Six major storylines for the NASCAR season

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 12, 2014 at 9:50 PM

The Daytona 500 is just over a month away and it’s just two months until the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500.This proves to be a pivotal season for NASCAR as Jimmie Johnson chases history, Tony Stewart returns from injury and the No. 3 returns to Sprint Cup competition.They are part of the six major storylines surrounding the Sprint Cup Series for the upcoming season, and the sport’s two most popular drivers aren’t even mentioned.1. Jimmie Johnson needs just ONE more Sprint Cup Series title to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.After wrapping up his sixth NASCAR title, the pursuit of history will be a major storyline surrounding Johnson until the end of his career. Can he tie the seven-time champions and if so, can he pass them? If he breaks the record, then how many more championships can he add?It’s certainly an enviable position, a position that every other driver in NASCAR would like to be in. Obviously, the goal of every driver is to win the championship. Now, there is the added incentive for Johnson and the rest of the No. 48 Chevrolet team.On the other hand, it should make Johnson’s rivals more determined than ever to end his reign at the top.2. Will year TWO of Penske Racing running Fords make the brand more competitive?Ford won six races last season matching its total from 2012. It’s understandable that Chevrolet, which supports more teams, would win 16 races, but there is a big margin between Ford and Toyota, which won 14 races last season.Penske Racing wass supposed to give Ford a needed boost with defending series champion Brad Keselowski leading the way. Instead, Keselowski and Joey Logano couldn’t compensate for the loss of Matt Kenseth to the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team.Kenseth won three races, including the Daytona 500, for Ford in 2012. Last season in the No. 20 Toyota, he led the Sprint Cup Series with seven wins. Meanwhile, Penske Racing’s Joey Logano and Keselowski only won two races combined. In addition, Keselowski became the first defending champion since Tony Stewart in 2006 to miss the Chase the following season.With Penske’s second season in the Blue Ovals and the likely emergence of Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Kenseth’s old ride, it could shape up for nice rebound for Ford.3. Austin Dillon’s rookie season in the No. 3 Chevrolet and the fans’ reaction.Talking to a couple of people close to the Richard Childress Racing camp, they are confident that Dillon has a legitimate shot of winning the Daytona 500. If that indeed happens, it will go a long way into getting the old Earnhardt fans excited about the defending Nationwide Series champion in the No. 3 car.Right now, the reaction has been mixed with some fans wanting the number retired and others wanting it shelved until Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be ready to run his father’s number.It will be interesting to see how the fans react if Dillon isn’t successful. There isn’t a guarantee that he will even win Rookie of the Year with a talented group of contenders led by Kyle Larson taking over the No. 42 ride at Earnhardt-Ganassi.Think about the interesting storyline of the rookie battle coming down to a final race with Dillon racing the iconic car number of Dale Earnhardt and needing to beat the car co-owned by Teresa Earnhardt.4. Is Stewart-Haas Racing a ticking time bomb with the FOUR-driver lineup of Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick?It’s no secret that all four of these drivers have shown a fiery side and all four have big egos.That’s not a knock, just that each one of them have been the marquee driver on other teams. In the case of team co-owner Stewart, it’s also a mystery how he will do after recovering from a broken leg which has sidelined him since August. Will he still race multiple times a week in different kinds of vehicles or will he scale back and concentrate solely on his Cup Series efforts?Will he still be the same driver who pushes the car to the limits and at times puts himself in the middle of a three-wide battle? Only time will tell.How will Stewart and Harvick react to having Busch, a driver each of them have publicly feuded with, as a teammate? Certainly the talent is there for an incredible season, but there seems to be nearly as good of a chance for the whole thing to explode.5. Can Michael Waltrip Racing recover from FIVE major issues following last year’s cheating scandal?Loss of NAPA sponsorship, having a driver bounced from the Chase, cutting back to two-full-time teams, Martin Truex Jr. moving to Furniture Row, and Clint Bowyer’s non-factor in the championship race -- those five issues all resulted from the intentional spin at Richmond.One wonders if Michael Waltrip Racing will look like the organization which won races and actually outperformed fellow Toyota team, Joe Gibbs Racing, at times last season. Will MWR instead be the organization which struggled down the stretch, particularly with Brian Vickers’ recovery from health problems? The key could be a good start at Daytona where Waltrip is a two-time Daytona 500 winner. Jeff Burton, who is running a partial schedule for MWR in 2014, is the only other driver in the stable with a win at Daytona.6. How will NASCAR’s rule changes affect the racing with the Gen-6 car?Changes to the spoilers, splitters, side skirts and heights are designed to make the racing more competitive than ever, and take away some of the issues like aero-push.Will those changes work or will the teams like the 48, the 20 and the 18 continue to dominate? The new rules allow more adjustments and creativity to certain areas of the car. While intended to make better racing and more passing, it could end up with the reverse effect where the top teams put further distance from the rest of the field.

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