10 Burning Questions for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

10 Burning Questions for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season kicks off this weekend with its most popular race, the Daytona 500. It was a year ago when Danica Patrick made her NASCAR debut by winning the pole and finishing eighth in the premier race of the entire circuit. It never got any better, but her team, Steward-Haas Racing did.

    The upcoming season has some rule changes meant to increase driver safety and to spruce up the season-ending Chase. 

    Some drivers changed teams and one crew chief is calling it quits. All these changes produce questions about the forthcoming 36 races in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup.

10. How Will Kevin Harvick Fare on His New Team?

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    Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    It first leaked in 2012 that Kevin Harvick would be leaving Richard Childress Racing to start fresh with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. It seems like a long time ago, but that time has finally arrived.

    Harvick finished third in the Sprint Cup standings three of the last four years. And it was Harvick who filled the giant void left by Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500 13 years ago. Harvick said

    You can look at Richard, know that both sides have been good for each other. I think there's definitely a mutual respect for the things that we've done for each other, whether you're just getting a shot, winning races, me stepping in and doing the things that we did for the company as the company was in a tough transition point with Dale and his accident. There's a lot to be proud of and a lot to be happy about, a lot that we've been able to accomplish. Hopefully, it's a good first half of my career and the second half goes just as well.

    Harvick joins Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, driving the No. 4 car. 

    Much of his success—and the team's—will be determined by the health of ...

     

9. How Soon Will Tony Stewart Return to Form?

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    David Graham/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart's team secured Kevin Harvick, one of the most consistent drivers of the past four years, and Stewart-Haas Racing may need to lean on Harvick early.

    The timing is great given that Stewart's broken leg that he suffered six months ago could, conceivably, hold him back. He still hasn't regained all the mobility in that busted leg.

    Stewart told USA Today Sports,

    There's honestly not been one moment where I've thought, 'Do I want to get back in the car or can I get back in the car? Am I going to be OK?' It's been 'When can I get in the car?' and 'I wonder how long it's going to take to win a race.' There's never been any doubt when they tell you, 'You're going to recover 100 percent.' That's all I need to know.

    Stewart, 42, can only hope his somewhat advanced age won't hinder his recovery more than it already has. Take Darrell Waltrip, who also suffered a severe leg injury in his forties.

    "That injury is a huge setback for Tony at this time in his career and his life," Waltrip said. "I know it was for me. I almost lost my leg, and it had a profound impact on me. It's hard to get seriously hurt when you're older and not have it impact you. He's tough, but it's going to be tough."

     

8. Can Jimmie Johnson Tie Petty and Earnhardt?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson may be the most hated man in all of NASCAR.

    People have railed him in comments saying he's a "cheater" and any other nasty sobriquet one can dream up. That kind of ire is often directed at those who win—or those with puppy eyes and a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. Still, he's second to two legends in terms of victories. Respect.

    Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt are the only two who have more Cup wins than Johnson with seven. 

    NASCAR implemented new rules for the Chase and it will be interesting to see how it affects the drivers who qualify as well as drivers, like Johnson, who are expected to be there at the end.

7. How Will the New Chase Rules Affect the Field?

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    CHUCK BURTON/Associated Press

    NASCAR decided to shake things up heading into the 2014 season. The Chase expands to 16 drivers and involves a tournament angle to the format.

    Four drivers are eliminated after the third, sixth and ninth races. The top four heading into the season's finale essentially race head-to-head. The top finisher of the four is the champion.

    Jimmie Johnson, a six-time Sprint Cup champion, doesn't mind the rule change. He told Fox Sports, "I still the think the way you win a championship is the same. You've got to win races. I think it's more of a—it builds more excitement with the fact that you've got to win to transfer and there's that elimination process that works its way down. I still feel very good about it."

    This is Brian France's, NASCAR's Chairman and CEO, "Game-7 moment".

    But it's not one-on-one-on-one-on-one. There's 35 other drivers creating traffic who have no shot at winning. Those drivers may fall on a grenade for a teammate in the Chase. That can muddy an otherwise pure competition.

6. Will Danica Patrick Step Up Her Game?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Danica Patrick, for all the waves she makes, only led five laps in all of 2013. All five of those laps came in the season opener—the Daytona 500. She finished eighth that day and finished no higher the rest of the campaign.

    The Daytona 500 was her only pole of the year. Her average pole start after that race was 31.19. As a result, she failed to have more than one top 10 with an average finish of 26.52. 

    She has a lot of respect to earn among the good ol' boys, such as Richard Petty, who said Patrick could only win a race, "if everybody else stayed at home."

    Until Patrick wins, she will face all kinds of criticism. But the proof is on the track. She drove poorly in 2013 and the best way she can silence her critics is to win.

5. How Will Letarte's Departure Affect Junior?

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Steve Letarte will step down as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief after the 2014 season to start a career in the broadcasting booth for NBC. 

    Letarte and Junior earned one Sprint Cup win together and qualified for the Chase the past three years. It will be interesting to see how he will perform in what is a lame duck season for Letarte.

    Letarte said in a statement, "I want to thank Rick Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports for the opportunities they have given me over the last eighteen years, and I want to reaffirm my commitment to Dale Jr. and the entire No. 88 team to go win races and challenge for the championship in 2014."

    Perhaps it will sharpen the team's intent since the end is in sight. They haven't had a tremendous amount of success together, but one more year could bring a laser-like focus to help Hendrick sports springboard into 2015 and beyond.

4. What Will the Impact of NASCAR's New Concussion Protocols Have in 2014?

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Much of the head injury talk in North American sports has been focused on football and the repeated trauma players are under every play. NASCAR has mandated a baseline level for each driver to measure future head injuries against during the course of a season full of crashes and spin outs.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat out two races in 2013 with a concussion and is in favor of mandatory testing.

    "It makes perfect sense to make it mandatory," Earnhardt said. "I think it was nice of them to look into ways they could protect us from ourselves really. The test is really simple, and it's pretty straightforward."

    The imPACT test provides a neurological profile including memory, reaction time and attention span, among other things. The imPACT test has been used before in NASCAR to evaluate drivers. Jeff Gordon is in favor of trying to get ahead of the curve.

    I think there's a potential for it to be mandatory in the future. Why not go ahead and get ahead of the game? Plus, I'd rather have it before the season starts to get a baseline. I just think whether it's voluntary or not, it's a good idea to have. I don't think NASCAR necessarily has to make it mandatory. But if you're a race car driver, you feel like you're going to be here a while, then you need to make it mandatory to yourself.

3. Can Busch — Along with Harvick— Carry SHR?

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have had their friction in the past, but now they're on the same team: Stewart-Haas Racing. Those two, along with Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart, make for one of the more powerful combinations (with the possible exception of Patrick) on the track.

    Harvick lobbied to sign Busch, saying, "I was the only guy who had ever worked with him. I understood that, in my opinion, he's going to be good for the company from a competition standpoint, to drive the performance of the race cars to be better. And that's why we are all here: to be fast and win races."

    Busch has qualified for the Chase seven times and finished 10th in the Chase a year ago. Busch's personality has been abrasive and it often precedes him. But let it be know, these four on SHR are out to win.

    "It's funny, you work with people and the first thing they tell you was, 'Wow, I expected worse.' Perception is reality," Busch told The Associated Press. "I had to work on that. I couldn't continue to fight it. I was about producing results on the race track and putting on a good show."

2. Can Jeff Gordon Approach the Top 10 in Starts?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Jeff Gordon has 725 starts—consecutive starts, mind you—in his illustrious career, good for 12th all time. With 36 races on the calendar, Gordon will easily pass Sterling Marlin, who has 748. Thirty-six starts for Gordon will give him 761, just two shy of tying No. 10 Ken Schrader, who has 763.

    Gordon, with 88 wins in his career, has a legitimate shot enduring the rigors of the Chase, but he'll have to contend with his teammate Jimmie Johnson as they race toward Homestead. Gordon said,

    It's fantastic to be back, the excitement has definitely been building. I really love getting to the shop and spending time with [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and the engineers every year this time of year. It's exciting to hear all the things that they've been thinking about and creating ways to make you better as a team. When we get on the track, I look forward to seeing those results.

1. Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. Have a Much-Awaited Breakout Year?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    You'd be hard-pressed to find a racer more popular with so few wins as Dale Earnhardt Jr., with just 19 in his career. He's the most visible driver in NASCAR, only rivaled by Danica Patrick. But eventually he has to win.

    Then again, maybe he just has to remain relevant, all the while throwing back Diet Dews and sporting Wranglers.

    Steve Letarte became his crew chief and things did turn around for Junior. They won a race together and were factors in the Chase. Letarte will leave pit road for the broadcast booth in 2015, so just as Junior hit his stride with Letarte, Letarte is bouncing.

    "Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race car driver and as a person," Earnhardt said. "Working with him has really helped me grow. I think you guys have all seen that over the last several years."

    Given that the pair have just one more year together, it could mean the best of their time together will be in 2014.