Which NASCAR Drivers Are Building the Most Momentum for the 2014 Season?
For three Sprint Cup Series drivers, the season finale at Homestead is one last chance to win the 2013 series championship. For everyone else, it is an opportunity not only to win the final race of the year, but also to build some momentum going into the 2014 season.
Some drivers, like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards, have had minimal amounts of success in the Chase and could really use a strong finish to gain some momentum to take into the offseason.
Other competitors, namely Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick, have peaked at the right time and will have no trouble carrying over this year's successes into the upcoming season.
In the slides ahead, I will take a look at eight drivers who have built the most momentum going into next year. Whether they snapped long winless streaks, or put a string of really strong finishes together, these drivers are the ones who are least likely to be happy about the 2013 season coming to a close.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
It would be unfair to call Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s rookie season a failure. He has yet to score a win and has only been a serious contender for a victory a handful of times. Even still, the results have not been that bad.
Stenhouse failed to record a top-10 finish through the first 25 races of the season, but 18 of those events ended with a finish between 11th and 20th.
The last 10 races have seen an improvement in Stenhouse's results. He has posted three top-10 finishes, including a career-best, third-place finish at Talladega. After spending the majority of the season muddled around 20th in the standings, he has picked up a few positions and currently sits in 18th place.
The 2013 season may not have been as successful as the two-time Nationwide Series champion would have hoped, but he has shown signs of improvement that are sure to lead to a bright future.
The 2010 season was easily the best in the career of Jamie McMurray. He won three races that year, including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. Since then, there has been little to get excited about.
All that has changed in recent weeks.
McMurray snapped a 108-race winless streak when he won at Talladega in October. On top of that, he has posted three top-five finishes in the last 10 events, and he has only finished worse than 19th once in the last 12 races.
McMurray will enter the 2014 season as the unquestioned top driver for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, as Juan Pablo Montoya is leaving NASCAR following the race at Homestead, and Kyle Larson will take over full-time duties for that car.
A strong finish to the 2013 season and the opportunity to be a team's top driver going forward will catapult McMurray to a successful 2014 campaign.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2013 season was that defending series champion Brad Keselowski failed to qualify for the Chase.
His title defense got off to a great start. He opened the season with four consecutive top-five finishes, and seven top-10s through the first eight races. At that point, he was third in the standings.
Then it all fell apart. He only posted four top-10s for the rest of the regular season and finished 15th in points.
Though not a championship contender, Keselowski has had a successful postseason. He scored his lone win of the season at Charlotte and has finished 11th or better in seven of the nine playoff races.
After struggling through the middle portion of the season, Keselowski and his team have once again found the winning combination and appear to be well on their way to reclaiming a spot in next year's Chase.
The 2013 regular season was a struggle for Jeff Gordon. He failed to record a win, posted six finishes outside the top 30 and spent most of it on the wrong side of the Chase cutoff line.
Then, following the controversial finish at Richmond that appeared to eliminate Gordon from playoff contention, he was given new life. NASCAR ruled that Gordon would be the 13th driver in the Chase, making it the first time in history that more than 12 drivers would compete for the title.
Since the playoffs began, Gordon has been one of the top runners. The first seven events of the Chase ended with Gordon finishing 15th or better, including the win at Martinsville, his first victory of the year.
Following a crash at Texas, caused by a blown tire, Gordon's 2013 championship hopes were ruined. That accident notwithstanding, Gordon has put a very stellar postseason together after it appeared that it was a Chase he would not even be a part of.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Very quietly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is putting a championship-worthy postseason together. Following a blown engine in the first race of the Chase, Earnhardt has finished inside the top 10 in seven of eight playoff races.
The 311 points that he has scored over that time is second to only Jimmie Johnson, who has earned 332 points over the same span.
Three of the last seven races have seen Earnhardt finish in the runner-up position.
One thing missing from his 2013 resume is a win. While he has come close a number of times this season, he has been unable to find Victory Lane.
With the way he has run in recent weeks, it should not take long in the 2014 season for Earnhardt to be a winner once again in Sprint Cup competition.
Kevin Harvick is making the most of the little time he has left with Richard Childress Racing.
He entered the postseason with two wins and as the fourth seed in the Chase. Since then, he has scored two more wins, finished 12th or better in eight of the last nine races and moved up to third in the championship standings, 34 points out of the lead.
Harvick is leaving RCR following this season and will drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. Expect Harvick to mesh right away with his new team, and there is no reason to think he cannot carry some of this momentum into next year and make another championship run.
Jimmie Johnson is a driver that does not need momentum, yet somehow always seems to have it. He is the current points leader and is one race away from winning his sixth series championship.
After limping into the Chase on the heels of the worst four-race stretch of his career, Johnson has been nothing short of spectacular in the postseason.
Other than a 13th-place finish at Talladega, the wild-card race in the postseason, Johnson has not finished worse than sixth in the Chase. He has led at least one lap in all nine playoff races.
Johnson goes to Homestead with a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth. As long as he finishes no worse than 23rd, he will clinch the title regardless of what Kenseth does.
Assuming he wins the championship, Johnson will roll into 2014 with more momentum than any other driver in the series.
Furniture Row Racing
I am breaking the rules with this one. Furniture Row Racing is not a driver, but they are still rolling into the new year with plenty of momentum.
With Kurt Busch behind the wheel, this team became the first single-car operation to qualify for the playoffs in the 10-year history of the Chase.
After scoring just 11 top-10 finishes in eight years of existence, Busch drove the Furniture Row car to 16 top-10s this year. He has posted 11 top-fives and led 444 laps. Prior to this year, FRR cars had only led a combined total of 48 laps in the team's history.
Busch is leaving the team following the race at Homestead, but Furniture Row will not miss a beat. Martin Truex will drive the No. 78 car in 2014.
Truex snapped a lengthy winless streak earlier in the season, and Furniture Row Racing is running better than they ever have. Combining their talents should equate to great success for 2014 and beyond.