-
Brian Vickers Becomes Full-Time Driver at Michael Waltrip Racing
After sharing driving duties with Mark Martin for the past two seasons in the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing, Brian Vickers will become the full-time driver in 2014.
In 18 starts with the team, Vickers has already scored a win and posted nine top-10 finishes. 2014 will mark the first time since 2011 that he has been a full-time competitor in NASCAR's top series.
MWR has shown that it is a championship-caliber team, as Vickers' teammate, Clint Bowyer, has qualified for the Chase in both of his two seasons with the organization, with a runner-up finish in the standings last year.
With Vickers comes youth and the opportunity for this team to run for a championship, something it hasn't been able to do since 2011. Look for the 55 team to flourish running with just one driver all season long, and expect it to contend for a spot in the Chase next season.
Overall Grade: A-
Furniture Row Racing Looks to Fill the No. 78 Car
Furniture Row Racing continues its search for a driver for the upcoming season. The team is losing Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing after he provided it with the best season of its now nine-year existence.
Busch earned Furniture Row its first appearance in the Chase, and through 27 races, he has scored 14 top-10 finishes, which is five more than the team had amassed in the previous eight years combined.
Replacing a former series champion will be no small feat, especially when the current free-agent pool is drying up in a hurry. Jeff Burton is available, but he is a far cry from Busch.
Furniture Row Racing has clearly been transformed into a formidable team thanks to Busch, and sooner than later, it will land its next driver. But regardless of who the organization signs to drive the No. 78 car in 2014, there is no way the team gets a repeat performance of the 2013 season.
Overall Grade: D (regardless of who ends up becoming the driver)