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NASCAR Drivers We Can't Figure out Heading into 2014

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2013

NASCAR Drivers We Can't Figure out Heading into 2014

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of several drivers that will be watched closely in 2014.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of several drivers that will be watched closely in 2014.Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    As we get closer to the Daytona 500, fans are revving up on what the 2014 NASCAR season will hold for their favorite drivers.

    While drivers such as defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, runner-up Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and others will all likely be in the championship mix in the upcoming campaign, there are a number of drivers that we're not sure what to expect from them in 2014.

    Some are coming off decent seasons in 2013, while others had less than stellar efforts, particularly someone like Brad Keselowski. The Michigan native won the championship in 2012, only to fail to even make the Chase and defend his title in 2013.

    We have selected 13 drivers—a lucky or unlucky number, depending upon your point of view—which we just can't get a read on yet about 2014. Let's hear your thoughts on our choices or if there's someone else you can't get an early read on yet, as well.

Brian Vickers

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    Can Brian Vickers stay healthy and return to winning form in 2014?
    Can Brian Vickers stay healthy and return to winning form in 2014?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Brian Vickers is back racing to full-time in 2014 and essentially has picked up the mantle left behind by the not-exactly-voluntary departure of Martin Truex Jr. from Michael Waltrip Racing. Vickers won a race last season even though he competed part-time. Now that he's back in the full-time ranks, he likely can reach victory lane one or two times.

    Worst-Case Scenario: The biggest question Vickers faces is his health. Remember, he had to cut short his part-time schedule near the end of the 2013 campaign due to health reasons. While it appears he is healthy heading into 2014, one can't help but wonder just how fragile that health situation still is.

    2014 Prediction: If Vickers remains fully healthy for the entire season, we can easily see him finish in the top-15, win a race or two and—if fate is in his favor—could potentially make the Chase. But everything will have to go his way for that to happen. Right now, it's too soon to go out on a limb to make that kind of a prediction. Time will tell how he fares.

Greg Biffle

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    Surely, 2014 has to be a better year for Greg Biffle, right?
    Surely, 2014 has to be a better year for Greg Biffle, right?Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Greg Biffle faded faster in this past season's Chase than perhaps in any other Chase he's qualified for to date. One of the fiercest competitors in the sport, Biffle will be looking for a big bounce-back, particularly in wins. He has the potential to win three or four races if things go his way.

    Worst-Case Scenario: We get the feeling that this could be a very significant season for Biffle. If he has another bad season, we won't be surprised if he decides to pull up stakes and move on to another team in 2015. Perhaps Joe Gibbs Racing, Penske Racing or Richard Childress Racing? We can't see "Da Biff" endure another so-so season and be happy about it. If that indeed happens, we won't be surprised to see him follow former teammate Matt Kenseth's lead and take his talents elsewhere for 2015.

    2014 Prediction: Biffle has the talent to win a Cup championship. After all, he already has captured titles in the Nationwide and Trucks Series. The key for 2014 is how quick of a start he gets off to. He needs to go for the jugular right from the get-go. A win at Daytona, Phoenix or Las Vegas would go a long way towards him not only making the Chase, but also to become a legitimate championship contender. Honestly, we think he can make the Chase again and potentially finish in the top-five, but everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—will have to go his way. That's a tall order for any driver.

Carl Edwards

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    Is Carl Edwards pointing towards the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, or a potential exit from Roush Fenway Racing if things don't get better?
    Is Carl Edwards pointing towards the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, or a potential exit from Roush Fenway Racing if things don't get better?Harry How/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Carl Edwards looked so good in 2013 until the Chase. Once the 10-race playoff began, he slipped further and further, ultimately finishing last in the expanded 13-driver field. Edwards has to get back to victory lane on a regular basis—at least two or three times in 2014. Anything less and he'll likely be a non-factor for the championship, just like he was in 2013.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Edwards is in the same boat as teammate Greg Biffle. Their talent can only take them so far, but if they don't have competitive equipment, they're just not going to win a championship. It's up to Ford to step up big in 2014. After all, the folks with the blue oval have not won a Cup crown since 2004 (albeit Edwards ALMOST won the championship, losing by a single point to Tony Stewart in 2011).

    2014 Prediction: Our heart says Edwards finishes top-five. The more logical part, the brain, says top-10—and that's a big maybe. If Ford continues to stumble, so will Edwards. We'd love to say this is the year Cousin Carl finally wins his first Cup title, but right now, it's not in the cards—and a move to another team will be for 2015.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    For the 14th consecutive year, will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans once again ask, "Is this finally going to be the year that Junior wins a Cup championship?"
    For the 14th consecutive year, will Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans once again ask, "Is this finally going to be the year that Junior wins a Cup championship?"Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: This is an easy one. Junior wins several races and the championship. Unfortunately, the reality of that scenario is pretty unrealistic. If he's lucky, Earnhardt may win one race, which would be only the third time he's captured a checkered flag since 2008 (and the first time since 2012). If he has another season of consistency like he had in 2013, he should not only easily make the Chase, but we can see him ending up with another top-five finish. A championship? That's a whole different story.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Earnhardt has made the Chase now for the last three seasons, the first time he has done so in his career. Can he make it four in a row? If you look back at his career, good runs are invariably followed by a bad subsequent season. In other words, he may not make the Chase in 2014.

    2014 Prediction: Junior has become almost the total package as a driver the last few seasons, albeit minus the wins. We think that 2014 will be a breakthrough season for him to win two, maybe even three races, make the Chase and contend for the championship. Anything less than a top-five finish at season's end will be a disappointment.

Clint Bowyer

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    How will Clint Bowyer fare in 2014 with the shadow of September's fiasco at Richmond still hanging over him?
    How will Clint Bowyer fare in 2014 with the shadow of September's fiasco at Richmond still hanging over him?Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Clint Bowyer makes the Chase and finishes in the top-10. But there will be a lot of hoops he'll have to jump through to get that high. Read on to find out why:

    Worst-Case Scenario: Bowyer reaps the continuing and lingering fallout of the Michael Waltrip Racing fiasco from September's race at Richmond. Without Martin Truex Jr. as a teammate, and with Brian Vickers' health still a lingering question mark, Bowyer could be a island unto his own. If he doesn't handle the pressure well enough, he will not make the Chase.

    2014 Prediction: Bowyer was fairly resilient in the 2013 Chase, even with the shadow of the Richmond scandal hanging over his head. He should have a typical season with a win or two and should make the make the Chase, but we don't see him finishing any higher than seventh or eighth by season's end. In other words, he'll have a good year; he just won't have a great year.

Joey Logano

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    Will Joey Logano pick up where he left off in 2013, or will he revert back to the mediocre performances he had while at Joe Gibbs Racing?
    Will Joey Logano pick up where he left off in 2013, or will he revert back to the mediocre performances he had while at Joe Gibbs Racing?Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Joey Logano picks up where he left off in 2013, makes the Chase and potentially finishes in the top-five in the final standings for the first time in his career.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Logano takes a big step backwards, fails to make the Chase and makes some fans wonder whether 2013 was an aberration and potentially goes back to the mediocre finishes he previously had while at Joe Gibbs Racing.

    2014 Prediction: We like Logano. He showed some grit and determination, particularly in the run-up to the Chase and how he made the playoffs in 2013. If he and teammate Brad Keselowski work together better in 2014, Logano will make the Chase could very well finish in the top-five at season's end.

Kasey Kahne

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    Will Kasey Kahne solve the problems that stumped him in 2013?
    Will Kasey Kahne solve the problems that stumped him in 2013?Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Kasey Kahne had a great season in 2012, finishing fourth. But 2013 was a totally different story. Sure, he had two wins, but the bottom fell out once the Chase started. If you didn't know he had made the Chase, you'd swear he never even qualified for it. All in all, Kahne should have a big comeback season in terms of performance in 2014. We hope.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Was 2012 a fluke or was 2013 an example of more to come from Kahne as he enters his third season at Hendrick Motorsports in 2014? He needs better finishes and at least two or three wins, lest he fails to make the Chase and winds up somewhere around 15th or so in the final standings.

    2014 Prediction: We think Kahne learned some very valuable lessons from the 2013 Chase that he'll put to good use in 2014. We not only see him making the Chase again, but potentially finishing as high as third in the playoffs.

Brad Keselowski

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    Will 2014 be a season that Brad Keselowski smiles again?
    Will 2014 be a season that Brad Keselowski smiles again?Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Without question, Brad Keselowski is on the precipice of earning Comeback Driver of the Year in 2014—if everything goes right for him. He can't let the pressure get to him from critics who believe 2012's championship was a fluke and one-time only achievement. He needs to come back with a vengeance and show that the real fluke year was 2013, failing to make the Chase, and that he truly is as good if not better as he was in 2012.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Keselowski needs to become less outspoken and let his driving do his talking for him. Remember his early 2013 season comments that other teams had poached Penske Racing for employees? Keselowski has to focus solely on driving, much like Kyle Busch did in 2013, and the results should follow. If he doesn't, he'll miss the Chase for the second straight year and add further fuel to critics' beliefs that he was a one-hit wonder in 2012.

    2014 Prediction: We truly believe Keselowski will make a big comeback in 2014. While he'll be in his second season in a Ford (after winning his 2012 championship in Dodge's final season in NASCAR), we think he'll have a greater comfort level, but it'll be up to the blue circle folks to give Penske Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports more horsepower and better performance, lest Ford-powered teams fall even further behind Chevrolet and Toyota than they already have.

Jamie McMurray

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    Now that he'll be the No. 1 driver at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in 2014, will Jamie McMurray live up to that number?
    Now that he'll be the No. 1 driver at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing in 2014, will Jamie McMurray live up to that number?Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Now that he's Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's No. 1 driver, Jamie McMurray needs to drive like it. Juan Pablo Montoya is gone and there will certainly be a lot of eyes upon rookie Kyle Larson as Montoya's replacement; it's up to McMurray to show he can be a team leader. He has to come out of the gate swinging for the fence, win at least two or three races and make the Chase. Anything less will be yet another disappointing season.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Some critics might make the contention that McMurray will be lost without Montoya as his wing man, and even more so with a rookie taking Montoya's place. If McMurray has another off-year and has just mediocre finishes and a mediocre overall showing in the season, look for him to follow Montoya out the EGR door.

    2014 Prediction: While we'd love to say McMurray will make the Chase and do well in it, there are too many variables and uncertainties remaining. Check back with us after, say, the first six races and there should be a clearer vision of what kind of year McMurray will have. For now, his fans can hope for the best but potentially expect the worst. Anything better will be a bonus.

Martin Truex Jr.

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    Both NAPA and Martin Truex Jr. have left Michael Waltrip Racing. How will the latter fare at his new home at Furniture Row Racing in 2014?
    Both NAPA and Martin Truex Jr. have left Michael Waltrip Racing. How will the latter fare at his new home at Furniture Row Racing in 2014?Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Martin Truex Jr. succeeds Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing and picks up where the older Busch brother left off. Not only does Truex make the Chase, he shows Michael Waltrip Racing the huge mistake it made in letting him go. If Truex drives with a chip on his shoulder because of how MWR did him wrong, he should easily make the Chase and potentially even wind up with a career-best top-five finish in the playoffs.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Truex has a lot to prove, not only moving to a new team, but also to overcome the lingering fallout from September's fiasco at Richmond (even though what happened was not of his making or fault). Admittedly, he'll have a hard time doing what Kurt Busch did and become the second driver in Chase history to qualify a one-car team into the playoffs like Busch did in 2013. Although all of Furniture Row Racing's efforts will be solely centered on Truex, the lack of a teammate could prove disastrous, leaving him to not only miss the Chase, but potentially finish somewhere around 20th in the final standings.

    2014 Prediction: We've always said Truex was unsung and is a better driver than his results have shown. The biggest thing he needs to do right from the season opening Daytona 500 is drive more aggressively, not be afraid to go head-to-head with guys like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, and show that the move to FRR was a good one. If all goes well, Truex makes the Chase and finishes somewhere between sixth and 10th at season's end.

Denny Hamlin

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    Will Denny Hamlin be 100 percent in 2014?
    Will Denny Hamlin be 100 percent in 2014?Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Hopefully, Denny Hamlin is fully recovered from the injuries he suffered, and then worked, through during 2013. Hamlin has a lot to build back up in his career after the woeful showing last season. If he can return to the form of the Denny of old, not only will Hamlin make the Chase, he has the potential to challenge for the championship. He already has a championship-winning crew chief in Darian Grubb.

    Worst-Case Scenario: Hamlin shows he isn't fully recovered from last season's injuries and struggles throughout the 2014 campaign physically, mentally and competitively. If he goes in that direction, it could have a devastating affect on the rest of his career going forward. While we hope not, we still can see Hamlin finishing potentially as low as 20th—or worse.

    2014 Prediction: All things being equal and with fate and good luck on his side, we should see the Denny Hamlin of old in 2014. He'll have so much to prove, and is one of those few drivers that can indeed back up what he sets out to do. Hamlin should make the Chase, win two or three races and could potentially finish in the top-five. If so, it'll be a heck of a comeback season for him.

Danica Patrick

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    Will Danica Patrick substantially pick up her game in 2014?
    Will Danica Patrick substantially pick up her game in 2014?Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: The pressure in 2014 is on Danica Patrick even more so than in her first full-time season in Sprint Cup competition in 2013. After her great showing at the Daytona 500, it was all downhill. By the middle of the season, she was almost an afterthought. She doesn't have that luxury this season. She has to take all the lessons she's learned and the data her and her team collected in 2013 and put it to good use for a respectable finish in 2014. How high can she finish? A good showing would be top-15. Anything less and many of her supporters may start questioning if she has the chops to ever make it as a success in NASCAR racing.

    Worst-Case Scenario: If she drives the way she did for most of the second half of the 2013 season, it will be more of the same for Patrick in 2014. That's not what she's being paid for and not what her fans expect from her. Unless she significantly picks up the pace and performance, she'll be lucky to crack the top-20. Even finishing in the top-25 might even be a stretch.

    2014 Prediction: Patrick has to stop being content with hanging around the middle to back of the pack. She has to show aggressiveness and a willingness to mix it up much more than she showed in 2013. She has no excuse not to be a better driver in 2014. How high scan she finish? Top-15, but that won't include making the Chase.

Tony Stewart

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    Will the Tony Stewart of old return in 2014?
    Will the Tony Stewart of old return in 2014?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Best-Case Scenario: Tony Stewart comes back with a vengeance from last year's injury, lives up to his nickname and smokes the competition en route to his fourth career Sprint Cup championship. Of course, there's a lot of ifs that he'll have to conquer, the most notable being if he'll be physically ready to race in the season-opening Daytona 500. Also, is there the risk that he could reinjure himself if he gets into one of Daytona's infamous wrecks?

    Worst-Case Scenario: So much about 2014 is predicated upon how Stewart will be health-wise heading into the Daytona 500. If he doesn't get doctor's clearance, or shows that he's still in pain, it could be one of the longest seasons of his career—perhaps even more so than 2013, when he missed the final third of the season. If he is not 100 percent (okay, we'll give him 90 percent), it could be a long season without a win, without making the Chase and potentially the worst full-season finish (not including 2013) of his NASCAR career.

    2014 Prediction: We're not 100 percent convinced Stewart will be ready for Daytona, but we'll go under the assumption that he will. If that's the case, we think Stewart can win at least a couple of races and make the Chase. After that, it's anyone's guess how he'll wind up. He could surprise us all and be a major player for the championship. Or, even if he makes the Chase, he could still wind up finishing last in the 12-driver field (which is almost as bad as not making the Chase in the first place).

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

    Join me as I co-host "The Morning Drive" this Wednesday from 7 to 11 am ET on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch. 90), as well as this Sunday (Jan. 5) when I host "The BackStretch" from Noon to 3 pm ET.

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