Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy has five drivers worth watching as Speedweeks gets underway in Daytona.
1. Austin Dillon
An unproven rookie in the seat. The return of one of the most iconic car numbers in the sport. A team that has come tantalizingly close to a title in recent seasons, but fallen short. It’s an intriguing storyline that Dillon enters Speedweeks carrying on his back. Can Dillon shake off that history, paired with high expectations and just drive the race car? It’ll be tough. The rookie enters 2014 under a lot of scrutiny, despite his NASCAR Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series titles, simply because of the number he will carry on his door.
It was the joint decision of Dillon and his car owner/grandfather Richard Childress to return the No. 3 Chevrolet to the track, appearing for the first time since Dale Earnhardt was killed behind the wheel on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dillon chose the number because it was the number Childress himself ran when he began his team as an owner/driver, well over four decades ago. But it was Earnhardt who made the number transcend a simple digit on the side of a car.
Emotions will naturally run high throughout Speedweeks. Childress said just a couple of years ago that he would not return the number to the track, designed the same as it did when Earnhardt was driving. But the owner changed his mind, and the car will make its reappearance at the last track it ran on, leaving fans divided over the move. Many think the number should not be used again after Earnhardt’s tragic death. Childress said in a December press conference that he would have only considered the move with an Earnhardt or Childress family member in the seat, so in that light, it makes sense.
However fans feel about the number, though, it does add a little pressure on Dillon, who’s already under the gun to perform in what’s likely to be a hotly contested Rookie of the Year battle. He didn’t win his Nationwide title easily, and he hasn’t been particularly impressive in his limited number of Cup races, averaging slightly worse than a 23rd-place finish and not cracking the top 10 in 13 starts. Dillon is likely to find the competition at this level much more daunting and the learning curve far steeper. Will fans and media give him time to live up to the legacy he has chosen to take on?
Look for the first impression to be a good one. Dillon, with RCR’s expertise on plate tracks is poised to have a solid start to Speedweeks. No doubt, everyone involved knows what a feel-good story it would make to see the No. 3 locked into the race on the front row after qualifying runs, so it’s not out of the realm to expect it, especially after strong numbers in January testing. After that, though, it could go either way in the 500. In two Cup starts on restrictor plate tracks, Dillon hasn’t finished better than 26th and — while he has three top 5s in six plate races at the Nationwide level — he doesn’t have a win at Daytona or Talladega in NASCAR’s lower series. Plus, unless the sport makes a rule change before the Sprint Unlimited, Dillon isn’t eligible for the exhibition race. That means his Gatorade Duel will be the first time fans get a glimpse of what he might bring to the table in 2014.
2. Tony Stewart
Plain and simple, with the possible exception of Dillon, nobody has more to prove at Daytona than Stewart. Returning from a major injury at the age of 42 is a difficult thing for an athlete in any sport, and the broken leg Stewart suffered in a Sprint Car race last summer was potentially catastrophic. It ended Stewart’s season and led to some speculation about whether he’d even be able to continue racing, period. Stewart did not test the No. 14 Chevrolet in January, leaving the driving duties to veteran Mark Martin, who filled in for Stewart for much of late 2013.
All of that means until Stewart climbs into his car in Daytona nobody, including Stewart, really knows how much the driver can do, how far he can push both himself and his race car, and how much pain he will be in when strapped in car for upwards of three hours. If 100%, he’ll be a contender in both the Sprint Unlimited and the Daytona 500. If he’s not, it should become clear as the week unfolds.
When healthy, Stewart will be looking to get the Daytona 500 monkey off his back. He’s got three wins in the season-opening exhibition, three wins in the Budweiser Duels, and four victories in the Coke Zero 400, but has yet to take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the race that really matters to him. Stewart will be hungrier than ever in 2014; if his body matches that personal drive, he could put on a clinic.
3. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer is decent, not spectacular, at Daytona, but the reason this driver bears watching is that he’s eager to move on from the PR nightmare that was the 2013 Chase. After getting penalized heavily for allegedly spinning the No. 15 intentionally under green at Richmond, helping then-teammate Martin Truex, Jr. gain track position, Bowyer has been on the hot seat with fans, media, and sponsors. At one point, it looked as though 5-Hour Energy might rethink its sponsor commitment, but it appears as though all is well on that front once the initial hoopla settled down.
Still, Bowyer, though a likeable personality, lost ground with a lot of fans and some respect within the garage area as well. In order to gain that back, he’ll need to perform on the racetrack and avoid controversy. Expect him to do both in 2014. Bowyer isn’t eligible for the Sprint Unlimited, but he’ll be out to prove he’s a racer, no more and no less, in the Daytona 500. He finished 11th in last year’s season opener and fourth in the summer race, so he’s got a shot, the first step at potentially rehabilitating a rough relationship with fans and others outside the Michael Waltrip Racing hub.
4. Kurt Busch
A year ago, it looked as though Busch had burned enough bridges in NASCAR that a return to a top ride would be a longshot, at best. But after a year in which he took a single-car operation into the Chase and, perhaps even more importantly, avoided any controversy on his team or with the media, Busch enters 2014 “rehabilitated.” That season earned Busch a second look from a couple of organizations, and he landed at Stewart-Haas Racing as a fourth entry for 2014.
The move wasn’t without controversy. It came on the heels of Ryan Newman’s release from the organization after Stewart said the team didn’t have backing for a fourth car (Kevin Harvick also joins SHR this year). Instead, co-owner Gene Haas elected to pay for Busch’s season out of his own pocket, putting Haas Automation on the hood for the whole year. Stewart didn’t seem to share Haas’ enthusiasm for the move, especially after telling a good friend the team wouldn’t run four cars — and that Newman’s services would no longer be needed as a result.
Busch is left in the position of proving to the world that Haas made the right call. To do that, he’ll need to run at least as well as he did in 2013 with Furniture Row Racing, and he’ll need to avoid conflict, both within and outside his team. That could be more difficult than it sounds; SHR has three volatile personalities in Stewart, Busch, and Harvick, with both Stewart and Harvick having run-ins with Busch in the past. They’ll all need to play nice this year, while Busch will need to prove he’s once and for all outgrown his past behavior… and that he can contend for a title.
Busch doesn’t have a points win at Daytona, but he does have a Budweiser Duel trophy and he’ll have the Sprint Unlimited to shake down the car. Second in the 2008 Daytona 500, Busch could be a threat, and if he is, look for it to set the tone for the early part of the season.
5. Casey Mears & AJ Allmendinger
What you have here is two drivers who needed an equipment upgrade to prove themselves. Both got it in the form of technical alliances between Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing, their current teams, and Richard Childress Racing. The partnerships are similar to the deal that Furniture Row Racing had in 2013, which saw that team rise from small-time status to a Chase berth in a single season. While that’s an unlikely scenario for Mears or Allmendinger, the move should give both drivers and their teams a huge boost as they’ll have access to RCR’s extensive information and resources. That’s a huge step up from information they haven’t been able to gather with their single-car, “outlier” organizations. Both should see improved results in 2014, with a top-20 points finish not out of the realm for either driver.
As for what to expect at Daytona, look for Mears, in particular, to perform all week long. He is an excellent restrictor plate driver with the knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if he can avoid trouble, there will be strong results. Mears led a lot of laps in his Budweiser Duel last year, as an example before his luck ran out and he got caught in someone else’s wreck. Expect to see Mears run in the top 10 — maybe better — at some point in the Daytona 500.
Allmendinger is less of a proven commodity on the plate tracks, but he has a deep desire to prove himself after his 2012 suspension and subsequent Penske Racing release for violating NASCAR’s substance use policy. He’s proven himself to be a skilled driver, so an early statement could be made; after all, the No. 47 earned a top-5 finish with Bobby Labonte in the 2011 Daytona 500.
These two teams will bear watching in 2014, especially with RCR’s expertise and impressive testing numbers at Daytona. If they and RCR both benefit from the relationship, it’s possible that other small teams could find themselves with similar offers from other organizations in 2015 and beyond.