After an unforgettable Daytona 500, the stage is set for a wild NASCAR season in which any driver could come out on top in the Sprint Cup point standings at the end of the season.
With Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win, Hendrick Motorsports continues to hold the top spot in the sport after Jimmie Johnson won the 2013 Sprint Cup championship. Aside from Earnhardt Jr., both Jeff Gordon and Johnson finished in the top five and cemented Hendrick as the best team.
Several of NASCAR's best drivers still reside with other teams. Denny Hamlin finished second in Daytona for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart are looking to have breakout seasons for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Though the season is just one historic race in, several teams already have hopes of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Here is a look at some of the top teams following the Daytona 500 and the drivers with the best chances of making a splash in the points standings.
There's really no question who the top team is in NASCAR thanks to the top three drivers from Hendrick Motorsports finishing inside the top five in the Daytona 500.
With a core of Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Johnson, it's hard to see another team overtaking Hendrick as a whole. And with Kasey Kahne on the outside looking in after the first race of the year, this team has the most depth in NASCAR by far.
Following the win, Junior spoke to the press about his outlook for the season and his chances of making the Chase after just one race, via Crash.net:
Yeah, we don't have to think about [the Chase] (smiling). We don't have to think about it. If everybody is telling the truth, we've won a race, we should be in it, so I'm not going to worry about it (laughter).
Now, if I got to win two of these things, I don't know if we're that worried 'cause we're going for the jugular this year.
[...] But, yeah, making the Chase is important. I didn't anticipate having to put that to bed so quickly. We'll go ahead and concentrate on winning more races. Like I said, at the end of last year, we felt like we were right on the cusp of doing just that, winning races. We're turning the corner right at the right time. I got one last year with [Steve Letarte] and we're going to make it something special.
With that type of motivation for Earnhardt Jr. and the talent of Gordon and Johnson—they have a combined 10 Sprint Cup championships—plus plenty of potential from Kasey Kahne, Hendrick could put all four drivers in the Chase.
And when the Chase finally does come around, it wouldn't be surprising to see two Hendrick drivers placing in the top four for the final shootout of the year under the new NASCAR rules.
Joe Gibbs Racing
As the former Washington Redskins coach, Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowl championships, and he has three championships in NASCAR as a car owner.
The only problem with that? All six championships came a long time ago, and none of the drivers who won a championship for Gibbs are still with the team.
Tony Stewart, who won the last two points standings for Gibbs in 2005 and 2002, now owns and drives for his own team. But Gibbs appears to have a team that can compete with Hendrick this season for a title or at least finish near the top of the points standings.
One of Gibbs' top drivers, Denny Hamlin, put together an explosive week at Daytona with a win in the Sprint Unlimited race and his Budweiser Duel, but he was unable to win the big race. Mike Hembree of USA Today gave his thoughts on Hamlin's performance in Speedweeks:
Denny Hamlin was the bright and shining star of Daytona Speedweeks until NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., reasserted his place as stock car racing's rock star in the final minutes of the Daytona 500
[...] Hamlin said he was handicapped in the closing portion of the race after his team radio failed, apparently as a result of the wet conditions caused by heavy rain that fell during the afternoon and delayed the race for more than six hours while the cars were parked on pit road.
If Hamlin was able to finish inside the top five without being able to communicate inside the car, he could be in line for one of the greatest seasons of his career.
Matt Kenseth finished second in the points standings in 2013 and could be primed for another huge year. The final superstar in the stable is Kyle Busch, but he's hardly the short straw in this group.
With all three drivers having potential to make the Chase and contend for a title, Gibbs has high hopes of winning his fourth championship as a car owner and his seventh overall.
It wasn't a great showing for the team in Daytona, but Stewart-Haas Racing has multiple drivers who could wind up contending for a title by the end of the season.
Kevin Harvick, the newest member of the Stewart-Haas team, had the top finish for the team in 13th, while no other driver was able to crack the top 20. Both Stewart and Danica Patrick ended up in the garage, and the fourth member of the team, Kurt Busch, had to settle for 21st.
Though all four drivers have completely different personalities and could clash throughout the season—just look at Stewart's record alone—Busch believes the team has a chance to contend for a championship, per Jerry Bonkowski of MotorSportsTalk:
It reminds me of when Kyle and I got together to run his car in the Nationwide Series. There was all the speculation that things were going to blow up and go haywire.
[...] This season has so much potential to bring everything that we want to ourselves individually and to a team together. That’s what’s going to make this year special.
Much like the great cores of Hendrick and Gibbs Racing, the tandem of Harvick and Busch could do special things this season. And with "Smoke" returning fully healthy to Daytona, a resurgent season could earn him his fourth points championship.
Patrick appears to be the outlier for this team, but a few good finishes from one of NASCAR's most polarizing figures could add depth to an already great team. With one championship in hand from 2011, Stewart-Haas could be a dark-horse contender.
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