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NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Most in Need of a Hot Start in 2014

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2014

NASCAR Sprint Cup Drivers Most in Need of a Hot Start in 2014

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and Tony Stewart both need to get off to hot starts in 2014.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and Tony Stewart both need to get off to hot starts in 2014.Steve Helber/Associated Press

    There's an old belief in NASCAR that if a driver isn't in the top five in the Sprint Cup standings after the spring race at Bristol—just the fourth race on the 36-race schedule—his or her season is already just about over.

    That's a brutal expectation indeed, but one that has been proven true numerous times.

    As we prepare for the 2014 season-opening Daytona 500 in a little over two weeks from now, obviously every full-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit wants to get off to a good start.

    But there are five drivers in particular that not only want a good start, it's imperative that they get one as well.

    Let's take a look at who needs to get hot right from the opening green flag at Daytona:

Brad Keselowski

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The 2012 Sprint Cup champion needs to prove more than anything that his triumphant season was not a fluke, and that his failure to defend the title—and even failing to make the Chase—in 2013 was just a matter of bad luck.

    Keselowski won five races in his championship season, but just barely captured one last season. He has to go for the jugular right from the get-go at Daytona if he is to have any chance of repeating what he achieved in 2012.

    Call it a gut feeling, but don't be surprised if Keselowski is a bit more mature and more close-mouthed in 2014, letting his driving and hope for strong finishes do the talking for him.

    Can Keselowski win the championship in 2014? It will be difficult, given the strength and offseason gains by several teams and drivers, but that's also the kind of scenario in which Keselowski thrives.

    To paraphrase a verse from "Mack the Knife" by the late Bobby Darin, "Look out, old Brad is back" in 2014.

Carl Edwards

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    In what could potentially be the final season for him and teammate Greg Biffle with Roush Fenway Racing—unless the team's fortunes and performance significantly improve—Carl Edwards has a lot of things to not only accomplish, but also weigh.

    Edwards and Biffle both saw the incredible year that former teammate Matt Kenseth had after leaving the RFR camp for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth won a series-high seven races and finished second to eventual 2013 champ, Jimmie Johnson.

    While Edwards has come closer to a championship than Biffle, having finished one point behind Tony Stewart (due to a tiebreaker) in 2011, he's just not had the kind of years his fans have expected in 2012 and 2013.

    He missed the Chase entirely in 2012 and failed to win a race, but he bounced back in 2013 to win two races and make the Chase. Unfortunately, Edwards ultimately wound up finishing last in the expanded 13-driver playoff field.

    If team co-owners Jack Roush and John Henry hope to keep Edwards as the shining star of RFR, they'd better find a way to give him better race cars, better consistency and overall better performance.

    If not, Edwards could be the next big name Cup driver to jump ship.

Tony Stewart

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Don't be surprised if Fox Sports draws huge viewership numbers for this year's season-opening Daytona 500.

    Those expectations aren't based only on the belief that a number of drivers have significantly improved chances in 2014, but also on how close to being fully recovered Tony Stewart is from last August's devastating sprint car crash.

    It's not going to be surprising if a significant part of Stewart's fanbase will be worried, if not downright scared, that he re-injures himself in one of Daytona's infamous Big One wrecks.

    Others, both fans and non-fans alike, are even more basic in their curiosity: Is Stewart fully healed?

    Time will tell on that. Stewart has been very careful up to this point. He'll even miss the Nationwide Series race the afternoon before the 500—a race that he has dominated in recent years—because he doesn't want to leave anything to chance, or potentially be hurt and not be able to run in the 500.

    It likely will be a difficult start to the season for Stewart, who is probably around 90 percent healed from his injuries. Will 90 percent be good enough come the day of the Great American Race, or will Stewart come to the realization that maybe he still needs more R&R (recuperation and recovery) time?

    We'll find out on Feb. 23.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    No driver in the Sprint Cup Series has the kind of pressure upon him in 2014 than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Not only will he be turning 40 in October, more significant is the fact that crew chief Steve Letarte will be leaving Junior's pit box and the Hendrick Motorsports family at season's end to become a TV analyst for NBC Sports.

    That's why no other driver faces a potential greater sense of urgency to win races and to reach the championship—sending Letarte out as a winner—than Earnhardt is facing in 2014.

    Can a driver who has won just two races since 2006—one in 2008 and another in 2012—suddenly become the hottest driver in NASCAR, to join his vaulted status as most popular driver in the sport the last 11 years running?

    All the stars have to align, and luck has to play a big part, but if Earnhardt is to ever live up to all the expectations his fans have had of him these last 15 years—yes, can you believe it's been that long?—there's no question that 2014 is and has to be HIS year.

    For as Seals and Crofts said in their early 1970s hit, "We (namely Junior) may never pass this way again."

Denny Hamlin

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    You have to give Denny Hamlin a great deal of credit. Even after missing four weeks due to a fractured vertebra following a wreck at Auto Club Speedway early last season, Hamlin refused to pack it in and coast the remainder of the season.

    He could easily have told Joe Gibbs Racing and primary sponsor FedEx that his back couldn't endure the pain he was in and the risk for further injury he faced.

    But not Hamlin. He came back and, even though he admittedly struggled—particularly in the second half of the season—all of that was forgotten when he won the season-ending race at Homestead Miami Speedway.

    In so doing, Hamlin stole a bit of the thunder from Jimmie Johnson earning his sixth Cup championship, but also gave Hamlin great momentum going into the offseason, as well as potential incentive to pick up where he left off in the season-opening Daytona 500 in two weeks.

    Hamlin appears to be all the way back to normal physicality heading into this season.

    Now the question is whether he's all the way back to normal performance-wise. Will he be able to win multiple races and once again contend for the Chase for the Sprint Cup?

    Time will tell.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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