Small-Team Drivers with Best Chance to Shake Up 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Kurt Busch left some pretty big shoes to fill after what he accomplished this past season at Furniture Row Racing.
Busch, who will become part of a four-driver team for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, did an outstanding job at FRR in 2013, becoming the first driver in the history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup to make the playoffs from a single-car team.
As we begin our look ahead to 2014—after all, there are only 79 days left to the season-opening Daytona 500—what Busch accomplished has become incentive fodder for other small teams—and the drivers that race for them—in what they hope to accomplish and achieve in the series.
They want to make names for themselves and their teams, and not let organizations like SHR, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing get all the attention from fans and the media.
While some smaller teams are still working on their plans for 2014—six already stand out as having good chances to shake things up in the Sprint Cup Series next season:
Furniture Row Racing
Martin Truex Jr. was essentially forced out of Michael Waltrip Racing when primary sponsor NAPA elected to let its sponsorship with MWR lapse at the end of the 2013 season.
With not enough sponsorship to keep Truex in the No. 56 Toyota, he was in the right place at the right time to replace Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing.
It could be the best thing for Truex going forward.
With what Busch and the FRR organization managed to accomplish in 2013, there's absolutely no reason why Truex can't pick up where Busch left off.
Truex is the kind of driver who seems to like to drive with a chip on his shoulder. And after the way 2013 wound up for him—including being disqualified from the Chase after MWR was fined by NASCAR for attempting to influence the outcome of the final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond in September—Truex has every reason to want to show MWR what it lost in letting him leave.
Tommy Baldwin Jr. Racing
Michael Annett is signed, sealed and delivered to race in the Sprint Cup Series full-time for Tommy Baldwin Jr. Racing in 2014.
There's a bit of uncertainty, though, whether J.J. Yeley will be back in a potential second car for TBR.
Annett has had an up-and-down, inconsistent career up to this point in the Nationwide Series. He competed in 163 races in NASCAR's junior circuit, never registered a win and managed just seven total top-five finishes.
If he remains TBR's only Cup driver, he could have a very rough go of it (he likely still will have a tough go even if TBR runs a second car).
But if Yeley is part of a two-car TBR effort, it should elevate the performance of both drivers and the overall organization. As the old saying goes, there's strength in numbers, and the only way for TBR to become stronger is to have two drivers.
If not Yeley, perhaps maybe a free agent like Bobby Labonte?
Casey Mears returns to drive the No. 13 car for Germain Racing in 2014, but there is a significant change nonetheless.
The Germain operation will switch from Ford motors and chassis to Chevrolet engines and bodies from Earnhardt Childress Racing, which should pay bigger dividends than the ongoing struggles that most Ford teams continue to have.
Mears obviously lacked power in 2013; he likely will have a lot more in 2014 with the switch to Chevy. In fact, even though he has not had a top-five finish since 2008, we'll go on the record to predict Mears could earn a top-five spot, if not challenge for at least one win, in 2014 with the new horsepower he'll have in his ride.
One thing that many fans may not realize is Mears actually enjoyed his best season finish—albeit only 24th at the end of the 2013 campaign—since 2009 (when he finished 21st).
We're optimistic that he can definitely crack the top 20, maybe even close in on the top 15 in 2014.
And we realize that money is tight and it's expensive to field a Sprint Cup car, but Mears likely could have a better showing in 2014 if he had a teammate, a second car, at Germain Racing.
Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that will happen, so Mears may still have a problem breaking out of the top 25, even with the new power and cars he'll be driving in 2014.
Front Row Racing
Keep your eye on Front Row Motorsports in 2014.
Call it a gut feeling, but David Ragan and teammate David Gilliland could pull off a few surprises.
Ragan and Gilliland already pulled off a huge surprise last spring when they combined for an unlikely one-two finish at Talladega.
This is a team that has two talented young drivers and could potentially steal a few more headlines in 2014.
JTG Daugherty Racing
A.J. Allmendinger finally gets a chance for full redemption of his career in 2014 with a full-time ride with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Replacing veteran driver and former Cup champion Bobby Labonte, Allmendinger earned himself the ride with a variety of outstanding performances in 2013 across a number of series, including a pair of wins in the Nationwide Series.
Allmendinger has worked hard to rebuild a career that was sidetracked in 2012 when he was found in violation of NASCAR's substance abuse policy. He's done everything asked of him to mount a comeback, and JTG Daugherty could become a much stronger team with "The Dinger" behind the wheel.
But there's still one snag, however. Much like Furniture Row Racing and Germain Racing, JTG-D is also a one-car operation. Even though Allmendinger has proven he's very comfortable being the only driver for a team, it would certainly help his performance, not to mention JTG-D's overall development, if he had a teammate (even part-time) to trade information, data, setups and the like.
The Associated Press announced earlier this week (h/t ESPN) that Swan Racing is going big-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 with Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt behind the wheel of a two-car operation.
We're excited to see how that new pairing will jell.
Kligerman did decently in his first full season on the Nationwide Series circuit in 2013, finishing 13th.
Whitt, meanwhile, competed in seven Cup races in 2013, but showed little, with a top finish of 27th.
Still, you can't fault these young drivers for wanting to jump up with the big boys. When the opportunity presents itself, you have to grab it, lest someone else does.
This will be a work in progress—until it is determined otherwise.