The shortest offseason in sports officially ends on Sunday afternoon, when the engines fire for the 56th running of the Daytona 500 (1 p.m. ET, FOX). And so will begin the grueling, 36-race, nine-month marathon that concludes in the fall when NASCAR will crown its 2014 Sprint Cup champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 16.
Can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson, the six-time Cup winner and defending champ? Will Danica Patrick win a race? Will Dale Earnhardt Jr., who turns 39 in October, contend for his first title? And will the famed number 3 black Chevy be formidable once again?
Let's crank up the horsepower on SI's 10 fearless predictions for the 2014 NASCAR season:
1. A big-name driver who will win three races this season will be ... Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Why so much optimism for a guy who has a grand total of two victories since 2006? Just examine what he did in the Chase last fall. After blowing an engine in the playoff opener at Chicagoland, he scored more points than any other driver over the last nine Chase races. In fact, if the new elimination-style playoff system that NASCAR adopted during the offseason had been in place last year, Earnhardt would have won the championship based on the results. He finished 2013 with a second-place run at Texas, a fourth at Phoenix, and a third at Homestead.
NASCAR's most popular driver is clearly learning a few things from the man he shares a roof with at Hendrick Motorsports: Jimmie Johnson. Expect Earnhardt to take checkered flags at Phoenix on March 2, Talladega on May 4, and at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27.
2. A big-name driver who will fall to win a race this season will be ... Danica Patrick
Patrick should have four legitimate chances to reach Victory Lane this season: two at Daytona and two at Talladega. She has already proved that she's capable of running up front at these restrictor-plate tracks—she won the pole for the 2013 Great American Race and led five laps before finishing eighth—but she'll struggle in the other 32 races.
In only her second full-time Cup season, Patrick needs more track time to grow into a top-tier driver. Johnson recently said that Patrick, who grew up racing open-wheel machines and spent seven seasons in the IndyCar series, needs five years of stock car experience before we can accurately judge where the ceiling of her talent level is. I agree. Danica eventually will win a Sprint Cup race—just not this year.
3. The most intriguing driver of the regular season will be ... Tony Stewart
The three-time Cup champion missed the final 15 races of the 2013 season after he broke his right fibula and tibia in a scary midweek wreck at a dirt track in Iowa early last August. Stewart still isn't 100 percent recovered, but his leg is healthy enough for him to be behind the wheel in the Daytona 500.
The bigger question concerns the health of his mind. Drivers who suffer significant injuries—six months after his crash in the Iowa cornfields, Stewart is still in pain—tend to become hesitant on the track, not wanting to put the nose of their car in the precarious places they used to go for. And a hesitant driver always translates into the same thing: a slow driver.
If Stewart can come back from his accident and win a few races and qualify for the Chase, it would be a remarkable achievement, perhaps as impressive as his three Cup titles. This quest alone will make the future Hall of Famer the most compelling driver to watch over the next 26 races. At age 42 and coming back from the worst injury of his career, does the man nicknamed Smoke still have the fire to be a force in NASCAR? I, for one, think he does.
4. The surprise driver of the season will be ... Kurt Busch
After spending one season on the single-car team of Furniture Row Racing, where he impressively piloted his number 78 Chevy into the Chase, Busch returns to an A-list organization in 2014 after joining Stewart-Haas Racing.
This isn't the Kurt Busch of 2011, who had a profanity-laced meltdown in the season-finale when ESPN's Dr. Jerry Punch was waiting to interview him. Now 35, Busch appears to have matured. Late last year he spent time with Stewart at the injured driver's bedside while Stewart was recuperating, explaining how he'd be a good teammate and that he'd learned from his past mistakes. Stewart has as finely tuned a BS detector as anyone in NASCAR, and so it says something that Busch is now his teammate.
With elite equipment, which is what Busch will have this season, the 2004 champ is a likely bet to win multiple races and once again emerge as a credible title threat. So if you're in a NASCAR fantasy league, pick this driver early.
5. The most disappointing driver of the season will be ... Clint Bowyer
For two straight years, Bowyer has advanced to the Chase. Though he didn't win a race last season, he had 19 top-10 finishes—tied for sixth-most in the series—and appeared to be a genuine title contender until he became the face of the Michael Waltrip Racing cheating scandal last Aug. 24 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Late in that race, Bowyer intentionally spun himself out to bring out the caution flag in order to help teammate Martin Truex Jr. grab the final wild card Chase spot over Ryan Newman.
Before that infamous spin, Bowyer's average finish in his previous 12 races was 7.2; it was 14.4 after his calculated and illegal move. In the fallout, MWR lost its big-money sponsor, NAPA, and the organization had to shed employees. A team that once seemed on the brink of joining NASCAR's ruling class now appears destined to spend 2014 in the middle of the pack. As a result, Bowyer—a well-liked, wise-cracking class clown within the walls of the garage—won't make much noise this year.
6. The breakout star of the season will be ... Austin Dillon
As I wrote in a five-page feature on Dillon in Sports Illustrated this week, Dillon appears primed to be NASCAR's next big thing. He has won championships in the truck series (2011) and the Nationwide Series ('13) and should easily cruise by first-year Cup driver Kyle Larson to capture rookie of the year honors this fall. And he'll do it while driving the black number 3 Chevy made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr. I'll have more on Dillon in my Daytona 500 preview.
7. The new playoff format will be ... a ratings success
Since 2005, TV ratings for NASCAR races have fallen nearly 50 percent. That is a staggering, sobering fact for Brian France, the chairman of NASCAR. Radically transforming the Chase into an elimination-style tournament is a desperate act by a desperate man, but give France credit: At least he knew he was holding a losing hand and opted to fold rather than continue to bluff for another year.
As I've written, I like the format. I do think it will draw more eyeballs to NASCAR. Just how many, though, is the bigger question for the organization. It may be time for France and Co. to finally admit that NASCAR simply can't compete head-to-head with the NFL on Sundays in the fall and seriously consider ending the season in mid-August.
8. The key race of the Chase will be ... Talladega
In an eye-blink, as many as 25 cars—more than half of the field—can be wiped out in the big, multi-car wrecks that restrictor-track racing breeds. 'Dega is the only plate track in the playoffs. And given that a driver can essentially be eliminated from title contention with one poor finish in the Chase, the stakes at Talladega on Oct. 26 will be as high as they've ever been on NASCAR's biggest, baddest, fastest track.
9. The final four drivers eligible for the championship in the final race will be ... Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Carl Edwards
These will be the top four drivers of the entire season, not just the Chase, and between the four of them I expect a total of 15 wins. There will be no fluke drivers fighting for the title in the final at Homestead.
10. The 2014 champion will be... Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is the most confounding driver in NASCAR. If you polled every driver in the garage on who has the most natural ability, Busch would win in a landslide of the Reagan-over-Mondale variety. And yet he consistently struggles in the Chase. Before last year, he'd never finished higher than fifth in the final standings—despite winning more total Cup races since 2005 (28) than every driver not named Jimmie Johnson (52).
But last fall was different for Busch. Yes, he crashed at Kansas Speedway and wound up 34th in the Heartland, but he still had five top five finishes in the 10 playoff races. He was smooth behind the wheel, making daring moves with a seemingly effortless grace, controlling his car as it slid through turns like an ice skater calmly completing a pre-planned movement. He also didn't let his heat-of-the-moment emotions control his decision making, which has long been his fatal flaw, and he finished fourth in the final standings. He looked, in other words, like a driver who would one day soon win a championship.
That day will arrive, it says here, on Nov. 17. Yes, I'm going all in on Kyle Busch in 2014.