2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup Field
Making preseason predictions for the 2014 Chase before the Daytona 500 is a perilous assignment. One risks looking quite foolish come September.
While it is expected that this year's championship field will look very similar to the photo above, with a few additions, the change in the rules that opens up the Chase to 16 drivers should make for a few surprises when the checkered flag falls in Richmond.
NASCAR racing is often described as dramatic and unpredictable. And what often looks like a good Cup team on paper doesn't necessarily translate into real life.
However, there are still some things in NASCAR that are predictable.
And with that being said, I hereby offer my picks for the 2014 Chase field. Come September, they'll likely be as embarrassing as my high school graduation yearbook photo.
The numerical order in which they appear does not indicate the final points position, except for No. 1.
A J Allmendinger
After a season of bouncing around from team to team and back and forth between IndyCars, stock cars and IMSA sport cars, all-around racer A.J. Allmendinger has found a permanent home in 2014 with the JTG Daugherty Sprint Cup team.
He's shown his prowess in a stock car on road courses, winning both Nationwide Series road course races in 2013 driving a Mustang for Roger Penske.
The JTG Daugherty alliance with Richard Childress Racing means Allmendinger should have a car under him that is capable of winning at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Both are tracks where he's finished in the top 10 a total of five times.
Oh, and did I mention that he's also pretty good on ovals too?
It's easy to overlook Jamie McMurray when talking about the best of the current crop of Sprint Cup drivers, despite a stellar NASCAR record that includes winning both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year (2010).
Although soft-spoken and articulate outside the car, McMurray is an aggressive gladiator behind the wheel.
Always a threat to win, four of his seven Sprint Cup victories have come on restrictor-plate tracks (two each at Daytona and Talladega). With a career total 45 top-fives, McMurray could make the Chase field on points, but it is more likely that he'll get in by winning a race or possibly two.
With the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray steps out of the shadows and assumes the role as team leader at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, acting as teacher and mentor to teammate Kyle Larson. This is the season where everything is in place for McMurray to shine, make the Chase and perhaps even more.
NASCAR's celebrated bad boy is likely to have a difficult first season at Stewart Haas Racing. There's no secret he's the outsider at a party of friends.
Despite this, Busch will have his moments of brilliance. His record shows 24 Cup wins, but none since 2011 when he was driving for Roger Penske.
He is quick to complain about his race car, yet somehow he's always there in the top 10 in the closing laps of the race. The Las Vegas native is often considered a short-track guru. He has scored 12 of his 24 Cup victories on tracks of a mile or less. His win on the road course at Sonoma was not a shock to those who know him. Look for him to be a winner at Bristol or Martinsville.
Easily dismissed as arrogant and aloof, Busch's competitive nature often gets him into trouble with the media and NASCAR officials. He will make the Chase on points even though he'll struggle early in the season.
Joey Logano has only three wins in 183 Sprint Cup races. Many observers felt that he came into the Sprint Cup series too early when he replaced Tony Stewart in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Logano's years with Gibbs were mediocre at best, and he never seemed to live up to the nickname of "Sliced Bread" (as in "the best thing since"), given to him by former driver Randy LaJoie.
Throughout his racing career, Logano has driven top-notch equipment. It may be why, in the later stages of a Cup race, when a car is tough to drive, he often struggles. This may account for his low wining percentage in the Cup Series.
Logano is good, but he's not good enough when measured against his peers. He'll make the Chase by way of winning a race, although he and his team are capable of getting there on points. The bottom line: The current version of Joey Logano isn't a Cup champion. Perhaps with a few more years of experience, he might be.
A former champion of both the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series, Greg Biffle has yet to close the deal on the Cup side.
With 19 wins and 85 top-fives, Biffle is a demanding driver who gives 120 percent every time he gets behind the wheel. That is why his failure to win a Cup championship, even in the Jimmie Johnson era, is so puzzling.
He's made the Chase six out of 10 years. His best finish is second in 2005. However, the Achilles' heel in Biffle's career appears to be competitiveness of the Roush Fenway race cars. When stacked up against the competition, they're good enough to get Biffle in the Chase, but not good enough for him to win.
Once again, Biffle will have no problem making the Chase on points, scoring big early in the season, having a mid-summer slump and then having a strong run up to Richmond.
Then, the real question will be: Are the RFR cars as good as the competition?
Taking nearly half a year off from Sprint Cup racing might have been OK for the Tony Stewart of 2004. But it's a different story for 42-year-old team owner Tony Stewart, who is the antithesis of the modern-day workout-and-diet-conscious stock car driver.
That's not to say that Smoke won't have some great weekends on his unofficial Comeback Tour 2014. There's a lot of hunt left in this old dog, and he'll win a race or two.
However, the demands of successful team ownership will be enough of a distraction for Stewart and his team to make the Chase but not win the championship.
The 2012 champion had what could be best described as a let-down season in 2013, finishing 16th in points in NASCAR's regular season.
Nevertheless, Brad Keselowski won the fall race in Charlotte to salvage his year.
Write off last year as a mulligan or call it what you will, the Michigan-born Keselowski is still young (30) with a decade of potential championship years ahead of him. Last year, he signed a contract extension that will have him racing for Penske through the 2017 season.
A big question still remains: Are the Penske Fords as good as the Gibbs Toyotas and the Hendrick Chevys?
No Sprint Cup driver dealt with more disappointment in 2013 than Carl Edwards. did Despite nine top-five and 16 top-ten finishes, he just missed the Chase and closed out the season 13th in points.
Since finishing second to Tony Stewart in the 2011 championship, Edwards has not shown the form of his early years. While he did win two races last year (Phoenix and Richmond), the season as a whole did not reflect the kind of success that Edwards (and his fans) was used to.
Once again, the Roush Fenway Racing cars come into question, as his failure to win a championship during his tenure with the organization has been puzzling.
Edwards and the No. 99 RFR team will comfortably make the Chase on points in 2014, but the competition as we count down to No. 1 begins to get substantially more difficult from this point forward.
It is highly likely that Edwards will have to move to another team in order to win the title.
In 23 years of racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, four-time champion Jeff Gordon has had his share of good years and bad years. Most of his good years are in the rearview mirror, but don't think for even a second that the competitive fire doesn't burn white hot inside of his 42-year-old body.
He has been relentless in his drive to win a fifth Cup title, pushing crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team to its limits.
His late entry in the last year's Chase was not indicative of the kind of season this cagey veteran delivered. He had one win, eight top-fives and 17 top-tens.
Gordon will unquestionably make the 2014 edition of the Chase, and, with some luck in the final 10 races, he just may win that elusive fifth championship this season.
Fan favorite Clint Bowyer has made it a habit to be in the Chase. He's participated in NASCAR's postseason five of the nine years he's been racing in the Sprint Cup Series.
Despite going winless in 2013 and the aftermath of the controversy surrounding him and his Michael Waltrip Racing teammates, Bowyer should have a stellar season in 2014. His team remains intact and his sponsors have all returned, giving the Kansas native the kind of continuity and security not easily found in the Cup garage.
Bowyer will make the Chase field on points, although he and his MWR team tend to race in streaks. Hopefully, come fall, he and the rest of the team will be in the midst of a winning streak.
One wonders why Denny Hamlin hasn't won at least a couple of Sprint Cup titles by now. Of course, it's easy to dismiss the query by remembering just how difficult it is to win the NASCAR championship in the Jimmie Johnson era.
If there is a driver and a team that can do it, it is Virginia-born Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx-sponsored team out of the Joe Gibbs Racing organization.
Last year, Hamlin's early-season wreck at Auto Club Speedway turned out to be a disaster for his season. He suffered serious back injuries that kept him out of the car for several weeks. Once he returned, it was as if for the sole purpose of having someone in the car every weekend. Hamlin was not competitive.
At Homestead, Hamlin had healed enough to display a good deal of the old Denny Hamlin, as he battled both his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the season finale and start a winning streak that has continued into 2014.
Hamlin has yet to lose in 2014, scoring a victory in the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel race.
That he would make the Chase in 2014 became a sure thing after he flexed his muscles early in Daytona. He is easily one of the top three favorites to win the 2014 title.
Getting into the Chase isn't the problem for Matt Kenseth. The Wisconsin native has appeared in NASCAR's postseason all but one year (2009) since its inception in 2004.
Closing the deal and taking the trophy home, though, that's the problem.
After winning the championship in 2003, Kenseth has yet to repeat under the Chase format.
2013 was a season of change for the 41-year-old. After more than a decade of driving Fords for Jack Roush, he moved to Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. The results were brilliant. After a disappointing 37th at Daytona, courtesy of a blown engine, Kenseth went on to win a series-high seven races.
Back-to-back wins to start the Chase (Loudon and Chicago) were promising, but a 20th-place finish at Talladega and a 23rd-place finish at Phoenix essentially dashed Kenseth's championship hopes. He finished second behind Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth will once again be a strong favorite for the championship in 2014. But with several other drivers stepping up their game, as well as the perennial favorite Johnson, the road to the title gets bumpier and steeper from here.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He has been voted NASCAR's favorite driver a record 11 years in a row.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to win the championship, it would be an earth-shattering event, with Junior Nation going absolutely wild.
It's not an impossible dream. Had the new Chase rules for 2014 been in place last season, Earnhardt Jr. would have been the champion.
Competition from his teammates (Johnson, Gordon and Kasey Kahne) at Hendrick Motorsports is tough enough. But it also comes from at least a dozen or more other drivers in the series, placing a lot of pressure on the 88 team.
Earnhardt Jr. should win a race or possibly two. That will assure his spot in the Chase. He could start off the season with a win a Daytona (which in itself would be monumental). His best tracks are the superspeedways, as seven of his 19 wins have come there.
His (other) win(s) will likely come late in the season, which by the way, is the swan song for crew chief Steve Letarte. He is leaving for the security (and less stressful world) of a television gig. Letarte will want to go out on top. Having "championship-winning crew chief" before your name looks and sounds pretty good. You can count on Letarte to be the clutch player when times get tough.
Earnhardt Jr. himself turns 40 this year and is starting what will be his final decade of racing. Like his teammate Gordon, who is 42, the years ahead in racing are much less than those in the rearview mirror.
If there's to be a Sprint Cup title in his career, this season may be the best chance for Earnhardt to earn it.
Relinquishing the title of NASCAR's bad boy to older brother Kurt, along with losing a ton of money trying to keep his own Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series teams afloat the past few, has given Kyle Busch a new, more serious persona.
Some attribute this change to the influence of his assertive wife of nearly four years, Samantha. Whatever the reason, the younger of the two Busch brothers is more focused and determined to win a championship than ever before.
Busch has missed the Chase three out of the last five years. However, when he does make the Chase, mistakes or mechanical issues have caused the Las Vegas native to be out of the running for the championship early on.
Unless something dramatic happens during the regular season, Busch should win more than one race. The last time he went winless was his rookie season in the Cup Series (2004), when he raced in only six events. He won four races in 2013.
Busch is always a threat to win when the green flag flies, and he's one of a handful of truly serious contenders for the title in 2014.
He is simply Mr. Six-Time.
What can be said about Jimmie Johnson that hasn't already been said? He is greatness in sports personified.
The combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus has redefined winning in NASCAR. While some blame Knaus for pushing the envelope and bending the rules (which, by definition, is his job as crew chief and what he gets paid big bucks to do), his ability to build and lead a team that works this well together could probably get him consideration for a gig as the CEO for a Fortune 500 company.
Johnson's skill as a driver, which is often underappreciated, matches up perfectly with Knaus' direction, and the two of them together perform magic on the race track
Six championships. One more and we'll be mentioning Johnson in the same sentence as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.—and rightly so.
However, this year, the competition will again be tougher than the year before, and the gains made by the Hendrick Motorsports 48 team will be matched by several others, including the driver and team I've chosen as the 2014 Sprint Cup champion.
Now in his 14th year as a Sprint Cup driver, 38-year-old Kevin Harvick needs to get a move on. He's come out from under the large shadow cast by Richard Childress and his grandsons and into the comfort of a new place with an old friend. RCR to Stewart-Haas Racing.
It's like moving out from your parent's house and into an apartment with some of your best buddies.
Now is the time for Kevin Harvick. He knows it, and so does his friend and team owner Tony Stewart. And so does the rest of NASCAR.
Harvick is long overdue for having his name placed on the Sprint Cup trophy. Gone is the stress of owning a struggling racing organization that carried his name, drained his bank account and, despite its winning races, was losing money. Gone is the weight of the legacy of Dale Earnhardt Sr., whose car Harvick drove for his first (and only) ride in the Sprint Cup Series.
It should be clear sailing ahead for this Californian.
Known for having a short fuse and a hot temper, these days, Harvick appears more relaxed than ever before. He even has made it a habit of putting his young son, Keelan, in the driver's seat of his Chevrolet race car before every race. Does he do it for good luck, or is it to get the young man accustomed to his future office?
Happy Harvick may actually be happy now.
I expect he will be even happier when the checkered flag flies in Homestead in November.
So who did I miss? And just how crazy am I to come up with this list of 16 drivers and not include your pick. Let me know. Leave a comment here (be nice and use language you can use in front of your grandmother) or send me a message via Twitter.
I'm on Twitter: @Bob Margolis