5 NASCAR Drivers Set to Break out in 2014 Sprint Cup Series
Every year, there are a handful of drivers in the Sprint Cup Series who have their breakout. Whether it's a young driver having his or her best season or a veteran who's recently fallen on hard luck but turns it around for one magical year, breakthrough performances are a part of every NASCAR season.
2014 promises to be no different.
The incoming rookie class is the best the sport has been in a number of years, and the list of veteran drivers eager to have a better showing than in recent seasons promises to give us plenty to discuss.
In the slides ahead, I will take a look at five Sprint Cup Series drivers set to have a big year in 2014. Some of these drivers are new to the sport's top division, while others are longtime runners who will reestablish themselves as top stars.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent the last six years driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. When the two came together in 2008, expectations were through the roof. Earnhardt was supposed to contend for countless wins and finally score his first series championship.
The partnership certainly has not been a failure, but the results have been far from what anyone hoped.
In 214 starts driving for Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt has won only two races. The fifth-place finish that he earned in last season's championship is his best in four Chase appearances with the team.
However, the seventh year will be the charm for the sport's most popular driver.
Earnhardt ended 2013 with a bunch of momentum. While he failed to win a race for the fourth time in six years, he came close multiple times, finishing second five times last season.
In total, Earnhardt posted 22 top-10s and 10 top-fives. Both either set or tied personal bests while competing for HMS.
He finished the season with three consecutive finishes of fourth or better, and over the season's final nine events, he scored the second-most points in the series, behind only eventual champion Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt will score multiple wins in 2014, the first time he will have done so for Hendrick, and he will have no trouble qualifying for the Chase once again.
Yes, Kyle Busch is coming off a four-win season, and yes, the 22 top-10s and fourth-place points finish were both career highs. But one part of Busch's 2013 season—and, for that matter, his whole career—that is in need of a big breakthrough is his Chase performance.
No one can argue that with Busch's talent, he is easily one of the top drivers in the sport. But for some inexplicable reason, once the Chase for the Championship rolls around, his performance suffers mightily.
Since joining the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2005, Busch has competed in 89 Chase races. He has scored just one victory in those playoff events. That one win came way back in his rookie season, a year in which he failed to qualify for the postseason.
In his nine full-time seasons, Busch has only qualified for the Chase two-thirds of the time. Prior to 2013, he had only finished better than eighth in the standings once.
The 2013 Chase was a mini breakthrough of sorts for the younger Busch brother. While he yet again failed to find Victory Lane, he was able to at least run well for the majority of the playoff races. He finished inside the top 10 in seven of the 10 races, and he never fell below fifth in the standings.
2014 will be the year that Busch finally exorcises his Chase demons and scores an elusive playoff victory. Expect Busch to be a major contender for the series title next season.
Jamie McMurray has already had a couple of breakthrough performances in his Sprint Cup career. The first came in 2002 when, driving for an injured Sterling Marlin, he earned his first win in just his second start at the Cup level.
In 2010, McMurray had another breakout year. For the first and, to this point, only time in his career, he scored multiple wins in a season. He was a three-time winner that year, and his list of victories included conquests in the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Since then, it has been a relatively quiet few years for the Missouri native. Between 2011 and 2012, McMurray has managed just a total of seven top-10 finishes.
He slowly turned things around this past season. In total, he scored nine top-10s and was a race winner for the first time in nearly three full years. McMurray posted three top-fives, including that lone victory, over the last 11 races. For the first time since 2010, it looked like this team was really starting to click.
Expect McMurray to carry that momentum into the upcoming season. Do not be surprised if he has another breakout performance and ultimately qualifies for the Chase for the first time in his career.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a solid, if unspectacular, rookie season. He finished 19th in the championship standings on the heels of three top-10 finishes and the first pole award of his young career.
Stenhouse's inaugural season of Sprint Cup competition got off to a slow start. Through the first 25 races of the season, he failed to record a single top-10 finish. The plus side to that was that he finished outside the top 20 only seven times.
While he was not running in the top 10, he was at least a very consistent 11th- to 20th-place runner.
As the season began to wind down, Stenhouse started to see his results improve. After earning his first pole at Atlanta, he scored all three of his top-10 finishes, including a career-best third-place finish, during the final 11 races.
Stenhouse is no stranger to NASCAR success. He entered the 2013 season as the two-time defending Nationwide Series champion. Now, with a full year of Sprint Cup competition under his belt, expect him to become a contender for race wins.
There is no doubt that he will drastically improve upon his 2013 results in 2014. Qualifying for the Chase may still be a year or two away, but a win, coupled with double-digit top-10 finishes, is something to expect in the upcoming season.
Fresh off his second season running stock cars, Kyle Larson will drive full time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014. He'll take over the No. 42 Chevrolet, vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya, for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
Larson spent the 2013 season driving in the Nationwide Series, where he finished eighth in the standings thanks to 17 top-10 finishes. He made his Sprint Cup Series debut late that same year, driving four of the final six races in the No. 51 car. After suffering engine failures in each of his first two starts, he posted finishes of 23rd and 15th in his last two starts of the year.
Though Larson failed to win in Nationwide Series competition, he proved his talents. He scored nine top-fives, including four runner-up finishes. And he saved his best showing for last. During the season finale at Homestead, Larson led the most laps and came within three laps from winning his first race.
He also has the luxury of beginning his Sprint Cup career with a team that is already an established winner. Since the formation of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in 2009, the team has won five races with Montoya and Jamie McMurray.
Expect Larson to come in and make an impact right away. Contending for a spot in the Chase may be a bit extreme, but a double-digit top-10 season, with the possibility of contending for a race win or two, is not asking too much out of the ultra-talented young driver.