2014 Sprint Cup Series Odds and Predictions: Sprint Cup Championship Favorites and Contenders: Cars are already on the track at Daytona, and the 2014 Sprint Cup season is less than a month away from beginning. An eventful offseason that has already featured several big names changing teams has been further complicated by reports that NASCAR plans to expand the Chase playoff format from 12 cars to 16 with any driver that wins a race becoming eligible for the Chase. Throw in a loaded rookie class, and the 2014 season seems destined to be one of the more unpredictable in recent memory.
Of course if Jimmie Johnson has anything to say about it, the 2014 season will be a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Johnson notched his sixth-career series title last season and has claimed six of the last eight titles overall. Despite impressive seasons from Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and others in 2013, Johnson was still able to show up at the season finale with a comfortable lead. Johnson is a lock to be among the frontrunners for the championship regardless of the format, but he will have plenty of challengers. With that in mind, here is a closer look at the drivers with the best chance to hoist the Sprint Cup in 2014.
As I have already mentioned in the introduction, Jimmie Johnson is at the top of the short list of favorites. Not only did he win the title for the sixth time in eight years in 2013, but he also led the series in average finish, top-5 finishes, laps led and fastest laps run. Plain and simple, Johnson consistently has the best car on the track more than any other driver. He has elite equipment at his disposal at Hendrick Motorsports, and he and crew chief Chad Knaus have figured out the winning formula for 10 tracks that make up the Chase schedule. The guy has raced in the Cup Series for 12 seasons and has won championships in half of them and has never finished worse than sixth in the final standings. Johnson is without question the safest bet to win the title in 2014.
Although his talent has never been questioned, but until the past two seasons Kyle Busch has never been able to deliver during the Chase. After delivering in the playoffs in two straight seasons, Busch finally seems poised to make a legitimate run at a championship. After all, he is the only driver not named Jimmie Johnson to lead more than 1,000 laps and post a driver rating of more than 100 in each of the past two seasons. Last year alone, he tied for the series lead with 16 top-5s while finishing a career-best fourth in the final standings.
While Matt Kenseth ultimately fell short of winning a title last year, his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing was nothing short of spectacular. He led the series with 7 victories, and he also posted the best driver rating in the series. Kenseth has now won at least 3 races and managed at least a dozen top-5s in each of the past three seasons, and the 2003 champ has experienced a rebirth in recent years. With another year to gel with his new crew chief and team, better numbers aren’t out of the question in 2014. After settling for second last year, Kenseth could be the one celebrating a title this season.
After a successful tenure with Richard Childress Racing, Kevin Harvick moves to Stewart-Haas Racing this season. Moving from one of NASCAR’s powerhouse organizations to another should do little to impact the value of a driver that has been among the most consistent in the series for a while now. Harvick has finished in the top 5 in the final standings six times in his career and has finished third in the final standings three times in the last four seasons. Last year, Harvick’s 11.2 average finish was the second-best in the series, and he spent more time on the lead lap than any other driver. Over the past four years, Harvick has compiled a 10.9 average finish, and thanks to that incredible consistency, he always finds himself in the mix for the title.
For most of his career his popularity has exceeded his production, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally looked like a title contender at the end of last season. After a mechanical issue in the Chase opener, he promptly posted a 5.56 average finish in the final 9 races of the 2013 season, which ranked second only to Jimmie Johnson. He also logged a career-high 22 top-10s while finishing with the fourth-best driver rating. If Junior’s success from last year’s Chase carries over into 2014, a title run isn’t out of the question.
A back injury cost him four races early in the 2013 season, and even when he returned to the track, Denny Hamlin was a shell of his typical self. However, an offseason to get healthy should be just what the doctor ordered for a driver that was a serious title threat in 2010 and 2012. In fact, Hamlin won four or more races and had 14 or more top-5s three times in four years prior to his injury-plagued 2013 season. After basically being robbed of an entire season, Hamlin will likely only be hungrier to win a title in 2014.
Call it a championship hangover, but a year after winning the Sprint Cup title, Brad Keselowski failed to even make the Chase in 2013. While it would be easy to dismiss him as a one-hit wonder, a deeper look at his numbers says otherwise. For one, he had his best stretch of the year during the Chase, winning his only race. Meanwhile, he ranked in the top 10 in a number of scoring loop categories, which tends to indicate that his struggles were more a product of bad luck than a lack of speed. Keep in mind that Keselowski finished in the top 5 in the final standings twice in his first three seasons in the Cup Series, winning the 2012 series crown. Expect him to return to his title-contending form in 2014.
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