Brad Keselowski was the last first-time champ in Sprint Cup in 2012. Who could potentially be the next?
As the countdown continues for the 2014 season-opening Daytona 500, the names of some of the biggest stars in the sport are once again on the lips of fans.
And those fans are asking what is, in essence, a generic yet very pertinent question:
Is this FINALLY the year that (fill in the blank) wins his first Sprint Cup championship?
Let's rank each of those 11 potential first-time champs to be in the Cup series and see who has what it takes to unseat Jimmie Johnson from a potential title No. 7.
After four seasons of mediocre racing and finishes at Joe Gibbs Racing, Joey Logano finally broke through with his new team, Penske Racing, in 2013.
Logano made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time and had a career-high 11 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes, ultimately finishing the season with a career-best eighth-place finish.
But 2014 is going to be a bit more difficult for Logano. Teammate and Penske Racing's No. 1 driver 2012 Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski is likely going to come back with a vengeance this season and will likely steal much of Logano's thunder.
Logano did an admirable job in 2013, especially with Keselowski failing to make the Chase to defend his crown. And while we think Logano will likely make the Chase once again, especially if the format is expanded to a 16-driver field, the odds just aren't in the cards for a Logano championship in 2014.
Father Time could be catching up to Greg Biffle in 2014. Recently having turned 44, Biffle is also coming off a very unspectacular Chase last season.
His ninth-place finish in the Chase was the second-worst performance Biffle has had in the last six seasons.
Plus, he managed just one win and a near-career low of just four top-five finishes all season. You don't win championships with that kind of outing (his 13 top-10 finishes weren't much to speak of either.
Biffle is still hoping to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win championships in all three major divisions, namely Camping World Trucks (2000), Nationwide Series (2002) and Sprint Cup Series (TBD, if at all).
But he'll have something this season he's never had before: competition for that prestigious title, with Austin Dillon in his first full season of Cup racing after winning Trucks (2011) and Nationwide (2013) titles, as well.
It's going to be a rough road for Da Biff if he has the kind of performance in 2014 that he had in 2013.
Martin Truex Jr. was caught up in a huge mess at Michael Waltrip Racing that was not of his doing related to the attempt by MWR officials to try and manipulate the finish of the final pre-Chase at Richmond last fall, thus guaranteeing Truex a spot in the Chase.
Instead, Truex was disqualified, primary sponsor NAPA left MWR after last season and Truex was found without a sponsor or ride.
He's since replaced Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing and potentially will have very big shoes to fill. Sure, Truex would love to become the second driver in NASCAR history to qualify a single-car Sprint Cup team in the Chase, following in Busch's footsteps from last season, but there's a big disparity between Busch and Truex.
I think it's likely Truex will make the Chase but don't be totally surprised if he winds up near the bottom of the playoff pack.
We really would like to see Ryan Newman do well in his new home at Richard Childress Racing.
If anyone has a chip on his shoulder, it's Newman for the way he was so unceremoniously dumped from Stewart-Haas Racing last season, only to be replaced by Kurt Busch.
Newman has, in effect, replaced Jeff Burton at RCR, while Austin Dillon has replaced Kevin Harvick. Newman is the most veteran driver of the three-car RCR entry, but unless he can get some strong support from Dillon and Paul Menard, it's looking like Newman may make the Chase and potentially finish mid-pack, at best.
Even though it's a new season, Clint Bowyer is going to still strongly feel the aftereffects of last September's scandal of Michael Waltrip Racing trying to manipulate the finish of the final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond.
Had that not happened, we might have been compelled to rank him significantly higher in this exercise. Unfortunately, the stigma of what happened at MWR is going to stick with Bowyer for quite some time.
While I still see him making the Chase, it's going to be a struggle to finish much higher than eighth or maybe even seventh.
Of course, that's partly providing that MWR learned from its mistakes and doesn't try to manipulate this season's final pre-Chase-qualifying race.
Denny Hamlin could become one of NASCAR's greatest comeback stories of all time if he bounces back—no pun intended—from last season's back injury and wins the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
Unfortunately, Hamlin fans, it's not likely to happen.
To his credit, Hamlin drove hurt for much of the remainder of the season after returning from the four weeks he missed after the devastating crash at Fontana, but he never complained or used the pain he was in as an excuse.
However, we did notice that Hamlin drove a bit more tentative behind the wheel, particularly in the closing stages of the season. That, my friends, is not a good sign.
Unless he has his confidence back 100 percent, Hamlin could not only have a mediocre season, but he may miss the Chase if he doesn't show some flashes of his old self.
That being said, we do see him making the Chase, but whether the field is expanded or not, we don't see him finishing any higher than the bottom fourth of the playoff performers.
Carl Edwards drove his butt off in 2011, missing the Sprint Cup championship by one point in a tiebreaker (Tony Stewart had five wins to only one for Edwards).
Then in 2012, Edwards literally fell off the grid, if not the entire map, failing to make the Chase and not even winning a race in the entire season.
He bounced back in 2013 with two wins and appeared headed toward a decent performance in the Chase. But that didn't wind up being the case, however, as Edwards finished dead last in the expanded 13-driver Chase field.
Two things we see coming from Edwards in 2014 are:
First, he makes the Chase and finishes in the top six or top seven.
Second, if he does not finish that high—or, God forbid, fails to make the Chase entirely—don't be surprised if Cousin Carl flies the coop at Roush Fenway Racing after the season, much like former teammate Matt Kenseth did following the 2012 season.
And how did Kenseth fare after his move? A career-high seven wins and, had it not been for one bad race at Phoenix last November, may very well have pulled off the upset and stole the championship away from Jimmie Johnson.
That's some significant food for thought for Edwards.
We've spent so many seasons wondering when the real Kasey Kahne would show up, where he'd finally be able to put together his immense talent with the right equipment from the right team.
He did a great job of that in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, finishing fourth in the 2012 championship Chase.
But last season, despite two wins, Kahne literally disappeared in the Chase, totally unlike the year before, when he was swinging for a championship home run all the way up to the season finale.
What happened in last season's Chase? Who knows. But the fact remains Kahne finished a dismal 12th out of the 13-driver field.
Could it have been a sophomore-season jinx at Hendrick Motorsports? Perhaps.
Could he bounce back in a big way in 2014? Again, perhaps.
Will he and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis be able to ratchet things back up and potentially surprise quite a few opponents? Yes, but only if they first figure out what happened last season and then try to avoid making the same mistakes.
Kahne made the Chase last season, but I never really had a confident feeling about his consistency, which ultimately proved to be his undoing—or at least a significant part of it.
New team, new car number, same old Kevin Harvick. That's the situation for the Bakersfield, Calif., native, as he moves to Stewart Haas Racing in 2014.
But being the same old KH isn't a bad thing at all. The change of address and a different way of doing things could very well prove to be just what Harvick needs.
He's come close a couple of times to winning a Cup championship, even won the Daytona 500, but has never been able to get himself over the top. But with the new home and teammates like three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and 2004 Cup champ Kurt Busch, perhaps some of that championship aura will rub off on Harvick, and he'll finally earn that title he's hungered for so much for the past 13 years.
Harvick arguably has better equipment at SHR, driving chassis and motors built by Hendrick Motorsports. That's not a knock against Richard Childress Racing but let's face it: Of the last eight Sprint Cup championships, seven have generated from HMS (six by Jimmie Johnson and one from Tony Stewart, driving HMS-leased motors and bodies).
If Harvick ever had the best chance of all in his career for a championship, it's likely 2014. Time will tell if that prediction is right.
There's a sense of urgency for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season. Not only will he turn 40, more important is the fact he'll part ways with crew chief Steve Letarte at the end of the season also.
After nearly two decades at Hendrick Motorsports, Letarte will leave there at the end of 2014 to join NBC Sports as a TV analyst starting in 2015.
Earnhardt has never clicked with a crew chief in his Cup career—with the possible exception of his uncle Tony Eury Sr.—as he has with Letarte. The duo combined to earn a fifth-place finish in the 2013 season standings, Junior's best showing since he was fifth in 2006.
But once Letarte is gone, all bets are off on Junior finding a similar—if not better—crew chief than Big Steve.
Of course, they have to win several races if there's any chance for Earnhardt, Letarte and the No. 88 to win the 2014 championship. And given that Junior has won only one race with Letarte (2012) and only two races since the start of the 2007 season, that could be a very tall order.
Still, Letarte would likely want to go out on top with his first Cup championship. Now it's up to Junior to deliver the goods, lest he himself potentially face the best—and last good—chance he'll ever have of winning a Cup crown.
This is the year to win it all for Kyle Busch—at least in theory. There are no excuses or reasons why he can't finally win his first Sprint Cup championship in 2014.
All the elements are in place, his demeanor has matured, and now it's time for the younger Busch brother to really put his awesome talent level to the fullest and greatest test it's ever had.
Busch admittedly is stuck in a rut of sorts. He has had a number of seasons in the Sprint Cup Series where he's had outstanding 26-race regular seasons, only to suffer through one bad 10-race Chase after another.
But he finally broke through in 2013, finishing a career-best fourth in the standings, winning four races, and had 16 top-five and a career-best 22 top-10 finishes.
Not only did Busch stay out of trouble both on and off the race track for the most part, he also resumed his extracurricular driving on both the Nationwide and Trucks series, which seemed to help him take out his frustrations, if any, while also giving him important information he could use the next day or two in the Cup race main event.
While there's not so much the sense of urgency to win a championship in 2014 as there is for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Busch is unquestionably facing perhaps the best chance he's ever had at winning that elusive championship.
What's more, if there's any driver who can keep Jimmie Johnson from tying Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most season championships (both with seven), it's Kyle Busch—plain and simple.
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