I’ve been thinking about some possible threats for the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship lately and with all the silly season moves by big name drivers, we might see a couple surprises. Jimmie Johnson is the man to beat, but that’s obviously nothing new. There are some familiar faces in unfamiliar places, though, and it will be very interesting to see how everything shakes out with them.
First of all, I see Joe Gibbs Racing having another strong season to follow up their stellar 2013. Matt Kenseth will be the star of the JGR trio once again, but keep an eye on the fully healthy Denny Hamlin, who is fresh off a win in the season finale. If it weren’t for a miscalculation by his team in the penultimate race of 2010, he would have dethroned Jimmie Johnson and stopped the Drive4Five from happening. JGR is much stronger now than they were then and the old adage does say, “you gotta lose before you know how to win.”
Jimmie Johnson’s toughest competition from within his own organization will be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and I say this with a lot of confidence. I’m not saying Jr. has what it takes to take him down in 2014, but he will come closer than Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, who will each have respectable years nonetheless.
On top of five second place finishes in 2013, he brought home fifth in the standings and could have very well been third had he not suffered an engine failure in the Chase opener. Before he can challenge six-time champion Jimmie Johnson though, he has to break through that glass ceiling and win some races. Consistency only puts you in contention; it’s winning that hands you the hardware.
Tony Stewart is a driver that you should never underestimate and the 2011 Chase epitomizes just that. He went into that Chase win-less and said that his team didn’t even belong in it. Ten weeks later, he had five wins to his credit and was hoisting the Sprint Cup in Miami.
In 2013, he broke his leg in a Sprint Car crash and was forced to sit out most of the season. When a driver is injured, they sometimes come back and are never the same. You won’t have to worry about that with arguably the most versatile racer to ever get behind the wheel. He is going to come back with a vengeance in 2014, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Smoke does indeed rise… all the way to the championship table in Vegas.
We had a few drivers swap seats at the end of the year and I believe a couple of them will have career seasons, much like when Kenseth joined Gibbs. The first is someone who’s been put in a similar situation as Matt and that’s Kevin Harvick. Like Kenseth, he spent his whole career with one team (Richard Childress Racing), but has suddenly decided that he wants a change of scenery… one with less Dillons apparently.
Now, he will be driving cars that many consider to be of higher quality than what RCR has to offer. I think pairing him with Rodney Childers is a perfect match and won’t be a decision they regret anytime soon. Kevin Harvick is known to always lurk in the shadows, directly behind the top contenders for the championship, but 2014 will be different. If he could win four races in his controversial “lame-duck” season with Childress and still have a shot at Homestead, I can only imagine how good he’ll be at SHR.
The second driver that I alluded to before is Kurt Busch. Gene Haas went out of his way and then some to procure Kurt as the driver for SHR’s fourth car. Gene went against Tony Stewart’s wishes by putting together a fourth team and will also sponsor the car himself. Not to mention, the fact that they are being forced to build an extension on their current building in order to accommodate Kurt’s cars. With Haas backing him 110 percent and some of the best equipment under him, Kurt Busch will go very far in 2014.
The unmitigated reign of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus will one day come to an end, but they certainly won’t go quietly into the night. If you want to beat the No. 48, you have to be more than perfect. You must be infallible.
Nick DeGroot is a staff writer for Rant Sports NASCAR. Connect with him on Twitter @ndegroot89