With almost two weeks until the 56th running of The Daytona 500, it’s easy to think about the future. Everyone wants to rush to February 23rd and officially end the off-season. However, I take a bit of enjoyment out of the unknown, and I have used the sport’s downtime to relax.
That time is over. Now, I’m back and ready to return to my NASCAR writing ways. What better way to ring in the new season than with a preview piece?
It’s time to highlight who I think will be threatening during the 2014 NASCAR season. The abundance of competitors makes it difficult to narrow it down, but there’s no shame in trying, right? Here are a few people I think will benefit from this year:
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Yeah, I’ve been hard on Earnhardt the past few seasons, and I’ve gotten an earful about it. This year will be different for two reasons. The first is that he is in the best shape of his life, physically and emotionally. He has changed himself over the past two years, and it has done wonderful things for him. There is a glow that encases him and can’t be ignored. That helps him become a better person and, more importantly, a better driver. Aside from that, there is another thing that will propel him to a great season: pressure to perform. This will be Earnhardt’s last season with crew chief Steve Letarte; Letarte has been recruited as an NBC analyst for the channel’s return to NASCAR coverage in 2015. A position on the No. 88’s team roster needs to be filled, and it’s a big one. Though some believe it to find a candidate, it’s actually the complete opposite. With the new and improved emphasis on winning, any prospective crew chief is going to look at Earnhardt’s ‘W’ column and find it scarce in recent years. The fact that he’s NASCAR’s most popular driver doesn’t matter; first place finishes are more important than social status. This will force him to buckle down and get the job done. That, combined with his improved well-being, will lead to a season Junior Nation will definitely remember.
Denny Hamlin. The final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was a beacon of glorious light for the No. 11 team because it not only marked the end of the season, but because it brought a needed win into the picture. Hamlin struggled to perform after a jeopardizing back injury from a wreck at Auto Club Speedway. It took months to get back in the saddle, but everything paid off in the end. That victory only foreshadowed the phenomenal things he will pull off this time around. The driving force? His determination. No driver has the desire and passion like Hamlin does, and it shows. After three months to heal and return to his workout regimen, he should be brand new. That should scare his fellow competitors, and he’ll give them reason to cower in fear when he’s passing them all year long.
Kurt Busch. That hotheaded man we once knew is gone (or a bit subdued), and a new, well-structured person has taken his place. The wrangled emotions plus a cozy place at Stewart-Haas Racing means great things for the eldest Busch brother. Quality equipment is a beautiful sight for him, and the people surrounding him are seasoned and overflowing with talent. Not only that, but he’s the happiest anyone’s ever seen him. His girlfriend’s son Houston has put Busch into a position he’s never held before: father-figure. That has led to his changed demeanor and a lack of on- and off-track antics. Nothing can stop Busch from thriving in his professional and personal roles.
As I gaze into my crystal ball, I see great racing and competition in just a few weeks. However, the cream always rises to the top, and this year won’t be any different except for one thing: it’s time for people to step up and prove they’re able to win.