Sprint Cup 2014: Drivers Who Are Primed for Exceptional Seasons

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Sprint Cup 2014: Drivers Who Are Primed for Exceptional Seasons
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Every year in NASCAR brings change for fans who have been around for years, and the 2014 season won't be any different.

With rule changes that have already affected the way drivers will make it to the Chase at the end of the year, the Sprint Cup season is sure to be shaken up tremendously.

Along with the rules being different, there will also be some new faces vying for points when the season officially kicks off in Daytona. Whether it's Austin Dillon or Kyle Larson battling out some of the top drivers in the sport for supremacy, the newbies will certainly make a difference.

Dillon has already claimed the pole for the Daytona 500 and is hoping to honor the No. 3 car with a great season.

Rookies and veterans alike will be looking to make the Chase this season, and here are a few to look for when the season begins on Sunday.

 

Austin Dillon

Out of Lewisville, N.C., Dillon grew up a huge Dale Earnhardt fan. With his grandfather being the owner of the famed midnight-black No. 3 car, Dillon was in victory lane back in 1998 when Earnhardt Sr. won the only Daytona 500 of his career, according to Reid Spencer of NASCAR.com.

Ironically enough, it will be Dillon who will bring the No. 3 car back to NASCAR's biggest stage—and he'll do so from the pole position.

While he's already stealing headlines before his first full season in the Sprint Cup, Dillon isn't the only rookie looking to break out. But after winning Rookie of the Year several times in his career at other levels, the 23-year-old spoke about his chances, per Tom Jensen of Fox Sports:

I think it's very important. I've won it in the Truck Series, I've won it in the Nationwide Series and in the East Series. And this year is definitely going to be the toughest, probably, moving to the Cup Series. Not only that, the competition is stout for rookie of the year this year. Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, and there's a few others in there.

With Larson being the other leading candidate coming into the season, Dillon hasn't exactly been handed the award just yet. But after the pole win, Dillon has proven that he's not fazed by the expectations set for him.

Gil Martin, Dillon's crew chief who held the same position for Kevin Harvick last season, spoke about the pedigree of the rookie driver, according to NASCAR on Fox:

Thanks to his experience and skills in a car leading him to the 2011 Camping World Truck Series Championship and the 2013 Nationwide Series title, don't expect a lot of growing pains from Dillon.

Though he might not win a race this year, Dillon will capture multiple top-10 finishes and make a strong case for a place in the Chase at the end of the season. If Dillon can make this happen, there will be no choice at the conclusion of the season in the Rookie of the Year race.

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

The 2013 Rookie of the Year might actually be more famous for being Danica Patrick's arm candy than his abilities as a driver.

But that can all change in 2014.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was last year's version of Dillon, but was somewhat underwhelming even though he was the best rookie in the field.

With just three top-10 finishes, including a third-place finish at Talladega near the end of the season, Stenhouse didn't have quite as much success as he expected, according to Jerry Bonkowski for NBC Sports:

Oh, it sucked. Last year was (one of the few) years I didn’t win a race in my career of racing from the time I was six. So, that was disappointing, but at least with Rookie of the Year, we kind of won something.

This year, there won't be any prizes handed out for being the best sophomore driver. But with the return of Mike Kelley as his crew chief, Stenhouse could be in line for a breakout season.

The change might seem like a small one, but with the chemistry Stenhouse and Kelley had at the Nationwide Series level—winning two championships in 2011 and 2012—the duo should be key for a turnaround with Roush Fenway Racing.

 

Kasey Kahne

At 33 years old, Kasey Kahne is hardly the young driver that he was when he initially started on the NASCAR circuit. But with a great season in 2013 that landed him just outside of the top 10 in points, Kahne looks like a perfect candidate for a breakout season.

Kahne spoke about his expectations coming into the season, per Adam Jude of the Seattle Times:

There were times last year when I thought we were definitely the best car for a good portion of the early season. So we’re just trying to figure out how to do that more often and for a long part of the season. That would be great for us.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver concluded the 2013 season with two wins and six second-place finishes. The No. 5 car didn't see victory lane quite as many times as some of the top drivers, but Kahne can certainly be expected to collect a few more checkered flags and find more consistency in 2014.

Entering his third year with the team, expectations for Kahne from his fans and even himself personally appear to be quite high. But with him coming into his third season with the team, Kahne should make the Chase and be primed to finish in the top 10 in points this year.

 

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