Predicting Which Drivers Who Missed This Year's Chase Will Qualify in 2014
Each year after a 26-week regular season, 12 drivers (or 13 in this year's case) earn a spot into the Sprint Cup Series Chase for the Championship. For the teams that failed to qualify, the rest of the season can be used a test session to get things righted and come back more prepared the following year to make a playoff run.
Undoubtedly, there will be a handful of teams that improve their performance next year and take one of the Chase spots that they missed out on in the previous season.
In the slides ahead, we will take a look at five drivers who fit that mold. For one reason or another the 2013 season saw these drivers miss the Chase. The year 2014 will be a different and better year for each of them.
In some cases, a driver missed time with injuries, which ultimately ruined their championship hopes. In other instances, 2013 was just filled with mediocre performances for a driver and their team, or in one case a driver will be making their first full-time appearance in the Sprint Cup Series in a number of years.
Whatever the case may be, these five drivers will all find themselves in the Chase in 2014 after missing the cut in 2013.
1. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart's 2013 season came to an abrupt end following his involvement in a horrific crash in a sprint car race in early August. The result of the incident was a broken leg for Stewart, the end to his consecutive start streak, which had reached 521 races, and it meant he would miss the opportunity to race for the series championship.
Assuming everything goes well with his rehabilitation throughout the offseason and Stewart can get back into a race car for the season-opening Daytona 500, it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will be one of the 12 Chase contenders in 2014.
Before this season, Stewart had only missed the Chase one time in the nine-year history of the event. Two of his three series championships have come under the Chase format, and he has the second-most wins all-time in playoff races.
His 11 wins in postseason competition trail only the 22 victories tallied by Jimmie Johnson.
At the time of Stewart's accident, there were still five races remaining in the regular season, and he was 11th in the standings. His one win would have earned him one of the two wild-card positions into the playoffs.
The 2014 season will start with a lot of questions surrounding Stewart. Most of them will be about whether or not he is healthy to compete for a full season.
If the answer to those questions is yes, Stewart will undoubtedly reclaim his usual spot in the Chase.
2. Brad Keselowski
Quickly scanning through the names of the 13 drivers in this year's Chase, one may notice that there is a very surprising omission. Defending series champion Brad Keselowski failed to qualify for the postseason, making him just the second driver to miss the playoffs the year after winning the title.
After pulling off the surprising Chase win in 2012, the 2013 season seemed to be picking up right where it left off for Keselowski.
He opened the season with four consecutive top-five finishes, and seven of the first eight races saw him end up inside the top 10. Following the eighth race of the season, Keselowski was third in the standings.
It all went downhill after that.
The next 10 races saw the defending champion post just one top-10 finish, and by then he had plummeted all the way to 13th in the points.
The last eight races of the regular season were an up-and-down time for Keselowski. Some weeks were good enough so that he got back inside the top 10 in points. Other weeks saw him fall back out.
Ultimately, an engine failure in Atlanta in the second-to-last race of the regular season was enough to end his hopes of defending his title.
The 2013 season is most likely an anomaly for Keselowski.
After qualifying for the Chase in both 2011 and 2012, expect this team to put this year behind them and come back with a vengeance in 2014.
They have too much talent to miss the postseason twice in a row.
3. Denny Hamlin
Miserable does not even begin to describe the 2013 season for Denny Hamlin. If it could go wrong for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota, than it has.
In 24 starts this season, Hamlin has scored just four top-10 finishes, including zero in the last 14 races.
Four races into the season, Hamlin was sixth in the championship standings. With one lap to go at Auto Club Speedway, in the season's fifth race, it appeared that Hamlin was on the verge of scoring his first win of the year and solidifying himself as one of the top championship contenders.
Then his season changed drastically.
As Hamlin and Joey Logano were fighting for the win coming to the checkered flag, the pair made contact. Hamlin spun and ultimately crashed violently nose first into the inside wall.
The incident left Hamlin with a compression fracture in one of his vertebra and forced him to miss four races.
Although not officially eliminated upon his return to the car, his chances of qualifying for the Chase became minimal. It would have taken a lot of finishes near the front and at least one win for him to have any chance.
Those results never happened, and Hamlin missed the Chase for the first time in full-time career.
Much like the case with Tony Stewart, if Hamlin can fully recover during the offseason and stay healthy for the duration of 2014, he should have no trouble once again qualifying for the Chase.
4. Jamie McMurray
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, particularly Jamie McMurray, have made great strides in 2013. As a team, they have come within a handful of laps of scoring a win multiple times throughout the year, and McMurray is producing better results than he has since 2010.
Though he has failed to find Victory Lane in almost three full years, McMurray has gotten closer. Earlier in the season he posted a runner-up finish in Kentucky and has posted two other top-five finishes.
The seven top-10s that McMurray has recorded in 2013 are the most since his surprise season of 2010 when he won three races and notched 12 top-10 finishes. His average finish of 16.3 is the best that he has recorded since 2004.
Look for McMurray and this team to carry some of that momentum over into 2014. With Juan Pablo Montoya leaving EGR at season's end, McMurray will be shouldering more of a leadership role as a mentor to Montoya's replacement, Kyle Larson.
McMurray has never qualified for the Chase, and his best points finish is only an 11th-place effort in 2004, his second year of full-time competition.
He is far too talented of a driver, and his team has started to click, so it just seems like a matter of time before they put it all together and deliver a Chase-qualifying effort.
Expect 2014 to be the year that it all finally comes together.
5. Brian Vickers
The 2014 season will mark the first time in three years that Brian Vickers will have the opportunity to be a full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series. He has spent the last two years driving on a part-time basis for Michael Waltrip Racing, sharing the seat with Mark Martin.
Vickers pulled off a surprising win earlier in 2013 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when he won in his fifth start of the year with the No. 55 team.
In total, Vickers has scored five top-10 finishes in 11 starts with his MWR team this year.
Vickers qualifying for the 2014 Chase hinges on what happens with Michael Waltrip Racing. Following the incidents in Richmond, some of the team's primary sponsors are re-evaluating their relationship with the organization.
NAPA has already announced that they will not return to the team, leaving Martin Truex Jr. in a tough spot. However, Vickers' primary sponsor Aaron's has announced that they will stay on board for the upcoming year.
If all of the fallout from Richmond causes MWR to downsize, it will hinder Vickers' ability to get in the Chase.
Assuming that the majority of factors out of his control do not turn for the worse, Vickers will be a very competitive driver in 2014 and will have enough success to earn one of the 12 spots inside the Chase.