NASCAR hot seat: The drivers, crew chiefs and teams under the most pressure to perform

John Harrelson

The drivers, crew chiefs and teams under the most pressure to perform during the 2014 NASCAR season.

One of the better Queen songs is a collaboration the group did with David Bowie titled "Under Pressure." The tune, which Vanilla Ice sampled to compose "Ice, Ice Baby," centers on the various stresses people encounter every day before eventually exploding in a pent-up rage.

The pressures Queen and Bowie lay out are vastly different than those experienced by the drivers and teams within NASCAR. Nevertheless, the Sprint Cup Series is a highly pressurized atmosphere where everyone must cope with the pervasive mindset of "What have you done for me lately?" And that feeling of needing to perform at a high level will only increase significantly with the start of the season just days away.

As the Daytona 500 inches closer, here are the drivers, crew chiefs and teams under the most pressure to achieve success in 2014.

Drivers

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR's most popular driver has been a familiar face on this list for a while due to the immense scrutiny he is always under, and that's no different this season. Although he turned in a fine 2013 campaign, the fact that Earnhardt again failed to win negates a lot of that positivity, and underscores the continuous issues he has had locating Victory Lane since joining Hendrick Motorsports.

Further ratcheting up the pressure this season is the impending departure of crew chief Steve Letarte. The scuttlebutt of who will take over as Earnhardt's crew chief will hang over the 88 team like a cloud until a replacement is named. Even then, one gets the sense that with Letarte exiting for the broadcast booth it may be now or never for Earnhardt's hopes of finally winning a championship.

Austin Dillon

Possessing a résumé that includes championships in the Nationwide and Truck Series, Dillon is undoubtedly worthy of a Cup ride within an upper-echelon team. That team happens to be an outfit that has won 12 races and three times has finished third in points.

Although it is unfair to think a rookie can match that production, these are the shoes that the 23-year-old is expected to fill. And this is not even taking into account the hubbub surrounding the decision to restore the No. 3, which while popular with many, will cast a spotlight on Dillon unlike any he has ever seen.

Danica Patrick

Until she proves otherwise, Patrick will always be labeled as driver who landed a prominent ride because of her marketing ability rather than her prowess behind the wheel. It's a sentiment expressed by many, including Richard Petty, and one Patrick is cognizant of as she prepares to embark on her second full Cup season.

There is no shame in having a disappointing rookie year where the highlights were few and the lowlights frequent. Many big-name drivers have had similar experiences. But the onus is on Patrick to show that she has learned from her mistakes and can be a driver deserving of a seat in one of Tony Stewart's cars. If she has a season in 2014 anywhere close to the one she produced in 2013, the cries will only grow louder that Patrick doesn't belong in NASCAR.

Teams

Stewart-Haas Racing

One would think that the addition of two mercurial drivers to an already combustible mix makes Stewart-Haas Racing a ticking time bomb. Not so says the organization, which has stressed team harmony throughout the offseason.

No matter. With three drivers housing realistic championship aspirations, another trying to validate his presence, and the headaches associated with expanding, SHR faces pressure like no other in the garage.

Michael Waltrip Racing

Twelve months ago, Michael Waltrip Racing had three fully sponsored cars and was coming off a breakthrough season. It wasn't farfetched to think the organization was on the cusp of something special.

However, the optimism that once existed has evaporated in the wake of a cheating scandal that resulted in a record fine, a driver ejected from the Chase for the Sprint Cup and the defection of long-time sponsor NAPA, all of which led to MWR downsizing by 15 percent.

What the future holds for MWR is a mystery. The most pressing concerns are the expiring contracts of Clint Bowyer and Five-Hour Energy, and the loss of key personnel in crew chiefs Rodney Childers and Chad Johnston. The team is in an unenviable position.

Roush Fenway Racing

The flagship team for Ford's NASCAR effort is Roush Fenway Racing, which has a significant hand in the development and distribution of engines and/or chassis to all Ford-backed teams. However, the manufacturer's championship drought is entering its 10th season. Ford was noticeably outpaced by Chevrolet and Toyota last year.

Roush is in no danger of losing its status as Ford's central organization. But in the hierarchy of super teams, Roush has clearly fallen behind Hendrick and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Crew chiefs

Steve Letarte

Having already announced a move to the NBC broadcast booth next season, 2014 represents Letarte's swan song as Earnhardt's crew chief. Letarte is steadfast that he is fully committed to his current role and his leaving will not create a distraction. But the first time Earnhardt has a bad race, or the 88 team lacks results, justifiable or not, questions will arise surrounding Letarte's focus.

Alan Gustafson

Since Jeff Gordon struggled these last two seasons to qualify for the Chase, speculation has centered on Gustafson's job status. Yet for the fourth straight year he will be back atop the pit box for the No. 24. How long he remains in that role is in serious doubt.

If the lack of consistency continues, a shakeup will likely happen, and it certainly won't be the four-time champion who will have to find employment elsewhere. Also stoking the flames underneath Gustafson is the recent news of Ray Evernham joining Hendrick on the competition side.

Chad Johnston

Being the crew chief for Stewart is a risky proposition, with Johnston now his third pit boss in four seasons. Johnston revitalized the career of Martin Truex Jr., but expectations at SHR are vastly different compared to his previous employer. At a minimum, Stewart demands excellence, and anything less than multiple wins and a title push will not be accepted. And as Darian Grubb can testify, that still might not be enough to keep Johnston around long-term.

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