10 Burning Questions for the Remainder of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Season
With 19 races in the books and 17 left, the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season is at somewhat of a fork in the road.
For teams like Hendrick Motorsports, it's been a good-to-great season thus far, with three of its four drivers assured to make this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, including Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ditto for Team Penske's Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. They're on target to enter the Chase as perhaps the strongest team in the sport—if their current collective success continues.
But there are other teams or manufacturers that have struggled, namely Toyota (with just two wins) and Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr.
Let's look at what are some of the key questions (in no particular order) going forward, as the Cup series enjoys its last off-weekend before a long and grueling 17-race grind that will determine the haves and the have-nots.
How Many More Winless Drivers Will Win a Race Prior to the Chase?
This has been a rather unique season to date, with so many drivers whom we'd expect to have won at least one race thus far still showing zero in the "wins" column.
Former Sprint Cup champions Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, along with drivers such as Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray and rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon are still looking for their first checkered flag of 2014.
The problem is there are now only seven races remaining until the Chase begins. And if you extrapolate the numbers thus far—11 winners in the first 19 races—the odds would indicate we may only see two, maybe three more first-time winners in the remaining seven races still left to qualify for the Chase.
The new emphasis on win-to-get-in has been a work in progress, but we won't see the real effect and impact until we actually get into the Chase. Only two or three drivers will make it into the Chase on points; all other contenders will fall short.
And even if the winless pre-Chase drivers do ultimately wind up stealing a win away from the actual Chase contenders, it won't mean a thing in the overall scheme of things.
What If Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer or Others Don't Make the Chase?
If drivers such as Stewart, Kahne, Bowyer, McMurray and others fail to make the Chase, it obviously won't reflect well upon their own abilities or teams.
And it will not make their fans and NASCAR happy if they miss the cut.
Let's face it, with this new format, several big-name drivers are going to miss the Chase, if for nothing else because it's a new and revamped system that will take more getting used to.
And everyone is eventually destined for an off season. With the new format, it just seems like there'll be more who will wind up having an off season than usual.
Will Team Penske Be Able to Sustain Its Success Throughout the Chase?
Keselowski and Logano have had outstanding starts to the season, but will they be able to keep it going?
Right now, the Team Penske teammates are among the hottest things going in NASCAR. The way the two play off each other is something other teams could learn a few things from—even some of the teams under the Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing umbrellas.
Unless they hit a slump at the worst possible time of the season—in the first or second elimination round of the Chase—right now, it appears the championship is Keselowski's or Logano's to win.
Will Danica Patrick Win a Race This Season?
We may be in the minority, but we still think Danica Patrick will win a race in 2014.
It may not necessarily be in the Chase, but given the right place at the right time, we believe Patrick can still steal a victory in the remaining 17 races.
Among the most likely venues, in our opinion (ranked in order of potential success with the first being the most likely location for her to take the checkered flag): Phoenix, Martinsville, Bristol and Texas.
Who Could Be Surprise Early Exits in the 3 Elimination Rounds of the Chase?
While NASCAR fans and teams have quickly adapted to knockout qualifying this season, we haven't experienced knockout eliminations in the Chase.
Four drivers will be eliminated from further advancement in the Chase after the first three races, four more drivers after the sixth race and an additional four drivers after the ninth race, setting up a winner-take-all championship race in the season finale at Homestead.
If the Chase were to start today, and based upon the 16 drivers who are "in" the Chase theoretically right now, here's the four drivers we see making early exits after the first three Chase events: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Aric Almirola.
What Team Will Carl Edwards Race for in 2015 and Beyond?
Here we are in mid-July, and Carl Edwards still has yet to show his hand on where he'll race in 2015. Will he return to Roush Fenway Racing? Not likely.
Will he wind up at Joe Gibbs Racing? That would seem to be the best possibility.
What about Team Penske? If Keselowski and Logano continue their winning ways, this could be a dark-horse future home for Edwards.
But if Edwards is a creature of habit, he still could surprise everyone and return to RFR, just like he did after going through a similar "will he or won't he" scenario that last time he was up for a new contract.
Will Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus Win a Record-Tying 7th Cup Championship?
After Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup Championship last season, it seemed like it would be a mere formality that he'd win No. 7 in 2014.
It has gotten to the point where people are no longer wondering whether Johnson will tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most championships in a career but more so what season?
Right now, Johnson is still defending champ from 2013, which makes him the No. 1 guy to beat to win the title in 2014.
While we still have a feeling that the driver of the No. 48 won't make it through all three elimination rounds in the Chase, for now, he's the best choice for champion that we have...until he proves otherwise in the Chase.
Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. Have What It Takes to Win His 1st Sprint Cup Title?
This has been unlike any other season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He's shown more confidence, determination and focus than in his previous 14 Sprint Cup seasons.
Part of that reason could be Junior will turn 40 in October and may realize that his chances of winning that elusive first Cup championship are increasingly getting smaller and smaller with each passing season.
But the biggest reason why Junior's best title chance is in 2014 is because this will be the last season he'll be with crew chief Steve Letarte, who has unquestionably been the best pit-box boss he's ever worked with.
Letarte will be leaving Earnhardt's team and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the season to join NBC as an analyst on NASCAR telecasts beginning next season.
What better going-away present could Junior give Letarte—and himself, for that matter—than the first (and potentially only) Cup championship they'll both ever earn?
If He Wins a 5th Championship, Would Jeff Gordon Retire and Go Out on Top?
This is a tough one.
Jeff Gordon has been nothing short of outstanding this season, leading the points for most of the first 19 weeks and showing fans, critics, fellow drivers and the media that he still has what it takes to not only win races but also to win his first Sprint Cup Championship since 2001.
If he were to win the 2014 title, it would be the fifth of Gordon's career.
Given that he'll turn 43 on August 4, what better way for Gordon to call it a guaranteed Hall of Fame career than to go out on top as a champion?
While we still think Gordon would come back for another couple of seasons, he'd have very little to gain by doing so when he could go out on his terms—and a winner as a bonus.
What Will the 2015 Schedule Look Like?
We expect the makeup of the 2015 schedule to look somewhat different than 2014.
While we don't believe any new race venues will be added, we think there will be at least some changes to the schedule order.
For example, we think Darlington will become the second race of the season, right after Daytona, instead of Phoenix. And speaking of Phoenix, we see it as a potential back-to-back event with the race in Fontana, likely in late March.
We also see the spring race at Bristol pushed back at least a couple of races due to the always unpredictable weather in eastern Tennessee.
We also see a few changes in the Chase for the Sprint Cup: Indianapolis will be in as the potential start of the Chase, Chicago will be pushed back to perhaps the third or the fourth race of the Chase (instead of the Chase opener) and we envision Dover keeping a second race but not necessarily being a Chase race.
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