The Top 10 Storylines for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2014

The Top 10 Storylines for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season

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    Austin Dillon and the return of the No. 3 will be a big story not only in Sunday's Daytona 500, but throughout the season.
    Austin Dillon and the return of the No. 3 will be a big story not only in Sunday's Daytona 500, but throughout the season.Associated Press

    As NASCAR fans prepare for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Sunday, an atypical busy offseason brings with it the promise of a much busier regular season than usual.

    The biggest change during the offseason was in the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The field will expand from 12 to 16 drivers, wins will be more important than ever, there will be elimination rounds and the Chase will conclude with a four-driver, winner-take-all final season-ending race at Homestead.

    Other changes that will take place in 2014 include modifications in qualifying procedures, penalties and appeals and refined aerodynamics in year two of the Generation 6 car.

    Let's take a look at the top-10 storylines we'll see in 2014.

10. Saying Goodbye to ESPN and TBS

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    Associated Press

    This will be ESPN's and TNT's final season of televising essentially the final two-thirds of the season.

    NBC returns to replace the two cable networks in 2015, while Fox Sports will remain in place to televise the first 13 races of the season, as it has done since 2001. 

9. Where Do Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle Go from Here?

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards are in the final year of their existing contracts with Roush Fenway Racing.

    The big question is whether one or both will stay with the team, or whether they'll copy Matt Kenseth and jump to another team that may potentially offer a better chance to win a championship.

8. How Will Danica Patrick Fare in 2014?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Will Danica Patrick show marked improvement in her second full season on the Sprint Cup circuit?

    She finished 27th in last year's standings, so there's obviously room for improvement. Anything less than 22nd or worse will likely not be considered an improvement.

    If Patrick can finish in the top 20 in the final standings and potentially even make a bid to qualify for the expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup, it'll do her career wonders.

    If she fails to show improvement, however, how will her fans, the media and Patrick herself react?

7. Tony Stewart Looks to Break 15 Years of Daytona 500 Frustration

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    Tony Stewart in his car before practice for the Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/David Graham)
    David Graham/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart will start his 16th career Daytona 500 on Sunday.

    The late Dale Earnhardt didn't win NASCAR's so-called Super Bowl until his 20th try in 1998.

    Stewart has become the modern-day Earnhardt when it comes to Daytona: He has four Cup wins at Daytona in summer races as well as seven Nationwide Series wins. But he's never won the Great American Race. Could this year be the charm?

6. Can Brad Keselowski Bounce Back and Prove 2012 and 2013 Were Not Fluke Years?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Brad Keselowski comes into 2014 wanting to prove that his 2012 Sprint Cup championship was not a fluke. 

    He also wants to show that his failure to defend his championship last season—not to mention not even qualifying for the Chase—was yet another fluke.

    Keselowski needs to come back in a big way in 2014. Will he?

5. Return of Tony Stewart

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Tony Stewart thus far has successfully shown that there's no lingering hangover effect from last year's worst crash of his racing career, when he suffered a broken right leg.

    The mishap in a Sprint car race caused Stewart to miss the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season, not to mention, the three surgeries and the implant of a titanium rod in his leg to add support.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Last Season with Crew Chief Steve Letarte

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Can Dale Earnhardt not only get back to winning races—he hasn't won a race since 2012 and has just two wins since the start of the 2007 season—but also finally win his first Sprint Cup championship?

    Earnhardt not only turns 40 this year, he's in his 15th Sprint Cup season. But the most important part of this season is it will be the last for Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte, who will be leaving Hendrick Motorsports at season's end to become an analyst for NBC telecasts of NASCAR races in 2015.

3. Jimmie Johnson's Bid to Win Seventh Championship

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson comes into Sunday's Daytona 500 as the defending champion, and he also begins his bid for a seventh Sprint Cup championship.

    If Johnson is able to accomplish the latter feat, he would tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships by a driver.

2. Austin Dillon Brings Back the No. 3 to Daytona and NASCAR

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    Austin Dillon, left, smiles with team owner Richard Childress, right, before the first of two NASCAR Sprint Cup series qualifying auto races in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Austin Dillon has a half-written script coming into Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. The first act, putting the fabled No. 3 Chevrolet on the pole for Sunday's race, has been completed successfully.

    Now, can Dillon complete the book by going out and actually winning the race? There's lots of attention on Dillon, bringing out the No. 3 in a Cup race for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

    Thus far, Dillon has done everything right by not only trying to make his own name and mark with the No. 3, but also honoring the memory and legacy of Earnhardt and the six Cup championships he won in the No. 3 car.

1. How Will Changes to Chase for Sprint Cup Format Be Accepted?

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    NASCAR has made several tweaks to the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, but none as radical as what will occur in 2014.

    Will the new changes do what they're intended to do: create greater excitement and attract more attention from fans and media alike across the country?

    Will the winner-take-all format in the season-ending race at Homestead prove a boon or bust? Either way, NASCAR should get plenty of notoriety and attention for the changes in this year's Chase.

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