A new NASCAR season is upon us, beginning with the exhibition event, the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), on Saturday night in Daytona, before the official start to the new season with next Sunday’s Daytona 500. There’s a lot of excitement down in Daytona, for several reasons.
One reason is the new points format. Drivers will be eliminated as the season (particularly the Chase) goes along, with the top 4 drivers racing a winner-take-all showdown in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. The so-called “Chase Grid” has received both praise and criticism both throughout the garage area and the racing media, although most of the feedback has been positive. More on the Chase Grid format, and particularly the 2014 edition, is coming up. For more explanation of the format itself, read my post here: https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/nascar-changes-chase-format/
Another change that has the garage roaring with more than just the engines is the new qualifying format. While the lineup for the 56th Daytona 500 will be set as usual, starting with the March 2 race at Phoenix the Sprint Cup Series will begin what has been called “knockout qualifying” by some. In the past, every car would take to the track by itself for a 2-lap time trial, with the fastest lap being recorded as that car’s qualifying time, and the fastest time winning the pole. Now, there will be multiple cars on the track at the same time, and eliminations will be instituted for more excitement in the process. At tracks longer than 1.25 miles (with the exception of road courses), all drivers will turn laps for 25 minutes, before a 5 minute break. Then the top 24 will run for 10 minutes, before another 5 minute break. The 12 fastest will run a final, frantic 5-minute stint, racing for the pole. At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, and at the 2 road courses, the first segment will be 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break and only one more segment, in which the fastest 12 will run for 10 minutes. This format brings excitement with numerous cars on track at once, and the window of time used for a qualifying broadcast being shortened to an hour from the former 2 or 3 hour qualifying programs.
Finally, a handful of drivers are with new teams, or are new to the Sprint Cup Series altogether. Kevin Harvick moves from Richard Childress Racing to drive the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. He will be joined at SHR by Kurt Busch, who will drive the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet after moving from Furniture Row Racing. Leaving Stewart-Haas is Ryan Newman, who will drive the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing. The #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet ride left by Busch will be taken by Martin Truex Jr., after he left Michael Waltrip Racing after the team lost NAPA’s sponsorship in the aftermath of last year’s Richmond debacle (https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/napa-drops-waltrip-truex-after-scandal/). Speaking of MWR, Brian Vickers takes over the #55 Aaron’s Toyota full-time in 2014 after sharing it with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin for parts of the last 2 seasons, including a 2013 win at New Hampshire. AJ Allmendinger returns to NASCAR full-time after racing both IndyCar and NASCAR last year while trying to repair a reputation damaged by a 2012 drug suspension, driving the #47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, who switched from Toyota to Chevy in the offseason.
Perhaps the biggest news, when it comes to team changes, is the return of the #3 Chevrolet for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, as Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson, brings the fabled number back to the Sprint Cup circuit after winning both a Nationwide Series title in 2013 and a Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 driving #3. Childress will only allow a member of the Earnhardt or Childress family to drive The Intimidator’s number. Other rookies include Michael Annett (#7 Flying J/Pilot Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing), Kyle Larson (#42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing), Justin Allgaier (#51 Brandt Chevrolet for the newly rebranded HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing), Alex Bowman (#23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Ryan Truex (#83 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Cole Whitt (#26 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing), and Parker Kligerman (#30 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing). This is the biggest class of rookies I can ever remember in my years following NASCAR.
Among those not racing full-time in the 2014 season are Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin. Burton and Labonte will run part-time after their contracts with full-time rides expired, with Burton leaving Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte leaving JTG Daugherty Racing. Martin began 2013 running part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, but filled in for Tony Stewart after Stewart’s broken leg in August for 14 of the last 15 races before announcing he would continue at Stewart-Haas in an advisory role, not running any races in 2014 and beyond.
Now, let’s look at what I’m projecting to happen with the 2014 season. First, I projected the first 26 races (picking a winner), and there were, surprisingly, 16 different winners, filling out the entire “Chase Grid” first round. Here are the 16, in the order that they would be seeded going into the Chase:
Jimmie Johnson (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2 wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Tony Stewart (1 win), Clint Bowyer (1 win), Kurt Busch (1 win), Brad Keselowski (1 win), Greg Biffle (1 win), Ryan Newman (1 win), AJ Allmendinger (1 win), Marcos Ambrose (1 win).
This projection has, among others, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. missing the Chase. Edwards would certainly be the biggest surprise, but his close calls running for titles in the past have been based on consistency, and I didn’t project him to win a race in the so-called regular season. Other potential sleepers include Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, and Kyle Larson. And by the way, the wins for Allmendinger and Ambrose both came on road courses. While both may struggle on ovals (Ambrose is more likely to struggle than Allmendinger), a win on a road course would get them into the Chase.
Starting the Chase is the Challenger Round, with races at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover. Here is how the field is projected to rank after the 3 races, with the top 12 advancing:
Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (1 win), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Eliminated: Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose
The elimination of Biffle, and not Newman, came down to 1 finishing position at one of the 3 tracks (I ranked the drivers 1-16 at each track, and added the results).
Next, the series moves onto the Contender Round, with races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega. (You thought elimination races for the last 10 years of the Chase format at Richmond were wild; wait until we have an elimination race at Talladega!) Here is how the field stacks up, with the top 8 advancing:
Moving On: Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win), Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman
This time the last spot came down to a tie, with Gordon winning based on having more wins throughout the entirety of the season. With the last race of that round coming at Talladega, I can certainly see a photo finish deciding who moves on.
With 4 races remaining, the Eliminator round begins, as the field is cut from 8 to 4 after the 3 races at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix. Here is how those 8 rank in those 3 events:
Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated: Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne
Once again, the final spot came down to 1 point (and it was ironically Jeff Gordon battling with Clint Bowyer, at Phoenix, the site of their brawl in 2012). With that, it comes down to the 3 drivers who battled for the title at Homestead in 2013, with the addition of a 4-time Cup champion to the mix. The easiest part of all these projections was the Homestead race, as it is only 1 race, and the highest finisher wins the title, plain and simple. Here is the final projection:
Champion: Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated: Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon
As much as it would alienate many within the NASCAR fan base, I am picking Jimmie Johnson to win his record-tying 7th Sprint Cup Series title. While his stats at Homestead aren’t that good, each time he’s won the title there he hasn’t had to do anything spectacular, he’s just had to finish. Johnson is very good on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead, so I think when the pressure is on, he’ll beat the other 3 to the checkered flag. There is, after all, no one better when the pressure is on than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
Here is a season preview for each of the top 12 picked in my Chase Grid:
1. Jimmie Johnson
As mentioned, Johnson is trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each won 7 Cup titles, although Johnson would have accomplished the feat in a much shorter period of time. It’s not wise to pick against him until a team consistently beats him.
2. Kevin Harvick
His first year at Stewart-Haas Racing could very well see him contend for a title. He has finished 3rd in points 3 of the last 4 years, so the move to SHR (which pretty much uses Hendrick equipment), could put him over the hump. Many also have him winning a 2nd Daytona 500 title.
3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, who will turn 42 in March, comes off a career year, with 7 wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in points. Recently there’s been a runner-up curse in the Sprint Cup Series, but I think Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe are too solid to fall into the trend.
4. Jeff Gordon
The 4-time champ and 88-time race winner says he may retire if he can win the title. After being added to the Chase in 2013 due to the events at Richmond, Gordon finished 6th in points, his highest finish since 2009, and won at Martinsville, showing he’s still got some competitive fire at age 42.
5. Clint Bowyer
Speaking of the events at Richmond in September, Clint Bowyer and all of Michael Waltrip Racing are ready to put their mistakes behind them. The best way to do that would be with a solid season, which they are more than capable of having. Remember, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie finished 2nd in points in 2012.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, I had Junior winning 3 races. One was at Michigan, where his last 2 wins have come, with two others on restrictor plate tracks, where he has always run well. He does have 19 career wins, by the way. There will be a greater sense of urgency, as crew chief Steve Letarte will leave for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.
7. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ will rebound after a tough 2013 to win a couple of races and be competitive in the Chase Grid. The talented yet controversial Michigander has already amassed 10 career wins in just 161 starts.
8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be picked the lowest out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports cars, but 8th really isn’t bad, particularly when that means the team would occupy half of the 8 spots in the Eliminator Round. Kahne made the Chase in 2013 before struggling to a 12th place points finish, a year after a career-high 4th in 2012.
9. Kyle Busch
Whether you call him “Rowdy” or “Wild Thing”, it’s clear Kyle Busch is one of best known and most talented drivers on the circuit, and a “love him or hate him” type of figure. While many have him contending for a title, the 3 race stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega during the Contender Round will have Busch out earlier than he would have hoped.
10. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin would rather forget 2013, a year in which he missed 4 races and lost a title shot with a broken back, before suffering through a series of tough breaks on his way to a 23rd place points finish, although he did win at Homestead. Like Busch, the stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega will prevent Hamlin from a deep Chase run.
11. Tony Stewart
Like Hamlin, Stewart is coming off an injury, although his injury is a broken leg and caused him to miss 15 races, and has Stewart, in his own words, at about 65% strength to start the season. Expect him to start slowly (he usually does anyway), before heating up in the summer to qualify his Chevy for the Chase.
12. Ryan Newman
Newman moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be the senior driver at the age of the 36. Newman comes off his Brickyard 400 win in 2013, and has won 17 races and 51 poles in his 13 seasons. He joins up-and-coming crew chief Luke Lambert for the 2014 campaign.
(Note: As you might have figured out, I didn’t account for the fact that a non-Chase driver, or someone already eliminated, could win one of the Chase races. I simply picked the driver with the highest likelihood of winning out of the drivers who were left for each event.)