NASCAR offseason storylines worth watching

Jonathan Ferrey

Tony Stewart’s health, a cavalcade of drivers switching teams and the return of the No. 3 car are among the storylines to watch this offseason.

Offseason? What offseason? This past weekend may have been the first since February without a national series event of some kind (Sprint Cup, Nationwide, Truck Series) but don't think for a second there is any kind of real "offseason." The idea of an actual prolonged period of time where teams can rest and recharge the batteries is a misnomer.

In two weeks NASCAR will be holding a critical test at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the goal of finding an aero package that will improve the quality of racing on intermediate tracks. More than 20 teams are expected to participate. Then shortly after comes preseason testing Jan. 9 at Daytona International Speedway. And if you want further evidence of just how little offseason there actually is, the Daytona 500 is less than 90 days away.

So with this in mind, here are five storylines to be mindful of over the next couple of months.

1. Stewart still recovering

Since sustaining a broken right leg in a sprint car crash Aug. 5, Tony Stewart has undergone three operations but is expected to make a full recovery by February. Filling Stewart's seat in the No. 14 car until his return is Mark Martin, who in retirement will assume the de facto role of mentor/driver coach/test driver for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Stewart's absence is noteworthy because when he returns he will be working with a new crew chief in Chad Johnston, who replaces the departing Steve Addington. And because he is still sidelined, Stewart won't have an opportunity to develop a working relationship with Johnston, formerly the crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., during the Charlotte and Daytona tests.

There is a real possibility that the first time Stewart and Johnston actually work with one another won't be until Daytona Speedweeks.

2. Familiar faces going to new places

Lately every offseason seems to produce a rash of high-profile moves among drivers and teams. In recent years Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer are among those who have switched teams.

This offseason, however, might be the biggest transformation as Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr. and Jeff Burton will all be with different organizations for the 2014 season.

For them the next two-plus months are critical in developing chemistry and getting acquainted with their new surroundings. Because as Kenseth this past season and Bowyer last season showed -- both won multiple races and finished runner-up in the championship -- no longer are new driver - team combinations given a period of adjustment.

3. Some drivers still searching for rides

While most seats have been filled for next season, not every driver has secured themselves a ride for 2014. There are still a few big names that have yet to announce their plans, including Burton, Sam Hornish Jr. and Bobby Labonte.

Although there has been no formal announcement, Burton appears set to drive a limited schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing.

As for Hornish and Labonte, Hornish has said he has talked to several teams and is weighing his options. He is adamant that he won't take just any offer and will only sign with a team that gives him a chance to compete and win races -- preferably in Cup, but is open to returning to Nationwide where he finished second in points last season.

Labonte's options, however, appear far more limited. At age 49, his best days are behind him and it's going to be hard to find a steady ride for 2014, though the 2000 Cup champion is open to running full-time in either Nationwide or the Truck Series.

4. Finding the right balance on the Gen-6

On some levels the introduction of the Generation 6 car last season was a success, as it provided each manufacturer with a brand identity that had been missing under the previous version.

But one of the primary goals of the Gen-6 was to dramatically improve the on-track product on the plethora of intermediate speedways that make up the bulk of the Cup schedule. And in this regard there is still more work to be done. Too often in 2013 track position and clean air were still the overriding factors on where a driver finished, and side-by-side racing frequently was limited to the first few laps following a restart.

NASCAR has taken the necessary steps to tweak the Gen-6, conducting tests and soliciting opinions from those in the garage. Among the changes being considered to the 2014 rules package is adding a tapered spacer -- a strip across the roof -- raising the splitter, and the elimination of the ride-height rule.

"Our group will go back with several teams (for the upcoming Charlotte test) and do some more work on intermediate car packages in an effort to make the intermediate racing more exciting," NASCAR president Mike Helton said at Miami-Homestead Speedway. "We're proud of the product we've got right now, but we also know that if you sit still, you're going to get run over."

5. The return of the No. 3

Nothing has been formally declared, but it is a certainty that at some point this offseason Richard Childress will announce he is moving grandson Austin Dillon to Cup full-time.

And with Dillon's accession to NASCAR's top division, fans will see the return of the iconic No. 3 to Cup for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Dillon has raced the No. 3 in both Nationwide and Trucks. But will fans be OK with seeing the return of one of NASCAR's most iconic numbers at the sport's highest level?

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