Who’s Hot and Who’s Not is ready to pick up where it left off last season. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson is the driver to beat in 2014 after rediscovering his title touch last year. Johnson starts his championship defense at Daytona International Speedway, where he is also the defending winner of the biggest race in NASCAR.
As Speedweeks picks up the pace, there are familiar faces that have already made an impact on the early days of the new season, as well as some new ones who are struggling to compete at the level needed for success. Here is the initial rundown before race one of 36…
Richard Childress might have a new cast of drivers in his stable, but some things have not changed on the restrictor plate scene: his Richard Childress Racing program is flexing Speedweeks muscle with incredibly fast times.
Austin Dillon is already leading the way for an organization in need of a superstar after the departure of Kevin Harvick. The Rookie of the Year favorite captured his first ever pole award with a 196.019 mph hot lap, locking himself into a front row starting position regardless of what happens during the Budweiser Duels. That makes Dillon the fourth driver ever to put the No. 3 on the pole for the Great American Race, and helps him ease some of the tension that is bound to arise from using the newly reinstated number made famous by the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
Austin Dillon’s pole-winning performance Sunday has him starting off his rookie Cup season on the right foot.
Fellow teammates Ryan Newman and Paul Menard are also doing their parts to help RCR top the charts at Daytona. Newman first got off to a clean start for his new organization during the Sprint Unlimited and was among the eight drivers to finish on the lead lap after challenging for the lead during the closing moments. Newman went on to post the fifth-fastest time during qualifying. Meanwhile, Menard rounded out the top 10 push for the RCR faithful with a 194.919 mph lap.
If none of those accolades were enough, the trio posted top-four times during Saturday’s practice session, while part-time RCR affiliate Brian Scott ran in the fifth-fastest lap. Scott, who posted the 12th-best speed in time trials is now virtually a lock to make the 500 in a fourth car.
Denny Hamlin has come full circle after sustaining a severe back injury at Auto Club Speedway last March. Hamlin led at the end of every Sprint Unlimited segment, appearing fully able to move through the pack as he pleased. Crew chief Darian Grubb kept the No. 11 Toyota in contention no matter what the fans voted in for pit stop criteria, further helping to give Hamlin a shot.
It is the second exhibition win for Hamlin and his second consecutive victory in Sprint Cup competition. Since surprising critics with a stealthy win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, last November he has been busy with injections and gym rehab focused around avoiding surgery.
Such efforts appear to have paid off. Going back-to-back has Hamlin starting right where he left off last year, only this time he has a chance to make an immediate impact on the point standings and climb higher in Hot or Not.
Martin Truex. Jr. landed with Furniture Row Motorsports after tasting the free agent market for the second time. Furniture Row has adjusted expectations after Kurt Busch’s only season with the organization culminated in a historic Chase berth. Truex delivered on those expectations, right off the bat by becoming the driver who will start alongside Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500.
The former Michael Waltrip Racing driver wants to prove that his previous organization made a mistake in releasing him after Truex lost a Chase bid as part of punishment for the MWR race-rigging scandal. He made the first step in doing so without taking much time on the track before his qualifying attempt.
Kyle Busch, meanwhile made a spectacular save during the Sprint Unlimited that brought back memories of a similar one he made during the 2012 version of the race. While failing to reach Victory Lane, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota made it clear he’ll be a force to be reckoned with this Sunday.
The eight rookies slated for full-time competition in 2014 have shown flashes of Cup-level skill in Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races. However, Sprint Cup is not the minor leagues. Only two — Dillon and Kyle Larson — signed with operations that have won a race at this level, leaving sufficient doubt in the others’ ability to make an impact and stay employed.
Through Monday, Michael Annett’s 194.574 mph lap in qualifying — good enough for 18th — is the most notable accomplishment for a rookie not named Dillon or Larson. Meanwhile, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex, running for BK Racing have been at the bottom of testing and qualifying charts.
The No. 26 Swan Energy Toyota will also have to race into the Daytona 500 via the Budweiser Duel with no provisional available. Driver Cole Whitt will have a tough road if his prior speeds are any indication. He was 39th-fastest in qualifying and struggled in practice, placing 40th.
While paired with organizations that perform marginally above the level of start-and-parkers, Daytona will not be the last time that many rookies are mentioned on the sour end of Hot or Not.
Marcos Ambrose took the blame for causing a wreck that ended the night for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and damaged the No. 9 Ford’s own chances. Ambrose hooked the No. 88 Chevrolet’s right-rear quarter panel as Earnhardt Jr. crossed over Brad Keselowski, sending both drivers hard into the wall.
Tony Stewart is in a situation similar to Denny Hamlin’s was last year — the difference being Stewart’s injury did not heal quickly enough to afford a midseason comeback and a chance to knock off the rust. Smoke has to start from scratch, and has made his share of mistakes in limited seat time.
Stewart delivered the 35th-fastest time in qualifying; of course, he is in with the past champion’s provisional, so his effort in the Duels will not matter. During testing, Stewart and teammate Danica Patrick both blew their engines and will have to start from the back of the pack as NASCAR rules mandate.
Patrick and Stewart were also involved in the same massive wreck during the Sprint Unlimited, ending their nights. There is a trend developing in Daytona: lots of destroyed Stewart-Haas Racing equipment. Patrick almost saved the No. 10 Chevrolet during the Unlimited but was slammed by boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. after the main chain reaction played out.
Bobby Labonte and the No. 52 team also encountered a blown engine in Speedweeks, and is not locked into the big race. He will have to use the Duels to assure a start if any more recent titleholders need the past champion’s provisional.