Early NASCAR Storylines Emerging for the 2014 Daytona 500
With the holidays coming to a close, it is now time to focus squarely on the upcoming NASCAR season. As is the case every year, the 2014 Sprint Cup Series will kick off with the Daytona 500.
There is plenty of hype and excitement leading up to the biggest event on the NASCAR calendar. As the sport is fresh off its three-month offseason, there are always plenty of storylines worth paying close attention to prior to the year's first green flag.
With just under two months remaining before the season officially kicks off, there are already some NASCAR stories beginning to unfold.
I am going to take a look at five early stories in the world of NASCAR, as the drivers and teams continue preparations for not only the upcoming season, but the sport's biggest event, the Daytona 500.
Jimmie Johnson Attempts to Repeat (Again)
The 2014 NASCAR season will begin the same way that five of the past seven have—with Jimmie Johnson defending his series championship.
Not only will Johnson enter Daytona as the reigning champion, he is also the most recent winner of the Great American Race.
Johnson edged out Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin to win this event one year ago. Following a ninth-place qualifying effort, Johnson ran inside the top 10 all race long. His 17 laps led were third most of the day, and he was able to hold the lead for the final 10 circuits.
Johnson's second career Daytona 500 was the start to a regular season that saw him hold the point lead following 23 of 26 races. Johnson never sat lower than third in the championship standings at any point in the season.
It will surprise no one if Johnson has similar success in 2014 that he had last season. In his sixth championship season, he scored six victories and posted 24 top-10 finishes.
It was the seventh time in eight seasons that he won at least five races and notched 22 top-10s.
Johnson will unquestionably enter 2014 as the odds-on favorite to win both the Daytona 500 as well as a seventh series title.
Dillon and Larson Set to Make Their Full-Time Debuts
The Daytona 500 will mark the start of the full-time careers for both Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. The two are set to wage a rookie battle that will be the most compelling that the sport has seen in a number of years.
Both drivers enter the top series following successful runs in the Nationwide Series in 2013.
Dillon won the series championship while Larson finished eighth in the standings, in just his second season driving stock cars.
After years of uninteresting and one-sided Rookie of the Year battles, 2014 promises to bring prestige back to the award with more than one driver capable of taking home the title.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the award in 2013, after finishing a very respectable 19th in the championship standings. He outduelled Danica Patrick to claim the title. While the award was contested between two competitors, the outcome was never really in much doubt.
Prior to Stenhouse's win, Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway were the most recent Rookie of the Year award winners. The trio combined for just two top-20 finishes in 73 starts during their first year in the series.
The upcoming battle between Dillon and Larson promises to add intrigue to the Sprint Cup season. For the first time in a long time, two future stars will be squaring off against one another to determine who will be crowned as the sport's top first-year driver.
Familiar Faces in New Places
As is the case with most new seasons, 2014 will see its fair share of drivers switching over to new teams. Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman all leave their former teams in favor of different rides.
Harvick moves to Stewart-Haas Racing after spending his entire 13-year career at Richard Childress Racing. He will be joined at SHR by Busch, who leaves Furniture Row Racing after one season.
Both drivers enjoyed plenty of success in 2013 and hope that carries over onto their new squads.
Harvick won four events last season—his highest total since 2006. He finished the season third in the standings, which ties his career high that he had previously done two other times.
Busch, on the other hand, failed to win a race for the second consecutive season, but in his lone year driving the No. 78 Chevrolet, he and his team became the Cinderella story of the 2013 campaign.
Busch scored 16 top-10s and 11 top-fives driving for the single-car team based out of Colorado. Both totals were higher than the team's combined total in its eight-year existence prior to Busch's arrival.
The team earned a spot in the Chase, making them the first single-car organization to accomplish that feat. Busch ended the season 10th in the standings.
Newman, the most recent winner of the Brickyard 400, is also on the move this offseason. He is leaving Stewart-Haas Racing and taking over one of the two open seats that were available at Richard Childress Racing.
Newman is coming off a fourth straight season in which he was a race winner. He qualified for the Chase for the fifth time in his career in 2013, ultimately finishing in 11th place.
Martin Truex Jr. and Jeff Burton (in part-time roles) will also be in new rides during the 2014 season.
Tony Stewart Returns to the Sport Following a Broken Leg
After starting 521 consecutive Sprint Cup Series races, Tony Stewart missed the final 15 events of the 2013 season following a broken leg in a sprint car race.
On August 5, just one day after finishing ninth at Pocono, Stewart was involved in a crash during a non-NASCAR sanctioned event in Iowa. While leading the 30-lap sprint car feature, he approached a lap-down automobile.
The car in front of him lost control and in the process collected Stewart. His car went end-over-end multiple times before finally coming to rest.
Stewart broke both the tibia and fibula in his right leg and required multiple surgeries to repair the damage. He has been rehabilitating the injury since and is hoping to return to competition at the Daytona 500.
Stewart was 11th in the standings at the time of his injury.
Stewart is a three-time series champion who has had a lot of success in Daytona. He has won 11 times on the 2.5-mile superspeedway between both of the top two series. Four of those victories have come in Sprint Cup competition, though all of them are Pepsi 400 victories.
Stewart has never won the Daytona 500 in 15 career starts. His best finish is a runner-up effort in 2004.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looks to Build off Strong 2013 Season
Almost very quietly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. put together a very strong season in 2013, and he looks to keep that momentum rolling in 2014.
Last season was Earnhardt's sixth year driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Though he failed to win any races for the fourth time in those six seasons, he still managed to have his best overall season driving for the team.
Earnhardt scored 22 top-10 finishes, his highest total since 2004, and 10 top-fives, which matched his previous best with his current team.
He qualified for the Chase for the third consecutive season and ended the year ranked fifth in the standings. It marked the first time driving for Hendrick that Earnhardt cracked the top five in the year-end driver standings.
If not for a blown engine in the first race of the postseason, Earnhardt would have been a factor in the championship fight.
Over the past nine events of the season, the 353 points that Earnhardt accumulated trailed only the 367 that series champion Jimmie Johnson posted.
Earnhardt enters the new year with plenty of momentum following his late-season surge in 2013. Expect him to pick up right where he left off when the season begins at Daytona.
Earnhardt is a two-time winner at the superspeedway, including the 2004 Daytona 500. He is a 10-time top-five finisher at this facility, including four runner-up finishes in the Great American Race, most recently last season.