NASCAR forecast: My top 12 drivers for 2014
With only three races left in the NASCAR season, it's not too soon to look ahead to 2014. Which drivers could surprise next year? Who will disappoint? Will it finally be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s year to win his first championship?
Here's a forecast -- a ridiculously early one, we'll grant you -- of who the top 12 drivers will be in 2014.
1. Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports
After Johnson wins his sixth title this season -- he's currently tied with Matt Kenseth in the standings, but remains SI's pick to be celebrating in Homestead on the night of Nov. 17 -- he'll be gunning for a record-tying seventh Cup in 2014. Johnson has been talking about history for several years, and a seventh title would put him alongside the two biggest giants in NASCAR history: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Johnson won't turn 39 until next September, so he's still in his racing prime. There has been very little turnover on the number 48 team in recent years, and all the key personnel should be back again in 2014. Add it up and Johnson will again be the driver to beat.
2. Kurt Busch, Stewart-Haas Racing
You could make the argument that Busch has been the most impressive driver this season. Driving for the single-car team of Furniture Row Racing, he qualified for the Chase (a first for Furniture Row) and in 33 starts has more top-five finishes this season (10) than the team had in its previous 199 (three).
In 2014, Busch will move to Stewart-Haas, where he'll drive equipment supplied by the juggernaut of Hendrick Motorsports. In theory, Busch should have a faster car next season. I look for him to challenge for his first title since he won the Cup in 2004.
3. Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing
No driver was hotter heading into the Chase than Logano, who scored more points than anyone in the sport during the six races prior to the playoffs. He has been something of a bust in the Chase -- he blew an engine in the opener and is now 11th in the standings -- but this playoff experience will prove valuable next year. Logano is only 24. His best days are ahead of him.
4. Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing
In his first season with Gibbs, Kenseth leads the series in wins (seven) and average starting position (8.9). He's long been known in the garage for his consistency and in this Chase he's been typically Kensethian: Aside from a 20th place run at Talladega, he has finished 11th or better in every playoff race.
The senior driver at Gibbs, Kenseth should be a lock to qualify for his fifth consecutive Chase in 2014. And if he can continue his mastery of 1.5-mile tracks -- there are five of them in the playoffs -- he'll again be a title threat.
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports
Though his statistics don't necessarily scream it, Earnhardt is improving. In 2012 and '13 he's held the points lead during the regular season and has more top-five finishes in that stretch (17) than he did in the previous three years combined (nine).
But Earnhardt has been cursed with awful luck in the Chase. Last year, he suffered a concussion in a wreck at Talladega that wasn't of his making and this season his motor exploded in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway. But since that rainy night in Joliet, Ill., he has finished eighth or better in five of the six races, including two second-place runs. If his equipment holds up in 2014, Earnhardt will be factor next fall.
6. Carl Edwards, Roush-Fenway Racing
It's no secret that the Fords of Roush-Fenway have been a tick down on speed this season. But Edwards has still won two races and he's widely regarded in the garage as one of top drivers on intermediate-length tracks. I expect the Roush organization to work diligently this offseason to recapture elite speed -- and Edwards should be the primary beneficiary of that in 2014.
7. Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing
Stewart has been out of his number 14 Chevy ever since he broke his right leg in a crash at Iowa Speedway on Aug. 5. He's undergone three surgeries, but his team says that he'll be ready for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
Will he be less aggressive when he returns? Will he think twice about putting the nose of his car in harm's way before making a daring move? I don't think so. He'll be as motivated as ever in 2014, and my crystal ball says he'll make the Chase.
8. Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing
Even though he's currently fifth in the standings, this has been something of a breakout season for Busch. After years of struggling in the Chase, he appears to be starting to figure out the playoff tracks. Plus, the presence of the ultra-calm, mild-mannered Kenseth at Gibbs seems to have had a positive effect on Busch, who has done a good job this season of maintaining his cool both in and out of the car.
9. Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing
After spending 13 years at Richard Childress Racing, Harvick will drive for Stewart-Haas in 2014. It's always hard to predict how a veteran driver will fare with a new organization -- few in the garage foresaw Kenseth charging to the top of the points standings this year with Gibbs -- but Harvick should fit in well at SHR.
He's close with Tony Stewart. And Kurt Busch has essentially been a teammate this season because Furniture Row is a satellite of RCR. As long as the information sharing between these three big personalities flows freely next season, Harvick should qualify for his fifth straight Chase.
10. Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports
Next year will mark Kahne's 11th fulltime season in the Cup series. After he raced to 13 top-five finishes as rookie in 2004, many in the garage predicted that he would win multiple championships. That hasn't happened. Kahne won twice during the regular season and went into the Chase with real hopes of contening. Those hopes were dashed early by bad luck and wrecks that weren't his fault, and Kahne looks likely to ride out the season at the bottom of the Chase standings.
But I expect Kahne to rebound in 2014. Teamed with his longtime crew chief Kenny Francis, he has the ability to perform well on all types of tracks. He's simply too talented -- and on too good a team -- not to make a run at a title.
11. Greg Biffle, Roush-Fenway Racing
Biffle may be the most underappreciated talent in NASCAR. He has advanced to the Chase in five of the last six years and has had at least 10 top-10 finishes in each of the last nine seasons. He probably won't challenge for the Cup in 2014, but he'll once again quietly motor into the playoffs.
12. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports
Gordon has been the biggest surprise of the 2013 Chase. He won last Sunday at Martinsville and is now third in the standings, trailing Kenseth and Johnson by 27 points.
Can he keep it going in 2014? Next August, he turns 43, an age when drivers normally begin to slow down. But Gordon has qualified for the playoffs for eight straight years, and he's currently on the best five-week run of his 2013 season -- his average finish has been 5.8. I like him to sneak into the Chase in 2014.
Drivers who will come up short in 2014 and fail to qualify for the playoffs: Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.