NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Facing a Make-or-Break 2014 Season
Every driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series faces some kind of expectations each season. The expectations come from all different angles.
Whether it is the fans, the sponsors or just the team itself, certain goals are expected from every competitor in the sport's top division.
Those achievements vary by driver and can be anything from winning the championship, qualifying for the Chase or just finishing inside the Top 25 in the standings.
Some drivers have no trouble reaching those goals year after year. Other drivers, however, continuously fail to reach the level that everyone expects.
In the slides ahead, I will take a look at six Sprint Cup drivers who face a make-or-break year in the 2014 season.
For each driver, make-or-break will mean something different, and they will all be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
When Jamie McMurray debuted in the Sprint Cup Series in 2002 driving in relief of the injured Sterling Marlin, he made an immediate impact.
In just his second Cup start, McMurray scored his first career win when he crossed the finish line first at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It appeared as if a new star had been born.
Following his breakthrough performance, McMurray received lofty expectations. Early on, he was able to post very respectable numbers. Though he failed to win in any of his first three full-time seasons, McMurray finished 13th, 11th and 12th in the standings.
Then came a miserable four-year stretch from 2006 through 2009. Though he won twice, he never finished higher than 16th in the standings and was never a contender for a Chase spot.
In 2010, McMurray finally had the breakout year that everyone expected. He won the season-opening Daytona 500 as well as the Brickyard 400 later in the year. He capped off the season by winning in Charlotte, but once again failed to qualify for the postseason.
After two more rough seasons, 2013 was another bounce-back year for McMurray. He scored his first win in nearly three years and finished 15th in the standings.
This year, he is the unquestioned leader of Chip Ganassi Racing as Juan Montoya has moved on from the team and rookie Kyle Larson takes over that vacancy.
It is a make-or-break season for McMurray as his opportunities to earn that elusive first Chase berth are quickly coming to a close.
There is no denying McMurray's talent, but sooner or later, he has to put it all together and get to that next level.
Paul Menard has one advantage over most of his Sprint Cup Series competitors. Regardless of what team he drives for, he will always have sponsorship. In this day and age where sponsorship is paramount, that is a luxury that should keep him in the sport as long as he wants.
Early in his career, it seemed as if his sponsorship was the only reason he was able to remain in the top division.
Through his first three full-time seasons, Menard managed just one Top-10 finish and never finished higher than 26th in the standings.
Then, in 2010, things slowly started to turn around. Menard scored six Top 10s and finished 23rd in the points before moving to Richard Childress Racing.
Since joining RCR, Menard has steadily improved even more. He scored his first, and thus far only, win in 2011 at the Brickyard, and he has posted at least eight Top 10s in each of the last three years.
Menard has finished no worse than 17th in the standings since becoming a Childress driver.
While his improvement has been nice, Menard still needs to do more.
He enters 2014 as the only holdover driver in the Childress camp. Gone are Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, so Menard is now the senior member, and leader, of the team.
Sooner or later, Menard needs to have a true breakout season. Scoring another win would be huge, but putting himself in a position to contend for a Chase berth would go a long way toward earning the right to remaining a Sprint Cup driver.
After spending two seasons learning stock cars in the Nationwide Series, Marcos Ambrose turned some heads with an impressive rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series in 2009.
Driving for the single-car JTG-Daugherty Racing team, Ambrose scored seven Top-10 finishes and ended the season 18th in the standings.
Known as a road-course specialist, Ambrose proved his worth when the series stopped at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The third- and second-place finishes he scored at the road courses were his two best results of the season.
In 2011, Ambrose finally broke through and earned his first Sprint Cup win. Not surprisingly, it came on a road course as he was victorious at Watkins Glen. He posted a career-high 12 Top 10s and also inched closer to an oval-track victory.
The following season, Ambrose's Top-10 totals declined, but he was able to back up his Watkins Glen victory by repeating, and he improved his point standings finish by a spot.
2013 was a huge disappointment for Ambrose. His Top-10 totals once again dropped, and for the first time in his career he failed to score a single Top 5. He finished 22nd in the standings, the second worst of his Sprint Cup tenure.
If Ambrose does not turn things around, his career may parallel that of another driver that entered the sport with a strong road course background: Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya had just two career wins in Sprint Cup competition, and just like Ambrose they both came on road courses.
Montoya left the series following 2013 to return to open-wheel competition, and if his results continue to struggle, Ambrose may be in a similar situation.
After a mediocre rookie season driving for Roush Racing, David Ragan saw significant improvement in 2008, his second season in the Sprint Cup Series.
He posted 14 Top 10s and just missed out on qualifying for the Chase. He finished the year 13th in the standings, best among non-playoff drivers.
After his breakthrough performance, Ragan struggled the next few seasons. In 2009 and 2010, he combined for just five Top-10 finishes, and 24th was his best points finish. Things turned around slightly in 2011. He won for the first time in Sprint Cup competition and earned eight Top-10s.
Following the season, Ragan was released from Roush-Fenway Racing as the team downsized from four cars to three.
Ragan was able to sign a deal with Front Row Motorsports. Going from one of the teams in the sport to an underfunded team, any expectations that Ragan may have had in his Roush days were now long gone.
Ragan ended 2012 with two Top-10s and a 28th-place finish in the standings.
2013, Ragan's second year with Front Row Motorsports, saw him make history. In the May race at Talladega, Ragan pulled off the biggest upset in recent NASCAR history when he claimed the checkered flag. It was the first win for the team.
Ragan enters 2014 once again with minimal expectations. His team is still not in a position to challenge for race wins outside of the restrictor-plate tracks, and qualifying for the Chase is extremely unlikely.
However, the year is make-or-break for the remainder of Ragan's career.
If he can continue to help grow this team, it could lead to him signing with a bigger team. Ragan is still young enough where he has plenty of time left in the sport, and helping transform a small team into a contender will pay dividends for his future.
For Clint Bowyer and the entire Michael Waltrip Racing team, the fallout from last September's Richmond race was ugly.
Bowyer intentionally brought out a late-race caution to help his teammate Martin Truex Jr. clinch a spot in the Chase. Following a NASCAR investigation, the entire team received penalties. Truex was removed from the playoffs, team owner Michael Waltrip was hit with heavy fines and Bowyer lost 50 championship points (in reality the penalty had no effect on Bowyer or his Chase standing).
Things got worse when NAPA, a longtime Waltrip supporter, announced that they would not return as a sponsor to the team in light of the situation. This left one of MWR's three cars without sponsorship, and the car will run on a part-time basis this season.
In 2014, Michael Waltrip Racing will feature just two full-time cars.
One of those cars remains Bowyer. This is an important year for him. First and foremost, he needs a season where he is free of any controversy so that he can completely repair his image.
Secondly, Bowyer needs to bounce back from a subpar Chase performance last season.
Even without a win, Bowyer ran inside the Top 3 of the championship standings for much of the regular season in 2013. He entered the Chase as the eighth seed thanks to his zero victories, but the regular-season momentum never carried over into the postseason.
Bowyer briefly got as high as sixth in the championship standings, but he was never a factor. He ultimately finished seventh.
While clearly running competitive and fighting for the championship are important, Bowyer's legacy can be defined by the 2014 season. If he runs well and stays out of trouble, maybe the Richmond incident can be put behind him for good.
Kyle Busch is unquestionably one of the sport's biggest stars. At just 28 years old, Busch is already inside the Top 25 in all-time Sprint Cup wins with 28. He won four times in 2013, making it the fourth time in his young career where he has won at least that many times in a season.
Unlike the rest of the drivers on the list, Busch is a yearly contender for the Chase for the Championship. In nine full-time seasons, he has participated in the playoffs six times.
While Busch is a regular when it comes to postseason participation, his performance during the final 10 events often leaves a lot to be desired.
In 92 career Chase starts, Busch has amassed just one victory. That lone win came in 2005, his rookie season. Busch was not a Chase participant that year.
Prior to 2013, Busch had only finished higher than eighth in the year-end standings one time and had finished 10th or worse in four of the last five seasons.
He turned his luck around in 2013. After starting the Chase with back-to-back second-place finishes, Busch scored five additional Top-10 and ended the season a career-best fourth in the standings.
He enters the new season as one of the odds-on favorites to win the series championship.
With that in mind, 2014 is a make-or-break season for Busch and his future preseason championship odds.
If Busch follows up his career-best Chase performance with another dud that he has become synonymous with, it may be a long time before Busch ever enters a season, or a Chase, as the championship favorite.