10 Burning Questions for the 2014 NASCAR Offseason
It wasn’t difficult to come up with 10 questions for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
How disruptive is it to change crew chiefs on a team? Is it OK for the Chase rules to have a path to the championship without a race win? And how easy can it be to shake off running better than everyone else but still not getting a chance to win the championship?
Here’s a list of 10 questions that you will have to agree will all need to be answered.
Can Kevin Harvick Repeat as Champion?
It’s said that the hardest part isn’t getting to the top—it’s staying there.
When the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season begins, Kevin Harvick will be the king of the mountain. It's a well-deserved place from which to start his defense of the title.
Harvick’s team will have few major changes before the start of the season.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies here. Maybe a tweak or two on pit road might be something to consider—perhaps crew chief Rodney Childers?
Does Jimmie Johnson Shake off an 'Almost' Season?
It always felt like the entire No. 48 team was just a tick out of sync in 2014.
Jimmie Johnson and Co. were good, but not as good as most of us think of them as being. Or maybe it’s just that everyone else caught up to them.
No matter what the reason was for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus not making it to the final round of the 2014 Chase, the entire season will be analyzed by one or more engineers, and where things can be made better, they will.
Johnson is arguably one of the best drivers in NASCAR’s history, and him not winning the championship for the seventh time may not be in his thoughts most of the time. But you know he’ll be thinking about it for a while longer.
Best part about the short offseason for Johnson may be that he gets another chance at title No. 7 when it’s over.
How Well Will Greg Ives and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Connect?
You hate to break up a successful combination in anything that works. Especially if that combination comes at work.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his former crew chief, Steve Letarte, were more friends than co-workers. Sure, they worked together every weekend, but their friendship was the key to their mutual success at work.
Next season, Junior will have to come to work every weekend with someone who isn’t Letarte. It’s unlikely that he’ll have the same kind of relationship with his new crew chief, Greg Ives, that he had with Letarte.
It will be a good chapter to read in Junior’s biography when it's written—you know, the one about how he transitioned from the very best crew chief he had in his NASCAR career to the next guy.
Will the new pairing succeed? I dunno. Flip a coin.
What Can We Expect from Carl Edwards' 1st Season at Joe Gibbs Racing?
Carl Edwards watched as Matt Kenseth went from being his teammate at Roush Fenway Racing to being the hottest driver in NASCAR in 2013, when Kenseth switched rides and started driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Then, in 2014, Edwards watched Kenseth again. This time, he struggled to find a win in 36 tries. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff ultimately could not find Victory Lane.
What is Edwards to think now? Which version of Joe Gibbs Racing will he be driving for? The one that fielded the seven-time winner in 2013? The one that took Denny Hamlin through the Chase? Or will it be the JGR that Kenseth drove for in 2014?
Will Brad Keselowski Fine-Tune His Driving Style?
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion didn’t win any friends on the race track in 2014 with his aggressive driving style. He did, however, win some new friends in the grandstands. It seems that the fans like having a bad guy to root against. Or maybe he’s a good guy to you.
No matter how you look at him, you have to admit that Brad Keselowski is in it to win it. And he’s not about to let a little thing like political correctness get in his way. Keselowski knows that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Fortunately, he’s one of those drivers who can back up his words with racing action. And sometimes his actions speak louder than his words.
Keselowski was right on target when he compared his driving style with some of the greats from the past. He's not about to have his fellow drivers pull aside when he appears in their rearview mirror, but his competitors will have a new way of looking at him when he does.
Is There an X-Factor That Will Change the Season?
At the start of the 2014 season, no one could gauge the impact that the change in the ride-height rule would have to the competitiveness of several of the sport's biggest names. Kenseth comes to mind. Nor could anyone predict the impact on the level of aggressive driving that would surface because of the new Chase format that rewarded wins above anything else. Bumping and running became a common occurrence.
These are two of what I like to call the "X-factors" that took place in 2014—issues that had a major impact on the sport but took a bit of time to play out. Fortunately, both ended up making the racing better than ever.
Of course, there were other, less welcome X-factors, like the continued issues with the Goodyear tires and how the tragic accident involving Tony Stewart affected the entire sport.
What will be the X-factor we remember most from 2015?
Will There Be a Return to Form for Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon?
Stewart had planned on having the 2014 season be his recovery season. It didn’t quite work that way.
His early-season results were as one would expect from a driver who missed half of the previous season due to injuries. But just when Stewart was starting to find his comfort zone with being back in his stock car, the tragic accident happened in upstate New York.
Stewart resumed racing late in the season. His 2015 season may be a turning point. A good season, and he continues for several more years. A bad one, and it's likely he’ll contemplate hanging up his driving gloves.
Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, had a phenomenal season. He came very close to winning it all. Bad luck at Texas was the difference between Gordon making the final round of the Chase and him not making it.
Coming close to but not winning the Sprint Cup championship isn’t something you just shake off in a week or two. Even a great driver like Gordon will have to overcome the disappointment of not winning. But what made it harder to swallow for the four-time Cup champion was that his missing the final race of the Chase was due to circumstances outside of his control.
And I would expect that he and Keselowski won’t be sharing a Miller Lite anytime soon.
It took Gordon a bit of time for his first win in 2014. I’m thinking the first one in 2015 will come a lot earlier than the 11th race of the season.
Will the Chase Be Even Better in 2015?
The new Chase rules that were announced before the start of the 2014 season made winning the most important thing. No more hearing drivers tell a live television audience after the race that they "had a good points day today.”
Points did matter, but only as a reward for a record of strong, consistent racing. Drivers took chances to win, often making the final laps of a Cup race entertaining and exciting.
It especially made the frequent green-white-checkered finishes all the more thrilling.
Eliminating drivers from contention in the Chase after every three races was part of the normal chain of events. But guaranteeing that four drivers would be eliminated made the pressure very real.
The Chase as it sits right now is a pretty good system for choosing a champion. It rewards winning and consistent finishes in the top 10. I say leave it alone for another year before making any serious changes.
The only tweak might be to add a rule that says a driver cannot advance to the final race unless he won a race already. This will prevent the championship from being won by a driver who went winless during the season.
Will 2015 Be Danica Patrick's Breakout Season?
There are many reasons why Danica Patrick will have a very successful year in 2015 and possibly win a race or even two.
Of course, there are plenty of Danica haters out there who have the right to think she’ll never win a race, that women can’t race cars as well as men can or that she already gets too much attention for someone who doesn’t win races.
Patrick has been with the best teachers and in the best equipment for the past two full years of racing in the Cup series. She is very smart, ambitious and competitive behind the wheel of a race car. I say there’s nowhere to go but up for the third-year driver.
I’ve heard it said that it takes three years to figure it out and six to win races consistently.
If there weren't plenty of eyeballs on her progress already, that number is about to get much higher in 2015, as Patrick will also be playing the expectations game with both fans and the media.
I think she’s up to it.
Will Kyle Larson Continue His All-Star Level of Racing in 2015?
It became difficult to come up with new superlatives to use for Kyle Larson around midseason. I liked using the word "phenomenon" the most. It just seemed to fit what I was watching.
How often have we said, ”I wish I had been around to watch [fill in name] when he was just starting out?”
It doesn’t matter what sport, either. Personally, I wish I had watched Sandy Koufax pitch when he was just coming up into the majors.
NASCAR fans have one of the “wish I had been around” moments going on right now with drivers like Larson, Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. racing every weekend. Each one will grow into very successful drivers with championship-winning seasons.
Larson was nothing short of amazing this year. We are likely watching the next Tony Stewart. He has used his many abilities to learn the language of success in the Cup Series. He's not only good on the track, but he's personable and up front with the media.
Want to sound smart to your NASCAR buddies? Tell them Larson will make the 2015 Chase field.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis