Opinion: Most to Prove in 2014

Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson

Crew chief Alan Gustafson (left) and Jeff Gordon must prove this season that they can avoid the slow starts that have plagued them the past two seasons. (Photo: Getty Images)

A new season brings new hopes and, apparently, a new way to determine the champion for NASCAR.

With the focus on the sport’s impending changes, let’s not forget about what’s at stake this coming season for some. Here’s a look at those who have the most to prove in 2014.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson

The pressure is on Gustafson and his team to perform better early in the season. The past two years Jeff Gordon has struggled at the start of the year and had to scramble to make the Chase. 

He’s had more finishes of 25th or worse than top-10 results in the first eight races of each of the past two seasons. Gordon was 15th in the points after the eighth race (Kansas) last year. He was 18th in the points at the same time in 2012.

“Alan and I have had conversations about maybe we’ve been too aggressive at the beginning of the year, trying to get off to a great start and things don’t go well,’’ Gordon said.

“Mainly setups. Seeing things that are in the (simulation program), in the wind tunnel that you think are going to be something that separates you. Then you get to the track and there’s a sequence of bumps that are upsetting the car such that you’re not able to take advantage of that aerodynamic package.’’

Gustafson has 15 career victories, but if he and Gordon can’t perform better this year, it might be time to split the two. If so, could Gustafson be a candidate to work with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015?

Furniture Row Racing

Barney Visser’s organization became the first single-car team to make the Chase last year, but Kurt Busch is gone this year. Martin Truex Jr. takes over the No. 78 ride. 

With NASCAR expected to expand the Chase to 16 teams, making the Chase becomes easier. The question is if this team can be more competitive in the Chase, provided it makes it, than it was a year ago?

For all the credit Busch received, it was easy to overlook the work crew chief Todd Berrier and his team did. It also helps that the team is upgrading its pit crew. Still, will that be enough? Can Truex help lead this team to even a better finish? Or will Furniture Row Racing prove to be a one-hit wonder?

Brian France

NASCAR is close to announcing several changes to the Chase, qualifying format and penalty structure, among other things. 

Although not everyone will like his ideas, France has to sell fans on why yet another round of changes to the Chase are necessary. 

Even more importantly, he has to prove to fans that the sport is doing all it can to give the close racing they expect. 

If these plans don’t work, will they run off more fans than bring in? He and the sport have much at stake this year. 

Kurt Busch

He’s gone from underdog to a big dog. The talent always has been there. It’s the maturity that was a question mark. After two seasons with smaller teams, he’s back with an organization that can win a title.

Organization is the key word there. Questions remain about his team. He has a crew chief who had previously been an engineer. Car owner Gene Haas signed Busch in late August, giving the organization little time to put together a fourth team and hire crew members.

More than anything, this team might need Busch’s leadership. While it’s OK to be stern with his group, he might have to be more encouraging at times. If done properly, Busch could help build the foundation for a strong team that could make him a contender for years. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

He will always have something to prove as long as he goes without a championship. Maybe that’s not fair. He can’t control what his last name is and the expectations that arrive with it.

His performance has improved the last two seasons, and he finished fifth in the points last year. Now, he must win races if he is to be a championship contender.

Some might suggest Earnhardt’s title hopes were shot the moment crew chief Steve Letarte decided to make this his last season before moving to the NBC booth. Of course, many had low expectations for Kevin Harvick last year since he had already said it would be his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Harvick and his team responded by winning four races and finishing third in the points. 

Let’s see what Earnhardt can do.

Michael Waltrip Racing 

This team looks to move beyond the stain of last September’s race at Richmond International Raceway that led to significant penalties from NASCAR and caused a sponsor to leave.           

There’s a lot for this organization to prove. After putting two cars in the Chase in 2012, only one car made it last year.

The team will look to Clint Bowyer, who went winless last year, and Brian Vickers, who is expected to be back after missing the final five races of last year because of blood clots. Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip will run select races as the team cuts back from three to two full-time teams after NAPA broke its contract and left the team after the season.

Waltrip’s organization has to prove it can contend for wins regularly or risk falling into the muck of being a middle-of-the-road organization. 

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

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