Who Are the Biggest Threats to Jimmie Johnson's Repeat Bid in 2014?
Following Jimmie Johnson’s return to the championship pedestal with his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, many race fans have to be wondering if they’re back to the ‘same old, same old’ of Johnson’s previous run of five straight titles.
While that’s a distinct possibility—Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus seem to be aging like a fine wine—the 2013 season showed many competitors in the cup series aren’t far from keeping Johnson from winning No. 7 in 2014. Plus, two of Johnson’s biggest preseason title challengers didn’t even get the chance to take him on in the Chase for the Sprint Cup after injuries sidelined them at various points.
The 2014 title is far from set in stone. Click to see the competitors who could prevent Johnson from going back-to-back in the championship department for the fifth time in his career.
The long trip to the Phoenix desert proved to be the unraveling of Matt Kenseth in 2013. If that one lap down, 23rd-place effort wouldn’t have happened—he lost 21 points to Johnson in the season’s penultimate race—Kenseth would have actually beaten Johnson by two points in the final standings.
That’s not bad for a driver in his first year with a new team and a new manufacturer.
2013 was a revitalization of Matt Kenseth’s career and will undoubtedly serve as a launching pad into potentially bigger things for Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team in 2014. With a series-most seven wins in 2014—including two to start the Chase—Kenseth proved his Toyota had the speed to match, and beat, Johnson.
That will serve as inspiration for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to keep getting better in the offseason, but it should also buoy Kenseth and the JGR bunch by letting them know that their efforts came oh-so-close to preventing Johnson’s sixth title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
To fully blame a Chase-opening engine failure as the reason Dale Earnhardt Jr. came up short in a bid for his first championship would be nonsensical. But there’s little doubt that Earnhardt, especially in the second half of the 2013 Chase, had a race pace nearly identical to that of Jimmie Johnson.
That speed—and the ever-growing chemistry between Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte—shows just how good of an opportunity Earnhardt will have to knock his Hendrick Motorsports teammate off the championship pedestal in 2014. Earnhardt nailed down top-five finishes in four of the last five races and actually outscored Johnson by 10 points down the stretch.
Earnhardt has the advantage of race cars built and maintained in the same Hendrick Motorsports shop as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolets. In 2014, it’s easy to think the tight-knit teammates could become one of the sport’s best week-to-week battles.
Brad Keselowski’s reign as the sport’s champion lasted an entire year, but with the No. 2 failing to qualify for the Chase, it sure felt a lot shorter. After watching Keselowski’s finish to the 2013 season, however, there’s little doubt that he’ll be a strong contender to unseat Johnson in 2014.
Keselowski wrapped 2013 as the highest-finishing non-Chase driver in 14th and nabbed a win during the Chase run (Charlotte) along the way. In the eight races Keselowski finished on the lead lap during the Chase, he notched an average finish of 7.9—nearly halving his season average finish of 14.9.
Beset by one or two too many in-race troubles in the regular season—Kurt Busch taking out the No. 2 at Kentucky Speedway in June stands out—Keselowski appeared to have a down year. Don’t expect the same in 2014 from the last guy to go head-to-head with Johnson and win.
It was a different, more mature Kyle Busch in the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup—and it's that version of Busch that may finally have all of the pieces in place to score his first career Sprint Cup championship in 2014.
Busch finished fourth in the 2013 standings, 55 points behind Johnson. The difference in Busch’s Chase results came in his ability to handle pressure. He ultimately had one poor race at Kansas that knocked him from contention but otherwise had top-15 finishes throughout the 10-race stretch. He wound up leading seven of the 10 races.
In terms of raw speed, Busch can match Johnson. It’s been Busch’s reliability down the stretch that has proved his biggest problem in battling for a title. With a career-best fourth-place finish in the 2013 point standings, it’s clear Busch is reaching for a championship level.
Tony Stewart, along with future teammate Kurt Busch, always seems to play the role of NASCAR’s very own phoenix. When a deck seems most shuffled against the three-time champion, he has a way of rising through the mess to finish on top.
That was the case in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup and the case early in his career when off-track controversies threatened his future in the sport. Stewart’s always had a way to quiet the talk by winning.
Should Stewart indeed make it back to the driver’s seat in time for the Daytona 500 without further pain or concern in his rehabilitated right leg—Stewart has been out since August when he suffered a compound fracture in a sprint car race—he should become a factor in the title race. Not only will he have something to prove, he’ll jump back in a race car built nearly identical to Johnson’s (Hendrick chassis and engines), and hopefully with more setup resources available with the addition of Busch to the Stewart-Haas Racing fold.
Ultimately, 2013 couldn’t have been more miserable for Denny Hamlin after an early-season injury knocked him out of contention for his first career series title. For much of the season’s second half, Hamlin was a guinea pig for Joe Gibbs Racing as they tried experimental setups down the stretch. Save for a win in the season finale, Hamlin was rarely heard of during the slide.
But Hamlin’s end-of-2013 win at Homestead-Miami Speedway may be a strong indicator that he’s ready to charge at Johnson in 2014. Come Daytona, Hamlin will be in position to take advantage of both his experimental setup work (it often didn’t show results, but there’s little doubt that JGR engineers learned plenty during the race weekend test sessions) and the strength of teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
Both finished the season inside the top five in Sprint Cup points with Kenseth sticking the closest to Johnson in the Chase longer than any other driver. With those setups and Hamlin’s ability, there’s little reason to see why he won’t contend in 2014.