The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is upon us, 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.
25. 9-Marcos Ambrose, Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Ambrose has decline in performance since losing Todd Parrott as crew chief 2012. Though it is not all his fault, the driver generally takes the brunt of the blame. Ambrose is a strong contender to make the Chase, considering he is the best road racer in the sport. However, he will make a quick exit from the Chase if he does not improve on the ovals.
24. 42-Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
While everyone is ready to crown Larson as the next big thing, I will remain cautiously optimistic. Recall Joey Logano, Reed Sorenson, and Brian Vickers? Logano and Vickers earned second chances, but Sorenson is still stinging the rush to the Cup level. Larson will be hit or miss this year, similar to Logano in his rookie year.
23. 43-Aric Almirola, Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
Almirola is on the brink of the breakthrough, and has been since the latter part of 2012. However, he just can’t seem to get over that hump. This team lacks consistent speed, and that will continue to hurt Almirola and the #43 team.
22. 1-Jamie McMurray, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Like Ambrose, McMurray could easily snag a win at Daytona or Talladega and earn a spot in the Chase. Again, like Ambrose, if McMurray and the #1 group cannot improve everywhere else, they will face early elimination.
21. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Unless Roush Fenway Racing vastly improves this season, I do not see a major improve for the 2011 and 2012 Nationwide Series champion. If they do find the missing piece, Stenhouse could breakthrough in his sophomore season similar to Greg Biffle in 2004 when he snagged two wins.
20. 3-Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Dillon will likely win rookie of the year, and could also grab a win. Like Larson, though, I will remain cautiously optimistic. We have not seen a stellar rookie performance since Denny Hamlin in 2006. With that said, I cannot wait to see the iconic #3 back on the racetrack.
19. 27-Paul Menard, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
I have a feeling that RCR will perform at a higher level and many project. If so, this could help Menard lessen the stigma of benefiting from a billionaire father and his dollars. Menard will be a contender for a spot in the top 16, but I feel he has to win to get in. He just has not shown the capability to compete for wins at a consistent rate.
18. 78-Martin Truex Jr, Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet
While Truex is not Kurt Busch, he is a super talented driver that could place the #78 team in the Chase for a second consecutive season. Again, this team will benefit from the alliance with RCR. I can imagine Truex enacting revenge at Richmond in September by nudging Clint Bowyer out of the way for the victory, thus putting him in the Chase where he should have been in 2013.
17. 55-Brian Vickers, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
I would not be surprised to see Vickers sneak into the Chase by winning a race or two. This team has the speed, and very few drivers have the ‘this could be my last race’ perspective of Vickers. Expect Vickers to be in the hunt throughout the season, if he remains healthy.
16. 22-Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford
Following his best season in Sprint Cup, Logano should be able to qualify for the Chase. This team frequently ran near the front of the pack, and Logano clearly fits in better with Team Penske than he did with Joe Gibbs Racing. With that said, I do not see Logano contending for the title this season.
15. 16-Greg Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle will have his typical season of winning a race or two and qualify for the Chase. However, until this program improves upon last season’s results, no driver from the Roush stable will have a shot at the championship. Biffle is in a contract season with Roush, but expects to resign.
14. 99-Carl Edwards, Roush Fenway Racing
Like Biffle, Edwards will win a race or two, and make the Chase, but this team needs more consistency at different types of tracks. Until this team finds that missing piece, Edwards will not win a championship, especially when facing drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick.
13. 15-Clint Bowyer, Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
I wouldn’t expect Bowyer to have a second straight winless season. He will return to victory lane and the Chase for the Championship. Nevertheless, he is in a contract year, and that could prove to be a distraction. This team struggled while distracted last fall.