NASCAR 2014 season preview

Todd Warshaw

Previewing the 2014 NASCAR season with Chase predictions, storylines and everything else you need to know for the year ahead.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Who wins the championship? How will Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick do? Can Jimmie Johnson repeat and move into a tie with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty with seven NASCAR championships? Will Tony Stewart, who missed 15 races a year ago with a broken leg, return full of vigor and conviction?

All of these questions and more are answered in detail below as SB Nation previews the 2014 Sprint Cup season.

Q: The championship will be won by whom?

A: Go ahead and tweak the Chase and expand the field all you want, but until proven otherwise Jimmie Johnson is still the man.

In fact, the new playoff format actually plays to the strength of the No. 48 team. Because this is a group that doesn't flinch, rarely puts together consecutive subpar races and wins with great frequency, Johnson should have little issue avoiding elimination. And in a one-race shootout for the title, you could do worse than siding with the defending and six-time champion.

Q: Just about every season a driver comes out of seemingly nowhere and surprises us; who will be that driver this year?

A: Unlike previous years, there is no shortage of candidates. Those deserving consideration include Aric Almirola and rookies Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. But the likeliest driver to emerge this season and push for a Chase berth is last year's Rookie of the Year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse gradually improved as 2013 progressed, posting three top-10s in the final 11 races after not recording a single top-10 finish in the first 25. His season might have been even better had he not been saddled with an underperforming Ford Fusion lacking in aerodynamics.

Now with a full season of experience and reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, who guided him to a pair of Nationwide Series championships, Stenhouse appears poised for a breakthrough that should culminate with grabbing his first Cup victory and a spot in the Chase.

Q: Just as there are surprises every season, there are always those who fail to match expectations. Which driver(s) will be this year's biggest disappointment?

A: Everyone associated with Michael Waltrip Racing has said all the right things about moving past the events of last fall. Although that's all well and good, it's going to be a momentous task, considering the organization was forced to trim its workforce by 15 percent, lost a wealth of talent in Rodney Childers, Chad Johnston and Martin Truex Jr., and wasn't able to replace NAPA and its $16 million sponsorship.

Are Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers good enough to overcome these obstacles? Yes, but that still might not be enough. The more likely scenario sees MWR regress, Bowyer and Vickers fail to win, and at the end of the year Bowyer, a free agent-to-be, depart for greener pastures.

Q: For a variety of reasons, every season a marquee name inexplicably fails to qualify for the Chase. A year ago it was Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart; the year before Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards missed the cut. Who will be the prominent name(s) that miss the playoffs this year?

A: With an enlarged Chase field encompassing 16 drivers, it will be harder to miss than in previous editions, particularly if that driver is associated with Hendrick, JGR, Roush, Penske or SHR (Patrick excluded). That, however, doesn't mean someone won't still find a way to stumble. But who exactly?

As noted above, a likely nominee is Bowyer. Although he's made the Chase the past two seasons and five of the last seven, with the disorder surrounding MWR it's hard to have confidence that the organization's performance won't sag.

Outside of Bowyer, the pick here is Greg Biffle. There's little rhyme or reason, but it's misguided to think the Hendrick, JGR, Roush, Penske and SHR drivers (again, Patrick excluded) will have a monopoly on the Chase. More so, it's hard to ignore the fact that Roush has had issues the past two years getting all three of its teams operating at a high level. The expectation here is Edwards and Stenhouse thrive, which leaves Biffle as the odd man out.

Q: So now that we know who won't be in the Chase, who specifically will comprise the field of 16?

A: Through either winning during the regular season or accumulating enough points to obtain eligibility, these drivers will qualify for the Chase (in no particular order): Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Edwards, Earnhardt, Marcos Ambrose (via a road course victory), Keselowski, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Stenhouse and Joey Logano.

Q: The biggest story in 2014 will be?

A: From Daytona to Homestead and everywhere in between, the biggest story will be NASCAR's decision to overhaul the Chase by emphasizing winning.

Because a win during the regular season virtually ensures a driver of making the Chase, every race now has added significance, which creates a wealth of possibilities. Expect to see more out-of-box strategy in the closing laps, the intensity ratcheted up, and drivers incentivized to do anything and everything to reach Victory Lane.

And when the Chase begins and the first round of eliminations looms, all bets are off. This, unfortunately, includes a possible repeat of Richmond. Can teams resist jerry-rigging the finishing order for their benefit? NASCAR acted swiftly and with a heavy hand last fall, but even then that might not be enough of a deterrent with a championship on the line.

No matter how it all unfolds, it's going to be compelling and not the least of all, controversial.

Q: What is one under-the-radar story to keep an eye on this year?

A: A host of prominent drivers including Bowyer, Biffle and Carl Edwards have contracts that expire at the end of the year. Whether any of them actually signs elsewhere remains to be seen, but the odds are good that one of them will be with a different organization at this time next year.

The domino to watch is Roush Fenway Racing. Three years ago Edwards was as good as gone to Joe Gibbs Racing before Ford intervened at the last minute and capitulated to making Edwards the face of the manufacturer. This time around it may be too much of a challenge for Roush to re-up Edwards in addition to keeping Biffle, who says he's close to an extension that should be announced sometime this spring.

Q: Following debilitating injuries derailing their respective seasons, will Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart bounce back to their usual forms?

A: Though Hamlin's back will always be a concern, and Stewart isn't completely recovered -- he says his mended right leg is at 65 percent and won't be fully healed for another year -- both should be at or near their usual standards. Hamlin, in fact, proved as much with his victory in the season finale at Homestead.

Aiding Stewart's cause is the altered Chase format, which gives him ample time to work his way back gradually without having to fret about his points position. In the end, Hamlin and Stewart each will win at least once and qualify for the playoffs with ease. Whether either makes a championship bid is a question for another time.

Q: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a terrific 2013 season notching a career-best 22 top-10s, and placing fifth in points. Yet for the fifth time in seven years, NASCAR's most popular driver failed to visit Victory Lane. Will that be the case again this season?

A: How you feel about Earnhardt's prospects this season hinges on whether or not you think the departure of Steve Letarte will be a distraction. Both driver and crew chief are adamant that this is a non-issue and are fully committed to ending their partnership on a high note -- much the way Kevin Harvick did last year, winning four races and finishing third overall in his final season at Richard Childress Racing.

Indisputably, however, the question of who will replace Letarte will dog Earnhardt throughout the year, as will concerns about Letarte's focus. These suspicions will only become more pronounced if the No. 88 team struggles -- especially in the early going.

Without the ambiguity, Earnhardt would be considered a fringe championship contender. But with the increased scrutiny, it's hard to imagine him replicating his performance from a year ago, though he will win a race and again qualify for the Chase.

Q: Who among Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex or Cole Whitt takes Rookie of the Year honors?

A: Considering the depth and talent, it's not hyperbole to say this is as stellar a rookie class as any in recent memory. All of which makes this the toughest question on the board.

Ultimately, the rookie battle comes down to the highly hyped duo of Dillon and Larson. And the deciding factor has little to do with them, but rather their respective teams.

Dillon is aligned with a team that has won 12 races and is a perennial championship contender, whereas Larson joins the perennially underachieving Chip Ganassi Racing. Both have an excellent shot to reach Victory Lane, but on the strength of greater consistency, it will be Dillon winning Rookie of the Year.

Q: Now with a full year of Cup experience, what can be expected out of Danica Patrick?

A: Due to myriad factors -- foremost her gender -- Patrick is held to different standards than other drivers with her experience level. That's not excusing her lack of results last season, which were unsatisfactory considering the equipment and resources she was given. But it's easy to forget that 2014 is just Patrick's fifth year in NASCAR, so it's natural to see some progression.

Does this mean Patrick will prove her detractors wrong and become the first woman to win a NASCAR national series race? It's not unfathomable, though if this is to happen it will occur at either Daytona or Talladega, due to Patrick's proficiency navigating the draft.

The more feasible scenario will see Patrick score a couple of top-10s, wreck with less frequency and see a slight improvement from her 2013 points position (27th).

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