The Biggest Concern for Each NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Team in 2014
As the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season continues to draw ever closer, teams are already fully engulfed in preseason preparations.
At this point, the goal for every driver and team is the same. They are all looking to do what Jimmie Johnson did for the sixth time in 2013—win the season championship.
For some teams, a championship is a realistic expectation. Drivers for Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and a handful of others have every reason to be confident in their chances of winning the title. Drivers at smaller teams like Front Row Motorsports and Furniture Row Racing may have championship hopes, but the reality is, they are not quite at that level yet.
While every team has the same goal for the upcoming season, each also has at least one concern as the season quickly approaches.
Whether it is a driver returning from an injury or just trying to maintain the momentum that was gained in 2013, every team in the sport's top series has an obstacle to overcome.
In the slides ahead, I will take a look at what each team's primary concern is for the 2014 season. For some, it may be a minor inconvenience, while for others, the concern may be what ends up costing them their chance at winning NASCAR's top prize.
Front Row Motorsports
Primary Concern: Improving on 2013 Success
For some teams, finishing 27th and 29th in the owners standings would be a huge disappointment. For Front Row Motorsports, it was a steady, hard-fought finish that included the team's first win.
Combined, David Ragan and David Gilliland posted just four top-10 finishes as Front Row Motorsports' top-two drivers. Two of those top-10s, however, came in the most improbable finish in recent Sprint Cup Series history.
Ragan and Gilliland crossed the finish line first and second at Talladega in early May. It was the team's first win and injected excitement into a team that had scored only two total top-five finishes in its first eight years of existence.
Gilliland finished the year 26th in the drivers standings, while Ragan ended in 28th. That is the highest that any Front Row Motorsports drivers have ever finished.
In 2014, Front Row Motorsports looks to continue its building process as a team. Expecting this group to contend for a Chase berth is still asking a lot. But if it can continue to grow and improve on its finishes from a season ago, even just slightly, then 2014 will be considered another success.
Furniture Row Racing
Primary Concern: Repeating Success From 2013
In 2013, Furniture Row Racing was the Cinderella story of the Sprint Cup Series. With Kurt Busch behind the wheel, this single-car team ran near the front of the field and earned a spot in the Chase for the Championship.
After earning just 11 top-10 finishes and three top-fives through the first eight years of existence, Furniture Row Racing scored 16 top-10s and 11 top-fives in 2013. The 448 laps that Busch led were 400 more than the team had paced prior to his first full-time season as the car's pilot.
Busch has moved on to Stewart-Haas Racing, and the team tabbed Martin Truex Jr. to be its driver for 2014.
While Truex is a worthy competitor, he joins a team with lofty expectations thanks to what Busch accomplished.
For years, Furniture Row Racing's main goal was to improve and be competitive on a week-to-week basis. Now, the goals are drastically higher, and anything less than a repeat appearance in the Chase would have to be considered a letdown.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Primary Concern: Rebounding From a Mediocre 2013 Season
The duo of Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2014. This will be the third consecutive season that the two drivers occupy the seats in Petty's cars.
Following a promising start as teammates in 2012, the pair had a slightly more disappointing season in 2013.
While they combined to score the same amount of top-10s (12) as the season before, the pair managed just a single top-five finish. Almirola's fifth-place finish at New Hampshire was the team's only finish higher than sixth all season.
The 82 laps that the drivers led was by far the team's lowest total in that category during the five-year existence.
Almirola actually finished two positions higher in the standings in 2013 than he did the year before, but Ambrose fared much worse.
The Australian native finished 22nd in the points, his second-worst showing as a full-time competitor, and his 19.9 average finish was a full two positions lower than the year before.
Richard Petty Motorsports has not had a driver finish higher than 15th in the standings since Kasey Kahne was a Chase qualifier in 2009. If that trend is to be reversed, the team cannot afford a second consecutive letdown season.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Primary Concern: Moving on from the Richmond Scandal
By now, everyone is familiar with what transpired in the closing laps of the regular-season finale at Richmond this past season.
Clint Bowyer intentionally bringing out a caution and Brian Vickers pitting under the green flag were both done in an attempt to get Michael Waltrip Racing's other car, at the time driven by Truex, into the Chase.
After a NASCAR investigation into the situation, Truex was penalized and removed from the Chase while team owner Michael Waltrip received heavy fines.
It was an ugly situation, and the ramifications for the team were severe. As a result, NAPA, a longtime supporter of Waltrip, backed out as one of the team's sponsors. This move left no sponsorship for Waltrip's third car. Truex was given his release and moved to Furniture Row Racing.
In 2014, MWR will field two full-time cars. Bowyer and Vickers will be the drivers (assuming Vickers is medically cleared to compete.)
The team never recovered from the Richmond fiasco in 2013. While Bowyer was a Chase qualifier, he was never a factor. He recorded just two finishes better than 10th during the playoffs and ultimately finished seventh.
Vickers competed for the team in five events following Richmond, only finishing better than 25th twice.
For this team to be competitive in 2014, it needs to put the Richmond events behind it and focus on the future, not the past. It needs to go out and compete at a high level and avoid any situations that cast the team in a negative light.
Chip Ganassi Racing
Primary Concern: Getting Kyle Larson Adjusted to Sprint Cup Life
For the first time since 2007, Juan Pablo Montoya will not be in the cockpit of a Sprint Cup Series car for Chip Ganassi Racing. In the No. 42 car will instead be 21-year-old rookie Kyle Larson.
Larson will make his full-time series debut in 2014 with just two years of stock car experience under his belt.
After a two-win season in the 2012 K&N Pro Series East, Larson joined the Nationwide Series for the 2013 season.
Though he failed to win, Larson did earn 17 top-10s, including four runner-up finishes. He ended the year ranked eighth in the standings.
Larson will join a team that also fields cars for Jamie McMurray. In McMurray, Larson has a mentor who is a former Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner.
McMurray also earned the lone victory for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2013, with his Chase win at Talladega.
While there is no worry when it comes to McMurray, the primary concern for the newly renamed Chip Ganassi Racing, is whether Larson is ready or not. His upcoming rookie battle with Austin Dillon is the most anticipated rivalry between first-year competitors in a number of years.
Competing for a team that has enjoyed some success in the past handful of years puts a little pressure on a 21-year-old with just four career Sprint Cup starts to his credit.
Richard Childress Racing
Primary Concern: How Will the New Faces Mesh Together?
Richard Childress Racing looks quite a bit different than it did at this time one season ago. Gone are Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, and in are Ryan Newman and Rookie of the Year contender Austin Dillon.
Also gone is the No. 29 that Harvick drove since 2001, and in its place is the return of the famous No. 3 that has not seen a Sprint Cup track since Dale Earnhardt passed away at Daytona in February 2001.
The only holdover from last season is Paul Menard, who enters his fourth year driving for Childress.
The trio of drivers that raced under the RCR banner the previous three seasons had a great rapport with one another, and it remains to be seen how this group will mesh.
With the loss of Harvick and Burton, Richard Childress Racing says goodbye to a combined 34 years of experience and 44 victories between them.
With Dillon's lack of experience in Sprint Cup competition, Newman will have to be the team's flag-bearer. He comes to the team as a 17-time winner in his 14-year career.
Newman has been a successful driver throughout his tenure, and with the lack of experience in Dillon and Menard's minimal amount of success, he will be instantly asked to come in and lead the team.
Primary Concern: Getting Brad Keselowski Back to 2012 Form
2012 was a magical season for Brad Keselowski. After a breakout season in 2011, Keselowski followed up with a five-win year in 2012 that culminated in the surprising win of the series championship.
Expectations were understandably high as Keselowski entered 2013 as the defending series champion. Early on, he did not disappoint.
Eight races into the season, Keselowski has posted seven top-10s, including four inside the top five. He was third in the standings and appeared well on his way to another berth in the Chase and the opportunity to defend his title.
Then, the season took a serious turn for the worse.
Over the next 10 events, Keselowski posted just a single top-10 finish and plummeted to 13th in the standings.
In the eight events leading up to the Chase, Keselowski managed a handful of decent runs but continued to be plagued by poor finishes. Ultimately, he ended the regular season in 15th place and missed the Chase.
He became the second driver in the Chase era to win the championship and fail to make the Chase in the following season.
Though not a playoff participant, Keselowski had success in the Chase. He scored his lone win of the season under the lights of Charlotte, and seven of the 10 postseason races ended with Keselowski in 11th place or better.
He finished the year 14th in the points standings, first among non-Chase qualifiers.
While the end of the year provides hope that Keselowski will return to championship form, his midseason struggles from a year ago are more than enough to cause concern heading into 2014.
Roush Fenway Racing
Primary Concern: Returning to Elite Status
As a whole, Ford struggled with the new Gen-6 cars in 2013. It was most evident with Roush Fenway Racing.
In 2012, the trio of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth won five races and totaled 53 top-10 finishes. Biffle and Kenseth finished fifth and seventh in the standings, respectively.
With Kenseth leaving after 2012, rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took over the No. 17 car for the 2013 season. Coming off back-to-back Nationwide Series Championships, Stenhouse was expected to come in and instantly contend for race wins and a spot in the Chase.
Stenhouse failed to win a race and only managed three top-10 finishes in his rookie season.
The youngest driver in the Roush Fenway stable was not the only one to struggle in 2013. The two veterans of the organization, Biffle and Edwards, each had disappointing seasons, as well.
Combined, the two drivers posted three wins and just 29 top-10s. While both drivers qualified for the Chase, neither was a factor. Biffle finished the year in ninth place, while Edwards was 13th, last among Chase competitors.
Five seasons have come and gone since Roush Fenway Racing has totaled more than five wins in a season, and none of the current drivers have recorded more than two wins in any season over that time.
It has been a long run of mediocrity in recent years for a team that was once one of the top teams in the sport.
For this team to get back to elite status, it needs to find Victory Lane more often. It needs all three drivers contending for wins on a regular basis, and they all need to qualify for the Chase.
Even just qualifying for the postseason will not be enough to elevate this team back to the next level. The drivers need to be factors in the championship fight, and one of them would need to end the season as series champion.
Primary Concern: Tony Stewart's Health
Much like Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing needs to be concerned with how its new-look driver lineup will mesh. But more importantly than that, the team's biggest concern has to be the health of its owner, and top driver, Tony Stewart.
Stewart suffered a broken leg last August competing in a sprint car race, just one day after the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono Raceway.
The injury forced the three-time series champion to miss the season's final 15 events and has cost him the opportunity to do any offseason testing.
Stewart has undergone multiple surgeries to repair the damage caused by the accident, and he claims that he will be ready in time for the season-opening race at Daytona in late February.
In his absence, Mark Martin raced the car for the majority of the 15 events that Stewart missed, and Martin has also done all of the testing in the months since.
Overshadowing the team debut's of both Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch is fear that Stewart may not be ready to start the season. And even if he is able to get behind the wheel at Daytona, how much rust will there be after six months away from a race car?
Between the new drivers in the lineup, the progress of Danica Patrick and the health of its top driver, Stewart-Haas Racing may be the team with the most concerns heading into the upcoming season.
Joe Gibbs Racing
Primary Concern: Getting Denny Hamlin Back to Form
2013 was nearly another championship season for Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth led the series with seven wins and finished second in the standings to Johnson.
For a driver in his first year with the team, it was a pretty good debut.
Kyle Busch also had a great year for Coach Gibbs. He was a four-time winner and finished a career-best fourth in the year-end standings. While he failed to win a Chase race for the eighth consecutive season, his postseason showing gives hope that his playoff breakthrough is going to happen sooner than later.
The major concern for the team entering 2014 is with its third driver, Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin had the worst season of his career in 2013, thanks in large part to a back injury he sustained five races into the year.
Racing with Joey Logano for the win at Auto Club Speedway, the two drivers tangled on the track, and Hamlin's car crashed violently into the inside wall. He suffered a broken vertebra that forced him to miss four races.
Upon his return, Hamlin was not the same. He scored just eight top-10s on the season and had a 16-race stretch in the middle of the year where he failed to record a finish better than 12th.
Hamlin did end the year on a positive note. He was the season's final race winner, earning the victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It kept his streak of winning at least one race in eight straight years alive.
With an offseason to rest and heal, the team needs Hamlin to return to form in 2014. His 21st-place average finish in 2013 was four spots worse than his previous low.
Though the back injury played a huge role in Hamlin's lack of success last year, the team must still be nervous about what it can expect from him in 2014.
Primary Concern: Repeating the Success of 2013
Hendrick Motorsports finds itself in a very enviable position entering the 2014 season.
In 2013, the team claimed the series championship when Johnson won for the sixth time in his career, and all four of Rick Hendrick's cars qualified for the Chase.
Three of the four drivers finished the season inside the top six in the championship standings (Kahne finished 12th), and all of them led at least 300 laps. It was the first time that all four Hendrick cars led at least 300 circuits in the same season.
The 2014 season sees all four drivers return, and all will be expected to repeat last year's successes.
There is very little concern at Hendrick Motorsports. The organization is home to four of the sport's best drivers, and the team is consistently one of the top performing groups.
If we were to nitpick, Kahne and Gordon could stand to be slightly more consistent, and Earnhardt needs to get to Victory Lane more than once every three years. Other than that, one cannot ask for much more out of a team than what Hendrick Motorsports continuously produces.