10 Bold Predictions for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season
Next to Christmas, it's the most wonderful time of the year if you're a NASCAR fan.
With less than one week before the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, fans are going over their last-minute wish lists for their favorite drivers.
For the 15th straight season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans are once again saying that this will be Junior's year.
Jimmie Johnson fans are saying it's a foregone conclusion that their favorite driver will tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most career Sprint Cup championships (seven).
But it's also that time of year to really go out on a limb with bold predictions—good and bad—and see what potential surprises and even shocks may result. So with that, let's present Bleacher Report's annual 10 bold predictions for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Kyle Busch Wins Sprint Cup Championship
I've been saying it for probably three or four months now, even before last season ended, that 2014 was going to be Kyle Busch's year, that he'd finally live up to all the potential (and hype) and win the Sprint Cup championship.
I haven't wavered one iota.
Say what you want about every other driver—from Jimmie Johnson to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Danica Patrick—but the only way he or she is going to potentially win the championship this season is by getting through and past KyBusch.
Hate to break the news to you, but that just isn't going to happen. Kyle Busch will win it all in 2014.
You can't get a bolder prediction than that.
Jimmie Johnson Fails to Make the 4-Driver Championship Round at Homestead
NASCAR fans have grown tired of Jimmie Johnson winning championships—six in the last eight seasons, if you've forgotten.
Well, let me clarify that, non-Johnson fans have grown tired of him winning championships.
When NASCAR introduced changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format a couple weeks ago, setting up a four-driver, one-race winner-take-all championship at Homestead Miami Speedway, it appeared that such a format would favor Johnson and perhaps teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While it may help Junior, it's not much of a stretch to think Johnson may not make it to the new final round.
While JJ's usually cool as a cucumber when it comes to pressure, if he fails to win in the first six Cup races, it could potentially lead to him being one of the 12 drivers eliminated from further advancement in the Chase.
As much as I would like to say Jimmie wins No. 7 this year, I predict he doesn't get past the second round of the new-fangled Chase, the so-called Eliminator Round.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins 3 Races, Finishes Runner-Up in Letarte's Last Season
Make sure you remember that you read it here first: This is going to be the best season for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in close to a decade.
There is definitely a sense of urgency to do better than he has in a long time in 2014 for two key reasons.
First, Earnhardt turns 40 this season. He's already begun the downhill slide of his career. Does he really want to be like Kyle Petty and be a son of one of the sport's most famous drivers never to win a Sprint Cup championship? Of course not.
Our prediction is Junior wins at least three races and finishes runner-up to Busch in the championship Chase.
Second, this will be the final season together for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte. While Earnhardt will continue racing in 2015, Letarte will switch to the broadcast booth to become an analyst for NASCAR on NBC telecasts.
What better way for Junior to pay Letarte a debt of gratitude than to win as many races as he can and mount a potential championship-winning effort.
Even if Junior finishes second, as I predict, he'll have still fulfilled his debt of gratitude to Letarte for the most part.
Kyle Larson Wins Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year and Two Races in 2014
Kyle Larson, aka "The Phenom," will more than pay dividends on team owner Chip Ganassi's optimism and belief in his new young talent.
At 21, Larson will not only win two races in the Cup Series, he'll also beat out the seven other candidates vying for Rookie of the Year honors.
I'm still 50-50 that Larson will make the expanded 16-driver Chase field, but if any of the members of this year's rookie class can do it, it'll be him and potentially Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon.
Danica Patrick Finishes 30th or Worse, Leaves NASCAR at Season's End for F1
If Danica Patrick has another season in 2014 like she did in 2013, don't be surprised if she doesn't return for 2015.
But that's with a caveat.
If Patrick has as bad a season as last year, if not worse, I can easily see her leaving NASCAR yet remaining in the Stewart Haas Racing family.
Yes, that may sound confusing, but it really is pretty straightforward. If team owner and resident money man Gene Haas is approved for a Formula One team license to operate a two-car team for the 2015 season, I won't be surprised to see Patrick move to the global motorsports stage and put NASCAR in her rearview mirror.
But that also comes with another caveat
Danica to F1 may only happen if Haas gets the license to operate a team. If he doesn't, then she'll likely come back for a third and final year of her contract with SHR in 2015, regardless of where she finishes in 2014.
While we'd love to say she'll jump from 27th last season to make the expanded 16-driver Chase this season, we just aren't all that sure. If she does well in the first 12 races, then yes, she has a chance to make the Chase.
But that will also mean she'll have to substantially improve her overall finishes. No longer will 20th or 25th or 30th be good enough. She'll have to finish in the top 15 on a consistent basis in the first third to first half of the season.
Otherwise, it'll be yet another lost season. If Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya can go back to the open-wheel worlds, there's no reason Danica won't. But instead of going back to IndyCar, the marketing dynamo would be a superstar in F1—and she wouldn't have to win a race to be revered and loved from Australia to Zanzibar.
Matt Kenseth Manages Just Two Wins in 2014 and Finishes 10th in the Standings
Matt Kenseth had the best season of his career in 2013. Unfortunately, he won't be able to say the same in 2014.
While we'd love to see Kenseth win another seven races this season—if not more—the competition in the series has become even tighter than 2013.
And with teammates Kyle Busch and a healthy Denny Hamlin seemingly already back at the top of their games, there just may not be enough room at the Winner's Inn for Kenseth like there was last season.
Up until last season, Kenseth made a career of winning a couple races or so a year. As much as we'd like to see him not revert to his old ways, it's a simple matter of math that he will.
And because he won't win more than two or three races, he likely will be eliminated from the Chase by the end of the second round, leaving him with a likely 10th-place overall finish in the final 2014 standings.
Carl Edwards Moves to JGR in 2015, While Greg Biffle Moves to RCR or Penske
With both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards in contract years, the onus is on Roush Fenway Racing to keep both drivers for another three years.
But after seeing what former teammate Matt Kenseth did last season after leaving RFR for Joe Gibbs Racing, you can't help but wonder—and certainly not blame them if they have—if Biffle and Edwards have envisioned what it would be like to pull up stakes and move on at the end of 2014.
Unless RFR gets off to a spectacular start this season, I can very easily see Biffle perhaps going to a team like Penske Racing or Richard Childress Racing in 2015.
And as for Edwards, he already turned down JGR once before (in 2011). But given what Kenseth has been able to achieve there, he won't make the same mistake of turning down JGR again.
Ray Evernham Becomes Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Crew Chief in 2015
Ray Evernham has already given up his side job as an analyst for ESPN this year, preferring to focus all his attention on his role as a consultant at Hendrick Motorsports.
And he can insist over and over until the cows come home that he'll never be a crew chief again, but we have a gut feeling that team owner Rick Hendrick is going to make Evernham an offer he can't refuse.
Do you see where this is going?
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to lose Steve Letarte as his crew chief at the end of the season, if Evernham was ever going to return atop the pit box again, how could he turn down the opportunity—not to mention the challenge—of doing so with Junior?
Evernham has a lot of Letarte in him, and vice versa. Where one man leaves off, the other man picks up. Evernham gave Letarte his first job as a go-fer at HMS more than 15 years ago. Why wouldn't stepping into the shoes of his former prodigy not appeal to him?
Evernham has done it all, from being a racer himself to being a three-time championship-winning crew chief for Jeff Gordon to being a team owner and the man most responsible for bringing Dodge back to NASCAR more than a decade ago (only to see Dodge leave the sport once again after the 2012 season). And let's not forget his stint as an ESPN analyst.
He doesn't need the money, but one thing that Evernham likely won't be able to resist is the challenge of potentially becoming the first crew chief in NASCAR history to lead Junior to a Sprint Cup championship—providing his prodigy doesn't beat him to it this year.
Kurt Busch Finishes Top Five in the Indianapolis 500
Kurt Busch has his eyes set on racing in this year's Indianapolis 500. If he's able to do so, he would fulfill a lifelong dream of running for the roses and the bottle of milk given to every 500 winner.
While some might scoff at Busch's attempt, let's not forget that he's still one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR today. He'll likely get at least two or three wins this year for his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
And if he gets a ride at Indy, Busch is definitely going to surprise. He may lead a bunch of laps and be in contention at the very end. If he's able to stay out of trouble and not get caught up in a wreck, we could easily see him finishing top-five in the 500.
And if he pulls off the proverbial "double" by also racing in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte later the same day, what better way to cap it off than to do well there too?
Biggest Name That Won't Make the 2014 Chase: Kasey Kahne
Every season as we get closer to the final Chase-qualifying race at Richmond, the game is played: Which big-name driver will fail to make the Chase?
It was easy to play the game when the Chase field was only 10 drivers—and even easy when it was expanded to 12 drivers several years ago.
But still, there was always one or more big-name drivers who failed to make the Chase.
Even with this year's Chase field expanded to 16 drivers, don't think it's a given that all the big-name drivers will make the playoffs, because it's just not going to happen.
This year, Kasey Kahne will be the odd man out, arguably the biggest name who won't make the Chase. It's nothing but a hunch, of course, but with the way Kahne was so inconsistent at times in 2013, I think you'll see a lot of carryover effect in 2014.
Sure, Kahne won two races last season and made the Chase. Expectations were high given that he had finished a career-best fourth place in 2012's final standings.
But when Kahne hit last year's Chase, instead of going up, he went down—and didn't stop sinking until he finished next-to-last in the expanded 13-driver field. Only Carl Edwards finished lower, in 13th.
To borrow from Forrest Gump, Kahne is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you're going to get from him on race day. One day he can be absolutely brilliant and look like the champion so many people have predicted him to be one day, while other days he looks like he's completely lost.
Don't get me wrong, Kahne is a driver I hold in very high regard. But when you're part of a super-team like that at HMS with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., you can't expect everyone to be a championship contender every year.
Simply put, 2014 is not going to be Kasey Kahne's year.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski