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Monday, December 16, 2013
Five things to watch in 2014

By Brant James
ESPN.com

It's 69 days until the Daytona 500. It's 24 days until Preseason Thunder. Sprint Cup cars have already tested at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so in essence, the 2014 season has already begun.

The near perpetual season that is NASCAR continues, and with it storylines that bridge the minuscule gulf between.

Five threads that will begin, if not wind through, 2014:

1. Seven, dwarfed (or at least tied): The late Dale Earnhardt entered the 1994 season needing one more championship to tie Richard Petty for NASCAR's all-time lead at seven titles.

Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson's quest for a seventh title starts at Daytona.

Earnhardt was the defending series champion and had three titles, second- and third-place points finishes, and 33 wins in the previous five seasons. He was momentum personified and routed the field by 444 points to win his final title. Twenty years later, Jimmie Johnson has much the same aura as he makes his first attempt to join the pantheon of NASCAR's most prolific champions. Arguably more so, after winning six championships and an astounding 48 (coincidence!?) races -- next best, Kyle Busch, 26 -- since 2006.

Petty even acknowledges the seeming inevitability of Johnson's ascension, saying before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November that the 38-year-old was "liable to go to eight to 10." Still in his prime in all facets that matter and with crew chief Chad Knaus finding new ways to burnish what Denny Hamlin deemed the "Jimmie Johnson era," the greatest driver of his generation has staked his claim as greatest of all time and will seemingly soon have the trophy case to end any argument to the contrary.

2. How Smoke will Smoke be?: Tony Stewart is a rare talent and the last of a breed. A master of all he has ever raced, the 42-year-old former USAC, IndyCar and Sprint Cup champion had been able to deftly coordinate -- with the help of a trusted cadre of managers -- growing statuses as a racer, businessman and icon.

Tony Stewart
How good will Tony Stewart be when he comes back?

He was brash and bulletproof. And then an August sprint car accident, just weeks after he oversaw the triumphant debut of NASCAR's truck series at his Eldora Speedway and driver Ryan Newman winning the Brickyard 400, put him in a motorized scooter for the rest of the season.

Stewart's grit and gristle may allow him to seamlessly recover with surgeries and rehabilitation and return to the No. 14 Chevrolet at the same level at which he ceded it for the final 15 races of the 2013 season. Or he may have pitfalls, mental or physical.

Every misstep will be considered through the filter of the near career-ending injury and what toll it still exacts mentally and physically. It won't necessarily be fair, but it will be a weekly exercise until he returns to the level his 48 career wins and three Cup titles suggest.

3. Junior: Pyrite or fly right? Dale Earnhardt Jr. quietly crafted his best season in a decade, and came one blown motor at the playoff opener in Chicago from being heavily involved in the championship resolution at Homestead.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is coming off his best season in a decade.

Maybe.

Maybe NASCAR's most popular driver -- recently anointed for the 11th consecutive year -- and his team would have withered under the incrementally increasing pressure of matching the stellar mental and mechanical levels set by Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt called 2013 his best of six seasons at Hendrick Motorsports and refrained from speculating about what might have happened without the Chicago engine failure, saying it "probably wouldn't have made a big difference" because he didn't win a race.

Team owner Rick Hendrick predicted Earnhardt will be a title contender in 2014. Being such this past season would have certainly injected exhilaration into a Chase that critics deemed mundane, considering the grinding consistency of Johnson and Kenseth and the off-track friends' unwillingness to contrive a rivalry.

Earnhardt's strong finish shouldn't be considered by what it could do for the sport -- as is seemingly everything involving the son and namesake of the late NASCAR legend -- but what it could do for a good career still in need of sprucing up with some more great.

Earnhardt's fifth-place points finish was his best since he attained the same final standing in a six-win 2004. Incredibly, Earnhardt has four wins since, and none in 2013, although his five runner-up finishes were another sign of encouragement.

Trouble is, Earnhardt's supposed growth movements have been quickly followed by regressions in this trying past decade. The fifth-place finish in 2004 was followed by a drop to 19th in 2005. An improvement to seventh in 2011 was followed by a slump to 12th in 2012.

But maybe Earnhardt's Chase revelation signals the much-anticipated push. He finished second twice this year in Chase races, in the top five of half of them and with an average finish of 8.5 including the 35th-place disaster at Chicago.

4. In the shadow of Earnhardt: The No. 3 has been used in 1,134 Sprint Cup-equivalent races, by a litany of drivers including Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Richard Childress, who also began campaigning it again when he began his own NASCAR team.

Austin DIllon
Austin Dillon and grandfather and team owner Richard Childress are bringing the No. 3 back to Sprint Cup.

But that digit with the jaunty lean came to embody Dale Earnhardt as he won six of seven Cup titles with it in RCR cars, more so after his death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Even with Earnhardt's son and namesake offering his approval, the full-time debut of Childress' grandson, Austin Dillon, in an RCR No. 3 Chevrolet will be fraught with pressure and scrutiny. It shouldn't, but it will.

The fact that Dillon has a blood connection to the heritage of the number should help. After winning the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series titles in a No. 3, Dillon appears to have many years to establish a new chapter in the number's history, perhaps as the first to win titles in all three of NASCAR's national touring series.

5. Back again: Denny Hamlin's 2013 campaign ended in a cloud of gray tire smoke at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as he, under the command of crew chief Darian Grubb, decided to "burn that [No. 11 Toyota] to the ground" after winning his first race of a contemptible, demoralizing season.

Denny Hamlin
Will Denny Hamlin compete for a Cup title in 2014?

The relief was evident in Hamlin's speech and demeanor. After missing four starts with an L1 compression fracture sustained in a last-lap crash after an incident with Joey Logano at Fontana, Calif., the 33-year-old had missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time as a full-time driver. He had basically lost a season in his prime, although he suggested racing against Johnson was essentially the same thing, excluding the excruciating pain and rehab.

Fully encouraged, if not fully healed after eschewing surgery, Hamlin seemed ready for 2014 to begin in haste.