They did it.
Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte started off the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season about as good as you possibly can. Their National Guard-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports team won the Daytona 500.
But now that the confetti has been swept up, the champagne bottles are in the recycle bin and the heady excitement of winning has turned into a dull headache—from the endless interviews and a lack of sleep, what’s next?
The rest of the season begins this coming weekend in Phoenix.
The distractions of the past two weeks in Florida are over. Dale Jr. and his NASCAR-racing friends and foes leave Daytona behind and turn their focus to "The Valley of the Sun."
It's there they will find the oddly shaped one-mile track at Phoenix International Raceway along with a new set of challenges and unanswered questions.
The most important of them being...
NASCAR’s new qualifying rules take effect with the race weekend in Phoenix.
Gone is the decades-old (and very boring) show of single-car qualifying, replaced with group qualifying.
That means that after a sole practice session at noon on Friday there will be two qualifying rounds later that afternoon. The first qualifying elimination round will last 30 minutes. The 12 cars that post the fastest single-lap time from that first qualifying round will advance to the second and final round.
The remaining cars will start based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order.
NASCAR has used a similar format on road courses to great success. It will likely be the cause for some strange strategies, like waiting until the very end of a session to make a qualifying attempt. This is done to save tires, but other factors like the weather will also come into play.
Bottom line: NASCAR is trying to turn the worst show in racing (single-car qualifying) into something a lot more exciting for the fans, while presenting a new challenge for the teams.
This is a good thing.
If there is a word to describe the 2014 Sprint Cup season, even at this early juncture, it would be change.
Many drivers and sponsors have moved from one team to another. Several moves involved key players in the Sprint Cup series.
Kevin Harvick (seen above) is one of a number of drivers who have played musical chairs since last season.
After 13 years at Richard Childress Racing (RCR), Harvick has moved to Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), replacing Ryan Newman. Harvick brought sponsors Budweiser and Jimmy John's with him.
Harvick replaced Newman, who moved to RCR, not to replace Harvick, but to replace Jeff Burton in the No. 31 Caterpillar-sponsored car.
Burton moved to Michael Waltrip Racing (MWR) as a part-time driver and test driver.
Joining Harvick at SHR is Kurt Busch, who left the No. 78 Furniture Row team to drive the No. 41 car for this brand new team. Replacing Busch at Furniture Row is Martin Truex Jr., who lost sponsor NAPA which resulted in his team at MWR being dissolved.
Rookie Kyle Larson replaces Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Watch for Larson. He will be a factor in his rookie season.
Another rookie, Austin Dillon...well, everybody knows what car he'll be driving this season.
The 2014 rookie class in the Sprint Cup series is not only the largest in recent memory, it may also be the most competitive, with eight drivers vying for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title.
Parker Kligerman (above) joins Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex, Cole Whitt and Austin Dillon.
Dillon, Larson and Allgaier are considered to be driving for well-financed, top-level Cup teams and should be competitive and fun to watch. None will make the Chase, but a strong crop of top-10 finishes spread out amongst the three is very possible.
The rest of the rookie class, while skilled and focused, is driving either for underfinanced and/or under-engineered teams and will likely struggle at Phoenix and a few other early races. They will need to rely heavily on their skills behind the wheel to get them that rare top-10 finish.
While the spotlight shines on Dillon, look for Allgaier to be the talk of the town.
When we last left her, Danica Patrick was involved in a rather nasty wreck on Lap 145 of the Daytona 500 that severely damaged her No. 10 GoDaddy Chevrolet and several other cars, including pole-sitter Austin Dillon.
It marked the second time in her three Daytona 500s that Ms. Patrick wrecked out of the race.
She finished 40th.
The spotlight will continue to shine brightly on Ms. Patrick as she continues her growth in the sport.
While many may question her skills behind the wheel, there’s no doubt that her passion for racing burns brightly. Her relentless quest for getting it right and for winning will drive her to success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
She’ll not make the Chase in 2014, but she will continue her upward momentum, and there may be a surprise along the way this season, especially on a restrictor-plate track.
One thing to note: Patrick has done well on the short bullrings (tracks which are a mile in length or smaller), and a top-10 finish at Phoenix or Martinsville is not out of the question.
NASCAR was especially hit hard by the downturn in the economy that began in 2008. Heavily driven by corporate sponsorship and reliance on a loyal blue-collar fanbase, massive change has come to the sport in the past half-dozen years.
Gone are the huge, eight-figure primary sponsorships, and, instead, we see multiple primary sponsorships, rotating throughout the season. This is the case with even the most successful teams and recognizable drivers.
NASCAR television viewership, which declined in the middle of the last decade, has shown positive movement. Current broadcasting partners ABC/ESPN and Turner are in the final years of their NASCAR contracts, and it is expected they will continue to deliver high-quality coverage that will maintain the strong viewing figures.
Racetracks across the country have begun to offer affordable ticket pricing, with many allowing children under the age of 12 free admission with an adult.
NASCAR chairman Brian France isn’t afraid to shake things up in an effort to keep his sport moving into the 21st century, as recently witnessed by the announced changes to both qualifying procedures and NASCAR’s postseason—the Chase.
Despite issues like the impending loss of Nationwide series sponsor Nationwide Insurance and the pressures on team owners to make the business model work, NASCAR is flexing its muscles with confidence in 2014.
As newspapers across the country continue to shrink their operations, the department that has been amongst the hardest hit has been sports. As a result, many longstanding beat writers have lost their jobs, and sports departments have turned to wire services and aggregators as their sources for sports news, especially NASCAR.
With less real information about their favorite sport available in their local newspapers, NASCAR fans have turned to the Internet for their news, information and opinions. With their numbers dwindling, once bustling media centers are now half-full or less, as the media corps continues its contraction.
NASCAR has responded to the changes by being one of the most active of all sports in the use of social-media interaction with its fans. In addition, the NASCAR Fan Council, made up of NASCAR fans from across the country is an integral part of many of the decisions being made by the top executives of the sport.
New television partner NBC Sports has already become active in promotion of the sport even before it broadcasts its first race in mid-2015.
NASCAR executives urge their drivers to have a voice and encourage them to interact on social media. However, some drivers have found out that speaking your mind can get you in trouble with NASCAR. Several drivers, including 2013 Cup champion Brad Keselowski have been fined for "comments detrimental to the sport" made in a social-media setting.
Nevertheless, those limits—which have been tested by a few, shall continue to be challenged as social media becomes a more prominent tool for the interaction between drivers and fans.
They are considered to be the elite team in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series.
Named the most valuable of all of NASCAR's teams in a recent Forbes magazine story, with a value of $350 million, Hendrick Motorsports is often referred to as the New York Yankees of auto racing, winning more Cup titles than any other team in the sport.
With that success comes extreme pressure to maintain it.
So far, team owner Rick Hendrick has shown that he has built a strong organization that not only produces winners, it also sets the standard for winning with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson's 2014 season, as well as that of his teammate Jeff Gordon's (himself a four-time Cup champion) should securely place both drivers into the Chase.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting off the season with a win, he too looks like a sure thing for the Chase. The remaining question is Kasey Kahne, who despite having been in good equipment for much of his Cup career, has yet to show much for it. Perhaps this year will be his year to shine and deliver "Mr. H" (as his staff calls him) a full house in the Chase.
Gene Haas (l) and Tony Stewart
Team owner Gene Haas shocked the NASCAR world last fall—including his partner Tony Stewart—when he announced that he had signed Kurt Busch to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR).
Stewart later revealed that Haas hadn't even consulted him at all before offering the elder Busch brother a contract.
Was this mixing oil with water? Or was it placing a lit flame next to a container of gasoline?
Busch has a long history of altercations with both Stewart and new SHR team member Kevin Harvick.
Not an issue, declared Haas as he believed the drivers assembled at his organization were all capable of winning. If there were to be any issues between them, they needed to be left at the door before coming to work.
Well, that all looks good on paper and here on your computer screen. Only time will tell if this mix of volatile personalities—Danica Patrick included—will bond together to create greatness or an explosive problem that will be a distraction to the organization.
Jack Roush (l) and Carl Edwards
For much of the past decade, it's been a case of "close but no cigar" for longtime NASCAR team owner and racing legend Jack Roush.
His NASCAR Nationwide teams have delivered championships (2007, 2011-12), while the Cup side of Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) has not won a championship since 2004 with Kurt Busch.
It's not because the funding isn't there. RFR is one of the better sponsored organizations, known for bringing new names into the sport. And it's not because of the people working there. Some of the most talented engineers, fabricators and engine builders (at Roush Yates Engines) in all of racing work under the roof at RFR.
Their Cup drivers, led by veteran Greg Biffle, himself a champion of both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series along with Carl Edwards and 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are a trio of unquestionably talented individuals.
All this talent, yet they just haven't been able to close the deal.
Will 2014 be the year?
Denny Hamlin (l) with J D Gibbs
Arguably one of the more potent organizations in NASCAR is Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), led by J.D. Gibbs (seen above with Denny Hamlin)
Although it's last Sprint Cup championship was in 2005 with Tony Stewart, its trio of drivers—Matt Kenseth, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are at or near the top of everyone's list of NASCAR's superstar drivers.
Kenseth is coming off a year when he finished second to Johnson for the title. Busch struggled in the Chase, but nevertheless his unparalleled car control makes him a threat to win at every race.
Hamlin comes off a season he'd rather forget after former JGR driver Joey Logano sent him flying head-on into a restraining wall at Auto Club Speedway. The impact caused severe damage to Hamlin's back, and it took surgery and the rest of the season for him to recover.
And recover he did, winning the 2013 season finale in Homestead and then continuing his winning streak by winning last week's Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel qualifier.
J.D. Gibbs is a shrewd manager who has been able to keep an often unpredictable mix of talent from self-destruction. He'll do it again in 2014, and with his trio of superstars behind the wheel, the odds of JGR placing all three of its cars in the Chase are very, very good.
When Richard Childress walks through the Cup garage, he draws more attention from the fans than the drivers do. He is a living legend, and fans flock to get his autograph.
The racing organization that bears his name was built upon the shoulders of another giant, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and when Earnhardt died, many thought Richard Childress Racing (RCR) would too.
Now, 13 years later, RCR is bigger, stronger and more successful than ever. Not only does it field a trio of drivers in the Sprint Cup Series—Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Austin Dillon—it also fields four Nationwide Series teams—for Brendan Gaughan, Brian Scott, Ty Dillon and Paul Menard.
Plus RCR has a strategic alliance with both JTG Daugherty Racing, which fields the No. 47 car driven by A.J. Allmendinger, and also the Denver (Colo.)-based Furniture Row Racing, which fields the No. 78 car for Martin Truex, Jr.
RCR hasn't won a Sprint Cup championship since 1994. That's a long drought. Childress would like to see it end this year, but he's a pragmatist and knows it may be a few years away. He's willing to wait. His fans should be too.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis