14 Storylines for 2014

NASCAR, Daytona International Speedway

A new season leads to many changes. When the checkered flag falls, though, will Jimmie Johnson still be in front? (Photo: Getty Images)

The eggnog has spoiled and some New Year’s Resolutions already have been broken - hey, there’s always next year, but this is a time to look ahead and not behind.

With 52 days (as of Jan. 2) until the Daytona 500, racing will be here soon.  NASCAR Sprint Cup testing at Daytona International Speedway begins Jan. 9.  As the season nears, here’s a look at 14 story lines for the 2014 season.

1. Crowded House

One of the most fascinating story lines will be Stewart-Haas Racing.  While some question how volatile drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart can co-exist (along with Danica Patrick), the real question is how well the operation begins the season.

Adding Busch and a fourth team stretches SHR’s resources.  Last year, the team struggled early with Gen-6 chassis and expanding to a three-car operation.  Ryan Newman was 16th, Stewart was 20th and Patrick was 30th in the points after the Coca-Cola 600.  Those three combined for no wins and nine top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of last year.

Will this year be different?  Not that it means much, but Harvick looked fast at the December test that had 30 teams.

Harvick can’t wait for the season to begin.  He tweeted on Jan. 1: "Well folks here we go!  Never been more excited going into a new year personally and professionally!  Waited a long time to start this ride!"

If nothing else, this team will be worth watching.

2. Race for History

There will be a lot of talk about whether Jimmie Johnson can win a seventh championship and tie the record shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.  To many, there will be only one "King" and one "Intimidator."

Johnson, though, is making a name for himself.  Just what to call him is the question.  Some might say "Greatest Ever."  If he wins a seventh title, that discussion will intensify.

3. The Return of the No. 3 Car

For the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001, the No. 3 car returns to Cup.  Austin Dillon will drive the car for his grandfather, Richard Childress.  For Earnhardt fans and those who remember that February day 13 years ago, this could be viewed as the season’s most significant story line.

While many accept the move, it’s not unanimous.  Most likely, there will come a time when seeing the No. 3 back on the track in Cup will strike fans and bring back a flood of memories.

4. A Rookie Race

There hasn’t been much of a race for Rookie of the Year the past few seasons, but that might change with several contenders.  Dillon is part of a growing rookie class that includes Kyle Larson, Michael Annett, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt.  That field could expand with Justin Allgaier expected to drive the No. 51 this season.

5. He’s Back

A new year renews expectations for Denny Hamlin.  Despite an injury-plagued 2013, he won the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  He’s won at least one race a year for eight consecutive seasons - the fourth-longest active streak.  Stewart has scored at least one win in 15 consecutive seasons.  Johnson has at least one win for 12 seasons in a row and Kyle Busch has won at least one race nine consecutive seasons.

If Joe Gibbs Racing is as strong as it was this past season - JGR won 12 of the 36 races - then Hamlin could be a factor this season.

6. Better Racing?

A December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway led to rule changes that NASCAR hopes will enhance the racing at 1.5-mile speedways.  The 11 races at those tracks last year featured an average of 21.7 lead changes and six different winners - Joe Gibbs Racing won seven of those 11 races with Matt Kenseth winning four times, Busch twice and Hamlin once.

Will fans see tighter racing and more lead changes on the 1.5-mile tracks this year?

7. One-Hit Wonder?

Kurt Busch helped Furniture Row Racing become the first single-car team to make the Chase last year.  Busch is now at Stewart-Haas Racing, but crew chief Todd Berrier remains.  Berrier will work with Martin Truex Jr. this season.  Truex brought his pit crew, helping shore up a weakness for Furniture Row Racing last season.

Can this feel-good story continue with Truex?

8. Is This the Year?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. went winless for the fourth time in the past five seasons but finished fifth in the 2013 points - his best finish since 2004.  Is this the year Earnhardt wins multiple races (something he hasn’t done since winning six races in 2004) and contends for a championship?  Or is time passing him by?  He turns 40 in October.

9. New Driver-Crew Chief Pairings

Few would have expected Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff to come so close to winning the title in their first year together.  They give hope to a number new driver-crew chief pairings this season.

Kurt Busch will be paired with Daniel Knost, a former engineer at Stewart-Haas Racing.  Harvick will work with Rodney Childers at SHR and Stewart will be paired with Chad Johnston.  Both Childers and Johnston came from Michael Waltrip Racing.

Newman will work with Luke Lambert at Richard Childress Racing.  Keith Rodden left his spot as engineer for Kasey Kahne to be Jamie McMurray’s crew chief at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.  And Truex joins Berrier at Furniture Row Racing.

Also, Trent Owens is Aric Almirola’s new crew chief at Richard Petty Motorsports.  And at Roush Fenway Racing, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley.  They combined to win back-to-back Nationwide titles in 2011 and 2012.

10. Jinx Continues?

Since the Chase began in 2004, the runner-up has gone on to finish in the top five only once the following season.  Some call it the second-place jinx.  The average finish for the runner-up the next year is 9.3.  To compare, the average finishing position for the champion the following season is 6.0.

We’ll see what that means for Kenseth after he placed second to Johnson last season.

11. Bouncing Back

After putting two cars in the Chase in 2012, Michael Waltrip Racing struggled last season and then dealt with the aftershocks of its actions at Richmond International Raceway.  Clint Bowyer returns and is joined by Brian Vickers, who is expected to be cleared to drive after missing part of last season because of blood clots.  New to the team is Jeff Burton, who will drive in select races.

Can this reshaped team return to its previous success?

12. Bouncing Back II

Brad Keselowski became only the second driver in the Chase era to win the championship and then miss the Chase the following season.  The only other to do that is Stewart, so it’s not bad company.  Still, there will be a good bit of focus on how well Keselowski and his team performs this season.

13. Is This the Year II ...

Kyle Busch, arguably one of the most talented drivers, had never finished better than fifth in the points until last year, when he placed fourth - only his second top-10 finish in the past five seasons.  Are we starting to see the beginning of something special?  Or will he continue to be known as a talented driver who can’t win a Cup championship?

14. Looking Ahead

With the new TV package starting in 2015 - and NBC replacing ESPN, this would seem to be a time for changes with the schedule, the points system and maybe even the racing.  This will be a key point of discussion as the calendar moves closer to 2015.  Could be some interesting changes ahead.

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