Speedweeks is upon us.
All the cars and teams have arrived to the famous Daytona International Speedway for this Sunday’s 56th running of The Great American Race.
While teams prepare for the Duel races Thursday evening and the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon, there are plenty of offseason headlines that have carried into NASCAR’s Superbowl week.
A new points system has been the main headline and will be an ever-changing topic on a week-to-week basis as the Chase nears.
An enormous rookie class which consists of eight fresh faces is another major story line, as it is one of the largest rookie fields in NASCAR history.
The return of the No.3 has also been a major headline in the offseason, and Austin Dillon’s pole run last Sunday did not help get the attention off him and his team.
It’s fair to say that there will be plenty to talk about during Speedweeks.
Despite the abundance of headlines this offseason has brought, there is one thing that has not changed on a yearly basis: Predictions.
Who are the strongest candidates to not only win the Daytona 500, but also hoist the title at Homestead in November?
While no points races have been run this season, one can look to end of last season as a measuring stick to analyze each team’s strength.
With that said, here’s my Preseason Power Rankings:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Like him or not, it’s hard to bet against the champ. And 6-time showed last year that he’s one of the greatest drivers to have ever competed in this sport. Johnson didn’t win the title last year with just luck. He went out and performed like a champion, winning six times including last year’s 500 and outperforming everyone during the Chase. Last year’s championship performance makes him the favorite once again.
At Daytona: Daytona has been feast or famine for Johnson. Yes, he did sweep the races last year, but his success in the 500 has been literally “checkers or wreckers.” In his last eight 500s, Johnson has two wins and six finishes of 27th or worse. Look for that to be more of the same for Johnson.
2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Was there a hotter driver at the end of last year than Earnhardt, Jr.? If there is, please point him out. After blowing an engine in the Chase-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway, Earnhardt, Jr. went on a tear. He finished no worse than 15th in the remaining nine races and had five top 5 finishes. In the last five races, Earnhardt, Jr. had four top 5s, two being 2nd place finishes, and a worst finish of 8th. The hot streak helped him climb from 13th to 5th in points at season’s end. While Jr. didn’t win last year, his late-season hot streak makes him one of the preseason favorites for 2014. Expect him to win early in the season and contend for the title late in the year.
At Daytona: Few have been better than Earnhardt, Jr. at Daytona, especially lately. Since joining Hendrick in 2008, Earnhardt has four top 10s in six attempts in the 500, and he has three 2nd place finishes in the last four years. Expect Earnhardt, Jr. to be a factor this Sunday.
3. Matt Kenseth
Last season was a dream season for the 2003 champion. In his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth won five “regular” season races and started the Chase with a bang, winning the first two races. If it wasn’t for the poor performance in the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kenseth might have been the one hoisting the trophy. Can Kenseth rebound and take the title this year?
At Daytona: Perhaps, there hasn’t been a stronger driver at the plate tracks in the last two seasons than Kenseth. In 2012, Kenseth won two of four races, including the 500 and finished 3rd in the other two. Last season, he had the strongest car in the 500, leading 86 laps, only to lose an engine late. In the other three plate races, Kenseth led 175 of the possible 536 laps, nearly 33 percent. Unless he makes another mistake similar to the one in last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, expect Kenseth to be a front runner this Sunday.
4. Kyle Busch
Last season was rebound season for Busch. After winning only one race and missing the Chase in 2012, Busch was a contender in 2013. He won four “regular season” races and finished a career-high 4th in points, despite failing to win a Chase race. Often credited for his incredible driving ability, Busch’s seasons are defined by Chase wins and performances. It’s fair to say that Busch had not met expectations after constantly coming up short in the title fights. But last year’s Chase performance was step in the right direction for Busch as he had five top 5s and seven top 10s. If Busch can step up one more notch and win this postseason, he might be hoisting his first Chase trophy at season’s end.
At Daytona: The Daytona 500 has not been kind for Busch. Since joining JGR in 2008, Busch has two top 10s in six tries in The Great American Race and has an average finish of 19.6. Last year, he was contention for his first 500 win until he lost an engine on lap 151 and finished 34th. If bad luck does not befall on him this year, Busch might just walk away as a Daytona 500 champion.
5. Denny Hamlin
“Any questions?” After struggling for most of last year, Hamlin began to show signs of his former self in the final races of 2013. Yes, he won the final race at Homestead which was impressive, but he also closed out the season with four top 10s in the final six races. The late-season momentum seems to have carried over into this year as Hamlin got his Speedweeks on the right track by claiming the Sprint Unlimited and winning all three segments in the process. If this is a sign of things to come, Hamlin won’t just be comeback driver of the year, he’ll be the last man standing.
At Daytona: Like his teammate, Daytona has not been kind to Hamlin. Since his rookie season in 2006, Hamlin has just one top 10 in eight tries in the 500 (4th in 2012) and has four finishes of 21st or worse. His average finish in The Great American Race is 23.4, not good at all.
6. Jeff Gordon
Whether you agreed or disagreed with NASCAR’s decision to add Gordon last year as a 13th Chaser is a mute point. Gordon proved he deserved to be in the Chase last year. He won his first race of the season at Martinsville Speedway in the fall, his series-leading 88th career victory, and moved to 3rd in points after that win. Although a Texas crash the following week haltered the team’s momentum and a chance for a championship, Gordon showed that he still has the fire. Expect Gordon to win much earlier this season and never count out “4-time” from a title fight.
At Daytona: Since winning his third 500 in 2005, Daytona has not been good to Gordon. Since his last 500 victory, Gordon has only one top 10 finish in nine tries (10th in 2007) and has seven finishes of 20th or worse. His average finish since the ’05 win is 22.4. Bad luck and all, there is one thing you must never do: Count out the 12-time restrictor plate winner. If bad luck avoids Gordon this Sunday, he might just win his fourth Daytona 500.
7. Joey Logano
Last season was a breakout season for “Sliced Bread.” After joining Penske Racing, Logano won one race at Michigan International Speedway and made the Chase for the first time in his career. He also had 11 top 5s and 19 top 10s which were also career-highs. Ever since he joined the Sprint Cup Series in 2009, expectations have been very high for Logano. Last year was his first season where he truly met expectations. Now that he’s made the Chase, the expectation will be for him to contend for the title when September comes around. The question is: Will he be up to the task?
At Daytona: The Great American Race has also been tough on Logano. In five tries, Logano has one top 10 (9th in 2012) and has three finishes of 23rd or worse. His average finish is 22.8. Time will tell if he continues this trend in the 500.
8. Greg Biffle Last year brought mixed results for Biffle and his team. He made the Chase and won one race at Michigan in June. But he also recorded only four top 5s and 13 top 10s. Even more strangely was his team’s inability to contend at intermediate tracks, especially in the Chase. Historically, Roush Fenway Racing’s forte has been their intermediate program, and yet Biffle failed to record one top 10 finish in five intermediate racetracks during the Chase. To compete for the title, Biffle and the Roush camp must have this issue worked out.
At Daytona: Historically, Daytona has been a mix bag for Biffle with an average finish of 17th in 11 tries. But lately, it has been a different story. Since 2010, Biffle has three top 10s in four races, with two 3rd place finishes. If one remembers, he was running in 2nd on the last lap of last year’s race, but waited too long to make his move and got shuffled to 6th in the final half lap. Biffle has a fast piece this Speedweeks, shown by his top 5 qualifying speed last Sunday. If circumstances go his way, Biffle might just win his first 500.
9. Clint Bowyer
Like Biffle, Bowyer’s 2013 campaign was mixed bag of results. Bowyer did make the Chase and was competitive during the postseason as he finished 7th in the final standings. But he failed to win and was main target of the Richmond fallout last September. Scandal aside, Bowyer is great driver for a good organization. If Bowyer can put the Richmond controversy behind him, he’ll back in the Chase once again.
At Daytona: Bowyer has had solid success at Daytona. Since his rookie season in 2006, Bowyer has had three top 10s, including back-to-back 4ths in 2009 and 2010. And his worst finish is 24th in the 2008 race, making his average finish a solid 11.9 in eight races. Expect Bowyer to be around at the finish of this one as well.
10. Kasey Kahne
Last season for Kahne could summed up in three words: Checkers or wreckers. Kahne was consistently up and down all season. He won two races during the “regular season” and made the Chase for the second straight season with Hendrick Motorsports. But once he got in, Kahne could never get going. Kahne’s best finish in the first four Chase races was 12th in the opener at Chicagoland. Although he did close the season with three top 5s in the last six races, which included two 2nd place finishes, Kahne finished a distant 12th in the standings. Kahne showed he had the speed most of last year, often being in contention to win races like: Vegas, Kansas, Darlington, Charlotte (twice), Daytona (July) and Phoenix (fall). But he has to get to the finish first. If Kahne can avoid mistakes and the JGR cars, he will be a serious title threat this year.
At Daytona: The Great American Race has been a struggle for Kahne in the past. In 10 races, Kahne has only two top 10 results and seven finishes of 22nd or worse. As a result, he has an finish of 23.7. But Kahne showed speed in all the plate races last year, and he nearly won last year’s July race before being taken out by Marcos Ambrose and Jimmie Johnson late. If Kahne can avoid trouble in first three quarters of the race, he might be the sleeper that steals this race.
11. Kevin Harvick
He won four races and finish 3rd in last year’s points. So why is Harvick 11th in the preseason rankings? It’s simple: That success came with RCR – his now former team. As Harvick starts a new chapter in his career, so does his stat line. While he was very competitive for most of last year, those numbers are not guaranteed to continue this season. Typically, when a driver starts with a brand new organization a learning curve is expected as chemistry is needed in this sport for teams to click on consistent results. Don’t expect Harvick to set the world on fire in the first third of the season. If he and his new Stewart-Haas team do click, it will most likely happen during the second half of the season.
At Daytona: As the 2007 winner of the 500, Harvick has had decent success in The Great American Race. In addition to his win, Harvick has five other top 10s in 12 tries, including a 2nd place finish in 2009. But when he’s not finishing up front, Harvick is taking an early exit. Harvick has finished 42nd in two of the last three Daytona 500s, making his average finish an decent 16.8. If he’s not taken out early on Sunday, expect Harvick to be a threat late in the race.
12. Kurt Busch
Like Harvick, Busch enjoyed a successful 2013 campaign. He made the Chase with the single-car team Furniture Row Racing and finished 10th in the standings – his first top 10 points finish since 2009. But also like Harvick, Busch will begin with a clean slate once again in 2014. “The Outlaw” will become Harvick’s teammate as he becomes the fourth member of Stewart-Haas Racing. Throughout his career, Busch has shown incredible talent behind the wheel, that has never been his problem. Maturity on and off the track has been his Achilles Heel. If Busch can keep his emotions in check throughout the year, not only will he win a race, he’ll be a factor in the Chase.
At Daytona: Busch has never won the big dance, but he’s been the bridesmaid on three separate occasions. In 13 starts in The Great American Race, Busch has six top 10s with five being top 5 finishes. His average finish of 19.3 is mediocre at best, but if Busch is still in the running with 10 laps to go, don’t be surprise if he takes the checkers.
13. Carl Edwards
2013 was a resurgent season for Carl Edwards. After struggling for most of the 2012 campaign that saw him go winless and miss the Chase, Edwards bounced back to win two “regular season” wins and made the Chase. In addition, he had nine top 5s and 16 top 10s, easily surpassing his three top 5s and 13 top 10s from 2012. But like his teammate, Greg Biffle, Edwards struggled once he got in the Chase as he posted only three top 10s and finished last amongst the Chasers in 13th place. Like his teammate, Edwards also struggled on the down-force tracks during the Chase, posting two top 10s in five races. If Edwards is to contend for a title in 2014, RFR must get those issues resolved.
At Daytona: The Daytona 500 typically has not been kind to Edwards. Last year he tore up five racecars during Speedweeks earning the nickname “5-time” from team members. Also, in nine career starts in the 500 Edwards has three top 10s with a best finish of 2nd in 2011 to go along with an average finish of 18.6. With the poor luck that he endured last year, Edwards might want to ride in the back to avoid all the calamity.
14. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 series champion suffered a major letdown last year. Not only did Keselowski go winless until the 31st race of the season but he also missed the Chase as the defending champion. Now, it’s unlikely that this will happen again to Keselowski and crew this season, but they have to win much earlier and improve on their consistency. If they can accomplish this, Keselowski will be a factor during the Chase.
At Daytona: The 500 has not been kind to BK in his limited starts. In four starts, Keselowski has three finishes of 29th or worse and an average finish of 25.3. The silver lining was last year’s performance where he finished 4th and led 13 laps. Let’s hope more of that is down the road for Keselowski and crew.
15. Ryan Newman
Last year, Newman showed the NASCAR community that he can still drive a racecar. After being informed that he would not be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing last July, Newman won the pole for the Brickyard 400 and later won the race for the first time in his career. After initially being out of the Chase, NASCAR placed Newman in after the Richmond scandal. And Newman made the most of it, posting six top 10s in the 10-race postseason. Overall, Newman had a solid season with one win, six top 5s and 18 top 10s – not bad for a lame-duck driver. Now, Newman has the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong with his new ride for RCR. If he and his team gel sooner rather than later, they might be a sleeper that makes the Chase.
At Daytona: Daytona and plate racing has not been too kind to Newman. Yes, he did win the 2008 race, but he has only three top 10s in another 11 starts. In fact, he has eight finishes of 20th or worse, putting his average finish at 21.8. Newman can win the Daytona 500 with his new team, but he’s gonna have to deal with lady luck to accomplish that feat.
16. Martin Truex, Jr.
Truex is another one that is starting with a clean slate this season. After snapping a winless streak of more than 200 races last season, Truex was in contention to be in the Chase for the second consecutive year. But after the fallout from Richmond, Truex was not only removed from the Chase by NASCAR, but his long-time sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts, chose to depart from the team. This caused Truex to look elsewhere for a new ride. Fortunately for him, he landed in Furniture Row Racing. The biggest questions for Truex this season are: Can he win for his new team? And can he and his new group gel well enough to be Chase contenders? Truex is great driver with plenty of experience behind the wheel. Circumstances will dictate if this new group succeeds or falters.
At Daytona: Truex has not fared too well in The Great American Race. In nine starts, he has only one top 10 finish (6th in 2010) and has an average finish of 19th. But that may change this year. Truex has shown speed this Speedweeks as he demonstrated last Sunday by qualifying 2nd for the race. If he can avoid trouble throughout the day, Truex could be in the mix towards the finish.
17. Jamie McMurray
McMurray enjoyed a major rebound in 2013. After going winless the two seasons prior, McMurray won the last plate race at Talladega Superspeedway and finished a solid 15th in points. Although he didn’t make the Chase, for McMurray and his group last season was a major upturn. He posted more top 10s last year with nine than he did the previous two seasons combined with just seven. Expect another increase in performance as Chip Ganassi Racing now fields Hendrick engines.
At Daytona: Perhaps, there has never been a more underrated plate racer than McMurray. Of his seven career victories, McMurray has won four races at the plate tracks. Now, his success in the 500 has been very limited. In 11 races, McMurray has just one top 10 finish, but it was a victory in the 2010 event. In the other ten races however, McMurray has eight finishes of 31st or worse with an average finish of 28.4. If McMurray can dodge the wrecks, he might just find his way to the front at the end of the day.
18. Aric Almirola
We saw an improvement with Almirola last season. In second full season in the Sprint Cup Series, Almirola scored more top 10s than his previous season, with his consistency also improving. Almirola scored 25 top 20s in 2013, four more than he scored the previous season. Now, entering his third full season, Almirola must find a way to convert those top 20s into top 10s if he wants a shot at making the Chase. The man has shown that he can handle the big stage. Now, he needs to amp up his results.
At Daytona: Almirola has had limited runs at Daytona. He has just three starts and only one top 20 finish which was a 13th place result in last year’s event. He showed speed during qualifying last Sunday. Let’s see if that materializes during the race.
19. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
Last year was a learning curve for Stenhouse. The 2-time Nationwide Series champion endured some early hardships during his rookie campaign, but made a late surge in the last third of the season. He got his first career top 10 finish with a 10th place effort in the 26th race of the season at Richmond. He followed that up with an 8th place result at Chicagoland. He got his first career top 5 with a 3rd place finish at Talladega in the fall and finished 19th in the standings. At season’s end, Stenhouse beat Danica Patrick for Rookie of the Year. But he will have to do much better in his second season if he’s to make the Chase.
At Daytona: Like Almirola, Stenhouse has had a limited amount of starts in the 500. He has two starts in The Great American Race and finished in the top 20 in both. Like his RFR teammates, Stenhouse has shown speed during Speedweeks. If Stenhouse stays out of trouble, he should get a solid finish at race’s end.
20. Tony Stewart
There might be no driver more motivated than “Smoke” entering the 2014 season. After missing the final 15 races of 2013 due to a broken leg, Stewart says he is ready to get back behind the wheel. But like his teammate Harvick, don’t expect the 3-time champion and 48-race winner to blister the field in the first third of the season. Stewart has two factors working against him to start this season: Rust and lack of communication. Let’s face it, Stewart has not been in a Sprint Cup Series car in six months, so fatigue and comfort (of lack thereof) will affect him in the first few races. Stewart is also working with a new crew chief this season. It is rare to see drivers and crew chiefs click early in their pairing. It often takes one third to half a season for results to consistently come in, if the two gel at all. Historically, Stewart has been a second-half driver to begin with. Expect for him to light up the competition during the season’s second half.
At Daytona: Behind the late Dale Earnhardt, there has not been a driver more snake bitten than “Smoke.” Whether it’s been leading at the white flag or blowing up on lap 3, Stewart has found almost every way to lose The Great American Race. Statistically, Stewart has five top 10s in 15 starts with a best finish of 2nd coming in 2004. His average finish of 19.4 indicates, on paper, that he’s a mid-pack racer in the 500 – but that’s nowhere near the case. From his four wins in the July race to his 19 total victories at the speedway, Stewart has won everything there is to win at Daytona, with the exception of the Daytona 500. What a story it would be if “Smoke” can finally win the biggest event in the sport in his first race back.
Well, Daytona has shown us throughout time that anything is possible when the biggest race is on the line.