2014 garage preview
Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing show the most October promise
This is an extended version of a story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 3 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!
WELCOME TO NASCAR 2014, aka Chase for the Sprint Cup 4.0, when 16 teams will qualify for the postseason -- by winning races. What does that change? For the superpowers, not a lot, except that winning as many races as possible might keep a rival out. For the mom-and-pops, though, win-and-in could mean their first real shot at an invite to the party. So how will it all shake out? Here's our best guess in The Mag's annual garage preview, racing team by team from the biggest dog to the littlest ankle biter.
1. Hendrick Motorsports
2013 Stats: (4 cars) 9 wins, 77 top-10s, 12 DNFs
Jimmie Johnson (2013 points rank: 1st): Now just one Cup shy of tying Richard Petty's and Dale Earnhardt's holy mark of seven.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5th): His first three seasons at HMS, his average points finish was 19.3. The last three, it's been eighth -- all three in the Chase.
Jeff Gordon (6th): The winner of the 2012 Heisman Humanitarian Award continues to stiff-arm questions about retirement.
Kasey Kahne (12th): The good news? He posted his fourth multi-win season. The bad news? He once again vanished during autumn.
After two years off, HMS returned to the head table at the Champion's dinner with Johnson's sixth Cup in eight years. But nearly as important to team owner Rick Hendrick was that all four of his cars made the Chase field and three were legit late-season contenders. Some claim the new Chase format was designed to target Johnson (he disagrees), but when the 2013 season was run through the 2014 postseason format, the Cup champ would have been Earnhardt, despite a lack of race wins. We're guessing that Junior Nation wouldn't have had any problem overlooking that little detail.
2. Joe Gibbs Racing
2013 Stats: (3 cars) 12 wins, 52 top-10s, 17 DNFs
Matt Kenseth (2nd): With all due respect to his '03 championship campaign, his seven-win 2013 performance was his best season.
Kyle Busch (4th): Five victories would boost him into the top 20 of NASCAR's career wins list. He's still just 28 years old.
Denny Hamlin (23rd): The broken lower-back vertebra he suffered last March at Fontana sidelined him for four races but is finally all healed.
If not for one bad pit stop at the season's next-to-last race, Coach Gibbs might be celebrating his fourth Cup title (with three different drivers). But there's plenty to be excited about in 2014. Hamlin's win in the '13 season finale sent the message he's back to old form. And Busch finally did what people were beginning to believe he wasn't capable of: carry the momentum of spring and summer into a deep Chase run. Many believe that was the final hurdle for Shrub to graduate from merely a race winner to a true title threat.
3. Stewart-Haas Racing
2013 Stats: (3 cars) 2 wins, 28 top-10s, 12 DNFs
Kevin Harvick (3rd): Starting his 14th Sprint Cup season, but his first outside of Richard Childress Racing and the shadow of Dale Earnhardt.
Kurt Busch (10th): It's rare that a racer gets a second chance after falling so far off NASCAR's top tier.
Danica Patrick (27th): After a dramatic season-opening eighth-place run at Daytona, she failed to score a top-10 in the remaining 35 races.
Tony Stewart (29th): Estimates his right leg, broken in an Aug. 5 sprint car race, will be at 65 percent for the Daytona 500.
On paper, this mashup of hothead loners should be a chemistry nightmare. But that's also what they said about the Avengers. "I laugh when I hear how we all have short tempers and we're all too much alike," says Stewart, who lured longtime buddy Harvick from RCR. Team co-owner Gene Haas surprised Smoke by signing Busch and vowing to underwrite the effort. "Passion, drive, speaking your mind -- all the stuff that people say will tear us apart -- I think is all the stuff that's going to make us fit together as a team."
4. Roush Fenway Racing
2013 Stats: (3 cars) 3 wins, 32 top-10s, 2 DNFs
Greg Biffle (9th): At 44, the Biff's shots at becoming NASCAR's first triple Trucks/Nationwide/Cup champion are running out.
Carl Edwards (13th): Finished the 26-race regular season as the points leader, but finished 10th or worse in eight of the 10 Chase races.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th): Last season's Rookie of the Year is being reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, with whom he won Nationwide titles in 2011 and 2012.
It was a curious year for the Ford Racing flagship, having lost longtime cornerstone Kenseth to JGR and taking on the additional engine needs of new corporate partner Team Penske. Reliability wasn't an issue, with an amazingly low two DNFs among the three drivers. Unfortunately, excitability was an issue, limited to three wins and Chase irrelevance. The team's winter weeks were spent reorganizing car construction and the management structure. "You notice the boss isn't here," Edwards pointed out during January's preseason media tour, referring to notorious workaholic Jack Roush. "He's at Disney World with his grandkids. See? I told you things were different."
5. Team Penske
2013 Stats: (2 cars) 2 wins, 35 top-10s, 6 DNFs
Joey Logano (8th): Finally fulfilled the promise (and curse) of being Sliced Bread by making the Chase field. Brad Keselowski (14th): Bad Brad's embarrassing title defense led to a total overhaul of the Blue Deuce pit crew. For decades, team owner Roger Penske kept his legendary IndyCar organization separate from his NASCAR teams, keeping one in Pennsylvania and the other in North Carolina. Eventually, they moved in together but still kept the processes apart. Now "the Captain" is vowing to blend all of his racers into one streamlined organization. Thus the NASCAR name change to his old Indy moniker of Team Penske. "It's not as much technical or mechanical as it is cultural," explains the 77-year-old, pointing to the pit crew changes. "Past that, our driver lineup is unchanged for the first time in, well, it seems like forever. That's a good thing."
6. Richard Childress Racing
2013 Stats: (3 cars) 4 wins, 36 top-10s, 6 DNFs
Ryan Newman (11th): Newman has won a race in five of the last six years, but he hasn't had a multi-win season since 2004.
Paul Menard (17th): Entering his fourth season at RCR, he's the team's most-tenured driver. Wait, how'd that happen?
Austin Dillon (Rookie): Childress' grandson brings the 3 back for the first time since Dale Earnhardt's death on Feb. 18, 2001.
The moment that RCR has been building toward for years has finally arrived. Richard Childress' grandson Austin Dillon is going Cup racing and he's doing it with a No. 3 on his door -- the slanted brand made famous by Dale Earnhardt and Childress, whom he calls Pop-Pop. It has created an electricity around the race shop in Welcome, N.C., that's been missing for a while, at least for those who stuck around. Kevin Harvick, who had been the team's top driver since Earnhardt's death, has left in no small reason because he felt like the arrival of the grandsons (Ty, Austin's little brother, is in the Nationwide Series) would leave little room for anyone else.
7. Michael Waltrip Racing
2013 Stats: (3 cars) 2 wins, 44 top-10s, 10 DNFs
Clint Bowyer (7th): In 252 races since '07, he's earned top-10 finishes exactly 50 percent of the time -- one of only seven drivers to do so.
Brian Vickers (N/A): As a two-year Cup part-timer, he earned 11 top-10s in 25 starts, including a win at New Hampshire in July.
On the night of Sept. 7, 2013, MWR went from elated to indicted, having orchestrated one of the worst black eyes in NASCAR history -- a race-fixing scandal that altered the postseason lineup, resulted in a team principal's suspension and cost Waltrip NAPA's sponsorship. That led to a 15 percent workforce reduction, the departure of Martin Truex Jr. and a contraction from three cars to two. Bowyer, who spun his car to turn the night at Richmond on its ear, speaks for the entire team: "I just want to get to Daytona and hope y'all never ask me about Richmond ever again."
8. Furniture Row Racing
2013 Stats: (1 car) 0 wins, 16 top-10s, 2 DNFs
Martin Truex, Jr. (16th): He's posted 46 top-10s over the past three years after only 43 over his previous five full-time seasons.
The Sprint Cup Series' only non-North Carolina-based team has brought Truex to Denver, snapped up after the post-Richmond fallout left him without a sponsor or a ride at Michael Waltrip Racing. The flagship team of start-and-parkers who are actually trying to build something, FRR posted no top-10s over their first five seasons, but the last three have brought five, six and an amazing 16 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel last year. "Martin's bad luck was our good luck," says team GM Joe Garone. "We might've taken a big step back losing Kurt, but now we have another driver who knows what it takes to make the Chase."
9. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
2013 Stats: (2 cars) 1 win, 17 top-10s, 1 DNF
Jamie McMurray (15th): On Oct. 19, Auburn upset Texas A&M to start its SEC title run. The next day, McMurray won Talladega in an Auburn-painted Chevy. Coincidence?
Kyle Larson (Rookie): The wunderkind has only four Cup starts but is already begging Ganassi for an Indy 500 ride.
As her husband's number returns to the track, Teresa Earnhardt has quietly removed her name and interest in what used to be known as Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya is also out after 253 starts, two wins and one Chase appearance. His replacement is 21-year-old Larson, the latest in a lineage of open-wheel dirt racers turned stock car hopefuls that traces back to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who both openly salivate over his talent. "I wish there were a dozen guys coming in just like him," Gordon said last summer. "He's just ridiculous."
10. Richard Petty Motorsports
2013 Stats: (2 cars) 0 wins, 12 top-10s, 6 DNFs
Aric Almirola (18th): His six top-10s last year weren't just a career best -- they doubled his six-year career total.
Marcos Ambrose (22nd): Road course wins in 2011 and '12 were nice, but this Tasmanian is hungry for an oval victory.
The King's court is set for a while. Well, at least half of it is. In January, Petty announced a three-year extension for Almirola, and for sponsor Smithfield Foods. That's no small accomplishment for a team that was being read its last rites just three years ago. Ambrose is inconsistent but still a road-racing machine, and the new Chase is designed to reward drivers like him. In the past, one win a year merely earned a trophy and a pat on the back. Now it can put a team into the postseason.
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