When the 2014 Cup season begins, we will have new faces, old faces in new places, along with a cast of characters still where we last saw them. However, when they are done determining who is in and who is out each week, only 25 drivers on ten teams will actually matter. The rest will simply be hamburger helper sprinkled amongst the real meat.
The steak that will sizzle is once again expected to be provided by Team Hendrick, led by 6-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Four-time king Jeff Gordon, fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr, and 16-race winner Kasey Kahne will all be behind the wheel of Chevrolet SS models, but this quartet is all Corvette. 189 career wins and 10 championships between them. Enough said.
After a 13 year absence, Dale Earnhardt’s old slant No.3 returns with his old boss, with the team owner’s grandson in the driver’s seat. All 23-year old Austin Dillon has done to deserve the opportunity was to show Grandpa that he can win championships, as he did last year in the junior series and the year before in the trucks. Okay, he looks rather goofy in a cowboy hat, I admit, but when he pops on a racing helmet the lad is solid gold. Add to the mix Ryan Newman and Paul Menard and this should prove an interesting season for this outfit.
Joe Gibbs has his own trio of note, as Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin all have shown star quality on the track. Kenseth was the chief contender to Johnson last year, Kyle is always in the mix, and Hamlin was the last guy we saw in Victory Lane last year, despite what was for him a season of misfortune.
Jack Roush drivers claimed three wins in 2013, even though 9th was the best season showing from a lineup that boasts Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. None have won a Cup crown, all are hungry to change that, and the pressure will be on to be succeed this season.
2014 brings us Kyle Larson, as the 21-year old joins Jamie McMurray with Chip Ganassi. He won one of two truck races he ran last year, but still is best known for being sent up into the fence and spreading car parts into the stands during Daytona’s junior series opener last year.
Roger Penske has a two car operation, with former champ Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano driving again for him. Richard Petty is back with Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Michael Waltrip had himself an annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth might say, in 2013. Still, while NAPA may be gone, Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers remain. No sponsor, no Martin Truex Jr, but he wound up with Furniture Row, and along with the rest mentioned here should be more than relevant when they roll off the line.
No, I have not forgotten about Tony Stewart, nor Gene Haas who made himself relevant by hiring his own boy, namely Kurt Busch, for the team. Along with the mending co-owner and the arrival of Kevin Harvick, this should be quite a team to watch, both on and off the track. Call this the good, the bad, and the ugly, but I will leave it to you to determine who is who.
Did I miss anyone? Well, actually, no. I am with Kyle Petty when it comes to 31-year old Danica Patrick. She is a marketing machine but she has yet to prove she can race when there are others out there to compete against. Despite the quality equipment she has, and I am talking about that provided by Stewart-Haas not God Almighty, her results have been pedestrian, at best. A single Top Ten in 46 Cup races, 7 for 60 in the junior league, one win and 7 podiums in 115 IndyCar events does not a legend make. However, until another woman arrives on the scene, and I see none even close just yet, she will remain. At least she will until the novelty runs its course and she faces the same expectations as, say, 24-year old Landon Cassill, 22-year old Cole Whitt, 22- year old Trevor Bayne or 21-year old Ty Dillon.
Ten teams, I say, but what about Tommy Baldwin? If you expect Michael Annett or J.J. Yeley to do something, then maybe. I just do not see it. Swan Racing is running two teams, but will Whitt or Parker Kligerman outlast even start and parker Joe Nemechek? There will be Front Row (with David Ragan and David Gilliland), BK and Daugherty teams attempting to qualify and even making it, but will they add to your race experience? I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be nice if someone made a liar out of me? Anyone?
There will be a lot of story lines this season, such as Johnson’s quest to reach NASCAR immortality, Junior seeking a win, the rookie seasons of Dillon and Larson, Roush veterans seeking a title, the Stewart-Haas potential drama, if Furniture Row can maintain, and so much more. However, just as important will be the answer as to whether Patrick is the real deal or a 3 dressed up as a 9 and if Baldwin, Swan, or Front Row can make the jump to actually matter. We are down to just weeks before the results start trickling in.
In the meantime, enjoy the Super Bowl.