The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is upon, as fans are gearing up for what is to be an intriguing season, especially once the Chase begins in September. In the meantime, here are my annual top 40 preseason driver rankings.
12. 14-Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Time will tell if Stewart can operate at less than 100 percent health. He is perhaps one of the toughest drivers since Dale Earnhardt so chances are he will pick up where he left off. While he is a long-shot to win the title, I would never discount Stewart.
11. 31-Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
I truly believe that Newman will revive his once promising career with RCR. While most of the media focus will be on the #3 team, Newman will lead this team in wins and performance, and easily qualify for the Chase. Look for Newman to win multiple races for the first time since 2004.
10. 5-Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
If Kahne and the #5 group can ever reverse their trend of inconsistency, they would give HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson a solid run for his money. You can count of Kahne winning multiple races a year, but if history is any indication, he will face early elimination from championship contention.
9. 24-Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Gordon is on record as saying that he will hang up his helmet if he wins his fifth Cup championship in 2014. Well, I believe we will see Gordon back in 2015. Gordon has barely made the Chase the last two years, but under the new system, he should clinch with an early season win. However, I would be surprised if he was one of the four drivers fighting for the Cup at Homestead.
8. 11-Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Hamlin opened the 2014 season by winning the Sprint Unlimited in impressive fashion. He also ended 2013 with a victory at Homestead, showing signs that he is ready to return to championship contending form. I believe he will win multiple races, and it I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he was among the final four at Homestead.
7. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Earnhardt Jr is coming off his best season since he won 6 races in 2004. Unfortunately, the 2013 campaign will be marred by a big fat doughnut in the win column. I would be surprised if he encounters a second consecutive winless season. Based on his consistency, he could easily be one of the four drivers racing for the title in November.
6. 41-Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Busch rebounded well from a disastrous 2011 and 2012 season that saw him lose his high profile ride at Penske in 2011 and face suspension in 2012. Busched help carry the single-car team of Furniture Row to the Chase. Though they did not win, the Busch-FRR combination may have been the most impressive. Busch joins the four-car operation at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he will again be sponsored by the team owner. Look for Busch to return to victory lane, and perhaps challenge for his second title at Homestead.
5. 2-Brad Keselowski, Team Penske Ford
Usually it is the second place driver that suffers a year-after hangover. However, the 2012 champion suffered what was his worst season since 2010. He still earned a victory, making the season less painful. Expect a full rebound from Keselowski by winning multiple races, and possibly earning the shot at a second championship at Homestead.
4. 20-Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kenseth almost earned his second championship ten years after he captured his first in 2003. It was also his best season in the win column, as he racked up 7 victories. While I would be surprised to see him duplicate that win total in 2014, I would be even more surprised if he wasn’t in championship contention when the series heads to Homestead.
3. 18-Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch is always a favorite when it comes to picking the champion. Nevertheless, he cannot seem to put together a consistent 10-race stretch. Fortunately, he will not have to this year. If he can continue to win races and avert disaster in the Chase, he will be able to finally hoist the championship trophy come November.
2. 4-Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
A happy Harvick is a dangerous one. After spending more than a decade racing as the man who replaced late Dale Earnhardt, Harvick no longer carries that burden. He has materialized as one of the most consistent drivers over the past few season. Not only is he consistent, he typically wins multiple races per season. I do not see that changing. Harvick will be Johnson’s toughest challenger in 2014. In fact, if Johnson doesn’t win the title, it will be Harvick.
1. 48-Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
No matter how NASCAR alters the championship format, Johnson and the 48 team are the favorite. They have raised the bar so high, it is almost ludicrous to pick someone else to win the title. Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Kenseth will likely be his toughest challengers, but in the end, you have to be at your absolute best in order to dethrone Johnson. I would be utterly shocked if this team was not one of the final four drivers at Homestead.