Opinion: Pressure On for Some Drivers

Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch is one of the drivers who may be feeling additional early-season pressure to perform in 2014 after his move to Stewart-Haas Racing. (Photo: Getty Images)

There hasn’t been an official lap turned in the 2014 season, but several drivers are already feeling the pressure to perform.

Whether it’s an opportunity with a new race team or the need to bounce back from a disappointing 2013, the heat is on a number of drivers as they take to the track this week for Preseason Thunder at Daytona International Speedway:

Chase Elliott

He’s only been a full-time Nationwide Series driver for a couple days, but the anticipation level for Elliott is sky high.  The talented young driver gets a bona fide opportunity to excel with JR Motorsports and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Elliott could wind up in Victory Lane a time or two ... and even be part of the championship picture.  There’s also a distinct chance he’ll struggle in the grind of a 33-race schedule and succumb to a steep learning curve, as many rookies have done before.  There’s also the expectation that comes with a famous last name, which can be either a blessing or a curse.  Just ask Elliott’s new boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for instance.

Kurt Busch

The former Sprint Cup champion turned in what some believe was his most impressive season last year with Furniture Row Racing.  Busch took the single-car effort to a history-making Chase berth and although he wasn’t able to contend for the title, he helped elevate the organization to the next level.  Now Busch joins the expanded Stewart-Haas Racing stable and lines up with new teammates Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.  He’ll have top-notch equipment and resources at his disposal, and a couple of proven winners as teammates.  But Busch will also be working with a rookie crew chief in former engineer Daniel Knost and the "getting to know you" period will be critical in the early going.  Should the No. 41 team get off to a slow start, the second-guessers will be out in force.

Martin Truex Jr.

Will Truex be a victim of the success Busch and Furniture Row enjoyed last year?  It was a popular move for team owner Barney Visser and General Manager Joe Garone to give Truex an opportunity to drive the No. 78 Chevrolet in the wake of his unfortunate departure from Michael Waltrip Racing.  But the expectation bar has been raised tremendously and the pressure is on Truex to maintain that level of performance.  He’s a talented driver and with crew chief Todd Berrier returning, plus the team’s alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Truex has solid support.  Whether the Cinderella story of a year ago can be repeated is one of the coming season’s most intriguing story lines.

Danica Patrick

The expiration date on Patrick’s popularity does not appear to be near.  But the patience for her performance to improve is starting to run out.  While her rookie Sprint Cup Series campaign wasn’t terrible by any means, Patrick’s lack of progress as the season rolled on was disappointing.  To be fair, Stewart-Haas Racing in general had its issues last year and the team never really seemed like it was able to completely grasp the evolution of the Gen-6 car.  But Patrick needs to find a way to turn top-30 runs into at least more top-20 finishes in 2014.  Mark Martin’s role at SHR may be most beneficial in helping Patrick’s cause as a mentor to go along with the counsel from veteran crew chief Tony Gibson.

Clint Bowyer

You can't blame Bowyer for simply wanting to erase the 2013 season from his mind.  The Richmond manipulation scandal and subsequent Michael Waltrip Racing fallout were black eyes for Bowyer, the organization and NASCAR.  While never coming right out and admitting his missteps, Bowyer has used humor and his affable personality to deal with the situation.  While he may never get a clean slate in some eyes, Bowyer does now have the chance to put more of the focus back on his performance behind the wheel with the start of a new season.  But make no mistake ... he and MWR will be scrutinized and under the spotlight.  It’s not an overstatement to say Bowyer’s future and perhaps the long-term path of MWR are on the line in 2014.  A solid season will go a long way to positively help both.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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