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Predicting the 2014 trends

12/31/2013 - NASCAR

It's the final day of 2013, providing one final chance to be absolutely brilliant, or utterly mistaken. In racing, those conditions cohabitate nicely, anyway.

Here are 14 predictions that are outlandish, and you won't remember them if they're wrong (but I'll brandish them like a hammer if they're right).

1. Jimmie Johnson joins Mount Racemore: More than a decade after the late Dale Earnhardt won his seventh Cup championship and 35 after Richard Petty got there first, Johnson will join them on the summit.

2. Smoke wins Daytona 500: That winning NASCAR's signature race has eluded the three-time champion makes the story compelling enough. That the Daytona 500 will be Tony Stewart's first points race since suffering the worst injury of his career in August simply makes it perfect. The 42-year-old will return to the scene of unrealized hope surrounded by questions about his physical well-being and sharpness after missing 15 races when he suffered a broken tibia and fibula in an Aug. 5 sprint car accident. Stewart toddled around the circuit on a mechanized scooter for the final weeks of the season and isn't scheduled to bring a race car to speed until practice for the Sprint Unlimited. There's just no reason he should win the Daytona 500, other than Stewart's transcendent talent and stubbornness merging to create a moment that will define the 2014 season. He also drives the 14. That's too perfect.

3. Vettel wins: Sebastian Vettel remains the Jimmie Johnson of Formula One (don't be angry, rest of the world) by winning his fifth consecutive championship for Red Bull since debuting full time in 2008. The 25-year-old German ties legend Juan Manuel Fangio for second on the all-time list and pulls within two of all-time leader and countryman Michael Schumacher. Those who are angry he took Scott Speed's job at Scuderia Toro Rosso continue to have no case.

4. Junior finishes second in points: NASCAR's most popular driver has been consistent only in remaining NASCAR's most popular driver. It's 11 years and counting on that front for Dale Earnhardt Jr.. His on-track performance has been far less predictable, with spikes in performance followed immediately by plunges, some severe. After finishing fifth in points last season, the 39-year-old is therefore historically due for another lull. But his performance in the Chase -- three runner-up finishes and an average result of 5.6 after blowing a motor in the opener at Chicagoland -- suggests he might have discovered the formula for Sprint Cup success from garage mate Jimmie Johnson. And that could liven things up considerably around the Hendrick Motorsports campus and beyond.

5. Keselowski makes the Chase: A blown engine at Atlanta terminated what had been a teetering title defense, but Brad Keselowski rallied with a Chase win -- his first of the season after winning five en route to the 2013 title -- and finished 14th in points. He returns to the playoffs in 2014.

6. JPM wins either the Indy 500 or the IndyCar title: Juan Pablo Montoya appears reinvigorated in his return to open-wheel racing, partly due to his affinity and aptitude for the regimen and partly, it would seem, for his opportunity to be a complete menace to former owner Chip Ganassi as a member of a powerhouse rival at Team Penske. Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in his only start, for Ganassi, in 2000, and replicating that feat seems more likely than taking the IndyCar crown as a 38-year-old -- albeit highly motivated -- rookie.

7. And Will Power wins the one Montoya doesn't: Penske has developed an uncharacteristic problem sealing IndyCar championships recently, with Power finishing second three times despite being in control going into the final weeks and Helio Castroneves roughly repeating the process last season. Montoya's combination of talent/reputation/ambition and gruff candor might be ideal to grab the collective lapel of the team and shake it vigorously. Power seemed thrilled at Montoya's arrival, saying he now has a driver against whom he can compare driving data. Montoya should also provide the perfect motivation for Power and Castroneves to figure out and fix what has left them on the cusp too many times for the team's liking.

8. Electric feel: With electric cars become more commonplace -- and sexy, with the debut of the Tesla sports car -- the future of racing goes to Beijing with the planned debut of the FIA Formula E series. The series has already generated great intellectual and financial interest from a wide spectrum of the business and entertainment community. A successful launch will be of great interest -- and consternation -- to the internal combustion set, which suddenly appears fossil-like in its utilization of fossil fuels. Gen-7 Chevrolet Volt, NASCAR?

9. Mark Martin does the KISS thing again: He never really, actually, technically said he was retiring; he just utilized every phrase used to define the word. He'll test Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet through the winter and then assume a catch-all advisory role at Stewart-Haas Racing. And at some point in the process, at age 55, he'll miss it enough to mull offers that will come his way from other teams.

10. Grand theft Larson: Kyle Larson, the 21-year-old Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing prodigy, will quickly validate team owner Chip Ganassi's decision to insert him in the No. 42 Chevrolet after opting not to re-sign Montoya. Larson, who finished eighth in 2013 in his first Nationwide Series season -- he had never entered a race in the series before -- will become the first certified rookie to win a Cup race since Joey Logano did it in 2009 at New Hampshire.

11. Austin Dillon has the best season of any RCR driver: The grandson of the Richard Childress Racing team owner defuses some of the fervor surrounding the relaunch of the fabled No. 3 Chevrolet by finishing higher in points than teammates Ryan Newman and Paul Menard. He wins his third top-three series rookie of the year award. Then comes the hard part: Dillon won trucks and Nationwide titles in his second full seasons.

13. Speed dating: The Graham Rahal-Courtney Force relationship will be so thoroughly documented that the public will be desensitized or weary of the entire concept of drivers dating (same/different series, whatever) by the Indianapolis 500. Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., their relationship fully sensationalized a year ago, will recede into domestic bliss in the motor-home lot, and won't mind much.

14. Travis Pastrana will do just fine: The freestyle motocross/rally/action sports star had expressed a desire to dabble in NASCAR -- specifically to prepare for a bucket-list bid to enter the Daytona 500 -- long before he attempted to transition full time to the series. Undone by injuries and sponsor shortfalls, he opted to leave after last season. Gone from NASCAR is an interesting and genuinely likeable personality. And gone is a talent who had not delivered on the expectations to deliver both thrilling exploits and throngs of coveted young fans. Though Pastrana certainly would have preferred to not have left one of his great undone things so completely undone, he belongs beyond the confines of NASCAR's regimentation and on the shaggy edge where his ever-expanding Nitro Circus franchise -- now including a Panamanian action sports resort -- rally and motocross careers thrive.