Stock Watch for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Teams in 2014 Offseason
With the 2014 Sprint Cup season fading in the rearview mirror and the start of the 2015 season still nearly three months away, it's time to take stock in the top organizations in NASCAR's premier division.
Can 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing stay on top? What about Team Penske's dynamic duo of drivers in Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano?
And how ticked off is owner Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports about not only not winning a championship, but failing to place even one of his four Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers in the Championship Four season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the highest finisher of the four remaining Chase participants (obviously Harvick) drove off with the championship trophy?
Asked about it when he arrived in Homestead for the final race of 2014, Hendrick told Sporting News: "(This) is pretty painful. I can't remember coming down here when we weren't in it somehow."
The same goes for owner Joe Gibbs, who heads up Joe Gibbs Racing with his son, team president J.D. Gibbs. After winning 12 races and contending until the end for the title with driver Matt Kenseth in 2013, JGR won only two races in 2014 but still was right there at the end with driver Denny Hamlin until the waning laps at Homestead.
Read on to see which organizations deserve to be bought, sold or held for further review in 2015.
Joe Gibbs Racing
After Kenseth won a career-high seven races and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 championship battle, another big year was expected of the Joe Gibbs Racing organization in 2014.
It just didn't happen. Despite making the Chase again, Kenseth didn't win a single race all season. Kyle Busch, who won four in 2013, won one. The same was true for Hamlin, although he did heat up down the stretch enough to make the Championship Four who raced for the 2014 title at Homestead and was seemingly in position to steal it until two late cautions cost him dearly.
The bottom line is that Toyota Racing Development needs to be giving JGR's drivers engines that pack more punch without sacrificing durability. It seemed to be moving in the right direction toward the end of the season, and it's hard to imagine the team will suffer through another disappointing season like last year's in 2015—especially with new driver Carl Edwards added to the fold in a fourth car.
Michael Waltrip Racing
Remember when Michael Waltrip Racing seemed to be an organization on the rise?
That no longer appears to be the case after a 2014 season in which MWR scaled back from three full-time Sprint Cup teams to two and failed to win a single race with either of its drivers. Furthermore, neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers managed to qualify for the 16-driver Chase.
It's possible that losing top-notch crew chief Rodney Childers to Stewart-Haas Racing, where Childers teamed with driver Kevin Harvick to win the championship, hurt the organization more than anyone realized it would.
But the real blow probably can be traced to all the sponsorship money that fled the company in the wake of the 2013 Spingate scandal triggered by Bowyer's alleged intentional spin at Richmond, which is why MWR had to scale back from three teams to two and lay off 15 percent of its workers prior to 2014. The organization is still reeling from the cutbacks more than a year later.
Richard Petty Motorsports
Richard Petty Motorsports appears to be sitting on the fence heading into 2015.
After having driver Aric Almirola make the 2014 Chase and running well for stretches of the season, there is a sense on one hand that RPM has something positive to build on. Yet Almirola made the Chase by virtue of gambling to win the rain-shortened July race at Daytona International Speedway, so on the other hand there is a sense that luck played a huge role in his locking up a spot in NASCAR's playoffs.
Then there is the loss of RPM's other driver, Marcos Ambrose. He decided to return to his native Australia at the end of the 2014 season, and he will be missed, especially on the circuit's two road-course races where he always was a legitimate threat to win.
Much of how the organization fares in 2015 will be up to Ambrose's replacement, Sam Hornish Jr., and how quickly and well RPM is able to build a capable team around him.
Richard Childress Racing
Richard Childress Racing started and ended the 2014 season with a buzz.
Rookie Austin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, began the season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in the iconic No. 3 Chevrolet made famous by Dale Earnhardt, which was making its return to the Sprint Cup Series after 12-year absence following Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Then Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 RCR Chevy, nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport in the Championship Four season finale at Homestead. Newman ended up finishing second to Harvick and thus ended up second in the final points standings despite failing to win a race all season and finishing in the top five only five times in 36 races.
In between those two big moments, however, RCR's three teams were actually pretty mediocre. They need to find more speed and consistency in 2015 to keep up with Stewart-Haas Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske.
Hendrick was able to find a silver lining in the fact that the season finale at Homestead went off without any of his four Chase drivers still battling for the championship.
Admitting it was painful, Hendrick then told Sporting News: "But hey, it's racing, and we've had a good year. we've got 13 wins, and the engine shop has won 18."
That's right. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four races apiece, and Kasey Kahne won one to give HMS a total of 13 on the season. No other organization registered more. Plus, as Hendrick pointed out, folks running Hendrick motors such as Stewart-Haas Racing also added to the win total for a point of pride within the organization (that total ended up being 19 after Harvick won the final race to clinch the title).
But let's face it. Rick Hendrick is in this to win championships. You can bet his teams will do a better job of making sure they get to the final race with a shot to do so next season.
JTG Daugherty Racing
The pure joy with which Brad Daugherty, who co-owns JTG Daugherty Racing with Tad and Jodi Geschickter, greeted driver AJ Allmendinger in Victory Lane after Allmendinger won on the road course at Watkins Glen was a sight to behold.
That gritty victory also put the single-car team into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Allmendinger is back with the team for 2015, and as long as he's behind the wheel, the No. 47 team is a threat to win on the two road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. In fact, with Ambrose heading back to Australia and Juan Montoya already out of NASCAR and back in the IndyCar series, Allmendinger might even now be the favorite to win at both places.
That's big for this small operation and bears close watching.
Furniture Row Racing
While JTG Daugherty Racing seems to be making strides in the right direction, the wheels fell off the No. 78 single-car operation at Furniture Row Racing in 2014.
One year after Kurt Busch drove the car into the Chase and two years after Regan Smith took it to Victory Lane at the tough Darlington track, Martin Truex Jr. suffered through the worst Sprint Cup season of his career. Of the 10,217 laps he completed, Truex led the grand total of one—or three fewer than he led in 2005, when he was 25 years old and ran only seven Cup races all season.
Truex tied career lows for top-five and top-10 finishes (with one of the former and five of the latter) and finished 24th in the standings, the worst he's done since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2006.
This comes one year removed from one of the better seasons of the driver's career but one that ended with him having to leave Michael Waltrip Racing as the result of SpinGate. The truth is, he was the biggest loser in that deal and so far just doesn't seem to be the right fit for his new organization.
It fell just short of winning a championship, but for a two-team operation, Team Penske was mighty impressive in 2014 with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano behind the wheels of its two race cars.
Keselowski failed to make the Championship Four and didn't make many friends during the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he won a series-high six races and led a total of 1,582 laps—second only to champion Kevin Harvick. Logano won five races, led 1,004 laps and was in position to contend for the title at Homestead until a late pit-stop snafu cost him that chance.
There is absolutely no reason to doubt that these two young drivers and their teams, with capable crew chiefs in Paul Wolfe for Keselowski and Todd Gordon for Logano, won't be able to build on their success in 2015. They will, in fact, be among the early favorites to contend for the title next season.
Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
On the surface, the 2014 season doesn't look like much of a success for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
But you look closer and find that not only was it exciting on some levels, but it seems to have set the groundwork for an even more exciting 2015 that could lead to more tangible results.
Kyle Larson did not win a race in what was his rookie season, but he finished second three times and third twice to serve notice that he wasn't your average rookie. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the Chase.
His teammate in the two-car operation, Jamie McMurray, won $1 million by capturing the non-points Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. McMurray also led the respectable total of 409 laps, which was more than the likes of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, among others.
Both drivers could take off and win multiple races in 2015, although there have been times in the past when the Ganassi organization just hasn't been able to transfer positive momentum from one season to the next.
Roush Fenway Racing
Roush Fenway Racing had a disappointing season to forget in 2014, and then lost its top driver, Carl Edwards, to a rival organization.
That doesn't bode well for 2015, when Edwards will be replaced by Trevor Bayne—who hasn't done much since shocking the racing world by winning the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20.
The two other RFR teams are led by drivers Greg Biffle, who is no spring chicken (he'll turn 45 years old on Dec. 23), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide Series champion who is more known these days for being Danica Patrick's boyfriend than he is for doing anything notable in the Sprint Cup Series.
At the heart of the matter is that the organization has been leaking top talent in terms of engineers and other employees for the last few years, and it shows. Sadly, it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
Speaking of Patrick, 2015 could be her final chance to prove she has what it takes to excel in the Sprint Cup Series—according to FoxSports.com columnist and Fox NASCAR analyst Jeff Hammond, a former championship-winning crew chief.
But Patrick is the weak link in an otherwise stout Stewart-Haas organization.
Harvick obviously won the championship, giving SHR two titles in the last four seasons (co-owner/driver Tony Stewart also won it in 2011). And while Stewart had a difficult year as he attempted to return from a terrible broken-leg injury and then accidentally struck and killed a fellow Sprint Car driver in a non-NASCAR-sanctioned event, he's a good bet to possibly bounce back strong next season without all the distractions. He failed to win a race in 2014 for the first time in 15 seasons.
The other 2014 SHR driver was Kurt Busch, who is fighting a domestic-abuse charge brought against him by his former girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll. That throws his future into a gray area. And he was disappointing overall last season but still won the spring race at Martinsville Speedway to qualify for the Chase. Busch remains a considerable talent behind the wheel.
All in all, it's quite possible the organization as a whole will have a better 2015 than 2014. That's saying something, considering Harvick will go into next season as the defending Cup champion.
Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report as well as covering NASCAR as a writer and editor for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.